Right words are elusive

The great majority of professional journalists – also known as newspaper bums – spend their entire careers unsuccessfully searching for just the right words to begin their stories.

Finding the perfect lead – that first paragraph that inexorably draws even the most jaded reader into a newspaper story – is frequently a disappointing quest.

Even more elusive is the fabled universal lead, a magical combination of words and commas that can be placed at the beginning of any news, sports or feature story and always work.

This paragraph is to journalists what the philosopher’s stone was to medieval alchemists.

Some news dogs have declared that no such lead exists.

(They usually follow their declarations with “Harrrrrumph!”).

Such leads, however, do exist – although they’re as rare as Romanian leprechauns – and I’ve been fortunate enough to discover not one, but two, of these sought-after gems.

The first was penned by Northern California automotive columnist Al Auger, who several years ago unconsciously created a universal lead when he wrote “I’ve been told sharks never sleep. Perhaps that’s why they’re so grumpy.”

If you take these words and slap them on top of any newspaper story, you’ll find they work remarkably well.

I thought I’d found my philosopher’s stone and that would be an end to my personal quest for the universal lead, but I recently discovered that lightning sometimes strikes twice in the same place.

Reading former Reporter publisher Richard Rico’s newspaper column a few Sundays ago, I discovered the second universal lead of my long and chaotic career:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out.”

Like many great newspapermen from Ben Franklin to Ernest Hemingway, Rico had buried his lead around the fourth paragraph, but the words gleamed like bits of gold in a clear Sierra stream.

These words could clearly improve just about any newspaper story going (with the possible exception of obituaries).

Take, for example, another everyday crime story from Fairfield:

“Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

Ho-hum.

Now add the universal lead:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

See what I mean?

The same goes for humdrum political stories:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. The House voted 349-74 Wednesday to acquire a monumental cross and the park around it from the city of San Diego.”

And, let’s face it, baseball stories positively beg for these words, particularly those dealing with that gadabout Barry Bonds:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and Barry Bonds flies out.”

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

Originally published August 6, 2006

This has gotta stop

What in Sam Hill has happened to American law enforcement?

I had to ask myself this question just a few days ago as I cruised by a designer coffee shop and observed a half-dozen police vehicles in the immediate vicinity.

Had a prison inmate escaped and taken all the baristas hostage?

Sadly, no. The situation was much, much worse. Apparently several officers had stopped for coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sworn peace officers pausing for a cup of coffee. In fact, enthusiastic consumption of coffee is commendable. The best police departments are caffeinated police departments.

No, the problem was in the kind of coffee the officers were consuming – designer coffee.

Real cops don’t drink lattes.

Real cops snack on carpet tacks washed down with three-day-old coffee from a dirty cup.

Real cop coffee is best brewed in an unwashed squad room percolator and reheated a dozen times. The good stuff is brewed with three times the amount of ground coffee recommended by the coffee-maker manufacturer and should be measured by the fistful rather than the tablespoon.

Steamed milk, whipped cream and (shudder!) sprinkles have no place in this coffee.

Sugar may be used sparingly if it were purchased from an Army surplus store sometime in the mid-1990s or has been allowed to sit in a forgotten bowl until it resembles quartz crystal and has to be freed with a chisel.

I recall a particularly memorable cup of coffee I consumed nearly three decades ago when I joined some county sheriff’s detectives for a cup of their famous brew one rainy November morning. The sheriff’s investigations division at that time was located in the old 1907 county jail in downtown Fairfield and the coffee was prepared by inmates in the jail kitchen.

We had barely begun to enjoy the sturdy beverage when a panicked-looking correctional officer ran up the stairs to warn us that one of the inmates had somehow mistaken the coffee urn for a urinal.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this whole unsavory experience was that none of us could taste the difference between that morning’s coffee and the coffee to be found at any Solano County law enforcement agency on any given morning.

