Heard around the West


Now people all over the country, if not the world, refer to it as the "sunscreen speech": "Wear sunscreen" it begins. ... "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth ... Do one thing every day that scares you ... Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly ... Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good ... "

Thanks to e-mail, we read the pithy pontificating recently and happily moved it on to five others we thought would relish the wisdom of writer Kurt Vonnegut. But something's wrong here, reports the Seattle Times. Vonnegut didn't write it. And no one knows who first attached his name to the so-called MIT commencement speech and sent it spinning into cyberspace. Certainly not the real author, the Chicago Tribune's Mary Schmich, who observes that although she may appear to be "a mediocre and virtually unknown female columnist," with nothing in common with Vonnegut but unruly hair, "out in the lawless swamp of cyberspace Mr. Vonnegut and I are one." Her conclusion about her sudden fame? She should put Kurt Vonnegut's name on all her columns. "It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-mart jeans," she wrote. As for cyberspace, she agrees with Vonnegut: it's "spooky."


Outdoor writer Ted Williams, an inveterate collector of peculiar observations, e-mailed some he'd gathered recently from the great cyberspace bazaar. Our favorite: "The other day I went to a tourist information booth and asked, 'Tell me about some of the people who were here last year.' " Carol Busch, a former High Country News intern who just spent a summer working with visitors at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Park, says questions from tourists included: "Where are the rides?" "When do you let the animals out?" and, "Excuse me, can I ask you a question?" The one most frequently asked remains (you guessed it): "Where is the bathroom?"


At sundown as the heat of summer ebbs, bats under the bleachers in St. George, Utah, fly out for dinner. The Mexican free-tail bats are the puppy dogs of the bat world since they look a lot like "tiny Scottish terriers with wings," says Katy Hinman, a volunteer researcher for the Bureau of Land Management. It's not a problem for the furry creatures to adapt to their dark home under people's feet, she told the Spectrum. It's where they have babies and also where they deposit lots of droppings, called guano. This excellent fertilizer turns to a sparkly dust when crushed, thanks to the insect exoskeletons that bats eject after noshing on the insides of bugs. Ballgame fans shouldn't worry, Hinman said, noting the bats' bug diet: "I'd guess this is a nice place to see an evening event."


Remember the '60s injunction, "Don't trust anyone over 30"? For federal drug agents in Arizona, the time line of distrust has stretched to, "Don't trust little old ladies with blue hair." Two innocent-looking 69-year-old women were caught trying to smuggle 400 pounds of marijuana across the Mexican border, reports Associated Press. The pair told police they'd been recruited at a Tucson-area casino after hitting a $4,000 jackpot.


Frequently - you might say all too often - stories emerge from Washington state about a bizarre screwup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home of defunct bomb-making efforts for decades (see page 1). We don't mean the stories about another billion or so tax dollars spent on studies and salaries for 18,000 contract workers and not much getting cleaned up. We mean the "oops" stories. Those where someone ties a rock to a rope and lowers it into a vat of radioactive goo to measure the depth. The rock becomes contaminated as does the rope, and a hapless worker experiences a near-miss involving what his hands might have touched. And where did they stow the rock?

There's a certain silent-movie aspect to all this, as one unforeseen event careens into another. A May 29 incident involving a neglected 400-gallon tank of chemicals that exploded like an over-inflated tire continues to reverberate. This was the blast that knocked a hole in the roof and blew open doors while contaminating air in the plant with traces of radioactive plutonium. Workers were told to run, but "in a direction that sent them under the chemical plume rolling through the plant's roof," reports the Oregonian. Later, some workers said their lungs hurt, among other symptons (HCN, 7/7/97). Yet when a technician took nasal smears to check for contamination, the samples were locked in a drawer - a mistake that went undiscovered for a month. The good news: The smears were negative. The bad news: The explosion cost taxpayers a half-million or so dollars.

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or [email protected]

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