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

More trouble on the horizon…

The 21st century is a frightening and uncertain time. It seems the unimaginable can happen in the blink of an eye and throw our lives into chaos. The world has become a playground for terrorists, street gangs, bands of Republicans and (shudder!) golf clowns.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?).

Trouble started a few otherwise unremarkable Fridays ago as I motored placidly down Highway 29 approaching the strategically unimportant Napa County Airport.

Suddenly, an oxidized red Ford Escort lurched onto the highway in front of me. Hanging from one screw was an unregistered, personalized license plate reading “HAHAHA.” In the rear window of the battered mid-1980s compact were a pair of size 29 shoes, a red fright wig and what appeared to be a mutant sunflower attached to a hose – trouble for sure.

I radioed the newspaper’s photo editor and described the southbound apparition.”Looks like a clown and it looks like he’s turning onto Highway 12 headed for S’lano County…” I reported as the Escort darted back and forth between a wine tanker and a tow truck.

Our photo editor, whose middle name is “Danger,” knew this could be a big, big problem for the county.

“Oh, maaaaaan, we don’t need that. We’ve already got a clown – and an opera company, too. Can you get the Highway Patrol to stop him before he crosses the county line, or maybe just nudge him into a ditch?” the photo editor asked, an edge of urgency in his voice.

Before I could reply, however, the battered compact had disappeared.”

I lost him, I lost him!” I wailed in despair. “I dunno where he went. The only place he coulda turned off is … Oh, no. This is bad. It looks like he pulled off at the Chardonnay Golf Club.”

The photo editor was silent for a moment, then sighed.

“A golf clown. We really don’t need one of those. He’ll squirt a few players with his big sunflower, distribute a gross of rubber golf clubs and exploding balls, then come hooting over here to wreak havoc on our courses. By their very nature, S’lano County golfers won’t notice anything different until it’s too late,” he growled unhappily.

I knew what he was talking about. There used to be a small California town called, if memory serves, Tafano, just north of Milpitas. The town had a prosperous camcrusher factory, a small tomato processing plant and, of course, a pristine golf course.

What, you’ve never heard of Tafano?

Of course you haven’t. It’s gone. The golf clowns came and all that remains are several hundred weatherworn size 29 shoes.

(This is, like, a true story. I heard it at the old Black Watch bar in Los Gatos, and anything you hear there is totally righteous.)

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this whole situation is the fact that these pie-throwing, flower-squirting troubadours of chaos are only the tip of the iceberg for Solano County’s golf courses. What invariably follows a golf clown infestation is even more horrific:

Golf mimes.

Saints preserve us…

Originally published June 26, 2005

Cooking up some chaos …

June has arrived and it’s time we got serious about barbecuing again here in S’lano County, where men are men and women are remarkably adept with the family chainsaw.

Unfortunately, all too many of our once-proud, hands-on, take-no-prisoners charcoal chefs have, over the years, become entirely too sissified for their own good.

Stop by any department store, hardware outlet or home improvement center and you’ll see dozens of sophisticated barbecue grills selling for $400 to $600 – and plenty of fancy-pants wannabe grillmasters buying them up.

These high-tech barbecue centers have electronic ignition, pneumatic tires, multiple burners and options like sinks and double-walled stainless steel hoods.

Hell, you might as well barbecue in your Lexus.

Where’s the challenge? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the fire department?

Sad as it seems, today’s faux barbecuers seem to have considerably more money and considerably less dedication than our backyard grillers of old (you know, like way back in the ’80s…).

Whatever happened to the time-honored practice of yanking the grill out of your kitchen stove, putting it on a couple of bricks over a pile of moldy charcoal and then dousing the whole thing with a quart or two of flammable liquid?

(Historical hazardous materials note: Charcoal lighter was best, although kerosene was a workable alternative. Transmission fluid was frowned upon because the meal would wind up tasting like a refinery explosion. Gasoline was to be avoided, too, because the chef would wind up looking like a refinery explosion. Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this.)

Yeah, that was barbecuin’ at its finest – and cheapest.

Once the flames had died down to below two feet or so, you could throw just about any reduced-for-quick-sale supermarket meat on the grill and you’d have a feast within minutes. For the gourmet touch, you could periodically spill Budweiser on the grill. This both added flavor to the meat and helped control the flames that were leaping skyward.

Plus, the beer could be used to temporarily ameliorate the pain of second-degree burns…Brings back some great memories, doesn’t it?

You can almost smell the hot links igniting and hear your nitwit brother-in-law Ralph’s boombox playing “Welcome to the Jungle” in harmony with the approaching fire sirens.

It’s not too late to do it again, amigos.

Drag the grill out of your kitchen stove, find some flammable materials and celebrate the America we used to know every summer.

And remember, no la-di-da gourmet marinades. The best barbecue sauce is made by enthusiastically mixing two cups of leftover catsup with a half cup of old Worcestershire sauce, a half cup of cheap red wine, two tablespoons of alleged garlic powder, a tablespoon of coarse ground pepper and two tablespoons of stale sugar.