Weird…

Today’s lawmen also should remember that a grimy cardboard cup of genuine squad room coffee can be a very effective defensive weapon when the chips are down.

Your sidearm’s jammed and your baton is tangled with the seat belt, but you’ve still got a cup of three-day-old coffee festering on the console of your patrol car. Wave that puppy around a few times and even hardcore felons will quickly surrender.

Hook ’em and book ’em, amigos…

Originally published July 30, 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

Smells like victory…

Staggering back into the newsroom after reluctantly covering a particularly pungent summer grass fire south of Dixon, I was surprised when a comely young news editor approached me and purred, “New after-shave?”I was tempted to dismiss her with a perfunctory dummy slap to the back of the head, but then I realized that I might be on the cutting edge of a men’s fragrance breakthrough that could sweep the nation like wildfire and make me a cool chunk of change in the bargain.

What the copy editor was smelling was not, of course, after-shave. It was a heady mixture of burned wheat stubble, melted tires and roasted rodent, with just a hint of manly perspiration.

Doesn’t sound too appetizing but, then, neither were 90 percent of the so-called “musk” colognes that somehow leaked out of America’s post-disco era to assail the nation’s nostrils for a decade or so.

Although I was somewhat punchy from stumbling around in dense smoke for nearly an hour, my smitten colleague’s apparent attraction to my unique aroma launched an entrepreneurial train of thought that’s still rolling down the track.

If I could bottle this elusive scent, real men everywhere would shell out fistfuls of cash to get it.

Let’s face it, amigos, most of today’s after-shaves – with the possible exception of gin – are pretty sissified. They say, ‘I’m a caring, sensitive guy who loves kittens and flower arranging when I’m not hard at work sewing tea cozies.’

It’s time for a change, guys.When my new after-shave, “Smoke Eater!”, hits the discount drugstore shelves, things are going to be different. A whole lot different. No hint of lime or frangipani. No cherries and roses or moss. No, sir. When you splash on “Smoke Eater!”, you’ll be a four-alarm man, not a walking cloud of olfactory silliness.

Lesser men will want to extinguish you, but the ladies will be sure to flock around murmuring, “Burn, baby, burn…”

“Smoke Eater!’ after-shave is, of course, still in the design stages, but I envision a smoky (what else?) glass aerosol container filled with the essence of burning weeds, charred chicken coop and a hint of the aforementioned perspiration – with, perhaps, a splash of Jack Daniels to get the message across.The ladies won’t be able to resist. And, with a little luck, “Smoke Eater!” will soon expand to a full line of manly products – shaving cream, ‘Smoke Eater!” soap on a rope, deodorant, shampoo and car deodorizer.

After that, the sky will be the limit for our manly new fragrance. “Smoke Eater!” may even be offered in a variety of flavors – barbecue, habanero, hickory, bourbon or prawn – along with a line of slightly-charred sportswear and gentlemens’ accessories.

“Smoke Eater!” boxer shorts? Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published July 16, 2006

Let there be light…

The dark days are gone from the once dimly lit and vaguely foreboding Suisun City waterfront.

The fabled city-by-the-slough now has a lighthouse, an amenity that Suisun City founder Capt. Josiah Wing could only dream about 150 years ago as he helplessly watched lumbering sorghum barges go off course in the darkness and repeatedly slam into waterfront thirst emporiums and mercantile establishments.

(Hence the former nickname of the downtown channel – “Pinball Slough.”)

Today, thanks to a farsighted city council and several soggy citizens who got tired of walking out of Suisun saloons and waking up in San Pablo, a 52-foot beacon now sweeps the treacherous shore.

Think about it, not even San Jose has its own lighthouse. Ditto for Fresno and Barstow …

Ah, how well I remember peering into the darkness from my old Cedar Street apartment as wind and rain whipped the narrow channel and storm-tossed whaling ships were battered to kindling on the rocks before they could safely tie up at the old Sheldon Oil docks.

