If Pee-wee Herman ever participates in a bicycle rodeo on Mars, it's a cinch his entry won't hold a candle to the unidentified non-flying object that's been keeping Valley motorists guessing for the past several years.
A souped-up cardboard cabin attached to a bicycle frame, the winged craft is hard to ignore as it tools past traffic on the sidewalk, its reflectors, spinners and Hot Wheels decals glistening in the sun.
Perhaps you've seen it and thought it looked like something Our Gang might have cooked up after a Buck Rogers double feature.
Maybe you thought it resembled the sort of thing you'd see trailing behind a float in a small-town parade.
Or maybe you're one of those cynics who dismissed it as merely a crackpot's version of an AirStream trailer.
But as it whizzed by your car while you were stuck at a red light, you looked. And if you're like everyone else, you wondered who--or what--was attached to the two furiously pumping legs. A child? A nut? What the hell's going on here?
Adding to the puzzle has been the craft's constantly mutating color and design: Red one month, yellow the next, the rocket bike rarely looked the same twice.
Nor did the vehicle's erratic pattern of travel offer many clues. Although the mystery cyclist was frequently seen in the 3200 block of East Indian School Road, others reported seeing him downtown or near Seventh Avenue and Osborn.
Baffled by the contradictory reports, motorists scratched their heads and contemplated the unthinkable: Was it possible there was an entire fleet of rocket bikes zooming the sidewalks of Phoenix?
For at least one driver, spotting the mysterious "bicycle man" has become a real-life game of Where's Waldo? that helps kill time when gridlock develops.
"I now find myself looking for him whenever I'm out in traffic," explains one commuter who first began seeing the enigmatic cyclist in the neighborhood of 32nd Street and Indian School more than a year ago. "Months would go by without seeing him and just when I was sure he'd disappeared forever, here he'd pop up again. It got to be a challenge, seeing if I could find him whenever I was driving somewhere."
Comparing bike-man spottings to UFO sightings, this particular motorist enjoys speculating on the rocket bike's true purpose. "Is this thing functional?" he wonders. "If so, how?
"To me, one of the most fascinating things was how beat-up the thing looked," continues the "bike man" aficionado. "As this thing pedaled along the sidewalk, pieces of duct tape were flapping in the breeze like pendants. I always marveled that the thing didn't collapse around whoever was riding it. Obviously, this wasn't something new; this was real commitment on someone's part."
That someone is vehicular visionary Flossch (pronounced "Flash") Crawford. Dressed in his standard pilot's outfit--Adidas shoes, bicycling shorts and a skintight tee shirt--Crawford climbs out from under the cab of his latest "car," a two-piece corrugated cardboard shell that looks like an AWOL test vehicle from the laboratory of Dr. Seuss.
"This is about survival," muses Crawford, a short, wiry fellow of indeterminate age who attributes his startlingly orange-red hair to his Swedish/Asian/African heritage. Casting a critical eye at his most recent model, he explains, "See, I needed a car to get around. I now have that car--a two-wheeled car that keeps me cool in the summer, and warm in the winter."
Inclement weather's no problem. "I feel like it's an honor to ride it in the rain," says Crawford. "It's so incredible. Everything's nice and gray outside, and I'm inside, keepin' dry."
Crawford holds up his hands. "See, I've even got windshield wipers. And they work beautifully. This car's a trip, isn't it?"
To say the least. Using items that he salvages from Dumpsters or buys at thrift shops, Crawford transforms old bicycles into Tom Swiftian objects of wonder. Since moving to Phoenix in 1992, he's built at least eight cars and has a notebook filled with designs for dozens more. Today, the earlier prototypes exist only in photographs and videotapes whose labels bear Egyptian-style hieroglyphics that only Crawford can understand. "I'm doing good if I can get one bike at a time," he says of his latest, a white job called "B'Claytayacht," a bastardization of the Spanish word for "bicycle."
The bike currently stands in a cluttered back bedroom "workshop" of the modest apartment near the Phoenix Country Club that Crawford shares with two friends. Wired to aluminum rods attached to the bike's frame is the cab, a cardboard housing outfitted with a Plexiglas windshield. There are also side and rear windows, most of them plastered with parking-permit stickers. Inside the cab, a piece of linoleum flooring serves as an instrument panel--"instruments" being an oscillating siren and a transistor radio. A plastic grid that fits over a hole in the front of the cab provides "air conditioning."
Another cardboard aperture, this one fitted over the rear wheel of the battered Kodiak, sports cardboard fins and rudders. According to Crawford, the rear assembly makes the bike more aerodynamically efficient.
