BusCapade's USA Tour Finds: 'The Mood Is Good' "

-- headline, USA Today

Tired of USA Today's commando optimism? So was I, until I realized the very same paper prints an antidote every day with an irrefutable 51-point argument against perkiness and hope -- a state-by-state roundup of scary and bizarre news briefs guaranteed to make your teeth clack faster than a pair of electric castanets. The feature is called "Statesline." If you doubt me, do what I do every morning. Read it. You'll see. I don't know why USA Today would want to undermine its ongoing mission -- I think it's an accident -- but the stuff they print here makes Gog and Magog look like Pooh Corner, and I defy anyone to scan Statesline on any given day without finding (crammed into the daily ledger of murders, explosions, blizzards and wrecks) at least three of the following:

A major, unexplained fish kill ("Keelersville {Pa.} -- Thousands of alewife fish go belly-up in Lake Nockamixon. Cited: natural causes"). Crazed mystery animals ("New York -- 15-lb. macaque monkey escaped cage on cargo plane at Kennedy Airport, chased flight crew from cockpit, played with controls before being snared"). Out-o-control pet owners ("Thousand Oaks {Calif.} -- Patty Fairchild refuses to give up miniature stallion in her house. Next: court fight"). Klan kids. Violent clashes between smokers and anti-smokers, or nude sunbathers and townsfolk. Outbreaks of rare diseases (recent entries: bubonic plague and giardiasis). Runamok and/or fall- asleep truckers. Sinkhole news ("Tampa {Fla.} -- {Hillsborough} County residents have 1 chance in 10,000 of having sinkhole swallow their property"). Gas leaks, sewage problems and assorted toxic hazards (Kenosha {Wisc.} -- "Chemical fumes intended for bats drive 450 Bain Elementary students out of school"). And many unclassifiable things that make you wanna say "Aaaaah!" ("Franksville {Wisc.} -- Kraut Fest ends Sunday; sauerkraut-eating contestants will try to beat world record of consuming two lbs. in 46 seconds.")

Aaaaaaaaaaah!

My only complaint about these McMayhem items is that they're too short for total understanding, and there's never any follow-up. Instead, each day, we get a big fresh batch of new terrifying items. Sometimes there's a beginning, middle and end ("Ex-convict James Willingham, 30, was driving stolen truck when he stopped May 17 to help motorist, only to be killed by 2 robbers. Now, his donated organs are keeping 5 people alive. He 'wasn't a saint, but he was a good man,' wife, Wendy, 23, said"), but usually we're left hanging . . . forever. This upsets my life. I'll be snoozing when an old, unresolved Statesline item, like a lost soul wandering the earth, will rattle its chains and elbow into my consciousness. Whatever happened to those Georgia teens charged with "terroristic threats" because they egged a school bus? Or that 71-year-old alcohol-abuse therapist who was tried for "ordering his patients to strip naked, then flogging them"? Who can know?

Well, as a public service to myself and you, I recently picked three non-violent favorites and got on the phone, seeking answers. Item 1 was out of Tulsa: "Taxidermist Jeff Neal is offering $1,000 reward for information about burglars who stole stuffed trophies worth $25,000. Included: 400-lb. black bear, life-size mountain goat, wart hog, reedbuck." That's right, taxidermy rustling! In my mind's eye, I saw two slouching ghoul-men in a smoke-belching panel truck taking their booty to a "chop shop" on the evil side of town. Next: After an exchange of specimens and greasy money, alterations are made. The mountain goat is given a Cyclops eye and sold to a passing carny. The bear is fitted out with comical "oversize" sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and a ukulele, and sold as a "party mascot" to the Sig Eps at Oklahoma State . . . Brrrr, that's really a downer. When I called Mr. Neal (who, by the way, is a big-game guide, not a taxidermist), he was nice enough to listen to my anti-rustler diatribe ("What kind of worthless scum -- ?!"), but could not provide easy answers. The private detective he hired is, understandably, having trouble getting leads. This is a new crime genre, so there are no known "players" for a working shamus to punch out, no jittery street hopheads who might "have info." Still, Neal remains optimistic. "Thanks for your interest," he told me. "If I hear anything, I'll . . . let you know."

This situation depressed me so much that I found myself in a rare state: craving happy news. Sadly, Item 2 looked even bleaker. "Lebanon {Ohio} -- Hearing is Friday for owner of Sam, beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking chimp who had girlfriend. Charge: mistreating animal. 'No beer, no cigarettes, no sex -- that's . . . cruel and unusual punishment,' says owner's lawyer, James Sheets." This one had "unhappy ending" written all over it: a flippant lawyer pitted against, no doubt, a large gang of animal-rights righteousness-heads. When I called Mr. Sheets' office, his secretary, Virginia Williams, told me that Sam's owner, Kenneth Harris, runs a bar called the Train Stop Inn and that, yes, the chimp was confiscated in mid-June by the local Humane Society. Next: Sam was drugged (ironic, no?) and taken by truck to the Ohio State University lab-animal division. There Sam was examined by a resident doctor who, after watching him roll around on the floor in his stupor and despair, declared that he was "depressed" because of his unhealthy Train Stop life style. During the trial, in a unique judicial experiment, the jurors were transported to the Train Stop to look at Sam's digs and to Ohio State for an up-close peek at the D.T.-wracked patient. The next day, back in the courtroom, various experts testified about the "possible effects" of booze and cigs on a chimp. Then the defense spoke. As Williams summarized it: "We called on a vet who testified that Sam is in perfect condition. Now, he does light cigarettes, but no one can actually say he inhales. He does like beer, but it's like this. Given a choice of a Grape Hi-C or a beer, he usually takes the Hi-C. He occasionally takes a beer." Uh huh, I said, subbing as Grand Inquisitor, and what about the FLOOZIE girlfriend? "Susie? She's more of a playmate. She's not old enough to -- she hasn't yet come into -- she doesn't -- "

Gotcha. And what -- groan -- was the verdict? "We won, unanimously. Sam is back with Ken."

Awww-right! On we go, refreshed, to Item 3: "Croswell {Mich.} -- 300 watched as Babe the heifer took 98 minutes to drop dung on one of 400 squares etched on field to raise $2,800 for middle-school cheerleaders."

Hmm, on second thought, maybe there is something to be said for the public's right not to know. ::