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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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18,000 pounds of fun at La Fête de Marquette (video)
Going around in circles while assembling a Ferris wheel
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

When Ed Dudley took a job with Iowa-based Sound Concepts, he figured the owner was going to give him audio work at concerts and festivals. "I didn't even know he owned a Ferris wheel." That was nine years ago. Dudley's been operating a Ferris wheel ever since.

Would you ride a 45-foot-tall amusement assembled by your neighbors? No? Too late if you rode the wheel at La Fête de Marquette last weekend. Dudley's contract says festivals must provide setup and takedown labor.

Early last Thursday morning Wil-Mar neighborhood volunteers gathered on South Dickinson Street to help Dudley transform 18,000 pounds of steel into a device that creates smiles.

Dudley's not the kind of guy with whom you discuss the comparative merits of SPF strength. I bet he never opened a bottle of sun block in his life. His beefy arms are like those of a tanned leather couch, blown into significant proportions via a lifetime of lug-wrenching.

Dudley was already knock-a-blocking around his rig when the first of us arrived. For transport the ride is collapsed, and its heavy metal components are stacked and secured to the top of his 18-wheeler — a wheel on wheels — which his truck pulls to more than a dozen events each summer.

Before assembling a machine that requires state inspection and licensing, one that will suspend men, women and children 45 feet in midair on a wheel that spins at 10 miles per hour, you might expect that there would have been some sort of introductory instruction from Dudley. Nope. No orientation. No preview of process or who was going to do what. Dudley's approach to human resource management was to go about his business while we were absorbed into the work by magical midway osmosis.

Example: Instead of specifically telling a couple of us to pick up a big metal box filled with, uh, metal things, and lift it off the truck, Dudley nodded to it on his way to something else and said, "That box is going to be a bitch to haul off." Off it came.

Big blue plastic buckets serve as shoes for the footing of the wind braces. The buckets were temporary. They allowed the long struts to slide on the smooth cement of Dickinson Street away from the trailer and into their proper place 25 feet on either side of the ride.

Dudley's growling tractor generator powered the hydraulics that slowly raised the main tower pieces into place while we passed the lattice fencing pieces off the truck and assembled the super-heavy metal fence posts to their heavy, really heavy, bases.

Turns out every single piece of a 1920 vintage Eli Ferris Wheel is heavy. Everything. The inspection tag weighs six pounds.

Speaking of the inspection permit, in the same sideways way that he directed the assembly, Dudley instructed a volunteer to drive downtown to get the operation tag. But, once there, the volunteer learned that the permit wasn't at the City County Building. It was at the state licensing building on East Washington. Just two blocks from where we were. This amused Dudley. "She coulda walked!"

He offered that revelation from high above us on one of the main towers, where he plucked a sparrow's nest from the rigging. He tossed it and watched it float down to the street. "Bye-bye, birdie!"

From start to finish, which included some serious mopping down of the dusty seat cars, it took about four hours to bring the wheel to life.

My favorite tradition as a volunteer at La Fête de Marquette happens the last night of the festival. It may be one of my favorite moments of the year.

After the crowds head home, after the initial cleanup is completed, volunteers from all points of the festival grounds make their way to the Ferris wheel. That's where Dudley loads and spins it one last time for the volunteer free ride. There is champagne.

The view is spectacular. The cool air like heaven. Peggy and I go back and forth between cuddling and taunting our fellow volunteers in the cars above and below us. Dudley works out a nice long ride, and I remembered to get out my phone and do what I've done the last few years in a row: from the top of the wheel, take a picture of our feet -- with the city at our feet.

Even though there were volunteers on the ground still waiting for a turn, we noticed the car in front of us was empty. I wondered about that, so I asked Dudley when he helped us out of our car at the end of the ride.

"That empty one is for balance," he said. "The wheel shimmies with certain loads and needs a relief spot."

I asked him if he feels the shimmy in the lever or if he sees it with his eyes.

"I feel it," he said.


Watch a time-lapse video of the Ferris wheel installation, created by Nathan Royko Maurer.

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