Metal and Fire: The Kaskaskia Dragon

June 17, 2014 — I walked into the liquor store like a recovering alcoholic…a little bit nervous, a little bit awkward. I got into the checkout line with nothing in my hands. When I made it to the counter, I looked around to see how many people were in earshot and then leaned toward the girl behind the cash register. “Dragon?” was all I could muster.

She broke into a large smile, pulled out a white plastic bucket that clinked, and said, “Dollar a token.” I slid two bucks across the counter like they were a robbery note, and she handed me a pair of dirty, metal circles embossed with dragons.

I was in Vandalia, Illinois, just off a Route 70 exit on Rock Island Avenue. There, across the liquor store parking lot and against a cornfield stubbled by young green shoots, towered a giant metal dragon facing off against a battered and pathetic-looking white knight. My family waited expectantly in front of the monster.

Words painted in black on the right haunch of the beast warned me of its powers, and a nearby box hung on a signpost told me how to complete my quest in this strange little fantasy movie. I walked over to the box and inserted one of the tokens into a slot. Immediately, the monster belched forth a few feet of actual fire from its nostrils. The effect lasted about ten seconds and, at the insistent urging of my four-year-old, I stuck in the other coin with the same result.

The Kaskaskia Dragon rises to a height of about 25 feet. Tip-to-tail, it’s a lot longer, but I can’t find a geometry formula for calculating the length of a dragon. Kaskaskia is a regionally used word that was originally the name of a local tribe of Native Americans, but in this case, the dragon gets its name from the hardware store that built and owns it, Kaskaskia Supply, located just a little farther down the road from the liquor store

The silver serpent was created in 1995 as a float for Halloween parade. It wasn’t until the next millennium that it found its place in life as a roadside attraction. The secret of the serpent’s fire is a propane tank in its hind leg that fuels its hellitosis. That’s where you should aim your sword.

Now, I’m not usually much one for roadside kitsch, but if that kitsch involves sticking a coin in a box to watch a giant metal monster spew flames from its snout, I reckon that’s a better place than most to stretch my legs.