Topsy Turvy Bus Carries Sober Message
Topsy Turvy Bus Carries Sober Message By Bill Busha
Local residents driving up Route 66 past the Exit 4 Park-and-Ride Wednesday morning might have thought they were seeing double—or upside down—or a combination of the two. And they would have been right.
The sight causing the optical confusion was the Topsy Turvy Bus, the most recent addition to a growing fleet of political art vehicles belonging to Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. It’s a school bus. Well, two school busses, with one of them upside down on top of the other.
Cohen and others will use the bus to promote his non-profit group, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which is made up of 700 business leaders who want to reduce U.S. military spending.
Stenciled on the side of the bus is the group’s message, "The U.S. Budget is Topsy Turvy," that helps explain the concept behind the vehicle’s unique configuration.
The Topsy Turvy bus had been on the road for 15 days, starting from its birthplace in an Oakland, California, warehouse, and stopping for media interviews as it traveled east. After visiting Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, it made a special stop in Randolph to talk with The Herald—but more about that later.
Back on the highway after the Herald interview, it was to be delivered to Ben Cohen in Burlington an hour later.
Artist-mechanic and bus driver Tom Kennedy, an affable 40-ish San Francisco resident, was the lead builder on a team of 10 artists who created the bus on a tight schedule, working 12-16 hours a day for 90 days straight. On the road, along with fellow artist Haideen Anderson, he’s been the spokesman for the group’s message as well.
"Our military arsenal is more than enough to blow up most major cities multiple times," the San Francisco resident said. "Our message with the bus is that if we cut back to blowing up every city just once, we could save $40 billion a year for things like schools."
Affixed to the side of the vehicle, in place of where a flip-out stop sign is found on a normal school bus, is a pie chart illustrating the federal discretionary budget—the $900 billion a year that Congress allocates after paying mandatory expenses like interest on the national debt and social security.
One half of the chart represents the money reserved for military spending; the other half is broken up into numerous small slivers for such things as education, the environment, and health care. An additional small sliver represents the amount the group says could be pared and used for other things, without weakening military programs.
"Probably more than anything, that graphic drives home to people the message we’re trying to get across," he said. "Former military leaders and Pentagon officials agree that the U.S. can safely trim $60 billion a year from wasteful Pentagon spending by reducing nuclear and other obsolete weapons."
The Topsy Turvy Bus will take to the road during the upcoming presidential campaign, beginning in New Hampshire, and will make its way to Iowa. Local field workers for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities will take turns at the wheel.
At stops along the way, visitors who step through the door will find a mini-theater, where they can view a 10-minute video about the organization. They will be asked to sign a petition urging candidates to make federal spending priorities part of the campaign discussion.
The bottom half of the bus is a 10 year-old vehicle, while the top half is about 20 years old. It was carefully engineered to be road-worthy, including extensive testing to make sure it had a sufficiently low center of gravity. It also had to be under a 13.6-foot height limit and within the weight limit for noncommercial vehicles.
"A lot of people ask, if it rolls over going around corners will it land on the other tires," laughs Kennedy, "and we say sure, it just keeps rolling. Or sometimes we kid people by saying we drive it half way on one set of wheels, then turn it over so the tires wear evenly."
A former circulation manager for the Houston Chronicle, Tom Kennedy became disillusioned with the business world 10 years ago and turned his attention to his current passion, building political art vehicles and special projects for the Burning Man Art Festival in the Nevada desert.
Kennedy’s previous vehicle creations include a Cheshire cat, a shark, a spaceship, and a whale with moving flukes that spouted fire.
He found the Topsy Turvy Bus to be an ideal project.
"I got the chance to use my skills on behalf of a really important cause," he said. "I have the utmost respect for Ben Cohen and the way he is using his business success to accomplish good in the world."
Flash from the Past
But why, some may ask, would The Herald of Randolph be on a list of must-see visits of some of America’s major cities? The answer can be traced back 30 years or more, to a smoky barbecue pit at the Tunbridge Fair.
One of the ten artists who collaborated on the project is "Flash" Hopkins, who also shares a house with Kennedy, and who described himself in a recent call to The Herald as the "former turkey leg baron of the East."
Years ago, Hopkins was an annual vendor of cooked turkey drumsticks at the Tunbridge Fair. His colorful character and tasty fare made a lasting impression on many fairgoers, and his image from those days is memorialized on the cover of photographer Jack Rowell’s Tunbridge Fair book.
So when he looked at the trip itinerary and saw that Topsy Turvy would be traveling through the heart of his old stomping grounds, he knew it would be a sight we wouldn’t want to miss.
"If it’s the last thing you do on the trip," he instructed Kennedy, "you’ve got to stop in Randolph and talk to The Herald."