Mighty good eatin’ anytime…

Franz Kafka, we hardly knew ye

The past few weeks have been decidedly strange here in S’lano County. One might even say Kafkaesque…

Which is probably a significant part of the whole problem, at least in my little corner of the county.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Trouble started last month when I reported on a court case in which a Texas man had become hopelessly mired in our judicial system and spent six weeks in jail on a bench warrant that had been issued 14 years ago and remained in force for no readily apparent reason.

The gentleman eventually was released after the court determined that there was no rational reason to continue holding him.

Unfortunately, the man had been extradited from Texas and he had no way to get back home. His cash had been “misplaced” in transit and there are no provisions for round-trip extraditions.

To add injury to insult, the man found out that he’d lost his job when he got back home.

I foolishly described the whole situation as “Kafkaesque.”

Silly me. The story brought a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from readers demanding to know just what the hell was going on. And they weren’t asking about the man who’d been unceremoniously bounced around the legal system like a BB in a box car.

No, they were upset about “Kafkaesque.”

Really.

Some readers complained that they spent the better part of the morning trying to find the word in their dictionaries. A couple accused me of making the word up and one reader was curious about what kind of esoteric substances I might have run afoul of prior to writing the story.

To set the record straight, I don’t make up words, particularly in hard news stories with one or more Superior Court judges usually looking over my journalistic shoulder.

Admittedly, this column may occasionally play fast and loose with what some might perceive as objective reality, but only to make this a better world for all.

The word “Kafkaesque” comes from the name of the late Austrian-Czech author Franz Kafka, who was known for his complex and sometimes surreal writings. Among other works written during the early 20th century, Kafka penned “Amerika” and “The Metamorphosis,” the latter dealing with the trials and tribulations of a man who finds himself slowly being transformed into a large cockroach.

(Hey, it could happen…)

One of Kafka’s best known works, however, is “The Trial.” Published in 1925 and still in print today, it tells the story of an ordinary man who gets caught up in a bizarre judicial bureaucracy, is charged with a nonspecific violation of the law and is eventually executed without really knowing with what he’s been charged.

A critically acclaimed and popular work for decades, “The Trial” was primarily responsible for the word “Kafkaesque” as applied to bizarre legal proceedings and bureaucratic weirdness in general.

And, yes, the word can be found in most dictionaries, either in the alphabetical listings or in the biographical supplement as an adjective following “Kafka, Franz.”

Really…

Originally published AprilĀ 17, 2005

Hey, this could be interesting …

For the most part, the day-to-day criminal proceedings in Solano County Superior Court can be pretty humdrum. It’s not like “The Practice” or “Law and Order.” Or even “Ally McBeal.”

Every now and then, though, a routine hearing can reveal remarkable interpretations of the law that could have far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system.

I recently observed such an occurrence during an otherwise mundane court hearing involving alleged traffic and drug violations.

The case revolved around a gentleman whom police had tried to pull over for a traffic violation. The officers were a fair distance behind the motorist in an unmarked car and he had already pulled into a parking lot and gotten out of his vehicle by the time the pursuing officer arrived.

The man began walking away and one of the officers told him to stop, as police officers will do when they’re trying to get one’s attention.

The man, however, kept walking.

Police said his failure to stop constituted resisting officers.

Waydaminnit, waydaminnit, waydaminnit, said the man’s defense attorney. Simply walking away from police officers, he argued, is not a crime, particularly since the officers didn’t say exactly why they wanted him to stop.

The officers, he said, should have clearly enunciated their concerns about the man driving with a suspended license, perhaps by announcing in clear, easily understood language the state Vehicle Code section under which they were trying to stop him.

Something along the lines “Stop! We wish to speak to you about a possible violation of California Vehicle Code Section Fourteen-Six-Oh-One A!”

Uh-huh.

The judge didn’t buy it, but you’ve got to admit it’s a novel idea – and just the kind of novel idea that, against all odds, could somehow become case law and drive cops completely nuts.

What if every time a police officer wanted to contact a potential suspect, the officer had to announce, in clear, bell-like tones, the Penal Code, Vehicle Code or Fish and Game Code section about which he wished to talk to the citizen?

Yep, you’re gonna have a lot of grumpy law enforcement officers out there if this ever becomes a prerequisite to arrest …

“Stop! I wish to place you in custody for a violation of California Penal Code Section Four-Eighty-Seven A, subsection ‘a,’ to wit: feloniously stealing an animal carcass! Please be advised that I also require you stop for an alleged violation of Penal Code Section Six Ten, endangering navigation through the use of masked or false lights!”

And then, of course, the officer still has to read the citizen his Miranda rights.

No longer would fleeing felons have to sprint down alleys, jump over fences and dodge through traffic to get away. After an officer got through reciting the reasons for a potential arrest, the lawman would be so winded his prey would be able to casually stroll to freedom, perhaps pausing for a refreshing latte before moseying on down the road.

I know what you’re thinking – “Hey, that could never happen.”Don’t be so sure, amigos. This is, after all, California …

Originally published December 12, 2004

 

 

The Rabbit That Saved Japan

Several years ago, one of the newspaper’s editors reluctantly introduced me to a visitor as “our storyteller” and then quickly ushered the guest away before I could begin telling stories.

