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

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

Our recipe for disaster

I don’t often get overly agitated about the things I read in the newspaper’s food section.

Although I was once the most exacting of food editors – until I was permanently sidelined during an unfortunate incident involving catfish chili – I tend to take a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to the culinary suggestions offered up in The Reporter’s food pages these days.

And then, two weeks ago, a meal suggestion on the front page of the newspaper’s food section sent me staggering back in abject horror. Some geniuses – who were smart enough to remain nameless – had printed a fine and frolicsome recipe for “Shish kebabs the lazy way.”

Great.

What in the wide world of skewered foodstuffs were they thinking? Shish kebabs are, by their very nature, among the laziest of dishes one can prepare without losing consciousness. You take whatever old vegetables and reduced-for-quick-sale meat you might have at hand, cram them onto a skewer and leave them in close proximity to some heat source until they appear cooked.

This is, like, easy. If you’re barbecuing, you can manage this even after consuming the obligatory seven beers required by the California Barbecue Code. If you get any more laid-back, you’ll burn your face while snoozing on the grill.

So, of course, our food consultants suggest taking one lethargic step backward and simply eliminating those complicated and difficult-to-operate skewers.

“Just toss the fixings loose on the grill!” they recommend.

Yeah, that’s going to work just swell.

Now, instead of simply picking up your convenient skewer of incinerated leftovers, you have to fight with a half-dozen brew-fueled barbecue guests as they try to grab at bits of meat and vegetables rolling merrily back and forth across a red hot grill.

I should point out that this only applies to the meat and vegetables that remain within reach, since the smaller pieces are likely to have slipped through the grill and into the glowing coals.

The latter problem, our newsprint gourmets report, can be solved simply by putting your non-kebabs on a lightly oiled grilling grid or aluminum foil.

Wonderful. Now your “lazy” meal requires you to find or fabricate a grill for your grill before you can begin grilling.

Equally distressing is the fact that our food experts have clearly forgotten the best part of shish kebabing – skewers are fun.

You can use them to pop party balloons or make dramatic gestures while recounting your days in the Seventh Cavalry. Afterwards, your kids will delight in staging sword fights with the amusing, pointed instruments. Let’s face it, used barbecue skewers are one of the few remaining childhood joys of summer since lawn darts and bottle rockets were banned by a bunch of humorless Washington bureaucrats several years ago.

Shish kebabs without skewers? Not on my watch, amigos…

Originally published September 10, 2006

Back in those weird old days

There are all kinds of benefits associated with working in a modern, 21st-century newspaper office equipped with the almost-latest computer and telephone systems, tasteful lighting and an assortment of decorative plants.

Every now and then, though, I have to admit that I miss the regular doses of weirdness that used to wander into The Reporter’s cobwebbed old offices on Main Street in strategically ambiguous downtown Vacaville.

We don’t get a lot of foot traffic out here in the Cotting Lane hinterlands, but weird traffic seemed to be the order of the day when we published from a century-old building on Main Street.

Way back in the good old days (like 1990…) we didn’t worry too much about workplace security and just about anybody could wander into the newspaper office through any one of three or four seldom-locked doors to voice their opinion.

Not that we didn’t want to lock the doors, but it seemed like we lost every usable key to the place every six months or so and we’d have to start over – which could take another three to four months.

I’ll never forget the irate woman wrestler who stormed into our front office one afternoon to protest how we’d written up the arrest of a rural gunman.

Our newspaper story said the man had surrendered to police without resistance.

The muscular reader said she’d witnessed the arrest and we hadn’t gotten it right.

“Police jumped on him LIKE THIS! And they grabbed his neck LIKE THIS! And they banged his head down on the ground LIKE THIS!” she explained as she spun me around, put me in a headlock and slammed my head down on the front counter of the newspaper office.

Like an idiot, I tried to explain that although the police may have restrained the man, their actions didn’t necessarily mean he offered any resistance.

Smart move. I was promptly treated to another demonstration of energetic neck bending and head banging.

Before she could begin round three, I promised to look into the matter and limped back to my desk.

The old newspaper office used to attract a large number of unusual street vendors, too.

I particularly remember one diminutive woman who wandered into the newspaper’s creative services department – I think we called it “paste-up” in those less-sophisticated days – and launched a dozen or so flying wind-up toys into our office air space.

“Fly away! Fly away!” she trilled.”Three dollars! Three dollars!” she added.I should point out there seemed to be some sort of language barrier beyond the phrases “Fly away!” and “Three dollars!”, and repeated suggestions that she vacate the premises were met by uncomprehending grins and more waves of flying toys.

I think we finally got the plucky peddler to leave for just a tad under $75.

Believe me, amigos, it would have been a bargain at twice the price…

Originally published February 5, 2006

Random box of rocks defies explanation

Newspapers are, by their very nature, responsible for explaining day-to-day life in these United States, whether the phenomenon in question has to do with runaway brides in Georgia or runaway governors in California.

(Yes, there is correlation between the two. We just haven’t figured out exactly what it is yet…).

