Lead Stories

The mellowing of the American cowboy: “Holistic herding,” or “low-stress livestock handling,” is “changing the whole face of the west,” according to a U.S. conservation official, quoted in Canada’s National Post in December. Cattle are happier, healthier, and more obedient, he said, if they are not shouted at but, as one rancher put it, allowed “to make up their own minds [where to go].” Not surprisingly, many cowboys avoid working at ranches that have adopted the practice. And in January nearly 8,000 cowboys attended the 16th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada; entrants had to prove to a screening committee that they were real cowboys.

In February the Wall Street Journal reported on corporate recruiting at the annual “Milk Bowl,” in which college teams compete for the national championship in “dairy sniffing,” identifying products by smell and taste. Recruiters seeking to sign the nation’s top flavor-evaluation talent offer starting salaries of up to $40,000. Mississippi State’s three-person squad won the 1999 championship in October, finishing first in the ice cream division, second in cheddar and yogurt, third in cottage cheese and milk, and fifth in butter.

Nothing Can Go Wrong

On the heels of the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in September due to engineers’ failure to standardize units of measurement between the metric and the English systems, a U.S. government report in December revealed that a 1998 test of mock nuclear warheads failed because a contractor had accidentally installed dead batteries in them. And at a speech in February in Albuquerque, the project manager for the Cassini interplanetary cruiser now heading for Saturn dismissed critics concerned about the danger of the craft, which blasted off with 72 pounds of plutonium in 1997 and approached earth again in August 1999.

Police Blotter

Two undercover policewomen running a prostitution sting in Dothan, Alabama, in October declined to arrest a john, around age 70, even though he attempted to procure their services three times. He first offered to give the women the three squirrels he had just shot, but they ignored him because it would have been too much trouble to store the evidence. A few minutes later he added the used refrigerator in his truck to the offer, but the officers again declined. On the third trip he finally offered cash: $6, but without the squirrels and refrigerator. The officers again declined to arrest him but said they would if he returned. He didn’t.

Texas bomb squad follies: In November a patrol officer in San Antonio confiscated two live bombs he thought were elaborate bongs and nonchalantly took them across town in his squad car to the drug property room. Two weeks later, police in Cedar Park, responding to a store’s report of a “pipe bomb,” sent only an animal-control officer to the scene because the 911 operator thought the caller said “python.”

Joshua Marete Mutuma, 32, was arrested in Modesto, California, in November on suspicion of impersonating his wife. Mutuma’s wife had a restraining order against him, and Mutuma came to the courthouse dressed as a woman with a long black wig and speaking in a falsetto in an attempt to have the order dismissed. The clerk was tipped off by Mutuma’s five o’clock shadow, among other things.

A city commission upheld Little Rock police officer Carlton Dickerson’s 57-day suspension for sleeping on the job in October despite his claim that he suffers from sleep apnea. In his four years on the force, he has been caught sleeping six times and has wrecked five patrol cars. Dickerson once denied to internal affairs investigators that he had fallen asleep even after two fellow officers said they rapped on his desk for 15 minutes trying to wake him.

Campaign to help police recruiting: In August a judge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, ruled that undercover police could legally touch prostitutes’ private parts if it were necessary to bring about a crime. And in November the Arizona Republic revealed that police guidelines in Mesa permit undercover officers to receive massages while nude during a sting.


In November, after a yearlong study of correctional institutions around the world, Canadian prison officials recommended that nearly all of the country’s facilities remove razor wire, bulletproof glass, and guards’ guns and give most inmates control over the keys to their cells to establish “a culture of respect.”

In a long-classified report on the World War II era, released in October, Britain’s special-operations executive office warned that spies should know themselves better psychosexually in order not to compromise their missions. For example, careless destruction of code materials shows a castration complex, getting captured reveals masochistic tendencies, parachuting is a sexual stimulant, failure to bury the discarded parachute shows exhibitionistic tendencies, and fear of parachuting responds to “the unconscious reproduction of the trauma of birth.”

People Who Are Not Like You and Me

In January, Bobby G. Olson, 34, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide for an incident in rural Breckenridge, Minnesota, in 1998. To settle an argument over who had the more powerful pickup truck, Olson and another man chained their trucks together and had a tug-of-war. Olson won by default when the other man’s truck slid into a ditch, rolled, and, after the man was ejected, came down on top of him.

Recurring Themes

News of the Weird reported in 1997 that airport authorities in Palm Springs, California, issued hygiene regulations for taxi drivers serving arriving passengers. Requirements included regular toothbrushing and daily showers with soap. In January the chief executive of tourism for Dublin told the city’s taxi drivers to bathe daily and change clothes regularly in order to quell recent tourist complaints. Many drivers maintained that the odors in their cabs came from previous passengers.

Undignified Deaths

A 58-year-old man was killed when his truck accidentally fell into a 25-foot-deep hog-manure lagoon near Laverne, Oklahoma, in December; divers could not find the body for 18 days. A similar fate befell a 23-year-old man in December when his pickup truck smashed through a fence in Orono, Maine, and landed in a 400,000-gallon tank of raw sewage. And a 57-year-old man was accidentally asphyxiated in Duluth, Minnesota, in December; his body was found stuck headfirst in a sump drain in his basement.

In the Last Month

After two white police officers in Providence, Rhode Island, shot a black colleague, mayor Vincent Cianci called on the city’s poet laureate to help the community heal. An imprisoned Minnesota arsonist legally changed his name (at taxpayer expense) to G.Q. Fires. Courthouse employees in Rome found papers on 700,000 open criminal cases stored in a basement since 1989. Spain dropped the minimum-IQ requirement for its military from 90 to 70. And a federal tax official in Moscow announced that confiscated vodka would henceforth be turned over to a government contractor to be reprocessed into antifreeze.

Send your Weird News to Chuck Shepherd, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.