By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The guests of honor arrived in eight cherry-red fire trucks, their six-cylinder engines puttering down Sixth Street, sirens wailing in quick bursts like mechanical yelps of joy.
On a day that the temperature—negative 4 sans wind chill—was nothing short of expletive-inducing, hundreds of people gathered at Mears Park in St. Paul's Lowertown to watch grown men in red capes and masks declare war on winter.
"Hail the Vulc!" shouts a barrel-chested onlooker, his brown goatee frozen to a crisp.
"Hail the Vulc!" agrees an unseen woman from the bowels of the crowd. A red-gloved hand shoots upward displaying what appears to be a peace sign—it's a "V" but it doesn't stand for victory. Not yet, anyway.
To the uninitiated, this spectacle might seem like some sort of satanic ritual, albeit one with a palpable dose of Minnesota Nice—everyone wearing red and black, smiling profusely, huddling together in an unconscious effort to avoid freezing to death. Two Clydesdales plod past pulling a small buggy, from which a giant red pot billows thick crimson smoke up into the frigid air. Two hot-air balloon baskets on either side of the crowd shoot flames 15 feet into the air. With each roaring blast, a fleeting warmth teases the shivering congregants.
"Jay-zus Christ, it's fuckin' freezing!" says a man in a red-and-black varsity jacket as he blows into his hands.
It's the third day of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Those gathered are here to witness the introduction of the St. Paul Vulcans Krewe. One by one, the seven introduce themselves.
"I am the Duke of Klinker!" announces a round-bellied man, his face indistinguishable under his red rooster cap and goggles. "I am the herder of the flock and the longest-burning ember!"
Crowd cheers. Next man.
"I am the Grand Duke Fertilious," announces Klinker's taller comrade. "I am the propagator of progeny and the most fertile member of the Krewe!"
Crowd cheers again; this time, more female voices.
Meet the St. Paul Vulcans, enemies of winter, the men tasked with overthrowing Boreas, King of the Winds, at the climax of the Winter Carnival, St. Paul's ritualized coping mechanism for Minnesota winter blahs. If you've ever been in a St. Paul bar when a throng of red-clad, middle-aged men smelling of vodka and batter-fried onion rings stormed in and proceeded to hold sway over the drunken throng for the better part of the evening, these are the guys. Love 'em or loathe 'em, the self-appointed merry merchants pull triple duty as Rotarian volunteers, cathartic personification of Minnesotans' winter-long longing-for-spring, and—most controversially—fun-mongering trouble-makers.
"We like to loosen up those events that tend to be a little bit stiff," says Stan Karwoski, president of the Imperial Order of Fire and Brimstone, the Vulcans' ruling body. "It goes along with the weather mythology. Even when we do serious volunteer work, we like to do it with a little bit of fun and gusto."
It would be too simplistic to put forward a prototypical Vulcan, but, generally speaking, they tend to be upper-mid- dle-class, almost exclusively white, conventional in manner and thinking, and good-humored, even while—nay, especially while—visibly inebriated. But adult activities aren't the only allure.
"I wanted to be a Vulcan ever since I was a little kid, back when I actually believed the Vulcans actually controlled the weather," says Rev. Steven Robertson, a chaplain at a Bloomington hospice and that rare Vulcan who remains stone-cold sober at events—caffeine, usually in Coke form, is his drug of choice. "I'd go to the parade with my dad and I remember saying to myself, 'Please don't let them lose!' And of course they'd win every time...but I always wondered why February was so cold if the Vulcans had won."
Every fall, the Vulcans' Imperial Order of Fire and Brimstone sifts through applications, keeping an eye out for aspirants with a history of volunteerism. Preferably married. Applicants with any sort of criminal history, even an old DWI, are disregarded.
A robust source of income is an unstated necessity. Membership is costly, in both money and time. The red running suit alone costs about four grand, and the Krewe holes up in the Kelly Inn during the entire 10 days of Winter Carnival. Not to mention frequent hospital/school/nursing home visits throughout the year.
Applicant interviews are conducted in a judge's chamber in the Landmark Center in an eerie, mystique-enhancing ambience: dim red light, faux fire pots blazing, six solemn-faced men sitting on one end of a long table. The process is nerve-racking for the gent being scrutinized, and that's just the way Fire and Brimstone and the Council of the Fire Kings intend it to be.
"We want to intimidate them to see how they react," says the white-haired Howie Register, secretary treasurer of the Fire Kings and the Vulcans' de facto historian. "Because when you're out there running in that red suit and goggles, you're incognito—but you're also being scrutinized by the public. We want guys on their best behavior, but also putting on a good show. The main thing is, you're an actor. You're a character in a play and you have a certain role to perform."