In the cosmic bike path that is Flossch Crawford's life, the origins of his dream machines are shrouded in mystery that mere mortals can only guess at.
"It's a long story, but, basically, it's a design from our future," explains Crawford, who goes on to tell the story anyway.
Born in 1944, the New Jersey native did a short hitch in the Marines as a teenager, followed by a stint in the Peace Corps. In the late Sixties, he moved to California, where he eked out a living panhandling, first in Hollywood (where he appeared as an extra in such counterculture flicks as I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and Alex in Wonderland), and later in the Bay Area as a member of the Earth People's Party commune. Somewhere along the line, he wound up in Phoenix, where he's been living on government disability checks since 1992.
It's a meandering yarn filled with hazy references to outer space, alien abduction, "grays" and "lost time," but the story's gist seems to be that Flossch Crawford is obsessed with turning bikes into cars for much the same reason that Richard Dreyfuss was compelled to mold mashed potatoes into mountains in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Consider the evidence.
* In 1943, the year before Crawford's birth, his father was working as a merchant seaman in Philadelphia right around the time the Navy conducted the Philadelphia Experiment. During the course of the hush-hush experiment (now notorious among conspiracy buffs), a battleship supposedly entered another dimension and was transported into the future.
* In the midst of a rash of UFO sightings over the Eastern seaboard in the early Fifties, 8-year-old Flossch communicated with a flying saucer directly over the New Jersey housing project where he lived.
* While living in a Bay Area commune in the Sixties, Crawford believes he may have been part of a secret government test involving anti-aging drugs. ("If that's true, I'd like to tell whoever's responsible that they were very successful," says the 52-year-old, smiling.)
And if there's any further doubt that this creative "street freak" was destined to change transportation as we on Earth now know it, check out his birth certificate. The doctor who delivered him was one Oscar Goldman--the same name as the character who was the boss of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman!
Coincidence? Flossch Crawford doesn't think so.
"It all ties together," he insists. "I know this whole time-travel/space thing gets a little heavy for some people, but it's true."
If this foggy scenario doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, well, Crawford seems to be accustomed to playing to bewildered audiences.
"Okay, we'll skip the space stuff for a minute," he says. "Most people can't even believe I designed this car. They think it's some kind of advertising promotion or that I built it out of a kit. That's why now I'm trying to concentrate on the corporate end of it and maybe make some money off my cars."
Unlike his research-and-development department, Crawford admits the marketing end of his operation could use some work. To date, the only real money he's made from the car came from a Valley toy manufacturer who commissioned a custom-made model for $165.
"This is great 'tramp art,'" says Jeff Myers, who owns the toy company where Crawford works several days a week as a janitor. "I asked if he wanted to build me one and he said, 'Sure!' It's not like he's got a real busy schedule--except for a little time travel. He always wants to take it out for a ride, but I won't let him. I know he'll trash it."
Recalling how he once totaled an earlier model during a drunken test ride down a stairwell, the grinning Crawford claims he's guilty as charged.
"Oh, boy!" he exclaims. "I was having a great time, and I decided to go for a ride! The plastic sounded just like glass when it shattered. Two guys inside the apartment thought a car had hit the building, but it was just me. Again, no injury, but the noise was tremendous."
According to the inventor, it's unlikely that even a teetotaling cyclist will ever see a 10,000-mile checkup in one of his cars. "They're only made of paper, so after a while they just deteriorate," explains Crawford, who's currently experimenting with thicker cardboard and clear plastic tape. "When I threw the last one away, the top was so wrinkled it looked like a big, red chewing-gum wrapper."
Looking to the months ahead, he's now working on a poncholike protector that will wrap around the bottom of the cab, keeping his legs warm in winter.
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Flattening out a piece of postal tape on the fantastic fuselage, Flossch Crawford has a flash.
"When I first came to town, there was a guy who hung out in downtown Phoenix who wore a cardboard box and that's all," he says. "No shorts or underwear underneath--just these two straps that held it up. People asked me if I was related to, or knew anything about, this naked guy in the cardboard box."
Pointing at the bike, Crawford says, "Look at this! We're talking about superior design here. I cut the cardboard up and put it back together again, painted it. . . . In their heads, though, [people] thought what I was doing was so spaced out that I had to be related to this guy wearing a box. Was I insulted? Yes, mildly."
Flossch Crawford laughs. "The funny thing was, he left just weeks after I arrived. Literally, just disappeared. Maybe I blew him away. Hmmm, 'This town isn't big enough for the two of us, buddy.'