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."
The "play" in question is intended to be a cathartic comedy, a kind of mischievous affront to the soul-crushing dreariness that tends to seep into these parts during the darkest depths of winter. Given their fun-loving, mutinous personas, the Vulcans are unquestionably the most popular functionaries of the Winter Carnival (children seem particularly enamored of their theatrics).
But the men in red are also the most controversial—so controversial that in 2004, Rev. Robertson's association with the Krewe cost him his job. Running around with tax collectors and wine guzzlers was too un-Christlike for a few in Robertson's flock at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church.
"I should have done a better job informing my congregants of what I was doing and who the Vulcans were," says Robertson. "So I take responsibility for that. But I also believe that before you make a judgment on what organizations someone belongs to, you should really find out who they are and what they are actually doing."
The St. Paul Winter Carnival has featured a winter-battling, spring-beckoning Fire King since its inception in 1886, but it wasn't until more than a half-century later, in 1940, that the Vulcans as we know them made their debut.
Ernie Reiff, an artsy Prussian-American and president of the St. Paul Casualty Company, was that year's Fire King (a designation that now goes by Vulcanus Rex). Drawing inspiration from New Orleans's Mardi Gras motifs and legends, Reiff devised for his minions a demonic aesthetic: Uniforms consisted of a red rooster cap, red running suit, cape, goggles, and black greasepaint, usually applied to mimic a devilish goatee.
With their outlandish appearance and not-so-subtle mode of transportation (fire trucks), the Vulcans quickly became the most notorious and visible fixtures of the Winter Carnival. But it was their freewheeling antics, and one tradition in particular, that made them recognizable—and eventually controversial—to the general public.
In a move that symbolized the recipient's allegiance to the Vulcans (and, in turn, opposition to King Boreas, the personification of winter in carnival lore), Krewe members would "mark" women with their greasepaint. Of course, the greasepaint originated from the Vulcans' faces, hence the rampant "smooching" that broke out whenever and wherever Krewe members, women, and booze mixed. (This is probably a good time to remind ourselves that social mores were, let's say, different in the 1940s).
"You could do anything you wanted," recalls Dick O'Toole, who was the youngest Vulcan in 1946 at the age of 22; today he's the eldest at 85. "I was a Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. I remember thinking to myself, 'If I ever get back, boy, I want to be on that Vulcan Krewe.'"
Vulcans of that era would frequently chase female revelers, trap them in offices or women's restrooms, and administer mass greasepaint smudgings. They dubbed this herding strategy "bunchin'."
"You can't do that stuff any more," says the wiry O'Toole at a mid-carnival Vulcan get-together, clasping his cane with one hand and holding a fork and picking at his spaghetti with the other. "The first big negative publicity we got was in, I want to say, 1970. We bunched some girls in Midway Center on University and Snelling. You have to remember that this was all in good fun, and the girls enjoyed it. One gal in there, though, was five feet tall and about 300 pounds. She was ignored by all the Vulcans. Afterwards, she started making a fuss, saying we had done all sorts of inappropriate stuff."
In November 1971, Joseph Vavrosky, the Vulcans' new head, and Ralph Nardini, the outgoing head, called a meeting. It was time, they decided, for the Vulcans to adopt a new, less creepy image. They appeared in the St. Paul dailies touting their volunteerism and charity work, downplaying the hell-raising.
In 1976, the Winter Carnival adopted a policy that banned smooching as a means of marking; it would now have to be done by hand, administered to the forehead or cheek, and only after consent was given.
But the following year, a coalition of feminist groups, which included NOW, complained that the Vulcans were still stealing kisses. In a letter to the Winter Carnival board of directors, the feminists demanded that the board keep a tighter leash on the alleged horndogs.
"In the past, only women have been singled out for smudging," reads the letter. "We object to the entire process of smudging. If smudging is to be continued, your guidelines should include a policy that both men and women will be subjected to smudging."
The Vulcans' antics continued to make for less-than-flattering, semi-accusatory headlines throughout the 1980s, i.e. "Vulcans' Behavior on the Streets Questioned," Pioneer Press, January 31, 1987. Where they were once out-of-step amid women's lib and an anti-misogyny backlash in the '70s, the '80s saw the Vulcans adopt a lower profile more in keeping with the reigning social conservatism of the day—in 1987, even an ice sculpture depicting a "devil's mask" was considered controversial.
Starting in 1990, applicants were subjected to a background check. The next year, a group of women formed the Vulcanettes, which dispensed lipstick smudes in lieu of greasepaint. But the female group was barred from official events by the Winter Carnival, and flickered out within a year.
