THE SNIDELY WHIPLASH CATEGORY is devoted strictly to those infected by Union Pacific Railroad merger madness. I named it after the infamous cartoon villain who was always tying Sweet Nell to the railroad tracks just as the train loomed into view. Where is Dudley Doright of the Royal Canadian Mounties when we really need him?
WORST AND FOREMOST, the Rail City takes the Grand Prix Patsy. At last week's Reno City Hall hearings before the federal Surface Transportation Board, Sparks senior planner Rob Pyzel endorsed the STB's dangerous proposal to run more and faster trains through this valley as long as the railroad builds a couple of cheap bridges. Mr. Pyzel should go wash his lips.
Wiser was Sparks resident Bob Sonderfan who worried about losing the town should a speeding train cause an explosion near the railroad's tank farm, sort of instantaneous downtown redevelopment.
BRINGING UP THE REAR: FRIENDS OF UNION PACIFIC (FOUP), an Astroturf (fake grass roots) propaganda front set up by the railroad. The only people I saw wearing FOUP buttons at Reno City Hall last Thursday were expensively dressed railroad flaks.
Last Sept. 14, in "The Reno Gannett-Journal Railroad Job" (a piece now quite popular with striking Detroit News-Free Press workers), I wrote that I knew of no Nevadan favoring Union Pacific's attempt to stick us bumpkins with the costs and calamities of increased train traffic carrying increasingly hazardous cargo. UP recently sent out a fancy mailer using that column to rally its rodents against such "senseless attacks."
It generated a call from an authentic Astroturf FOUP, a Sparks man who makes his money in the freight business. Mr. FOUP said he supports Union Pacific because he thinks they're going to win and sees personal benefit in sucking up to power. The railroad was here first and those near the tracks deserve what they get, he said.
At Reno City Hall, UP exec Robert Starzel echoed the party line. "Reno grew up around us," he oozed. "We did not change. Reno created the problem."
The railroad has indeed never changed. It remains as morally obtuse as ever. In a groundbreaking display of massive corporate welfare long before the term was coined, the U.S. government gave railroads alternate sections of land stolen from Native Americans. Over the past century, the railroad sold off many of these "checkerboard" parcels, thus making itself complicitous in problems from which it now disclaims responsibility. If the iron octopus had wanted to keep growth away from its tracks, it should never have sold or leased property for things like homes or hotel-casinos.
The "we were here first" argument further withered when a tribal spokesman reminded the STB that Native Americans lived here long before the railroad arrived.
I told the feds of growing up in Fresno listening to railroad stories from my Uncle John, who served as Reno railroad agent some 50 years ago. In high school, I read "The Octopus" by Frank Norris. That book ranks with Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" among the great turn-of-the-century muckraker novels. The Octopus is a fictionalized account of the infamous Mussel Slough Incident, a shootout near present-day Selma in Fresno County.
About 100 years ago, hard working San Joaquin Valley farmers developed railroad land in exchange for a company promise to deed it to them. When Southern Pacific decided instead to evict, the farmers rebelled. The railroad had them killed.
I told the feds that I never imagined I would someday live through a real-life replay. Just as SP did in the 1890s, UP in the 1990s used its money to buy influence and politicians in order to short-circuit public safeguards and get its greedy way. I asked the board members to read the book which not only foreshadowed their establishment but predicted their role as rubber stamp.
I still know of no Nevadan supporting Union Pacific. Mr. FOUP stands neither for nor against the octopus, only for himself. I told FOUP an old Johnny Carson joke about a well-dressed man who walked into a bar and beheld a beautiful woman sitting alone.
"I'm a very wealthy man. Would you go to bed with me for $1 million?"
"Hmmm...I suppose so," she cooed.
"Would you go to bed with me for a dollar?"
"Just what do you think I am?" she snapped.
"We've already established that," said the man. "We're just haggling over the price."
Mr. FOUP agreed that I had accurately described his support of the railroad.
Next week: more Corporate Patsy Awards, another $1 million proposition standing under a streetlight in Sparks' Victorian Square. Nominations welcome. See you at the Syufy theater follies, 3:30 p.m. tomorrow at Sparks City Hall.
Be well. Raise hell.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 10/12/97.
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.