Heard around the West


Perhaps the Washington Post Magazine's editors chuckled in anticipation as they assigned reporter Gene Weingarten the important task of finding a town that measured down as the "armpit of America." Of course, it would not be the District of Columbia, home base of the daily, where more people are murdered in a year than anywhere else in the country; no, it would be a small town somewhere far away. As it turns out, far away in the West: Battle Mountain, Nev.

And now the editor of the Battle Mountain Bugle, Lorrie Baumann, who escorted Weingarten around town, is out of a job because her quotes made local business leaders hot under the collar. Baumann's faux pas: She agreed that the town was a pit, saying, "Sounds about right. I think a quick drive around downtown will answer any questions that might be lingering in your mind." Weingarten documented pit status for Battle Mountain, noting the Shell sign that lacked an "S", the presence of a brothel but no ice cream parlor or movie theater, and nothing in town resembling "architecture." As his 6,000-word opus came to a close, the Post Magazine reporter noted that locals try to make up for their town's lack of charm by enthusiastically taking part in community life - particularly sports events starring local kids. But his admiring count of 670 people at a hard-fought football game seemed an afterthought, and his advice to residents to capitalize on his "armpit" label could be construed as arrogant: "I've just handed you a tool. The rest is up to the image-makers ..."

Weingarten says after the tale of his search for a rotten town ran, he discovered that Battle Mountain isn't the only thin-skinned burg: "I would have to say I got more vicious mail from Scrantonians for merely mentioning their city in the story than I got from Battle Mountain," he told Associated Press. He said he was also horrified by the firing of editor Lorrie Baumann: "I don't think this is a great moment for American journalism." You might say the same for his assignment.

Everyone calls him Leggy: A four-legged Birmingham roller pigeon (with extra feet on the middle of his back and side) has become a mascot at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman. A tiny American flag tied to the bird's top leg "is our little symbol of peace," says Professor Erik Stauber, a veterinarian. Leggy was brought to the university clinic by a pigeon breeder. Stauber, who doesn't want a hawk to get Leggy, says, "We will keep him, for educational purposes," reports the Lewiston Morning Tribune.

Harry Potter is such a hot seller, he's even starting fires. Five hundred people in Alamogordo, N.M., heeded the call of Pastor Jack Brock, who called novels starring young Potter such "an abomination to God" they deserved to go up in smoke. Parishioners showed up outside Brock's Christ Community Church and hurled Potter books, CDs, Cosmopolitan magazines and other pop-culture products - including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and that troublemaker William Shakespeare - into a roaring bonfire. Brock claimed that the Potter series by J.K. Rowling, as well as objects such as "Indian idols," constituted modern-day witchcraft and deserved to burn. But across the street, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, 1,500 people spent hours calmly protesting the bonfire. Some dressed as wizards enrolled in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter's alma mater, and one man even came as Adolf Hitler. Protester Ron Frankinburger said, "I don't think you should teach children that if you disagree with something, destroy it. That's not the way it works in America."

But why, oh why, did Harry Potter pick such an inappropriate pet? The little sorcerer-in-training's companion is a beautiful snowy owl named Hedwig. This bird of prey is anything but cuddly, reports Reuters. The rare Arctic birds "must eat fur and bone, or they'll die," says the English director of a Barn Owl Center, while proper-sized cages for the birds must be "the size of small rooms." The fear is that children who have read the books and watched the Hollywood movie will ask for a snowy owl of their own. If so, says the head keeper of a sanctuary in England, "I guarantee that in about four to six months I'll be finding homes for snowy owls."

Montana fell for it, "it" being the risky notion of allowing the state to become a home for off-shore banking. The first applicant for a depository turned out to be court jester for the king of Tongo, reports the Bozeman Chronicle. A year ago, the jester, J.D. Bogdonoff, who moonlights as a financial advisor, said his island nation was ready to put up the $2 million needed to open an off-shore account in the Treasure State. But the money never materialized, and $20 million the jester collected in his own country has now "disappeared from American bank accounts." Montana legislators had hoped to make money by taxing deposits.

You never know when a circus might be passing your front door. So it's wise to be ready to shoot any elephants that bust out of their cages. That safety tip was suggested by a Hayden, Idaho, councilman, during a debate over an ordinance banning the discharge of firearms in town. Most council members favored the restriction after Mayor Ron McIntire noted that residents had been target-practicing in their backyards, "and just one miss could be a catastrophe." It was former City Councilman Gordie Andrea who had the most difficulty at first. He said he'd already gotten in trouble for shooting a gun within city limits, and, though vindicated, he warned: "If a parent has a child playing in a sandbox and a traveling circus goes by and a lion or tiger gets loose, that parent couldn't shoot to protect their child." Yes, that parent can, said city attorney Jerry Mason; Idaho law allows people to protect themselves or the lives of others. The ordinance passed unanimously, reports the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Ready, set, go - gun that snowmobile over open water and see how far you get!But don't sink and don't crash into another snowmobiler doing the same death-defying stunt. In Montana, one nonswimmer died last year after his snow machine sank before reaching shore, and at least two water-borne snowmobiles have collided, reports Associated Press. The state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission recently endorsed a "water-skipping" ban after law-enforcement officers said the sport threatened real boaters, anglers and swimmers. The public has another month to comment on the ban.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Weird Western doings can be e-mailed to her at [email protected].

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