Every time a marshland maelstrom would roar across the channel in the dark of night, we’d have to put down our drinks, don our slickers and rush to the shore to save a pitifully few survivors, groping frantically in the dark only to find that we’d actually rescued an ill-tempered sturgeon or, perhaps, a wayward city councilman on a waterlogged jet ski.

(Whaddya mean “That’s ridiculous!”? I was there, amigo, and I can tell you it was hell on earth…)

What we would have given for a towering lighthouse when a really big storm – known by old timers as a Soosooon Typhooon – left us at the mercy of the dark and the wind-whipped waters.The lighthouse also is likely to take big bite out of crime along the once notorious waterfront.

I’d venture to say that Suisun City will have considerably fewer pirate problems now that the powerful beam of its new lighthouse is sweeping the channel.

In the old days, when darkness fell on the waterfront like a curtain, all we’d hear of a lightning-like pirate raid would be a few “Arrrr, mateys…” and then the pitiful screams of our women being carried off to San Pablo.

A few wags may opine that the aforementioned womenfolk were actually cheering the pirates on, but in all that darkness, who could tell?

At any rate, you can bet Suisun City Police Chief Ron Forsythe will be spending a lot less of his time knee-deep in the slough holding off waves of blood-thirsty buccaneers with his trusty Walther and rusty cutlass.

Yes, Suisun City’s new lighthouse is what we in the world of municipal boosterism cheerfully refer to as a win-win situation.

Who knows? Maybe even the whaling ships will be docking there again soon, and it just doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published July 9, 2006

Big discount on Greek wading pools

They seem to appear in our mailboxes, on our doorsteps or online every few days because a major retailer wants us to know “Everything in stock 15 percent off! Every single thing that we’ve got is 15 percent off for the next three days only! Just for you! Bring fat wads of cash to save fat wads of cash during out 15-percent-off everything sale! Everything, everything, everything!”

Sometimes businesses will thoughtfully note that these huge, one-time discounts on everything are just for their very best customers – even though the discount coupon package is personally addressed to “Occupant.”

And then there’s that little asterisk that follows the “15 percent off everything!” offer. It’s a tiny asterisk. It might even look like a small, squashed spider. Or an ink splatter.Who reads asterisks anyway, right? Let alone tiny, squashed spiders?

This is one asterisk you should pay attention to, though. This is the asterisk (or squashed arachnid), that will lead you to the tiny, teensy print on the bottom of the discount coupon – easily readable with a 20-power magnifying glass – that tells you exactly what “everything” really means.

Strangely enough, that tiny little asterisk magically turns “everything” into “some stuff we have for sale.”

It usually reads something like: “* Not valid for the purchase of fine jewelry, electronics, formal wear, sporting goods, footwear, auto parts, riding mowers, pet supplies, imported fragrances, lingerie, gourmet appliances or karaoke machines.”

Uh-huh.

There’s “everything” and then there’s, apparently, “everything else.”

So you gleefully grabbed your discount coupon and headed out looking for a diamond-studded collar for your Yorkshire terrier? Sorry, pal. You should have followed the tiny asterisk to the tinier print. The best you’re gonna do is find a discounted railroad-spike studded collar for your Rottweiler.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying these coupons are worthless. I’m sure the retailers who send them out have plenty of stuff for sale that is 15 percent off without a single asterisk excluding sale.

Greek wading pools are always popular. So are those giant teakwood spoon-and-fork sets you can hang in your kitchen.

(The latter item, I should point out, has been a retail “doorbuster” since the end of World War II. Every retired Air Force colonel in Solano County has at least one set…).

Batteries from Sri Lanka, alien head key chains, talking screwdrivers and baby rattles that play “Ticket to Ride” are sure to be in abundance among the temporarily discounted merchandise. And don’t forget the towering displays of pet rocks, disposable morticians’ instruments and kites that look like pirate ships.

Ah, what a difference an asterisk can make…

Originally published July 2, 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