City Lights: Putting a '30' to City Lights commentary

This column made its debut almost 13 years ago, on the first Sunday of the year 2000.

In all that time, this space was empty on only one Sunday, when the impending marriage of my first daughter threw my mind into such confusion that I wasn’t up to the task of writing a column before I set off for the nuptials.

There was one other Sunday when, more or less on a lark, my editor Tom Tollefson wrote a column for me, describing his role in the weekly proceedings.

Other than that, City Lights has appeared in this space every week since the dawn of the millennium, on something like 650 Sundays.

But when I began this column, I silently repeated a promise made by my hero Joseph Addison, the principal author of a series of essays published in London in the early 1700s in a daily journal called The Spectator.

September 29, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: No dog's life: Circus animals give their side of story

City Lights: No dog's life: Circus animals give their side of story

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal trainer Catherine Carden works with Duchess, an Asian elephant on Thursday in the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

The story we carried last week about how animals are treated at the circus was interesting, but I couldn't help wondering: What did Duchess think?

Duchess is an 800-pound elephant, a performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Bash circus that ends today at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

The story told how the circus invited ZooMontana personnel out to the arena to see how Duchess and assorted other critters were treated. The zoo people seemed to have been impressed by the level of care.

Still, there was no word from the animals. That's why I headed out to the arena with a friend of mine, a horse whisperer fluent in the language of several other species as well.

We spoke to Duchess, a noble creature who deserves the name, and to a Jack Russell terrier named Sparky and a horse named Champ, an Arabian gelding.

September 22, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Eat, drink and be wary, it's an election year

Rarely in the history of the American republic have beer and junk food played such an important role in a presidential election.

At the Iowa State Fair last month, President Barack Obama stopped by the Bud Tent, posed for a few photos and bought a beer for himself and some of the folks in the tent.

When the president exited the tent, the patrons chanted “Four more beers! Four more beers!”

Then, last week, at a Sept. 11 memorial, Vice President Joe Biden told a deputy fire chief in Shanksville, Pa., that he and his firefighters were invited to the White House, where Biden promised to buy them a beer.

Pointing to an aide, Biden added, “He’s going to call you, no bulls—.”

September 15, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: So many good stories, so little time

It occurred to me the other day that I’m not getting any younger.

That means I’ll never get to the bottom of a stack of “possible story ideas” that I keep in a file cabinet. It’s too bad, because there’s a lot of good stuff there, maybe even a Pulitzer Prize or two.

Since I don’t have the time to do the legwork myself, I figured I’d throw out a few ideas for the benefit of any aspiring investigative journalists reading The Gazette.

The most intriguing tip came to me some years ago from a woman who was convinced that an elderly gentleman from whom she had rented an apartment in the Heights was a Nazi war criminal by the name of Aribert Heim.

In an email, she said the alleged war criminal had supposedly spent time in several South American countries before finding a haven in the Magic City.

September 08, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Ad-libbing and bourbon would help conventions

We owe Clint Eastwood a big thank-you.

His speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention was strange, rambling, often incoherent and completely lacking in the cleverness that he seemed to think it contained, but at least he came off as a raw, real person.

Everything else at the convention was scripted, vetted, blanched and rehearsed until all the life was wrung from it.

Not that I expect anything different from the Democrats. Their convention probably will be even worse, since the same crew has been through the same drill before. There won’t even be any of the tiny bit of anticipation one might have felt about being “introduced” to Paul Ryan, or seeing Mitt Romney finally accept his party’s nomination after a long and bruising fight.

I think the two parties and the networks owe us more real entertainment.

September 01, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: In naming towns, dull beats unfortunate

Billings may be a fairly boring name, but at least it’s not Boring.

It turns out there are two Borings in the United States, one in Oregon and the other in Maryland.

They tied for third place on a list of the 10 most unfortunately named towns in the United States, recently compiled by the genealogy website

Billings, as I hope everyone around here knows, was named for Frederick Billings, the onetime president of the Great Northern Railway. Our name makes some sense if you know the history, but as a friend of mine likes to say, outsiders probably think it might as well be named Accounts Receivable.

