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Know the West

Heard around the West



Every time you turn around, the members of some worthy organization are shedding their clothes to pose nude for a calendar. The fun is in the photography, because while the librarians or firefighters may be naked, they are always strategically hidden behind some fire hose, book or fence. In Carmel, Calif., a group called the Fire Belles was immensely pleased when its calendar in-the-buff raised more than $40,000 for firefighters. But the women were nonplussed when the city by the sea refused the cash. Officials said the calendar might "offend sensibilities and expose the city to costly sexual harassment lawsuits," reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Calendar girl Paula Weber, at 85 the oldest Fire Belle, said this made her feel belittled and insulted "by the people responsible for bringing down a good cause and good people."


Wildlife biologists have come up with a new job for dogs: sniffing out threatened and endangered species. Researchers from the University of Nevada knew that dogs can find the scat of many animals; now they’ve found that trained dogs are 90 percent accurate at detecting slow-moving threatened desert tortoises, even from 200 feet away. The Land Letter says dogs might one day help save hundreds of the ever-fewer tortoises, particularly if the animals have to be moved to avoid military maneuvers in the Mojave Desert.


A blonde bombshell with a big smile is urgently being sought by the brand-new Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Back in 1957, Lee Merlin posed for a photographer in a bathing suit flocked with fluffy white balls, and her image was reproduced widely as "Miss Atomic Bomb." She’s become a piece of our popular culture," says scientist Robert Friedrichs, who has spent the last six months searching for the model. He wants to show her how "iconic" the photo has become, he says, and would also like to invite her to speak at the museum, developed by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Merlin’s image has come to symbolize the ignorant days of nuclear testing, when cocktails around the pool were scheduled for the spectacle of bombs going off, only 65 miles from Las Vegas. According to 78-year-old Carolyn MacMullen, a fellow dancer at the Sands Hotel, Merlin was quiet, had a dry sense of humor and was "very bookish," reports the Los Angeles Times. But the two have lost touch. As for how Merlin came to lend her sexy yet wholesome image to something so deadly as a nuclear explosion, retired photographer Don English recalls that he just needed a change from the real thing: "We were shooting so many atom bombs, we tried to do anything that was a little bit different."


Gwen Petersen of Big Timber, Mont., creates greeting cardsfor her "Wild Woman Productions" company, and she’s also developing a newspaper column called "The Bitchin’ Post," which spurred her to attend the 21st Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering recently in Elko, Nev. It’s a great conclave of Westerners, she reports, but some good performances could also be seen at the Elko airport. She watched cowboys going through security snake off their big-buckled rodeo belts, hop around on one foot while removing their boots, and fish out metal "snoose" cans from tight back pockets. Petersen said the men looked like a herd of skittish cattle as they filled up plastic dish pans with their gear. She laughed out loud until a loud clanging told her she’d flunked the security gate. Petersen then was "wanded" and her bionic knee replacement identified before she was free to fly. Once again, she reports, she’d rendered another airport "safe from threat of terrorism by disrobing in public."


"Stealth tower" is the new moniker for any cell phone tower designed to (almost) blend into the scenery. The Southwest may boast or cringe about its cell phone saguaros, but in the Colorado Springs area, the Independent photographed a farrago of ingenious fakes: ponderosa pine trees, church bell towers, stadium lights, a smokestack, a lighthouse in a city hundreds of miles from the sea, fatter-than-usual flagpoles, artworks of dubious quality, crosses, and — perhaps the most creative — a mining head frame from 1903, recently restored with the addition of cell phone transmitters inside.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.