WWII code talkers, cleaning Utah caverns and more

  • NEVADA: Wind tower starburst.

    Richard LeBlond

Anyone who reads a blog called Government Executive now knows that some U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staffers are not just unhappy; they also appear un-housebroken. In the agency's Denver office, for example, there have been several incidents of "inappropriate bathroom behavior, including defecating in the hallway." Managers said they were trying to find the culprit – probably the same person or persons who clogged the toilets with paper towels – and were taking the situation "very seriously." So seriously that the EPA hired John Nicoletti, a national expert on workplace violence. What writer Eric Katz dubbed Region 8's "poop bandit" was not the only problem; the EPA recently learned that some of its contractors had constructed "secret man caves" in an agency warehouse. That's not all: One EPA employee was pretending to simultaneously work for the CIA to get unlimited vacations, and yet another spent most of his days exploring pornography on the Web. Presumably, all were summarily flushed out of the workplace, a fate that we hope awaits the poop bandit.

Great Basin National Park, on the Nevada-Utah border, shared some good news recently about volunteers who spent an unusual weekend deep underground in the park's Lehman Caves. From stalagmites and stalactites and along 600 feet of wall, the group plucked lint that had adhered to the limestone, while also picking up over 4,000 pounds of debris discarded on paths by tourists, says Desert Report magazine. Park Superintendent Steven Mientz said he hoped the "lint campers" enjoyed their unique, up-close experience; he also praised their help in preserving the park's world-class caverns.

One of the great unsung heroes of World War II, Chester Nez, died at age 93 in New Mexico last month. In 1942, the U.S. military asked Nez and 28 other Native Americans to help develop a code that the Japanese could never, ever break. Using Navajo words in creative ways – "tortoise" to represent "tank" and "potatoes" for "grenades," for instance –– the "code talkers" often worked for 35 hours without a break, passing on information that saved countless lives. Yet most American soldiers had no idea what the code talkers were doing, and one GI who saw Nez behind the lines assumed he was Japanese and threatened to shoot him. Their work was classified "secret" until 1968, reports The Week, and the surviving code talkers didn't receive official recognition until 2001, when they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. Nez didn't mince words in 2002, when he talked about the irony of his service during the war: "All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us for help with that same language. … It still bothers me."

It must be a fun job for some people at Montana's Title and Registration Bureau: They get to decide what "good taste and decency" means when it comes to giving vanity license plates the go-ahead. Thanks to MuckRock, a media company that facilitates public documents requests, and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the agency just released its complete list of 4,141 rejected names, dating back to 40 years ago, when specialty plates were first sold. Last year, only 181 out of 14,291 applications for personalized plates were rejected, and you could argue that some were clearly inappropriate  – LIC2KILL and HITMAN – while others, not so much – I8BAMBI. And just to show that it doesn't think itself infallible, the state bureau also released the names of plates it first denied and then changed its mind about. Those plates, presumably now on the road, include WRKNGRL, MOOSE, LAZYSS and CNDYMAN. Specialty plates earned Montana $350,000 last year.

Columnist Thomas Magstadt in Colorado's Ouray County Plaindealer asked three questions about predators recently, calling readers like us geniuses if we got three answers right. If we got every answer wrong – a distinct possibility – he suggested, just "shrug and say you don't want to brag." See how you do. Question #1: Name the world's deadliest animal. Question # 2: Name the world's second deadliest animal. Question #3: Choose the pair in this list that causes the fewest human deaths each year: mosquitos and humans, roundworms and tapeworms, sharks and wolves, dogs and elephants, butterflies and honeybees, Tsetse flies and assassin bugs. SPOILER ALERT: The deadliest animal in the world is the mosquito, the second deadliest is the human, and surprisingly, especially to many Westerners, sharks and wolves cause the fewest human deaths. Magstadt also pointed out that, according to Science magazine, species extinction is galloping ahead in our time at 1,000 times greater than the natural rate.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected].

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