Better silent than sorry…

I’ve observed a lot of strange behavior while writing about criminal justice in S’lano County during the past 30 years, but there’s one recurring peccadillo among folks hereabouts that I’ve never been able to fully understand.

This involves otherwise sapient human beings, who readily admit that they have little or no knowledge of firearms, arbitrarily deciding that the gun barrel they’re looking down during a crime in progress isn’t a “real” gun barrel.

Hey, everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but these folks frequently turn a simple criminal encounter into a disaster by sharing their opinion of the gunman’s weapon with the twitchy guy who’s holding it.

Not good.

Here’s a guy threatening to blow your head off if you don’t hand over your wallet or stop broadcasting microwaves into his meth lab and you decide to disrespect the guy’s choice of firearms.

“Har-de-har-har-har, buddy! You can’t fool me – that ain’t a real gun!”

Now we have a guy who’s already nervous, possibly coming down from a weekend of drugs, alcohol and bad country music, and you decide to disparage him and his weapon.

Hell, why not go for the triple crown and poke rude fun at his mother, too?

The logical response from any self-respecting felon whose firearm has been disrespected is painfully obvious – pull the trigger. This action provides positive reinforcement for any gunman whose motives have been questioned and it proves that the firearm in question actually is real.

Unfortunately, the same action can have an immediate and deleterious effect on your well-being if you’re standing in front of the firearm.

This whole scenario wouldn’t really trouble me if I’d only heard about it once or twice, but it happens with alarming frequency and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Do yourself a favor – if you don’t think some crook’s firearm is real, keep your opinion to yourself. You’ll thereby avoid unnecessarily hurting the gunman’s feelings and possibly escape an unpleasant encounter with a bullet.

Police officers – professionally familiar with a variety of firearms – rarely make this blunder. If someone charges up to a law enforcement officer brandishing what appears to be a firearm, the officer is not going to debate the weapon’s reality. He – or she – will immediately react to disarm, disable or dispatch the gunman. Unless the weapon in question has a bright orange barrel or is made of clear plastic with water sloshing around inside, the lawman is going to behave as if he is facing a deadly weapon.

Many replica firearms look real and many genuine firearms – particularly those offered in designer colors or with goofy-looking stocks – don’t look particularly authentic. But, as unfair as it may seem, a gun doesn’t have to look particularly genuine to kill you.

When facing a felon with a firearm, it’s always best to assume that you’re looking down the barrel of a real gun. Gently surrender your wallet and report the encounter to police at your earliest opportunity.

Better safe than sorry, amigos…

Originally published November 5, 2006

Marshmallows: Threat or menace?

Do you sometimes find yourself deep in thought, pondering the imponderables of leprechauns and marshmallows?

I know I’ve spent a lot sleepless nights tossing and turning over myriad unanswered leprechaun-marshmallow questions. Once this subject comes up, it’s hard to let go, even as dawn draws nigh.

Fortunately, there’s now a place to go for all the answers about this mysterious combination of myth and marshmallow. Enlightenment is just a few clicks away if you log on to www.luckycharms.com.

I know what you’re thinking: “Waydaminnit, waydaminnit, waydaminnit – that’s just a Web site to get kids to eat more cereal!”

On the surface it may appear so, but if you delve into the depths of this multifaceted Web site, you’ll discover that it’s much, much more (sort of like an old Volvo carburetor).

If you grew up some time during the past 40 years, chances are you’ve consumed at least one bowl of Lucky Charms, the General Mills cereal based on the unlikely adventures of a wise-cracking leprechaun and his pot of marshmallow bits.

How well I remember the time I tried to get my cherubic, 4-year-old daughter to consume a bowl of healthy 1970s-style cereal – you know, a tasty combination of wheat chaff, cracked corn and pine nuts?

She took one look at my back-to-the-earth breakfast offering and growled “Lucky Charms and nobody gets hurt.”

(Strangely enough, she’s, like, 36 years old now and she still growls those very same words from time to time.)

“How remarkable…” I thought, but in those days there was no Web site devoted to the intricacies of Lucky Charms. There were, in fact, no Web sites at all.

Today, www.luckycharms.com provides everything you ever wanted to know about the cereal and its leprechaun mascot, Lucky.

Not only does it contain a broad range of activities and animated tales, it invites users to create their own Lucky Charms-themed stories of adventure.

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

Ever wondered exactly what magical powers are attributed to each of the eight charms scattered through your cereal?

Gotcha covered, pardner. The horseshoe, for example, signifies speed, while the moon-shaped marshmallow bit confers invisibility. The clover shape brings luck.

