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

Mayonnaise sets – the saga continues

Little did I guess last month that my search for antique, three-piece mayonnaise sets would create such a stir among, er, three-piece mayonnaise set aficionados from California to Colorado.

The quest, strangely enough, began in a rambling, three-story antique mall in the strategically unimportant Butte County community of Paradise.

It was in a dim corner of that forgotten roadside antique mart in early March that I saw a large cardboard sign proclaiming the presence of a “THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!”

Having never heard of even a one-piece mayonnaise set, I was understandably intrigued – but not intrigued enough to actually peek behind the sign to see what an antique THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! actually looks like.

I was, however, interested enough in the tableware oddity to mention it to my ex-wife and full-time kids, who had accompanied me to the antique emporium in search of what my daughter generally classifies as “weird old stuff.”

Sad as it seems, my family accused me of making up the THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!

“Daaaaad, there’s no such thing,” my daughter protested.

“Stop it – you’re traumatizing your little girl,” warned my ex-wife.

“Yeah,” explained my son-in-law.

My family was so adamant that even I began to doubt that I’d actually seen a sign for a THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!

Fortunately, readers came to the rescue last week, recalling their favorite mayonnaise set stories and even mailing me photos.

Americans, it seems, were absolutely head-over-heels about their mayonnaise from the 1900s through the 1950s. Mayonnaise sets – usually made from elaborately cut glass or crystal – included a base plate, a large serving bowl and a handy ladle for scooping out healthy portions of mayo for the whole family.

Some of these look to be about the size of a soup bowl, but a few of the photos I’ve been sent show a container that appears to be larger than a punch bowl.

(The latter was probably filled by one of those old neighborhood mayonnaise tankers that once rumbled down America’s suburban roadways at 5 a.m. every Wednesday morning…)

The pre-1950 ham sandwich, it would seem, needed at least a pint of freshly-ladled mayonnaise on it to qualify as a respectable American repast.

Napa antique dealer Jewel Ryan said she’d only seen one THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! in her career.

“I had it in the store for a couple of years and I thought I was stuck with it forever, but somebody finally bought it,” she recalled.

Nobody, it would seem, still manufactures THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SETS! and the ones that are still around are considered collectors’ items, fetching prices from $40 to more than $200 from mayonnaise lovers and people who make really, really big sandwiches.

So explore your attic, look in the barn, fall down the stairs and check out the basement – you may have a valuable THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! in your home and not even know it…

Originally published April 13, 2003

Trouble in Paradise

“Teenage Vampires from Paradise.”

Sounds like a great title for a B-grade movie, doesn’t it?

But they’re real.  I seen ’em.

Paradise is a little town in the mountains of Butte County where my ex-wife and ex-kids make their home.  Sometimes, when the madcap life of Solano County grows too frantic, I migrate there and they let me sleep in the dumpster out front.

Nothing much seems to happen in Paradise.

In fact, the most exciting thing that happens in town occurs when somebody manages to spill the salsa at La Comida, a Mexican restaurant of no little repute.  Actually, of no repute at all. (“Look, Zeb, Hank put his godarned elbow in the salsa and spilled it all over the floor.  Somebody better get the sheriff…and the po-lice, too, We don’t know what kinda situation we got developin’ here…”)

At least that’s how it was before the vampires.

I was sitting on the back porch of my ex-wife’s modest home (all homes in Paradise are “modest”) when the vampires arrived, drifting across the back lawn while my ex and I quaffed a pair of Lone Star beers in the 104 degree heat.

One vampire had purple hair, the other a Mohawk.  Both were dressed in black with flowing, red-lined capes and metal-shod boots, each carried a single blood red carnation.

(The carnations, I later learned, had been liberated from a nearby cemetery).

“Hey, uh, whaa…” I asked intelligently.

My former wife, as usual, had the situation well under control and calmly informed me that they were a pair of my daughter’s friends from school.

“They’re into vampires,” she stated casually.

Into vampires…uh-huh.

I remember when high school kids were into surf boards and day-glo posters and black lights and Beatles haircuts and, from earlier generations, Elvis Presley and Hula Hoops – but vampires?

I turned to the two children of the night and, trying to appear casual, asked “Isn’t ait a little bright out here for you, sunlight and all?”

Everybody knows vampires shrivel up and blow away in the presence of sunlight.

“Yeah,” one apprentice vampirette replied, flopping onto the porch.  “I’m dying.  You got a Coke or 7UP?”

Her companion giggled and I knew we were in for trouble.  Vampires who giggle are absolutely the worst kind.  Any vampire can manage an evil smile, a sinister sneer or a sardonic laugh, but the giggling ones are rare.

Things got a little more complicated when my ex-wife told me that one of the future neck biters was moving in with them for the summer.

Great, even I know the only way a vampire can enter one’s domicile is by invitation.  Good going, wife.  Have another Lone Star…

She’s going to have a great time when the Butte County Animal Control officers show up on her doorstep in response to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about bats.

Or when the police come by to ask if she knows anything about an 18th-century coach and four coal black horses rolling recklessly through Paradise’s streets after dark.

And how does she expect to handle the peasants with the torches and stakes and garlands of garlic storming the house just before sunset every night?

What if they run out of silver bullets at the hardware store, I asked her in exasperation.

“That’s for werewolves,” she informed me matter of factly.

