11 January 2010
Iowa State University
6 Aug 2009. 'A Snack In The Face' was closed, so I settled on breakfast at their next door neighbor. Angie's Kitchen was decorated with old timey knickknacks and ads, including a questionable pro-coal bulletin. Across the street in the ISU bookstore, there were no 'spinning bird logo' gifts, only things like a hammer with the blocky 'I STATE' on the head. ISU fans who approve of this new design are difficult to find.
Aching for an escape from the midwest, Persephone Evelyn Bumbaugh had auditioned for every season of MTV's The Real World since her 18th birthday.
Five years later, she finally got the call.
Unfortunately for Persephone, the reality show's producers were getting tired of the 'bright lights, big city' format. They decided to strip it down to the essential core of opinionated group interaction. The usual urban distractions and tony digs were to be eliminated. The diverse casting remained the same save for one requirement: a token midwestern local.
This is where Persephone fit in.
Later she would realize the catch-22: being cast for a glitzy show would only happen when they eliminated the glitz.
This is how Persephone found herself atop a 300 foot wind turbine as a cast member on The Real World: Ames, Iowa.
Perhaps because of the odd location, the first two weeks of the broadcast drew low ratings. So the producers had cobbled together some 'challenges' to give their program more of a game show feel. Their first idea was to split the house into three teams and harness volunteers to 6x6 platforms atop windmills in an endurance test.
Ish, a 20-year-old student from D.C., represented the East Coast team and Siobhan, a 25-year-old dancer from Orange County, led the West Coast team. And poor Persephone, with two of her teammates from Chicago and two from Texas, was the only genuine midwesterner on the Midwest team.
They were each on top of windmills a quarter mile apart, only close enough to see each other make sweeping gestures, but they could still communicate with radio headsets. Safety crew and viewers at home could keep watch thanks to cameras affixed to both the participant's hard hat and the windmill itself. Backpacks of food and bathroom breaks were to be provided three times a day. Their furniture was a single vinyl cushion, and their entertainment, aside from three way chats, was a preprogrammed video iPod.
So, clearly, with such a well thought out plan, nothing could go wrong.
"Dang. I just dropped half of my protein bar." said Ish.
"Y'ain't getting that one back." said Persephone. "Siobhan, how's your Philly cheese steak sitting?"
"Not well." West Coast did not have the hardiest of leaders.
"Maybe cuz it was made in Iowa, not in Philly. I've never had the real deal. Or even been there. Ish, how about you? You live close to Philly, right?"
"Philly's like a 4 hour drive from me! Never been there."
"Well, maybe we can check it out someday."
Persephone started singing the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "In West Philadelphia, born and raised..."
"...on the playground is where I spent most of my days!" sang Ish.
Persephone and Ish continued, Siobhan clearly not knowing the words but happy to sit and shimmy to it. "...I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, she said you're movin' with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air..."
"You've got to be jerkin' me. The forecast was clear. In fact, it still...dog balls! That's a lot of red. Okay, pull 'em down."
The Unit Production Manager slammed his fist on his trailer wall. He wanted compelling TV, which this highwire act was proving to be, but he didn't want his three telegenics in real bodily danger.
The UPM just experienced the uselessness of midwestern weather forecasts. From the safety of his trailer.
Ish, Siobhan, and Persephone would get to experience it a touch more vividly.
The sun was setting, but fattened clouds were accelerating the darkness.
Ish's excess fro, Siobhan's midnight ponytail, and Persephone's ribbon locks were waving from beneath The Real World: Ames, Iowa hard hats.
Siobhan slipped on her The Real World: Ames, Iowa fleece jacket. "It's getting chilly."
Persephone said, "I'm not liking this."
"Can't take the cold, Seph?"
"Uh, look at what we are standing on, Ish. Giant lightning rods! Any sign of clouds is enough to postpone this. I can't believe they didn't check the forecast."
Static crackled over the trio's headsets. The UPM's voice cut straight to the point. "Ish, Siobhan, and Persephone, there is an extreme weather warning for the area. This challenge is cancelled. Stay where you are, you will KHKKHK in fifteen KHKKKKHKHHKK."
His voice merged into static as needlepricks of water began to fall.
"Stay where we are? Like we'll jump or something." said Persephone.
"What was he saying at the end??" whined Siobhan.
"Probably 'dog balls'." said Ish.
Persephone ignored Ish's remark. "I heard the word 'fifteen'. And I hope not fifteen minutes. We need to be picked up sooner than that."
"Why?" asked West Coast and East Coast.
Midwest didn't have to answer.
Not like she could anyway.