(No, I don’t know how many moon-shaped marshmallow bits you have to consume to achieve invisibility.)

You also may encounter a variety of challenging games on the site. And like everything else associated with the Internet, the older you are, the more challenging they’ll be.

My favorite is the “Hidden Key Invasion” which has something do with invasive marshmallow bits.”

Can you sling milk and melt them before time runs out?” the game asks.

Not if you’re a 56-year-old newspaper columnist. Hell, I haven’t slung milk since I was a sophomore in high school and tried to bean Tibor Koss with a pint of milk in the cafeteria…

Originally published August 22, 2006

Read this and shriek

Just about any supermarket paperback can provide you with an adequate amount of apocalyptic terror, bloodthirsty devil cults and the kind of monsters that Stephen King keeps under his bed for a rainy day.

Great supermarket paperbacks, however, give you all these things and much, much more.

Take, for example,¬†Brian¬†Keene’s recent novel of flood, famine and giant earthworms, “The Conqueror Worms” (2006, Dorchester Publishing, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 326 Pages).

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Keene’s tale is narrated by 80-year-old World War II veteran Teddy Garnett, a crusty, self-reliant fellow who finds himself stranded in his West Virginia mountain home after rain storms of epic proportions have swept the earth for weeks, inundating metropolitan centers, destroying communications, obliterating small towns and giving birth to a strange white fungus that attaches itself to wildlife.

Weathermen have begun to commit on-air suicide and more radical elements of their audiences have gone so far as to bomb television studios to voice their frustration with weather forecasts that predict only rain followed by showers and some more rain.

San Francisco is gone. New York City is under water. Hawaii, the Philippines and Diego Garcia are history.

I know what you’re thinking: “No way, man. Not Diego Garcia!”

Sorry, amigos. Even Diego Garcia…

Teddy Garnett is fortunate to live on high ground in the mountains near the small community of Punkin’ Center, but he’s far from happy. He’s out of chewing tobacco, out of patience with the weather and, perhaps worst of all, something’s moving around underneath his land. Something big.

And that’s only the beginning. Garnett has plenty of other problems to deal with, not the least of which is his shotgun-wielding neighbor Crazy Earl Harper, colorfully described as “crazier than a copperhead in a mulberry bush on a hot day in July.’

Earl lives up to his reputation when he triumphantly shoots down a helicopter carrying flood refugees from Baltimore, apparently mistaking them for a sinister United Nations invasion force.

Then giant worms start exploding out of the saturated soil. Some are the size of a German shepherd – although somewhat longer. Others are as big as a bus.

Garnett thinks things can’t get any worse, but the surviving refugees from the helicopter tell him Baltimore is plagued with even stranger creatures. Under the waters that have flooded the city live all manner of nameless horrors, including man-eating mermaids.

Rampaging worms? Man-eating mermaids? Fungus? What we have here is a supermarket paperback tour de force. Every page is packed with weirdness and every chapter promises more.

Here’s a typical beginning to a typical chapter: “The Satanists were surfing down Pratt Street when I found Jimmy’s head floating outside the fifteenth floor of the Chesapeake Apartments…”.

Need I say more?

Originally published July 23, 2006

‘These three guys’ going nationwide

Wandering aimlessly through a Web site devoted to the reminiscences of medical professionals, I was surprised to see that three longtime Solano County minions of mayhem have somehow gone nationwide.

Doctors reported that a remarkable number of their emergency patients – all of them upstanding members of the community who undoubtedly were minding their own business – had been victimized by a trio of troublemakers known collectively as “these three guys.”

You’re standing on the street corner without a care in the world, perhaps listening to the cheerful warbling of a bright-eyed blue bird when, out of nowhere, “these three guys” appear, kick you in the knees, smack you over the head with a garbage can lid, steal all your drugs (prescription, of course!), cash and jewelry, then back over you with their unregistered ’78 Firebird.

“These three guys” apparently have been sighted everywhere from Coos Bay to Chippewa Falls, wreaking wholesale havoc amid gales of maniacal laughter and occasional gunfire.

Truly amazing, amigos.

After more than 30 years of reporting on Solano County crime and punishment – with a brief stint as the newspaper’s ballet editor – I was convinced that “these three guys” were devoting their full attention to raising hell right here at home.

Now I discover they’ve taken their act on the road.

Wheeeeee!

How many times have I sat in a Solano County courtroom and listened to some falsely accused felon describe how he was minding his own business when “these three guys” came up, threatened him (or her) with a knife, gun or railroad tie, and then stuffed his backpack full of cocaine, heroin or hallucinogenic toads.