The weekend passed without incident, nobody woke up with a sore throat and the peasants didn’t show.

In fact, things began looking up shortly before I left when I offered to fix the vampire-to-be a salami sandwich.

“Are you kidding? I’m a vegetarian,” she responded.

A vegetarian vampire?  There’s hope after all.

Originally published 1987-ish

Cheerful small talk – don’t ya just love it?

Small talk among virtual strangers is a traditional form of American non-communication just about all of us have engaged in at one time or another.

You know the drill:

“How ya doin’?”

“Have a nice day!”

“Whaddabout those Seahawks?”

Frequently dull, usually meaningless, small talk is an easy way to show you’re a regular guy and not one of those “quiet” types who unexpectedly climb up on the roof and begin taking potshots at passers-by with a rusty Mauser.

This easygoing communication doesn’t take a lot of thought and is usually quite harmless – or so I thought until a recent conversation in a rural convenience store took a sharp left turn toward the bizarre for no apparent reason.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Trouble started a few days before Christmas as I motored through strategically unimportant Butte County en route to a holiday visit with my ex-wife and full-time kids in the exuberant mountain community of Paradise.

Approaching the outskirts of Chico, I decided to stop for some travel food and pulled into the parking lot of a small roadside market.

Everything seemed relatively normal (remember, we’re talking Butte County here) until I tried to purchase a fistful of beef jerky and a can of spicy tomato juice.

The clerk smiled amiably and asked “How ya doin’?”

Just as amiably, I replied “Well, I’ve got one eye open today.”

The salesperson’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed.


“I, uh, said I’ve got one eye open today. Just takin’ it easy – don’t want to see too much, ya know? Heh-heh…”

The clerk’s jaw tensed and his hands clenched into fists on the counter.

“Whaddya mean by that?”

The situation seemed to be getting a little bit out of hand and I hadn’t even received my change yet. Had I somehow poked fun at a local custom? Did the clerk have a glass eye? Did “one eye open” roughly translate to “Yer mother’s a slough pirate” in Butte County?

The salesclerk was now shifting back and forth on the balls of his feet and his rapidly reddening neck was beginning to throb alarmingly.

I tried to keep things light.

“I’m, uh, just a little drowsy, ya know? Man, seems like I’ve been drivin’ for hours. Gotta prop one eye open…”

The clerk now appeared to be hyperventilating.

Rather than once again trying to explain travel fatigue, I grinned widely and carefully enunciated the words “keep the change,” before slowly backing toward the door.

I managed to make it safely outside, but not before I heard the red-faced clerk tell an acquaintance how close a certain smart-mouthed yahoo had gotten to getting his clock cleaned but good.

I don’t know what I said wrong, but I sure know how to survive the next time someone asks me how I’m doing:

Carefully nod once for “good,” twice for “very good.”

And leave the change…

Originally published January 6, 2002

I’m not so sure about this…

Ask anybody – I’m about as holly jolly as the next guy when the Christmas season rolls around each year. I have to admit, however, that some holiday observances make me a little nervous.

Only last week I was motoring blissfully into the rustic mountain community of Paradise for a visit with my ex-wife and full-time kids when I encountered a large sign advertising a local church’s “Drive-Through Nativity.”

Well, I thought, that’s about as 21st century as you can get. And festive, too.

The more I pondered the roadside announcement, though, the more worrisome the entire drive-through concept became.

Sure, I’ve seen live nativity scenes, Southwestern nativity scenes and even a nativity scene surrounded by a gaggle of grinning blue Smurfs. Variety, is after all, the spice of life and I don’t think the holy family has a whole lot of concern about minor creative alterations in what is generally perceived as the traditional manger setting of roughly 2,000 years ago.

The drive-through concept, however, makes me just a tad bit skittish. After all, Paradise is located in the heart of Butte County where, it’s rumored, the average motorist maintains a blood alcohol level of .30 as a matter of personal pride.

Inviting anybody in Butte County to drive through anything is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It’s just plain risky.

At the very least, befuddled drivers stopping to order fast food are going to bring to a crawl drive-through nativity traffic.

(“Hey! Hey, Joseph – yeah, I’m talkin’ to YOU. I said TWO cheezyburgers and an order of crispo fries. And, uh, supersize that. Whattsamatter with you people? C’mon, I’m late for a turkey shoot…”)

Then there will be those motorists who simply assume that they have to drive through the nativity scene to get to Oroville. Or Nimshew…


As my son has warned me many times, “People up here, when they drive, are usually pretty confused. It may be an altitude thing, but everybody seems kind of dizzy.”

Paradise, I should point out, is also the unofficial harmonic convergence site for a benevolent organization of California history buffs collectively known as E Clampus Vitus.

Members of this freewheeling fraternity – commonly known as “Clampers” – have devoted themselves to identifying and preserving sites of historical significance within the Golden State. They also have been known to conduct impromptu mule races and run each other up municipal flag poles.

Two Clampers constitute a parade. Three Clampers constitute a regiment. Four Clampers and a mule are normally classified as an international incident.

Now picture, if you will, an entire community of enthusiastic Clampers with time on their hands and a drive-through nativity scene just around the corner.


Yes, as much as I’d like to spend Christmas in Paradise again this year, maybe I’ll just ship the kids’ presents parcel post and catch up with the family around, er, Easter…

Originally published December 9, 2001