Gentlemen, load your rodents …

Downtown Vacaville businesswoman Betty Lucke is, in a word, enthusiastic. The longtime business booster is perhaps best known as a founder of the downtown’s springtime Medieval Fantasy Festival which, every April, brings history, revelry and pageantry to the historic business district along Vacaville’s Main Street and nearby thoroughfares.

She was characteristically enthusiastic last month when she contacted the newspaper to propose a new contest which, she felt, would kick the old festival into high gear next year.

“We’ve got to start planning right now,” she pointed out. “The next festival is only about 44 weeks away.”

Uh-huh.

Normally I take suggestions like these, reply “Sure, sounds great!” and then transfer them to my assistant, Dan Reichl, who doesn’t work here anymore.

Betty’s enthusiasm, however, was contagious and I have to admit I was intrigued. I also have to admit that I’ve never successfully transferred a call through our new, state-of-the-art phone system. Worse, it was an e-mail, which is particularly difficult to transfer to the phone extension of a nonexistent assistant.

“What fits the medieval theme and could be a blast?” Betty asked. “Chucking rubber or plush rats with a catapult or trebuchet. Plague take the rats!”

OK, she had me hooked. The newspaper office is, arguably, one of the best-known havens for rubber rats in Vacaville, and sending them sailing through the air for no apparent reason is a regular activity here in the newsroom. Has been for years. Nobody knows why.

“Pumpkin chuckin’ has been done many times,” Betty pointed out. “It won’t work for us. It is the wrong season, it wastes food, it would hurt if it hit someone and it would be messy to clean up. Rats would be better!”

Well, duh …

In a subsequent conversation, the plucky proprietor of the Otter Nature Store pointed out that few things better symbolized the medieval period than rats and catapults.The catapult and its close cousin, the slingshot-like trebuchet, were frequently used to knock down castles and fortified towns during the Middle Ages, while rapacious rodents spread bubonic plague – the “Black Death” – far and wide.

Combine them into a modern downtown festival event and you have all the essential ingredients of a lively ratapult competition.

Wheeeee!

How far can you catapult a rubber rodent? How accurately? How quickly can you catapult that rat and reload? The possibilities are endless.

If the ratapult catches on, Betty foresees all kinds of creative possibilities – rat costume contests, ratapult vs. ratbuchet, highest-flying rodent and team competitions.

“How many times in a lifetime might you be able to hurl a rat from a trebuchet down Parker Street to the accompaniment of a cheering, raucous crowd?” Betty asked.

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published June 10, 2007

Calls reporters shouldn’t answer

Inhabitants of today’s high-tech, 21st-century offices should remember that, even though they may have e-mail, faxes and a dozen telephones each, they may still not be able to communicate.

We learned that lesson here in our dimly lit newsroom a short time ago when several of us attempted to answer the telephone and several others of us tried to transfer the call that the others had tried to pick up.

Things began to go weird when our office manager selfishly decided to take 10 minutes off one afternoon and left us to fend for ourselves.

Since we frequently receive friendly reminders about how and when to answer our newsroom telephones in an efficient and amicable manner, most of us thought we’d be up to the task when the absent manager’s phone began to ring insistently one otherwise unremarkable afternoon.

Hey, most of us are college graduates and the newspaper business has taught us to think on our feet under all sorts of conditions, so how difficult could it be for one of us to answer a simple phone call?

Answer: Very, very difficult …

Trouble started – as it so frequently does here – when the city editor picked up the incoming call.

To her credit, she completed the task and was helpfully trying to transfer the call to the newsroom manager’s voice mail, but because the phone rings three or four times even when one transfers a call to voice mail, others of us decided it would be a good idea to pick up what we thought was a new incoming call.

Of course, the first of our team of geniuses to pick up the call politely apologized to the caller and promised to transfer her to the manager’s voice mail post haste.

Except, er, that caused the phone to ring again and another staffer efficiently picked up the call.

Eventually, the city editor got her hands on the call again, transferred it to the appropriate voice mail and daintily bellowed “DON’T ANSWER THAT!”

At least one of us, however, heard only “… ANSWER THAT!” and promptly did so.

By then, the oft-transferred caller was trying to hold back hysterical laughter but managed once again to ask for the newsroom manager’s voice mail.

An elderly, mustachioed staffer (who shall remain very nameless), then took charge of the situation and promptly transferred the caller for the fifth time.

As luck would have it, the newspaper’s education reporter had just become aware of the telephonic chaos swirling around her and decided to put a stop to it by answering the phone.