“Swear to God, I was just standing there and these three guys come up and tried to sell me some drugs. I don’t even do drugs. Swear to God,” our innocent bystander will tell the court. “And then they got all crazy and hit me over the head with a dead cat, swear to God! And took my wallet and, like, stuffed my backpack full of drugs, which, swear to God, I don’t use. And they got away just before the cops showed up…”

Over the years, I’ve learned, this trio of evildoers always gets away. Cops have never laid a finger on them. And they’re masters of disguise – they’ve been variously described as white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Greek and “these three, like, Hungarian guys.”

They only prey on virtuous pillars of the community, frequently leaving the innocent with black eyes and a variety of illicit merchandise – sawed-off shotguns, stolen stereos and heroic quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines – for no apparent reason.

(“I don’t know where that meth came from, officer. These three guys must have dropped it in my jacket when they jumped me on the way to church!”).

Now, it appears, “these three guys” are no longer just S’lano County’s problem. Beware, Mr. and Mrs. America, “these three guys” soon may be coming to a dim alley or abandoned liquor store near you…

Originally published June 25, 2006

The mob and much more…

Walk into any big box bookstore these days and, chances are, you’ll be able to put your hands on a dozen or so organized crime novels in less than 10 minutes. Life with the mob is the newest darling of popular fiction in America.

If you like your mob fiction with a healthy dose of weirdness, though, you’re going to have to head for the paperback aisle of the nearest supermarket. With any luck, you’ll find a copy of Tom Piccirilli’s “Headstone City” (2006, Bantam Dell, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 302 Pages).

headstone_city

Piccirilli’s tale of mob violence, loyalty and persistent dead people revolves around ex-con Brooklyn cabdriver Johnny Danetello, who grew up with the once-powerful Monticelli crime family. Unfortunately, the Monti gang has taken out a contract on his life because teenage mob princess Angelina Monticelli died from a drug overdose in his cab while he was rushing her to a hospital.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

The tale seems pretty mundane as far as organized crime, vengeance and dead mob princesses go, but it’s anything but ordinary when you consider the fact that Danetello has the ability to communicate with the dead – his parents, the aforementioned Angelina, deceased mobster JoJo Tormino and tormented neighborhood grocer Aaron Fielding – whether he wants to or not.

Johnny developed this talent in his youth shortly after he and mob scion Vinny Monticelli tried to crash a stolen car through a police barricade and both were thrown through the windshield of the auto.

Vinny, too, picked up some unusual skills as a result of the crash. He can predict the future – sometimes – and has the ability to periodically slip between three different planes of reality.

Vinny now seems to be part of the mob family’s dedicated efforts to exterminate Johnny, but the two-fisted cabdriver proves difficult to kill, even when he regularly strolls into the mob’s favorite clubs and the mansion of once-powerful Don Pietro Monticelli.

Complicating Johnny’s threatened life are a cast of characters worthy of a Federico Fellini epic. There’s lovable Uncle Phil Guerra, a retired cop who probably killed Johnny’s father. And Grandma Lucia, a 78-year-old bingo fanatic with pink hair who delights in cleaning Johnny’s trusty .38 revolver and is no slouch when it comes to matter-of-factly clearing a room of troublemakers with a pump shotgun.

The cast of characters also includes Glory Bishop, a B-movie actress who achieved temporary stardom as the terrorist-baiting heroine of the action flick “Under Heaven’s Canopy”; and slow-talking Daniel Ezekiel Cogan, an FBI agent with a hee-haw smile and a cousin named Cooter.

Toss in a half-dozen steely-eyed hitmen and Johnny finds himself with an increasingly complicated social calendar – one that could get him killed.

Will our star-crossed cabdriver live to talk with the dead again? You can find the answer for less than six bucks in the paperback book aisle of your favorite supermarket. Pick up some cannoli while you’re at it…

Originally published April 9, 2006

Another sinister conspiracy…

My bedside telephone was ringing shortly after 2 o’clock one dark morning last week and I didn’t even have to use my psychic powers to determine that the caller undoubtedly was my old ’60s sidekick Sapper.

Forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentifiable herbs in Bolinas in 1968, Sapper is subject to periodic brainstorms and likes to share them with the world between midnight and sunrise.

“Lissen up, bro – I’m about to unveil to you, and you alone, one of the most fiendish conspiracies ever foisted upon the American people,” Sapper intoned ominously. “It’s all about Perky the Duck.”

“Uh…” I responded.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Perky the Duck, Mister Pulsebeat-of-the-Nation journalist?” Sapper asked impatiently.

I initially drew a blank, but then sleepily remembered the tale of a duck who was shot by a hunter and tossed into his refrigerator, only to be found alive by the hunter’s wife two days later and rushed to a veterinary clinic, where it actually died on the operating table but later was revived.