Meanwhile, the Vulcans were growing increasingly family-friendly. Free fire-truck rides for kids became a staple, as did hospital appearances. They were now more likely to be in the news for their charity work. But the Krewe's worst brush with sexual scandal was yet to come.
Day Seven of the 2009 Winter Carnival... O'Gara's Bar and Grill, St. Paul...hundreds of Vulcans, past and present, and their flare-laden supporters/friends/wives/etc. are clustered in front of the back-bar stage, gulping beer. Their chatter is drowned out by a sound system from which dozens of overwrought, '80s-era anthems blast during the course of the evening. For now, we're treated to the theme from Rocky.
At stage right, a Vulcan grips a microphone. "Are we going to have fun tonight or what?" A slender, dark-haired, bikini-clad woman stands at stage left, her exact function unspecified. In the center, a sign with red-and-yellow writing reads: "Dance With No Pants."
In front of the stage, before the crowd, stands a heavyset man wearing nothing but a black Speedo, work boots, cap-and-goggles, and boxing gloves. Approximately $20 in one-dollar bills are tucked into the Speedo. Ten feet to his right stands another man, this one taller and more fully clothed, but in the same basic garb, dancing with a middle-aged woman.
"I think he's getting wood!" jokes the MC from the stage. He scans the crowd. "Step right up, ladies, it's the Dance With No Pants! We've got Klinker and Ferty here waiting!"
Women line up to waltz with the men of the hour, tucking bills into bulging swimwear for the privilege.
This is the extent of tonight's tomfoolery. Tagging along with the Vulcans these days leaves one almost disappointed at the lack of raciness, the ho-hum diligence with which they party. A typical Vulcan shindig more resembles a Rotarian potluck than a foray into unbridled hedonism. Where are the maniacal rapscallions of lore?
"They've definitely cooled down over the decades," says a middle-aged male bartender over at the Glockenspiel, one of the Krewe's many watering holes. "These guys come in and it's like they're relics from a bygone era trying to live up to something they can't—or aren't allowed to—be anymore."
This sits just fine with the Vulcans.
"The Krewes over the past few years have been outstanding," says Register, a Vulcan diehard sine 1981 whose house in Eagan is packed with Krewe memorabilia. "We've had a couple of problems, no doubt about it, but we don't like to dwell on the past. We want to look to the future."
The "couple of problems" is a string of lawsuits levied against the Vulcans throughout the late '90s and mid-2000s when allegations of sexual misconduct plagued the organization.
First came a high-profile groping case in 1998. During Winter Carnival, a horde of Vulcans swarmed into Great Waters Brewing Co. in St. Paul. Amid the cavorting, two former Krewe members—Marc Malmquist, then 35, and Mark Weinand, then 45—asked a 24-year-old woman if she wanted a temporary tattoo. She said she did. The three ducked out of the bar and went into a nearby empty lobby. Weinand proceeded to fondle her breast and kiss her hand, according to the police complaint, while Malmquist tried to lick the tattoo onto her lower stomach. The two plead to disorderly conduct and were handed one year of probation, a $210 fine, and 50 hours of community service.
But the biggest blow to the Krewe's reputation came in 2005 when three female bartenders accused eight Vulcans of acts that sound like something straight out of The Accused.
The Krewe strode into Alary's bar in downtown St. Paul on February 1, decked out in their full festive garb. At one point, a small group of Vulcans asked a waitress if she'd take part in the "Garter Ritual"—whereby a member slides a garter up the recipient's leg. After performing the ritual on two bartenders—molesting them in the process, the women would later allege—the eight Vulcans turned their attention to a third, identified in court documents as C.A.L.
They grabbed her and surrounded her "like a football huddle," according to the complaint, holding their capes up to conceal her. At that point, Thomas Trudeau, then acting as Vulcanus Rex LXVII, slid his hand down C.A.L.'s shirt and fondled her breast, according to court records. As Trudeau put the garter on her right leg, his seven companions chanted for him to go higher and farther, which he did. His extended fingers "pushed, jabbed, rubbed, and penetrated C.A.L.'s genitals," according to the complaint.
The resulting lawsuits—all three bartenders levied charges—are a continued source of embarrassment for the Krewe. (More than a few Vulcans suggested we not mention "the 2005 incident," as they call it.)
Present-day Vulcans make no attempt to defend the behavior, framing it as an isolated incident that runs counter to what the Vulcans are supposed to be all about.
"That's absolutely not acceptable," says Joe Vogel, this year's Vulcanus Rex. "The Garter Ritual had very harmless beginnings—if a lady asked, they'd put it up to her knee—until one idiot went too far. We've worked so hard to clean up our image, and one idiot like that causes so much problems for us."