Admittedly, I enjoy a good yarn, particularly if it has to do with the checkered history of S’lano County, where men are men and women prune their hybrid tea roses with chainsaws.

Unfortunately, my storytelling propensity sometimes gets away from me outside the boundaries of this fabled county and that’s where trouble usually starts. Hard as it may be to believe, I don’t always get every tale exactly, er, right.

Solanoans are used to my storytelling peccadillos, but folks in other communities usually begin to look a little frantic about two minutes into any amusing anecdote I might decide to relate at the drop of a hat.

I was reminded of this unfortunate failing a few weeks ago as I prowled the shelves of a quaint Yountville gift shop in search of an appropriate birthday present for one of my co-workers.

Since “appropriate” around here usually means something that explodes, features a dancing gorilla or is at least 100-proof alcohol, I was having a tough time until I came upon a small bronze sculpture of a rabbit with a canoe paddle riding on a large leaf.

I promptly took my purchase to the cashier and foolishly inquired if she knew the remarkable folk tale behind the statue.

“No,” she responded. “I didn’t realize there was one.”

Wrong response.”Oh, yes – that’s the Rabbit Who Saved Japan,” I explained brightly, drawing on my extensive knowledge of Japanese folklore (courtesy of a former San Jose karate instructor known as Trader Rick).

“A rabbit saved Japan?” the cashier asked hesitantly, backing ever so carefully away from the counter.”

Yup. Story has it there was once an evil badger who came to Japan way back in the old days and stole all the kindling so everybody was, like, real cold and miserable and couldn’t make soup or anything,” I related.”

Uh-huh. An evil badger …” the cashier repeated slowly.”

Then this rabbit came along and loaded up a boat – or, in this case, a really big leaf – with lots and lots of kindling and paddled across the South China Sea and saved Japan,” I concluded.”

harestrikingboat

But what happened to the badger?” the woman queried, still backing away but somewhat curious.

She had me there. My karate-chopping acquaintance had never explained the fate of the evil badger.

“He, ahhhhh, went back to, like, Micronesia or someplace. Badgers are no match for rabbits,” I responded gamely.

Although the cashier seemed to accept my interpretation of the story, I should also point out that it sounded as if she locked the door behind me as I left her shop.

And drew the blinds. And pushed some furniture up against the door…

Yes, in retrospect, I realize that I perhaps shouldn’t be so enthusiastic in my efforts to share arcane folklore with strangers, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a really cool story…

Originally published June 13, 2004

This was real newspapering

When the Vacaville Museum contacted me a few months ago and asked for my memories of Solano County journalism for their current exhibit “Read All About It,” I noticed a few of my newspaper cronies wincing.

It wasn’t hard to guess what was going through their fevered minds:

“Uh-oh, he’s not going to write about the, er, firetruck, is he? Or the palm tree in Judge Weir’s hot tub?”

I, of course, took the high road while reminiscing for the museum exhibit and wrote of neither of these incidents.

(Besides, I’m not all that sure about whether the statute of limitations has run out…)

The aforementioned occurrences, however, were but two small events in the celebrated history of weirdness that has traditionally permeated S’lano County journalism.

Twenty-five years ago we were all enthusiastic, idealistic and periodically rational young news dogs, ready for anything and always looking for ways to beat the competition.

The Reporter published three days a week from a 19th century Main Street office where the ceiling always leaked, the phones occasionally worked and we were frequently entertained by the antics of passing bats fluttering through the newsroom late at night.

We were a rather fluid group, living in a motley assortment of apartments, rented rooms and the occasional converted garage, most of which cannot be adequately described in the kind of language one finds in a family newspaper.

One of our temporary dwellings, however, stood out from all the rest. Located in south Vacaville, it was an outwardly unremarkable single-family dwelling that soon was dubbed “Animal House” by civilized members of our staff.

The home was occupied by a police reporter, chief photographer, news editor and sports editor, none of whom will be herein named. Suffice it to say that there are many good reasons not to name them, so we won’t.

Ah, but those were grand days. We had beer, chili and a state-of-the art fire and police scanner on the kitchen counter so that at any time of the day or night we could thunder off to cover breaking news.

Of course, there were a few preliminaries to get out of the way before we did so. First, we had to determine who was sober enough to drive. Then we had to figure out whose car would start. And find an unbroken camera. And a road map..

It was a place where anything could happen. I have vague memories of a state correctional officer, in full uniform, riding a motorcycle through the living room on Super Bowl Sunday 1982. I’m still not too clear on the particulars because somebody had had the audacity to roll me up in the living room carpet…

Then there was the dark and stormy night when the sports editor’s treacherous waterbed turned on him, pinning him to the wall until the terrified fellow could be rescued by his roommates.

On another evening, an elaborate salt water aquarium, complete with fish, mysteriously appeared by the sofa. A few days later, it just as mysteriously disappeared.

Nobody knows why.

Chaotic?

You bet.

But as we proclaimed one foggy night while pursuing a runaway beer keg through Elmira, “This, my friends, is journalism.”

Originally published April 4 2004