The wind picked up intensity. Random pops of syllables and frantic arm-waving was the only means of communication now. Dust, corn husks, and pieces of hay swirled in the air. The spin of the turbine blades increased. It reached top speed, the tips of the blades topping 200 mph. The whir abruptly ceased, with a sickening metal on metal SCRKKKKKK, an automatic response to high winds to prevent overheating.
With the constant hum of the turbines silenced, opposing weather fronts provided the only audio.
Persephone heard a crack below. A wooden power pole snapped and tipped over toward the base of the turbine. One of the cables ripped off and snaked out of control, spitting sparks. Persephone's eyes widened, only to be bombarded by the thickening rain.
Well, it wasn't that thick.
She could still see the newly formed cyclone.
A convoy consisting of The Real World: Ames, Iowa van, two police cars and an ambulance approached Siobhan's turbine first. Both Persephone and Ish stood up and watched the ants in uniform sprint to the tower and disappear up the internal ladder.
Three minutes later they unlatched the top door and hauled Siobhan inside.
Ish was between Siobhan and her, so Persephone knew she would be last in line. She had experience with tornadoes but was never forced to remain outside, let alone strapped on top of a 300 foot metal pole.
The rain intensified. Wayward cardinals were tossed helplessly in the gale. Long distance vision was naught. She could only make out the headlights of the rescue brigade. She screamed "Hurry up!" but she could barely hear her own voice. Amping up the decibels, she unleashed a primal roar skyward. The rain didn't bother her anymore; she was soaked to the bone.
Nature once again reached into its bag of tricks.
Ice balls tinked off the white metal of the turbine and the yellow plastic of her hard hat. They attached themselves to Persephone's hair and fleece jacket. They gathered in every nook: on the cushion, in the backpack, down her shirt, and up her nose.
The hail grew larger. Persephone batted them down like frozen volleyballs. She emitted a grunt with each direct hit. One smacked her in the nose, another on the lip, a particularly fat one on the funny bone.
She couldn't keep up anymore. She shrunk down and laced her fingers over the back of her neck. She volunteered for this?
She looked over towards the other towers. The headlights had advanced to Ish's turf. But on the edge of her platform, another light caught her attention.
The tiny red power light on the camera.
Which sparked the light in her eyes.
It hit her.
Why she was cast.
Why anyone on the show was cast.
She stood back up. She flipped off her hard hat and placed it on her backpack, opposite the other camera. She aligned herself in the middle of the platform. She squared her feet, hips, and shoulders. She brushed off her face and inhaled her lungs full (through her nose).
"Keep it comiiiiing! I love it! I love it!! This is what I'm here for and this is what I do! Persephone Evelyn Bumbaugh, Indianan by birth, midwestern by the grace of God! We can take whatever you give us and we'll shout for more! For mooooore!"
The hand gestures and fist flying were at full pump.
"Wind, rain, hail, it's just another day. Doesn't matter. Ooh, Iowa cyclones? Waterspouts, tornadoes, twisters? Nothin' new! Why don't we sing about it? In west Indiana, born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days. Chillin' out, maxin', relaxin, all cool, and all shootin' some b-ball outside of the school..."
Persephone carried on with her cover of The Fresh Prince theme song. The hail passed. She interrupted herself.
"What's that? You givin' up? Out of steam? That was barely anything."
Thunder boomed, clearly insulted.
"Bah ha ha! Do your worst! Oh, you already did? And I sang all the way through it, how 'bout that?"
The rain spread thin. Persephone wrung out her hair. She did a little dance.
"Look at this. Look at this. Look at these moves. You got nothing! This tornado is just my dance partner."
She looked over at the other two turbines. Neither Siobhan nor Ish were there. Down below the rescue vehicles were parked in front of the live wire. The whine of a fire engine grew near. Her throat was scratchy as she laughed. She kicked ice gravel off the platform and stomped down with both feet.
KTH-THUNK. The wind had slowed to the point that the turbine could reactivate.
Clapping and pointing at the receding cyclone, Persephone sucked in air down to her abdominals. Her final scream was filled with some triumph, but mostly showmanship.
After the cyclone incident, ambitious outdoor challenges were scrapped. Persephone led Team Midwest to sweeps of piddly little scavenger hunts and obstacle courses. But save for the episodes on the turbines, ratings drew series lows.
Viacom, MTV's parent company, had to pay fines to the Iowa State Police for endangerment and royalties to NBC for broadcasting The Fresh Prince theme song.
The small town experiment was a failure.
The following season, the show reverted back to its original format for The Real World: Philadelphia (technically the house was in King Of Prussia). Persephone parlayed her temporary fame into repetitive speaking gigs at colleges, a thankless MTV consultant job on location in Philly, and, when she got bored, graduate studies in business and dentistry.
All because she was the young woman who out-blustered a cyclone.