Unlike Billings, named after a man who didn’t actually live here, Boring, Ore., was named for an early-day resident of the area, William H. Boring. Boring, Md., was named for a postmaster, David Boring.

August 25, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: A punch line that’s worthy of the wait

Dear Ed: I know it’s illegal to use a cellphone while driving your car in Billings, but is it legal to do so if you’re sitting there waiting for the railroad tracks to clear downtown?

Last week, waiting for a train to pass, I whipped out my iPhone and watched three YouTube videos, made two moves in Words with Friends and talked to my sister in Philly for 10 minutes. I’d hate to give that up. — Avid Phone Person

Dear APP: According to city code, the law does not apply to someone “maintaining a motor vehicle in a stationary position,” so you’re good to go. Just keep your foot on the brake and remember to keep a charger in your vehicle. And I would recommend Angry Birds.

Dear Ed: Centuries ago, people figured out how to build dams to save up water for use in dry times. Why can’t these knotheads in city government figure out a way to store some of the tremendous heat we’ve been getting this summer? It could be released next winter to melt ice ruts in the streets, or just to give people a break. — No Einstein Myself

Dear NEM: This is a good idea, one the City Council has already anticipated. The Mayor’s Committee on the Beneficial Storage of Hot Air has been meeting since last April to work out just the kind of solution you suggest. The Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark is being considered as a possible storage space for the heat, if people attending events there can remember to close doors behind themselves.

August 18, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Which stakeholder moved my cheesy bus?

Regardless of what happens to Assistant Fire Chief Frank Odermann, I have a feeling that the “bad bus” employed by Fire Chief Paul Dextras will live on for years.

News of the bad bus was made public recently when the city released an outside investigator’s report on Odermann, prompted by a formal complaint that Dextras filed against him.

The report is a hair-curling compendium of rants, gossip, accusations, nasty name-calling and more down-and-dirty skinny on the Fire Department than you were likely to have wanted to know.

I think it’s safe to say that the portion of the 12-page report that has generated the most comment is the one dealing with the bad bus.

The bus reportedly was a management tool that Dextras used to signify his displeasure with contrary or underachieving employees. Apparently he would figuratively “place” such employees on the bus and keep them there until he was satisfied with them.

August 11, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Going for the gold at the Billings Olympics

Welcome to our continuing live coverage of the Billings Olympics.

We take you now to an uncontrolled intersection in the Terry Park neighborhood, where four competing motorists are all speeding toward one another. Wow, look at that! All four of them managed to collide in the precise center of the intersection without even tapping their brakes.

But if I’m not mistaken, the woman driving the Ford Focus will have a few points shaved off her score because she actually glanced to one side before entering the intersection. You can’t worry about your safety if you want to compete with the big boys.

Wait. Here come the results. The driver of the Kia SUV has won the gold! He was moving at 37 mph when he entered the intersection, 3 mph faster than the next closest competitor, and he was also talking on a cellphone and eating a hamburger.

And you can see here on the replay that he had his head back and was laughing when the collision occurred. That must have been some phone call — and what a winning spirit he showed!

August 04, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Good citizen saves the day -- and maybe 20 trees

City Lights: Good citizen saves the day -- and maybe 20 trees

Brown grass and distressed trees line the northeast corner of King Avenue West and South 24th Street West. As of Wednesday, the grass and trees were finally getting water.

Traffic studies show that more than 80,000 motorists pass through the intersection of King Avenue West and South 24th Street West on an average day.

There’s no way of knowing how many of them noticed, in this parched, searing summer, that the boulevard trees on the northeast corner of the intersection weren’t being watered and some of them were looking terribly distressed.

For that matter, the grass on the boulevard was dry and yellow, as was the grass on the island that is separated from the boulevard by the curving bypass that takes you north from King onto 24th West.

We do know of one motorist who noticed and decided to do something about it.

Donna Gabel called the city complaint line Monday and left a message about the trees, and then she sent an email to The Gazette. She says she didn’t get much help from the city until we here at the newspaper started asking around.

July 21, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Beating the heat - We can talk our way through this

Most summers seem to fly past way too quickly.