On any given day, newspaper people ask tough questions, crunch numbers (not one of our strong points), and demand explanations from people who’d rather not explain anything without first receiving a grand jury subpoena.

Shady politicos? We eat ’em up. Questionable business practices? We’re all over them. Scandalous celebrity antics? You read it here first – and probably second, third, fourth and fifth, too.

When it comes to solving mysteries in our own back yards, however, we members of the Fourth Estate are sometimes baffled.

Take, for example, the Curious Case of the Box of Rocks.

Events began to unfold two weeks ago when one of our editors woozily returned from a vacation in the Sierra and noticed a medium-sized cardboard box filled with rocks on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper office.”Hmmmmmmm, box of rocks…” he observed.

That was about as far as our initial inquiry went. It had been a long weekend and the editor felt no immediate threat emanating from the stationary box of grayish stones.”

On the sidewalk…” he added before trundling into the newsroom and once again assuming command of his office cubicle.

Although the editor later admitted to some generalized curiosity about the box, his interest faded as morning slipped away.

And the box of rocks, being a box of rocks, simply sat there.

But as the days passed, the questions mounted. As trained observers, we noted the location – and persistence – of the 13-by-11-by-12 cardboard box and its half-dozen quite unremarkable gray rocks.

Answers, however, were remarkably scarce.

“Box of rocks is still out there. Been there about a week,” one observer observed observantly.

“Looks like that box of rocks is still out on the sidewalk. Wonder why…” pointed out another sharp-eyed staff writer.

“Yup,” explained a third.

Seven days went by and the box remained. Some staffers became rather apprehensive about the puzzling package.

“Wonder what that box of rocks is still doing out there. Those rocks aren’t from around here. They’re from somewhere else. I know the rocks around here and those aren’t natural,” another editor remarked with ill-concealed dread.

“They’re quiet – too quiet.”

Hard to believe, but it became clear after a week of speculation that one of the most efficient news gathering organizations in Solano County had been thoroughly stumped by an itinerant box of rocks.

And then, just as mysteriously as it had arrived, our puzzling parcel disappeared. One minute it was there, the next minute – poof! Curiouser and curiouser…

Needless to say, we’ve put our best minds to work on the puzzle and it won’t be long before we have all the answers. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’ve already identified the mastermind behind the mystery box.

Now, if I can just get Arnold Schwarzenegger to admit it…

Originally published June 12, 2005

Some things never change…

The newspaper business is, by its very nature, a place where change is the norm. Nothing ever stays the same. If it did, we’d all just fade away like yellowed headlines from the Crimean War.

Here at The Reporter, though, one thing keeps happening over and over and over again.

Whenever I’m engaged in something uncharacteristically stupid, of questionable legality or in remarkably bad taste, my corporate conscience appears as if by magic and clears his throat. Which might not seem too unusual, except that my corporate conscience is Italian and isn’t even corporate anymore.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During the 24 years that I was employed here by the old John Rico Publishing Company I might have, on occasion, committed the occasional office faux pas. Perhaps it was heaving a brimming wastebasket at the sports editor after he’d annoyed me by existing. Or maybe it was the time I was test-driving a remote-controlled rubber rat that took off on its own and wreaked havoc on the peace and quiet of the sleepy newsroom. The firecrackers, I have to admit, also may have been inappropriate for the office – although they were a relatively short-lived amusement…

Strangely enough, whenever I was engaged in one of these singular activities, I could almost always expect that a tall, impeccably dressed chap who was directly responsible for my employment would magically appear behind me and discreetly clear his throat while arching one eyebrow.

Editor-publisher Richard Rico seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly when I was about to do something stupid and would then appear in my immediate vicinity.

“How does he do that?!” I inquired one afternoon after our then-publisher had materialized out of thin air while I was quite innocently helping a female colleague with a stuck zipper.

Co-workers simply shook their heads.

Then one day, my nemesis walked purposefully out the door en route to a new career, possibly as a Navy fighter pilot or some such similar employment.

“You won’t have Richard Rico to kick around anymore!” he declared on his way to the parking lot.

I observed Richard’s departure with a mixture of regret and relief. We’d had a lot of good times together, but no longer would somebody be looking over my shoulder every time I decided to distribute a gross of inflatable lobsters throughout the building.

Or so I thought.

Just last week I was taking a break from my hectic day of newsgathering to examine an electronic Nazi submarine search-and-destroy game on my desktop computer. Let me emphasize that this is a very, very unusual occurrence. It was, like, research. Yeah, that’s it. Research…

I’d just sent another U-boat to a watery grave when someone stepped up behind me and cleared his throat.

I was thoroughly astounded.

“This is not fair. Not. You can’t clear your throat. You don’t even work here anymore and besides I was just researching stuff. Investigative journalism…” I explained like a fourth-grader caught with a spitwad arsenal.

The retired publisher replied by raising one eyebrow and then walked slowly across the newsroom.

Some things never change…

Originally published April 3, 2005