Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grass Valley author remembers his days as an L.A. motorcycle officer


William W. "Bill" Wilhelm spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 18 of them as a "motor officer." When he retired in 1973 he had logged more than a million miles "without a preventable accident." That's not to say he had an "easy street" job, though. He saw his share of bodies, criminal shenanigans, official bureaucracy , and bad cops; and he worked the Watts riot in the summer of 1965 and the Sylmar quake in the San Fernando Valley in 1971.

Wilhelm has collected his reminiscences in dozens of vignettes. Though there are no accompanying photographs (a personal camera was forbidden on the job), his sprightly prose and dry wit paint a vivid picture of life from the officer's perspective in "Code Two 'N' a Half" ($12.95 in paperback from Oak Tress Press,

"Many see the motorcycle officer only as the dreaded image in the rear view mirror. Surely this guy has no sense of humor. His talent must be limited to eating doughnuts, hiding behind billboards and looking as if he doesn't understand the problem." Wilhelm is out to dispel the stereotype.

One time, after stopping a speeding motorist, he recognized a man he had served with in the Marine Corps during World War II. But he didn't recognize Wilhelm. Just before writing a citation, the officer "tilted my head back and told him I was getting a message. Then I told him, 'You were a Marine in the war. . . . You had a friend named Bill. I can see you and him in a foxhole.' He looked at me as if I were a complete nut case. 'I'm not getting Bill's last name.'" "Wilhelm," said the driver, and then the officer removed his helmet and sunglasses; "I told him he'd better keep his speed down, because the police department was short on Marines who were with him in the war."

The LAPD uses Code 2 for "get there legally, but without delay," and Code 3 for "emergency." When another unit had Code 3, Wilhelm notes that sometimes, when backup units "were riding fast to get there, the inside joke was that were were rolling 'Code Two 'n' a Half.'" Readers will enjoy the trip.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fire in California: What we need to know


David Carle was a California State Park ranger for almost three decades. He brings his experience to a timely book: "Introduction to Fire in California" ($18.95 in paper from University of California Press), scheduled for August publication, is one in a series of "California Natural History Guides."

The book contains 15 maps and some 90 photographs (including one of "Richard Nixon on his roof during the Bel Air fire of 1961" spraying water with a garden hose while smoke billows in the background); in five chapters it covers the nature of fire, vegetation types and fire across California, file policy, how to prepare for a wildfire, and a history of major fires in the state. That includes the Fountain fire in central Shasta County in 1992 which consumed 300 homes; and the Southern California fires in 2007, some set by arsonists and spurred on by the Santa Ana winds, that burned half a million acres and 2000 homes and killed seven.

Carle details how CAL FIRE responds to wildfires throughout the state. "Estimated flame lengths are one way to consider firefighting options. . . . So long as flame lengths stay below four feet, hand crews using shovels and axes can construct fire lines near the front of the fire.

"The heat and danger from rapidly spreading fire after flames are between four and eight feet high mean that fire lines must move back a considerably greater distance; only bulldozers or other heavy equipment can clear fire lines along the fire front. . . . A fire with flames between eight and 11 feet requires air tankers or helicopters to drop fire retardant. . . . Beyond 11-foot flames, direct fire suppression is simply no longer effective. No amount of water or retardant can make an effective dent in the energy being released."

The chapter on "Getting Ready: Life on the Edge" is worth the price admission. It diagrams creating a defensible space around your home and what to do during a fire evacuation ("bring combustible patio furniture indoors" and leave some lights on so firefighters can find your "house at night or in heavy smoke").

One way to thank the firefighters and volunteers is to become more informed about fire. This book will help.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Not fire, but ice: Paradise native's Donner poems


Perhaps it's ironic that I read Shana Youngdahl's chapbook, "Donner: A Passing" ($12 in paper from Finishing Line Press, on the third day of my evacuation from the area threatened by the Camp Fire. Though we were well cared for by friends, there was no mistaking the sense of displacement that must have gripped the group of nearly 90 people. My battle was with fire, theirs with ice, and the outcome was far different. The fire danger lessened, and we returned home. For the 81 trapped in the Sierra snows in the winter of 1846, one accounting says 36 died.

Youngdahl, a Paradise native who now teaches at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, has written 25 short poems that retell the story of the Donner Party, from packing day in Springfield, Illinois, in April 1846, to the survival a year later of a man named Keseberg, one of the party. "It is rumored, he bragged: he ate their children, / even called them by name, claimed Tamsen / died of grief upon George's death. . . ."

The reader is advised first to read one of the narratives of the Donner Party which exist online, and then to take up quietly, carefully, Youngdahl's terse, searing words. Lansford Hastings had promised a shortcut to California, but what little guidance he offered proved fatal. First came the desert trek: "To moisten children's mouths, Tamsen gives each / a lump of sugar wet with mint. / Later: a bullet to chew."

