The Sacramento Union in the Age of Fun

Day 20: What happens when you put a group of strangers in the back of a U-Haul?

Back in the late seventies I worked for the Sacramento Union, the smaller paper in a two-paper town.

Working for a newspaper hanging on by the skin of its dentures had its problems – money was always an issue – but there was also an upside: the Union needed just about everything, so you could do just about anything.

My main job was drawing political cartoons, but I also did story illustrations, locator maps, courtroom drawings and was even allowed to write some humor columns.

Back before HR departments and lawyers shoved a stick up everybody’s ass to make sure nobody had fun or made bad jokes or went through life without sensitivity training, newsrooms were filled with characters and the Sacramento Union was right up there in that particular category.

For instance:

There was the guy who always had a pint of whiskey in his desk and didn’t mind sharing.

Another guy had a pistol in his, but research revealed that the pistol was a .38 and his bullets were .22s, so the odds of an accidental shooting were minimal; for that to happen you would have to bring your own ammunition.

When asked about his military service, another coworker wrote down “kamikaze pilot” and wasn’t kidding.

In the late 70s one guy filled out an expense report and wanted to be reimbursed for dinner and drinks with his source, “Biggus Dickus.” He rightly assumed the raisin-counters who would go over his report weren’t familiar with Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the scene that introduced our friend Biggus to the world.

Here it is and the next four minutes and five second will be the highlight of your day: 

And another guy brought a marching band through a newsroom at deadline. (Oh, wait…that was me and I did it not long after arriving in Kansas City.)

The point is, newsrooms were much looser and much more fun back then.

After my brother Paul T got married I had a couple days before I had to return my rented tuxedo, so figured why not get my money’s worth and wear it?

I wore my tux to work and wanted to see if I could ride my 10-speed into the Sacramento Union lobby, through the newsroom and navigate a course between the desks and make it to all the way to my office without putting my feet down.

I pulled that stunt off with the help of some coworkers who opened the right doors as I approached – it was a team-building exercise – and so was going across the street to have a few belts at lunch to celebrate.

The Union’s atmosphere allowed freedom and I used that freedom to publish an entirely fake sports section satire, race go-karts and create a photo series of me pretending to be Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth and freaking out a woman and her child who thought I was exposing myself.

If you had a creative idea the generally reaction was, what the hell, let’s try it.

And that brings us to Sacramento Union columnist Kirt McBride.

Kirt had a cruise where people would pay good American money to hang out with him and that gave me an idea: what about a cruise for people who couldn’t afford to go on a cruise with Kirt?

The Poor Red’s Cruise

(It’s dawning on me how many of my youthful adventures involve Poor Red’s, but what the hell, here’s one more.)

Now that we’re in an era where fear of lawsuits has encouraged restaurants to warn people that hot coffee is in fact hot, imagine if I brought this idea into an HR department today:

OK, I’m going to rent a U-Haul van, put an unsecured keg of beer in the back and invite complete strangers to ride back there – no seat belts, we’ll all be trying to stand up while holding cups of beer – while my brother, who may or may not have a current driver’s license or warrants out for his arrest, hauls us up Highway 50 to a bar where we’ll get even drunker than we got on the trip up the mountain, eat a slab of ribs and then drive back down the mountain in what is going to turn out to be very thick fog.

How’s that sound?

Oh, yeah, almost forgot: the woman I’m dating has a German cousin in town and I’m going to give that German cousin a megaphone, put her in charge and tell her all instructions should be issued in German so it sounds like the soundtrack from a WWII movie about a concentration camp.

Any political correctness problems there?

Suggest that to someone in HR today and they’d have a heart attack if they had a heart.

All’s well that ends well

I wrote and published an article stating my intention of doing all that and inviting readers to show up in the Union parking lot to be loaded into a U-Haul van like cattle on the way to slaughter, which is an uncomfortably accurate metaphor.

And nobody in management said a thing.

Complete strangers showed up, got a cup or three of beer and spent the next hour trying to stand up in the back of van that swayed back and forth, throwing us against the walls, while my brother negotiated his way up Highway 50.  

Everybody had a blast.

I’d say I don’t know why I didn’t do the same cruise every year, but I do.

At some point HR and the company lawyers would have stepped in and said I could only serve non-alcoholic beer, participants would have to sign a release and be securely strapped into some type of government-approved seating and maybe the driver should be someone who didn’t have a history of making a run for it if we got pulled over.

And I’d tell them to negotiate all that with my lawyer:

Biggus Dickus.