One day you're looking ahead to Memorial Day and then suddenly Labor Day is a receding memory and you're staring down the barrel of another Montana winter.

Not this year. Here we are in mid-July and it's beginning to seem like summer has been with us for years.

Since June 2, when the National Weather Service station on the West End of Billings recorded a temperature of 86, and ending Friday, we'd had 27 days with a high temperature above 85, 18 days of temperatures at 90 or higher, and three days of triple-digit heat.

Smoke in the air -- and the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of acres were burning up not too far away -- have contributed to the feeling that the oppressive heat has been with us for a long, long time.

July 14, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Big thoughts on a very small particle

The biggest news of the week, in this universe or any other, was that scientists think they may have found the elusive particle that gives other particles their mass, their heft, their ability to slow down and smell the roses.

Let’s explore this fascinating subject by using the trusty question and answer format:

What is this subatomic particle called?

The Higgs boson. It was named for Peter Higgs, the scientist who suggested the existence of a particle that somehow attracts other particles into clusters, so that instead of racing around the universe by their lonesome, they acquire mass, forming stars, planets, cellphones, etc.

What’s a boson?

July 07, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Obama outhouse maker should be sent to the woodshed

City Lights: Obama outhouse maker should be sent to the woodshed

Dave Hurtt of Florence has stirred up plenty of controversy after bringing his bullet-riddled outhouse to the Montana GOP convention in Missoula and the Corvallis Memorial Day Parade.

I shouldn’t beat a dead outhouse, but I can’t resist.

There are much bigger issues out there — the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, the contempt finding against the attorney general, the dangers of fireworks — but let’s allow the experts to have at those.

I’d rather weigh in on the case of the infamous “bullet-riddled outhouse” created by Dave Hurtt, the Ravalli County comedian.

News outlets across the country made much of it, and the Washington Post editorialized about it, saying the outhouse was an emblem of the vileness and vulgarity into which political debate now so often descends.

To refresh your memory, Hurtt hauled the homemade outhouse to the parking lot outside the Montana Republican Party convention in Missoula a couple of weeks ago. The outhouse was labeled “Obama Presidential Library” and was riddled not only with bullets, but with juvenile graffiti of a type that would embarrass most juveniles.

July 01, 2012 1:00 am Related Loading…
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City Lights: 'He was not alone': Friends, family remember Joe White

City Lights: 'He was not alone': Friends, family remember Joe White

Joe White

Vennie Eline White already knew what an interesting, intelligent man her brother was.

It wasn’t until Joe White died last Sunday and she came to Billings to help with his funeral arrangements that she discovered how lucky Joe was to have passed his last years in Billings.

“The most amazing part to me is the remarkable community of people who became his family in Billings,” said Vennie, who lives in New Mexico. If her brother had lived anywhere but Billings, she said, “he probably would have died much sooner, or been incarcerated, or institutionalized.”

Joe White, 71, was a familiar figure to anyone who attended meetings of the Billings City Council or the Yellowstone County Commission in the past five or six years.

Tall and rail thin, with a shock of gray hair and thick glasses, wearing buckle-up rubber boots much of the year, he would go to almost every meeting. He would sit there looking very serious, audibly mumbling to himself and getting up two or three times to testify on various matters.

June 23, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Real-world festivals could kick-start tourism

I’m sorry I didn’t get over to Miles City on Saturday for the third annual Mosquito Festival.

The event was advertised as featuring a mosquito-wing-eating contest as well as a Bloody Mary contest. I don’t even care for Bloody Marys, but if I ate enough mosquito wings I suppose I’d wash them down with any old liquid.

What I really like is the honest nature of the festival. Other burgs might throw festivals in honor of lilacs, sweet peas, strawberries, chokecherries, pioneers, fly-fishing or folk music, but not Miles City.

Miles City, with the stubborn pride it has always worn like a badge, celebrates an aspect of its environment that every other community would do its best to hide.

I could just imagine an out-of-town visitor to Miles City thinking: “Well, this joint is hot, muggy, buggy and full of enormous mosquitoes, and I’ve never seen people drain so many Bloody Marys, but I like their pluck. I think I will relocate my billion-dollar manufacturing plant here.”