At that point, the entire staff was bellowing “DON’T ANSWER THAT!” while the education writer stared at her red-faced colleagues in abject bewilderment.

“You guys are mean!” she eventually declared. “And crazy!”

I’m fairly sure our long-suffering caller finally got the newsroom manager’s voice mail, but now we seem to have yet another communication problem looming ominously on the horizon, because I don’t think the education reporter has answered her phone for a week …

Originally published May 20, 2007

Troubled bridge over waters …

Here in S’lano County, where men are men and women can bench press Honda Civics, we tend to revere our bridges, whether it be the sparkling span that straddles the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo or the quaint, whitewashed Thurber Bridge along strategically ambiguous Pleasants Valley Road north of Vacaville.We partied on the Carquinez Bridge when the new span opened a few years ago, and last month a select group of Solanoans gleefully gathered in a pasture near the recently renamed Thurber span to celebrate the 100th birthday of that two-lane bridge.

Sad as it seems, not all of California’s counties love bridges the way we do here in S’lano County.

Take Butte County, for instance.

Located just a hop, skip and a jump up Highway 99 from Yuba City, Butte County is currently experiencing an orphaned bridge problem. Near the aptly named community of Paradise – home of the renowned Hootch Hut liquor store – there are at least two historic bridges which are neither celebrated, nor even claimed, by any municipality, government agency, private business or citizens’ bridge booster committee.

According to a recent article by Nicole Pothier of the Paradise Post, two old bridges near Magalia, north of Paradise, have fallen on hard times and nobody can figure out who’s supposed to fix them.

The bridges are along old Ponderosa Way, part of a thoroughfare that was built in the 1930s, stretching 700 miles from the Kern River in the south to the Pitt River in the north.

I’m told an eight-lane interstate freeway had been envisioned, but since freeways hadn’t been invented yet, the engineers most likely just wandered off to Oroville to celebrate the end of Prohibition.

The truck route eventually fell out of use, probably due to the aforementioned freeways of the future which became the freeways of the present.

Several government agencies apparently had jurisdiction over the old route as the years passed, but once the bridges were sufficiently deteriorated, it seemed nobody wanted to claim responsibility for them.

(“My bridge? Whaddaya mean MY bridge? That’s your bridge, pal, and you’re welcome to it. I wouldn’t try to walk a butterfly across that thing …”)

Instead of celebrating their historic bridges with bands, donkey races and a judicious amount of alcohol, Butte County wrings its collective hands and looks the other way while wary rural residents cautiously inch over the dilapidated structures and pray that they’ll be able to reach Pitt River before the next big snow.

This is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

I know Butte County. My kids grew up in Paradise, and I can’t begin to count the number of time they’ve phoned me to lament, “Daaaaaad, the bridges up here all suck.”

I think it’s way past time for S’lano County leaders to extend the hand of friendship to their rustic counterparts in the north and offer to show them how to have fun with bridges before all the folks around Magalia are swallowed up by bottomless potholes and rushing waters.

Let’s bridge this gap, amigos. It’s just the right thing to do …

Originally published May 13, 2007

Close encounters of the meth kind

According to recent statistics, there may more than one-half-million methamphetamine abusers hurrying hither and yon through the great state of California at this very minute.

Marvelous …

With those kind of population estimates, one can rest assured that there’s a pretty good chance each and every one of us will have an opportunity to encounter one of these enthusiastic, but notoriously short-tempered stimulant abusers, as we go about our day-to-day affairs.

And virtually anything can happen during one of these unexpected meetings.

Sometimes it’s a long-lost old buddy you never met.

One minute you’re strolling down the sidewalk at one with the blue skies, sunshine and chirping ravens, and the next you’re being bear-hugged by a a skeletal guy with wide eyes and a toothless grin.

“Duuuude, where ya been?! I haven’t seen you since high school graduation when we were in the Navy! Whaddya-whaddya? Still got that Buddha opium pipe? Whadda blast! Yer lookin’ good, buddy! How was Saskatchewan?”

Listen carefully, amigos: It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember this guy from high school. It doesn’t matter that you were never in the Navy, smoked opium from a Buddha-shaped pipe or ever visited Saskatchewan. Whatever you do, don’t try to deny any of this.

If you do, you’ll never get rid of this new meth-fueled friend, because he’ll spend the rest of the day trying to explain, quite vehemently, how you were a chief petty officer aboard the U.S.S. Swampus and both of you got obliterated on primo hashish during a three-day binge in a Saskatchewan trailer park in 1989.