Later comes the fateful climb into the mountains, the snowfall which stops the party dead in its tracks, and the unspeakable events that to this day are not perfectly understood. The cabins are inundated in snow. "Little movement, this, the felling / of trees. The dead / frozen-eyed storms. // The bible murmured aloud, a forsaken / mountain where few breathe. // Each day the same bones / boiled and chewed. // The known world: thinning."

"It had been Tamsen's plan," the poet writes, "to feed her children flesh / from frozen bodies. Perhaps / they did not know what the meat / was, and could only stare / at the fire. . . ."

Ice is like fire. It burns a hole in the heart.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Chico High School grad co-authors comprehensive look at Costa Rica


Scott Pentzer, recently inducted into the Chico High School alumni hall of fame (he graduated in 1984), has lived with his wife, Meg Tyler Mitchell, for almost four years in San José, Costa Rica. His parents, longtime Chico residents, wrote me recently that Scott "is director of Latin American programs for a consortium of colleges and universities located in the U.S. Midwest that offer a Latin American experience for their students. The couple received doctorates in Latin American Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans."

Now they've collaborated on "Costa Rica: A Global Studies Handbook" ($55 in hardcover from ABC-CLIO), part of a series devoted to selected Latin American countries. The handbook is not a travel guide but rather a highly readable and nuanced survey of Costa Rica's history, politics, culture and economy, useful not just to travelers but to students and business people as well.

The book is divided into two parts; the longer narrative section addresses everything from geography to health care, from political and social challenges to arts, literature, and soccer. The second, smaller, section is a reference guide which includes notes on language and etiquette.

The authors write that "Costa Rica is a very small country in an out-of-the-way corner of Latin America. Costa Ricans themselves have been heard to muse on how small their population is compared with some of the giants of the Americas, how many times the 4 million Costa Ricans could fit in Mexico City. . . . Perhaps these perspectives explain their habitual use of diminutive forms in their speech, giving them the self-imposed nickname 'ticos.'"

The handbook notes that "Costa Ricans are private people; family always comes first, before almost every other obligation"; sometimes "hospitality to strangers is a nice attitude to adopt, if it does not really have to be taken too seriously. Costa Ricans themselves joke that ticos love to invite people to their houses, but they never give out the address."

If a theme pervades the book, it's that of the troubled Costa Rican self-image. "The country is passing through a moment of institutional crisis and self-doubt" just when tourism is increasing and foreign investment is heating up. Mitchell and Pentzer provide a dose of reality behind the tourist brochures.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Undiscovered wine country: California's Central Coast


William Ausmus, a research scholar in the Communication Studies Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, writes that though there is a deserved "ocean of verbiage paying homage to the wine regions of Napa and Sonoma," the area from Monterrey to Santa Barbara has gotten short shrift. "In the vast archipelago of California wine," he says, "the Central Coast is very much an undiscovered country."

That changes with Ausmus' "Wines & Wineries of California's Central Coast" ($24.95 in paperback from University of California Press) which contains detailed profiles of almost 300 wineries visited by the author. Together with "Nancy A. Clark, my sweetheart and fellow wine aficionado," Ausmus, despite his self-described "European bias," "was astounded by what I saw and, perhaps more important, by what I tasted."

The first part of the book considers the region's geology, history, and "terroir," a French word "that describes the natural components necessary for growing premium-quality wine grapes" such as sunlight, climate, and "the lay of the land."

The second part is an encyclopedic guide to the wineries, many of which have tasting rooms, with interviews of winemakers (making the book delightful reading) and the author's own rating of their offerings based on a five-star system (ranging from "good, drinkable wines" to wines "comparable to other world-class wines"). As an entry into the offerings of each winery, Ausmus provides two selections, his own and the recommendation of the vintner.

In thousands of tastings, "I looked for the visual appeal of the wine--that is, the color, clarity, and depth of wine in the glass. I describe to the best of my ability the predominant flavor notes in its aromatics (also called the nose or the bouquet). I share with you the taste of the wine in the mouth, focusing on the balance and integration of all its elements."

Ausmus gives 5 starts to the 2002 Pinot Noir produced by Sea Smoke Cellars in Lompoc; the wine has "wonderful aromatics of cherries, cranberries, raspberry fruit preserves, cinnamon and cardamom spice, smoke, earth, violets, and crème de cassis."

"Taste responsibly," Ausmus reminds his readers, "have fun, and remember that wine is more than just a food or a beverage"; it's part of culture. He quotes Galileo: "Wine is sunlight, held together by water."