June 16, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: This election year has nothing on 1912

If you think the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a lively one, you should have been around in 1912.

A hundred years ago, former President Theodore Roosevelt was so upset with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, that Roosevelt challenged him for the Republican nomination. When he failed to win that, Roosevelt started his own party.

That paved the way for the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who most likely couldn't have beat either Taft or Roosevelt in a head-to-head election.

Further stirring up the mix that year was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, who made a strong showing at a time when relations between labor and capital were deeply rancorous.

Wilson ended up with 6.3 million votes, to 4.1 million for Roosevelt, 3.5 million for Taft and 900,000 for Debs.

June 02, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Longtime judge witnesses a changing society

Not too long ago, a defendant came into Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez’s courtroom to enter a plea to charges of aggravated DUI and eluding a peace officer.

Staff members had already warned Hernandez that the man reeked of alcohol, and one glance at the defendant made it clear to the judge that he was in no condition to deal with such a serious matter.

“I looked at him and said, ‘What gives?’ He said, ‘I only had two beers.’ I’m sorry I said it, but I said, ‘You’re an idiot.’”

It was a rare lapse in decorum for Hernandez, but after nearly 40 years on the bench he’s still occasionally shocked by what he sees.

In the case of the DUI driver, Hernandez asked him to step out in the hall so a sheriff’s deputy could check his blood-alcohol level. In the hallway, his BAC measured 0.13 percent, well over the 0.08 level beyond which it is illegal to drive.

May 26, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Good news for jaded voters

Montanans apparently have been jaded by years and years of outlandish homegrown news stories.

A hermit who labors over an anti-technology manifesto and makes bombs in his tiny backwoods shack? Check.

A sword-wielding candidate for governor who campaigns on horseback? Check.

A Montenegrin "captain" who proposes to open a commando-training center in a vacant Hardin prison? Check.

A Legislature that considers bills to legalize spear hunting? Check.

May 12, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Mysteries of local government explained, more or less

Dear Ed: I was just reading a pamphlet called "How a bill becomes law." It was fascinating, but also quite complicated, with arrows winding around like the mines under Butte.

There was loads of information about House and Senate conference committees, markups, amendments, vetoes and you name it. What I'm wondering is, how does a bill become law in the city of Billings? -- Billings Citizen

Dear B.C.: It's actually a very similar process. Bills can be proposed in either "house" -- the Billings City Council or the Yellowstone County Commission -- but eventually they have to be approved by the School District 2 Board of Trustees.

If there are major disagreements, the bill will be sent to the Board of Adjustment for fine-tuning. Any bill, however, can be vetoed by the chief of police, or, if he's on vacation, the chairman of the South Side Neighborhood Task Force.

Dear Ed: One often hears about "the power behind the throne." Is there a Dick Cheney-like figure pulling the strings here in Billings, or does the mayor rule the roost? -- Avid Democrat

May 05, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights: Hopefully, we make progress in word wars

The Associated Press, normally only the conveyor of news, made headlines itself earlier this month.

The news was not exactly earth-shaking, unless you are the kind of person who storms out of a restaurant because the menu says “Kid’s under 5 eat free.”

The AP made the news by throwing in the towel on the adverb “hopefully” as it is used a million times a day in ordinary speech and informal writing. This was news because the AP Stylebook — described in one newspaper story as “venerable,” in another as the “bible of usage” — is so widely consulted that a surrender there seems to signal the end of the battle.

I used to care about the misuse of “hopefully,” mostly because my professors at the University of Montana journalism school cared about it deeply. The word meant “in a hopeful manner,” not, they would tell us in tones of mild outrage, “we hope” or “it is to be hoped.”

Because my understanding of the finer points of grammar was rather shaky, I latched onto specific injunctions like this with the passion of the newly converted religionist.

April 28, 2012 11:45 pmLoading…
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City Lights

Ed Kemmick's City Lights column ran every Sunday in The Billings Gazette from January 2000 to September 2012. This is an archive of Ed's column.

Ed Kemmick

I cover the city of Billings.

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