Flashback: Most Alarming

June 12, 2012

The following Up the Valley column first appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on February 3, 2011.  This is one of three winners of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists first place award for humor, and the California Better Newspaper Contest for Best Column.  Excuse my repeating myself!  A new one is coming Thursday in the Star…

Just before Christmas, I tried to reach City Hall but was informed that the government employees had been furloughed.

From a pure public relations standpoint, I think this looks bad in front of the holiday visitors because it might lead the uninformed to conclude that the city of St. Helena has no money. Instead of calling them furloughs, why not call them Extended Lunchbreaks Without Pay, or better yet, Congés Non Payés, since everything sounds better in French.

We can then create a list of dubious municipal holidays to invoke whenever we’re worried that the payroll checks might bounce, like Bank President’s Birthday or St. Mondavi Day.

The city will need to keep the citizenry apprised of this fluid holiday schedule, but unfortunately, local government is slightly clumsy at the dissemination of information. Officials mail out nondescript white envelopes or undersized beige postcards whispering in tiny typeface that something big is about to happen, which we ignore as junk mail.

If the city really wants our attention, it should print notices on bubble-gum-scented, neon-colored paper including valuable coupons people will read and save, like: “We’re considering raising local sales taxes, meanwhile please enjoy a free scoop of ice cream at the Big Dipper” or “You are being fined for excessive water usage, so take 10 percent off dry-cleaning at Klass Cleaners.”

I always chuckle when the City Council suggests that the full text of its abbreviated communications can be viewed online, not realizing that a significant percentage of local residents who received a computer from their grandkids for Christmas have tossed the electronics in a closet and utilized the box it came in as a nice new litter pan for the cat.

Let’s face it: We need to get this communication thing sorted, because local, county and state governments have much critical information to share with us, what with the water rationing days, the Spare the Air days, the homeland security levels, the government slow-downs and shut-downs, the pollen levels, the pesticide sprayings, the heat and frost warnings, the power outages, the leafy sharpshooter spotting, the food recalls, the Caltrans road improvement delays, the public hearings in anticipation of tree removal, and the public hearings in anticipation of faux Tuscan villas being constructed next door.

We could activate our police department telephone emergency warning system, which has proven so effective in alerting residents to the color the police department is thinking of repainting its squad cars. Or we could distribute updates on television during daily tests of the emergency broadcast system, although this might increase the frequency of citizens punching their fists through the screen as they miss the last 10 seconds of whatever sporting event they were watching or Erica’s latest wedding on “All My Children.”

I was going to suggest that we somehow piggyback onto that eardrum-splitting volunteer firefighter alarm, which sounds with such frequency, but I am informed that this is one of those local sacred cows I’m not supposed to tip over.

I certainly cannot deny the twisted pleasure residents derive from observing visitors’ reactions to hearing the siren for the first time. Hapless day-trippers run toward nonexistent bomb shelters, assume the duck-and-cover position, or stand stricken like deer in the headlights shrieking: “Is it the Big One?”

But seriously, is it good business to scare the tourists like this? I know we want to drive them to drink, but couldn’t we rally the volunteers with a sound that’s more conducive to being on vacation, like the blowing of Hawaiian conch shells or perhaps a chorus of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace”?

My dream warning system would be our own 24-hour radio station called Radio Free St. Helena. An alternative to the Spanish-language and religious stations currently holding a monopoly on my radio antenna, our city station could provide entertainment for visitors while conveying essential messages to the locals.

Imagine families huddled together around their tuners, like resistance fighters awaiting the signal that allied paratroopers have landed in the shrubbery. Alerts could be tucked in between local programs like Jazz from Vineyard Valley with Mike & Wesla, or Craig Bond’s Hour of Many Choirs.

Chilly winter evenings that do not fall on Spare the Air Days would be signaled by the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” unsafe summer temperatures announced by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas singing “Heat Wave,” and of course, government furloughs heralded by the tune “Take This Job and Shove It.”

And that’s a message we can all hear loud and clear.


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