In the immediate wake of the 2005 incident, the Vulcans' board of directors decided that the best way to improve the Vulcans' image was to increase their community work. Starting in 2006, the Fire and Brimstone organization gave each incoming Krewe a $500 stipend to put toward a cause of their choice and decreed that each Krewe stay involved with their charity for five years thereafter.
Charity work is the preferred topic of conversation for any Vulcan. No matter how nonjudgmental your tone, any questions delving into shenanigans—even legal, ostensibly harmless ones—are met with evasiveness and a deft change of subject rarely found outside PR flaks.
"What it's really more about is being active in the community, making a positive effect through volunteerism," says John Maslowski, an oval-faced Ramsey County deputy sheriff who made his debut as a Vulcan in 2001 as General Flameous.
Hundreds of Vulcans have gathered inside the Summit Brewery on a late morning for brunch and brews. They'll be overthrowing Boreas tomorrow. Maslowski motions to the sea of red and black.
"These guys come from all walks of life, but what they all have in common is a real strong sense of being involved with the community," says the bespectacled, slightly balding Mike Danielson—2001's Prince of Soot, by tradition the Krewe's ladies' man—from across the table.
Maslowski nods in agreement, looks down at his ale, and appears to ponder this. "Sure, we'll drink and socialize and whatnot, but that's not the main point."
Near the back of the room, 30 feet away, some kind of spectacle is suddenly underway. A closer look reveals Klinker, his omnipresent grin wide as ever, though he's fully clothed this time, standing before dozens of his comrades. A six-foot chain is draped around his shoulders with tennis ball-sized, stainless steel spheres tethered to either end. A line of 30 Vulcans stands before him and, one by one, they approach the giggling newbie, seize the hanging bulbs, and let them swing back down towards his torso. The chain's arc extends just two inches below his manhood.
"That's Klinker's initiation," explains Maslowski with a chuckle. "No one really knows why, but it's fun." He shrugs. "Anyway, like I was saying, Fire and Brimstone has been real active in the Boys and Girls Club over in West St. Paul...."
On the last day of January, more than 10,000 winter-weary Twin Citians descended on downtown St. Paul to watch the Winter Carnival's climax: the Torchlight Parade. The weather is in full cooperation with the carnival's mythological storyline—it's the first above-freezing day of the year and the months' worth of snow and ice have begun to melt.
The Vulcans are the last faction in the parade; giant blasts of fire announce their pending arrival three blocks before you can make out their grease-painted faces. Finally the fire trucks arrive, accompanied by Vulcans on foot, wielding flaming torches. Scattered shouts of "Hail the Vulc!" sound from the sidewalks. A few of the torch-bearers dart into the crowd and playfully dab "V"s on the cheeks of women and children—with their fingers—using the same motion one employs when checking off a box.
Then it's time for the symbolic overthrow of King Boreas. Dozens of Vulcans, still carrying torches, gather at the bottom of the concrete steps ascending to the entrance of the St. Paul Public Library. There, King Boreas, the Snow Queen, and their sentinels stand guard. The crowd cheers the caped meteorological insurgents.
"Hail the Vulc!"
Boreas, playing to the audience, points his wand menacingly. The Krewe charges forward. They're pushed back by Boreas's guards. Another charge. They're repelled again, but this time they take a guard back with them. On the third charge, the Prince of the South Wind defects over to the Vulcans' side, and the Krewe penetrates the perimeter to confront the royal family. At this point, the queen whispers into Boreas's ear that she doesn't want violence to erupt—better to let those debauched warmth-worshippers have their way so the citizens of St. Paul can enjoy their spring—so they retreat back to their Winter Kingdom (in this case, the St. Paul Public Library).
All this pomp and ceremony—more to the point, the self-serious manner with which it's carried out—can come off as a bit silly. Which it probably is. But it's also cathartic in a very real way. After all, who else but Minnesotans would invent a personified caricature of Brutal Cold, then devote a whole mythology to the idea of kicking the oppressive bastard off his throne? Even the way in which the "revolt" unfolds—a violence-discouraging whisper from a wife, a polite stepping aside to allow the new order to attain power—smacks of Minnesota Nice.
A parallel can be found in the Vulcans themselves. By and large, recruits hail from conservative, straight-laced backgrounds (law enforcement, business, engineering). Is it really any wonder that they'd be attracted to a subculture that encourages them to cut loose every once in a while? That grants them fleeting anonymity in doing so? That usurps their given names with those of mythological characters? That not only tolerates mischief, but celebrates it?