“Yeah, yeah. Nice story. G’night …” I responded less-than-enthusiastically.

“Oh, maaaaaan. You really don’t get it, do you? Put your thinking cap on, brainiac. This isn’t about the duck, it’s about Vice President Dick Cheney running roughshod over the American people again,” Sapper said, enunciating each syllable as if talking to a backward third- grader.”

It took me awhile to put it all together, bro, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming,” Sapper explained. “Sometime in mid-January, Dick Cheney managed to elude his Secret Service keepers to do a little duck hunting. As is his habit, I’m pretty sure Dick managed to wing three lawyers, a bus driver and O.J. Simpson before he grazed a passing duck.

“Uh-huh…”

Another hunter mistakenly picked up Cheney’s duck and took it home, leaving Cheney with no proof that he’d actually been hunting ducks and not the entire defensive line of the Miami Dolphins, two exotic dancers and an ice cream vendor,” Sapper continued.

“The bird in question, I tell you, is Perky the Duck, and the heroic life-saving measures had nothing to do with saving a wounded duck and everything to do with saving Dick Cheney’s reputation as a skilled hunter.”

I probably should have thrown in the towel and hung up, but I couldn’t resist asking Sapper what kind of evidence he had.

“It’s called dee-ductive reasoning, pal. When you examine all the elements of this mystery, the diabolical machinations of Dick Cheney hold the only possible explanation. It’s like Sherlock Holmes said, ‘When you’ve eliminated the unlikely, the impossible is probable,’ ” Sapper replied.

“Now it’s up to you, bro. Take that ball and run with it. Put it on the front page and tell America what’s really going on,” Sapper concluded, for the first time in years hanging up before I tossed the phone across the room.

Much as I’d like to put this on the front page and the Associated Press wire, I really don’t think I can measure up to the magnitude of the story. Maybe I’ll just e-mail it to Katie Couric …

Originally published February 18, 2007

Welcome to S’lano now start paddling

Weather certainly is, ah, robust here, isn’t it?” a bewildered visitor to Solano County remarked to me following the region’s most recent spate of torrential rains.

“Hope you can swim, pilgrim,” I growled, reflecting back on all the times I’d found myself facing unexpected flood waters in fabled S’lano County, where men are men and women look downright fetching in hip-waders. This is, after all, the one California county where one can throw a Bass Festival just about any time between September and April and probably haul in a good catch, even if the fishing is done from an Interstate 80 overpass.

Unfortunately, Solanoans sometimes get unnecessarily tangled up in definitions when it comes to explaining the only two seasons we experience here (drought and flood). And one of the perennial problems we face in S’lano County is explaining the term “100-year storm,” because time is just a little quirkier here than anywhere else and so is the weather.

On its surface, the designation would seem to be absurdly simple. The first thing that comes to mind is a storm of such unrelenting intensity that it’s only likely to occur every 100 years or so. The is the storm your great-grandfather use to refer to as “The big ‘un of ought-six.”

Old-timers regularly recall such storms not in terms of years, but in terms of conditions that were encountered.

“Ayuh, Granddad said that was the storm that put the cows in the apricot trees and made poor ol’ Teddy Roosevelt swear off sour mash forever…”

And in any place other than S’lano County, the concept of a significant storm coming around every 100 years or so would probably be at least marginally believable. Here, however, 100-year storms seem to show up with alarming frequency.

As one resident asked following the county’s last disastrous deluge “How can it be a 100-year storm if the last 100-year storm was five years ago?”

Indeed…

Sadly, the newspaper’s city editor recently tried to explain 100-year storms to our readers. She should be all better and out of counseling any day now…

Part of the problem lies in how one defines such a storm. One widely accepted definition of “100-year storm” is any storm that has a 1 percent or less chance of occurring in one’s general vicinity in any given calendar year.

You might think that such a tempest might be better termed a “1-percent storm,” but who said weather terminology had to make a lot of sense?

The other problem lies in the very nature of S’lano County. Things are just different here. One man’s century is another man’s long weekend and the weather hereabouts is like one of those hangovers that you can’t seem to shake no matter how much aspirin, tomato juice and Tabasco sauce you ingest at the end of the aforementioned weekend.

Here, a 100-year storm may be better defined as any storm that might recur repeatedly and for no readily apparent reason over any 100-year period. Thus, last year’s 100-year storm might be repeated as this year’s 100-year storm, or this month’s 100-year storm or “Whoaaaaaa duuuuude, here it comes again!”

And it doesn’t get any stormier than that, amigos…

Originally published January 22, 2006