Just keep nodding, smiling and agreeing and, eventually, your new acquaintance will blink rapidly 15 or 20 times and walk rapidly away while humming “Stairway to Heaven” really, really fast.

Unfortunately, your experiences may go beyond the chance encounter with a friend you never had. With 500,000 meth users galloping off in all directions statewide, you may discover that your gardener, physician, attorney or auto mechanic also may have fallen victim to the illegal stimulant.

If your gardener shows up one Saturday morning, promptly mows your lawn 15 times and then asks “Hey, where’s your lawnmower?” it would be safe for you to presume that methamphetamine might be involved.

Just keep him away from the chain saw …

When your normally slow-moving mechanic is suddenly in a big, big hurry and quickly replaces your car’s spark plugs with banana slugs, he also may be powered by meth. And if he insists that those banana slugs are way better than spark plugs, it’s a pretty good bet that he’s had a close encounter with the drug. Thank him profusely and, if your hyperactive gardener is still hanging around, have him help push your car to another repair facility.

Finally, if you go in for a check-up and it appears that your health care provider may have been self-medicating with methamphetamine, remember that surgery is no longer an option for anything – not even a nose-hair trimming.

Really, amigos. I wouldn’t kid you on this …

Originally published on May 6, 2007

Let ’em know how you feel

Expressing displeasure with a commercial dining establishment has never been a simple task, and one’s never really sure if one’s complaint is taken seriously by the management.

When you have a problem with the food or service at the restaurant you’re patronizing, it’s not even easy to determine the best possible time to voice your complaint.

If you gripe about service before your meal arrives, don’t be surprised if it’s accidentally served in your lap – with lots of gravy. If you complain after your meal, who cares? You’ve paid the tab and you’re on your own. The restaurant staff will give you a hearty “Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure…” and guide you to the nearest exit before you upset any other patrons or attract unwanted attention from the health department.

What to do? What to do? What to do?

One of my colleagues recently alerted me to what she referred to as “The Cedar Rapids Solution.”

According to published reports, employees of a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, fast food restaurant were understandably startled one evening when a car pulled up to the drive-through window of the establishment and a dead cat was promptly pitched through the service portal.

Investigators later determined that this was not an Adopt-A-Pet scheme gone awry, but a case of roadkill terrorism.

Somebody was clearly unhappy with their last order of Bungle Burgers and ‘Tater Chunks.

Normally, I wouldn’t think too much of this blatant display of gustatory grumpiness, but you have to remember that this took place in Cedar Rapids, the gourmet capital of, er, Iowa.

Trends are set in places like Cedar Rapids and this might just mark the beginning of a unpleasant diner rebellion. Hell, it might even lead to a bold new restaurant rating system.

For example, your waiter is surly and shakes bread crumbs onto your vest. This could be viewed as a one-dead-cat offense.

If the server manages to spill ground pepper onto your head and then delivers someone else’s trout-on-a-stick to your table, that merits a two-dead-cat response.

If your minestrone has either a small rodent, severed body part or small picture of Dick Cheney floating in it, the restaurant should expect a fusillade of three dead cats.

And if the eatery has the temerity to charge you for the above dining disaster, four dead cats would be recommended.

Not only would this let the offending restaurateur know that you were more than a little dissatisfied with your meal, but it could actually serve to warn other potential patrons of trouble ahead.

Let’s face it, amigos, if you pull up to a strange restaurant and find a pile of aging roadkill out front, you’re going to think twice about strolling inside and ordering the specialty of the house.

The biggest drawback, of course, is spending two or three hours before dinner scouring nearby highways and byways for these pungent restaurant-rating icons.

(Gourmet dining hint: If you’re unable to find a dead cat, experts agree that a deceased ‘possum will usually get the job done …).

Originally published April 27, 2007

No valet parking available here…

Ever known one of those guys who always seems to be having car trouble?

Vacaville’s Bob Hind is one of those guys. But his car troubles don’t come from an unfortunate series of lemons or indifferent maintenance.

No, Bob Hind’s car troubles literally fly into his yard and onto his driveway, usually in the wee hours of the morning, frequently powered by a variety of potent alcoholic beverages and, perhaps, the driver’s drug of choice for the evening.

Not long ago the affable retired deputy sheriff was standing in his East Hemlock Street driveway examining the wreckage of his 2003 Dodge camper truck.

“That fender – the one that isn’t there anymore – had only been replaced about a month ago,” he observed. “Everything’s busted in the camper.”

The night before, a suspected drunken driver had skidded off Dobbins Street, crossed the road and slammed into the back of Hind’s camper truck, forcing it into the side of his house and attached garage.

