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

Gentlemen, start your lizards (and don’t forget to put on the Meatloaf)

Small town America is always being urged “Think big!”

Sometimes this works.

Other times, however, this chamber-of-commerce-friendly mantra leaves local residents wondering if thinking really, really big can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Take the Dixon Downs proposal. For a little town like Dixon, building a gigantic, 21st-century horse racing center is thinking about as big as you can without blowing lots of perfectly good synapses.

On the surface, Dixon Downs looks like a win-win proposition, bringing jobs, revenue, entertainment and horses to Dixon.

But, as was previously noted, it’s big. Really big. Bigger than, like, Wal-Mart. And that bigness has many residents of the bucolic wool-growing community worried about increased traffic, pollution, crime and the possibility of attracting terrorists from Citrus Heights.

The community’s become divided, animosities are growing and there are some damned suspicious-looking characters from Citrus Heights hanging around.

Before this goes any farther, it’s time for Dixonites to step back, take a deep breath and consider viable but less intensive alternatives.

Fortunately, just such an alternative has been waiting in the wings for nearly a decade, a popular activity that once drew hundreds of enthusiasts from throughout the Bay Area and Sacramento regions to the shores of Lake Berryessa and could once again become a major regional event for the right community.

I can imagine a few of you out there are already grinning in remembrance.

Yes, if Dixon needs a scaled-down event to bring the town back together, it need only look back to a happier time when the Lake Berryessa Lizard Races brought joy to young and old.

For the thousands of lizard-racing aficionados who attended the colorful event at the internationally known Turtle Rock Motel, the competition was unforgettable: Pennants snapping in the wind, hungover bass fishermen snapping at everybody and sleek racing lizards sunning their blue bellies in the summertime sunshine.

Add copious quantities of beer and the sounds of Meatloaf’s Greatest Hits on the stereo and the fun just wouldn’t stop.

The reptilian revels may be gone from Berryessa, but that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t pick up a warm rock or two and bring championship lizard racing to its own little corner of S’lano County.

Think about it. You only need about a twentieth of the space for a lizard track than you do for a horse track. Runoff from lizard waste is negligible. You don’t need to build jockeys’ quarters because you don’t have any jockeys and, to the best of my knowledge, organized crime has never put a finger on lizard racing, not even in Sicily.

Best of all, lizard racing is an everyman’s sport. Purchasing a thoroughbred race horse can set you back tens of thousands of dollars. Getting a thoroughbred racing lizard into your stable is simply a matter of looking under the right rock.

You won’t need a trainer. You won’t need a trailer. You won’t need a ton of hay. You may, however, need a ready supply of fresh flies, ants and grubs.

Lizard racing and Dixon? A winning combination, amigos.

Originally published March 25, 2007

Will the curse be lifted?

A new year is nearly upon us and, like hopeful folks from Barstow to Brattleboro, those of us here at the newspaper are hoping for better times, lost weight and the unexpected arrival of fat wads of cash from unlikely sources.

Perhaps most of all, however, many of us here hope the new year will somehow lift the mysterious curse of Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Our cavernous newsroom library contains many volumes of quaint and curious lore – five or six 2001 Almanacs, a 1997 Humboldt County phone book and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War,’ among others.

One of our most frequently sought-after volumes, however, is the aforementioned Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’ Notice I said “sought after,” not “utilized.”

For reasons perhaps best explored by dedicated students of the supernatural, this bright red reference volume disappears each time it’s needed to answer a tough question from one of our readers.

It’s always quite visible whenever one strolls by the library shelves in search of the 1997 Humboldt County phone book, but disappears the moment a reader calls to ask if the monkey-face eel is a native species or if the walleye surfperch is good for sushi.

Let’s face it, we live in a county where wildlife is far from extinct. We receive a lot of calls from people who just moved here from Silicon Valley, who want to know what kind of snake is coiled around the base of their birdbath:

“It’s got, like, two eyes and some spots that are kind of brownish-grayish and it hisses if you tug on its tail. Is that a good snake or a bad snake?”

When you’re a grizzled veteran of life in S’lano County, the first response that springs to mind is “Just keep yanking on its tail – you’ll find out,” but we try to curb our sarcasm when we receive such inquiries and put the caller on hold until we can check our Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’

Some of those callers are probably still on hold, because the moment one of us goes to get the elusive wildlife guide it seems to bleep itself right into another dimension. And it always reappears within two days. And always in the same place, right next to Herb Caen’s ‘Guide to San Francisco.’

We have many theories as to what’s happening, including otherworldly manipulation by the late Herb Caen, miffed over having his guide to San Francisco being placed next to a guide to pygmy nuthatches and longjaw mudsuckers.

Our online editor, who is rarely seen outside the dim confines of his cave-like office, blames the phenomena on “Wormholes! Bwahaha! Wormholes!”

Others theorize that the book is simply cursed, or the plaything of poltergeists.

Perhaps with the coming new year, we’ll find a solution to this somewhat nettlesome problem. Until we do, though, it would probably be best for readers to direct their questions about the giant spotted whiptail or marbled murrelet to the reference desk at the public library.

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

Originally published December 31, 2006

The best gift ever…

It’s never easy to predict what will prove to be the most popular Christmas gift for any given holiday season.

Whoever would have imagined that Cabbage Patch Kids would be the hottest thing since refried beans con queso? Or that Tickle Me Elmo would capture the nation’s imagination in a way that the talking George Bush action figure never would?

Picking the gift that will pick the pockets of holiday shoppers from Barstow to Brattleboro has never been easy, but this year I’ve got a bona fide front-runner that can’t – and won’t – be ignored.

Say “Merry Christmas!” to the life-sized, electronic chimpanzee head.

chimp

In a retail world grown weary of radio-controlled Humvees and ho-hum Bratz dolls, the severed chimpanzee head is like a breath of fresh air at a Republican fundraiser.

Recently advertised by Wal-Mart, the life-sized chimp head is touted as “multi-sensored, highly communicative and fully interactive with four distinct moods…”

Four distinct moods? Hell, half the people I work with here in the newsroom don’t have four distinct moods.

And it comes with a remote, so you can interact with your remarkably lifelike chimp head from across the room.

Best of all, it’s only $139.97.

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

Oh, sure, it might seem a little expensive at first glance, but remember what we’re talking about here – a life-sized, interactive chimpanzee head with four distinct moods.

And, if you buy in bulk, you can pretty much wrap up all your Christmas shopping with one triumphant march through the chimp department at Wal-Mart.

For example, if you have 10 people on your holiday gift list, you can get each of them a lovable chimp head this Christmas and take care of the whole bunch for less than $1,500.

Overall, not a bad deal.

After all, if you’re a typical resident of S’lano County, you probably spent more than that on gin and Vienna sausages last month.

Your friends and relatives may quickly forget the oversized candy canes and jingle bell socks you normally hand out at this time of year, but they’ll never forget opening up a colorfully wrapped Christmas present and discovering a lifelike severed chimp’s head inside.

(Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this.)

And life-sized chimp heads are so versatile. You might want to keep your own chimpanzee head on the living room mantel, on your desk at work or, perhaps, impressively riding shotgun in your Hyundai.

Having a jolly Christmas dinner with the family? Slyly bring your life-sized electronic chimpanzee head to the table on a covered platter, then lift the lid with a dramatic flourish.

You can bet you’ll be the envy of the celebration.

Remember to shop early, amigos – these chimp champs are sure to sell faster than you can say bonobo.

Originally published December 3, 2006

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

‘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

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