“He was drunk – he didn’t even brake,” Hind said. “I’m not knocking the kid. He was a nice guy, apologetic – this is the seventh one.”

Over the past 10 years, Hind’s property has repeatedly been the target of wayward vehicles that have shot off both north- and southbound Dobbins Street. He’s even found himself administering emergency first aid to motorists who’ve crashed nearby.

Hind’s cars, trucks, boats and house have borne the brunt of the uninvited automotive onslaught. His property has been smacked so many times, he has trouble keeping track of all the vehicles that have been demolished by airborne drunks and flying cars.

“Oh, almost forgot – my motorhome got hit, too,” he recalled.

Some of Hind’s neighbors seem to have grown accustomed to the sounds of late night collisions coming from his yard.

“I got a call last night. Neighbor just said ‘You got t-boned again, Bob …’ “.

Hind estimated that the series of unwelcome visits from passing motorists have cost him upwards of $75,000 over the years.

“I’ve had more damage in my front yard and driveway than I paid for the house in the first place,” he said.

When the crashes started becoming a regular occurrence for the harried homeowner, he contacted the city to see if anything could be done to slow down traffic around Dobbins and East Hemlock streets.

Hind has suggested a stop light, stop sign, caution light or even speed bumps.

But the city, he said, doesn’t take kindly to amateurs trying to tell them how to handle a traffic problem.

“They will not take input from a private citizen. City Hall just tells me what they can’t do, not what they can,” Hind said. “Sometimes they put a cop down there. They write a whole lot of tickets.”

Hind wonders if he’ll ever find a solution to his uninvited car problems, but he hasn’t given up yet.

So the next time you’re driving down East Hemlock Street, stop and wave to Bob. Most likely, he’ll be the determined-looking fellow with the backhoe patiently digging a moat around his house.

Watch out for the ‘gators …

Originally published April 22, 2007

If you build it, they will come

When it comes to family birthday presents, I always try to select a gift that will be treasured for decades, an item that will prove to be both amusing and educational, giving the recipient lasting insight into life, death and the cosmos.That’s why I recently presented my son-in-law with a $6.95 “Build Your Own Stonehenge” kit for his birthday.

Imagine my surprise when he failed to leap across the room, grasp me in a bear hug and shout “Oh, boy! A pocket Stonehenge! Just what I always wanted!”

I guess kids these days just aren’t as demonstrative as we used to be when someone thoughtfully gave us a miniature model of a mysterious megalithic monument from England’s Salisbury Plain.

What really worried me, though, was that my son-in-law didn’t seem to grasp the boundless possibilities embodied in the pocket Stonehenge kit.

“I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside,” I patiently explained after waiting 20 minutes for a demonstration of enthusiasm that never came.

“But, once you’ve built your own miniature Stonehenge, you’ll have all the arcane skills and secret knowledge needed to take Stonehenge to the street.”

Judging by the puzzled look on my son-in-law’s face and the exasperated expression on my daughter’s, it was abundantly clear that I was going to have to spell the whole damned thing out for them.

“Son, America is turning into a Dust Bowl of the imagination. There are no heroes anymore. There are no mysteries anymore. And there are damned few abalone,” I began.

“Now’s your chance to take a stand and change all that – at least the part about the heroes and mysteries. Soon you’ll have the skills to construct your own Stonehenges anywhere you want, anytime you want, and leave people asking themselves, ‘Hey, where’d the mysterious megaliths come from?’ ”

Warming to my subject, I described how my son-in-law could become a mythic figure in his community while gleefully recreating Stonehenge in every corner of town.

“By the dark of the moon, you load up your truck with cinder blocks and quick-drying concrete, then set out on your mission, searching for empty lots and forgotten parklands where your latest Stonehenge will rise to greet the next sunrise,” I explained.

“The exploits of the mysterious Stonehenge Guy will be the talk of the town: ‘Who is he? Why is he? When’s he gonna strike again?’ You’ll be like the Stonehenge Pimpernel or maybe Robin Henge.”

I have to admit that my enthusiasm was catching – at least for me. My description of the Stonehenge Guy seemed so attractive, I was ready to go out and pick up a “Build Your Own Stonehenge” kit for myself.

My son-in-law, however, still appeared somewhat reluctant to embark on the path of glory I had so painstakingly outlined for him.

Sad as it may seem, I think my son-in-law’s lack of interest is a common problem with many young people these days. They just seem to be missing the basic human desire to go out and erect towering stoneworks for no apparent reason …

Originally published April 8, 2007