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Can Drive-By Poetry Speed Up Casitas Bypass?

“Careless bridegroom/ Dainty bride/ Scratchy whiskers/ Homicide/ Burma Shave.”

The meter! The imagery! The story!

“Drunk drivers--racy speeders/ Coming fast and thick/ Toxic waste and trucks in haste/ I think I’m getting sick/ Support the Bypass!”

OK, it needs a little work. That “racy speeders” line suggests either that speeders are sexy (huh?) or that speeders go fast (duh!). Either way it’s weird. But the good news is that the work begun by the Bards of Burma Shave 75 years ago lives on in Casitas Springs.

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In 1925, the shaving-cream manufacturer posted its first rhyming billboards, one line of verse after another, outside Red Wing, Minn. For decades to come, thousands of Burma Shave ads across America delighted motorists with their homespun wit:

“Soap/ May do/ For lads with fuzz/ But sir, you ain’t/ The kid you wuz/ Burma Shave.” “Heaven’s/ Latest/ Neophyte/ Signaled left/ Then turned right/ Burma Shave.”

Now the technique has been taken up by a group of citizens agitating for a highway bypass around tiny Casitas Springs.

Last week, the Assn. to Bypass Casitas nailed its first stab at poetry to five eucalyptus trees on busy California 33 through town. About 28,000 people a day will see the “Drunk drivers--racy speeders” ode, and that’s exactly the problem, the group’s leaders say.

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“People shouldn’t have to live with all this traffic,” said Steve Durfee, a retired computer programmer and part-time songwriter who already has penned the 26 poems that are to go up every couple of weeks in the coming year.

Homes line the two-lane road and there’s just a sliver of shoulder for pedestrians. A postal carrier was hit by a beer truck and permanently disabled as he tried to deliver mail. Children must make their way down the clogged highway to catch school buses, which, for safety reasons, must stop on a side road instead of the 33.

There’s no question it’s a mess. But will poetry move Caltrans to build a $50-million bypass sooner than its planned start in 2025? And, in the meantime, will the verses themselves pose a traffic hazard to tired drivers desperately trying to grasp messages like:

“Diets work--no way,/ We weigh what we weigh/ But the highway won’t weigh us so/ Just a ways away!”

It might not be a Burma Shave classic (It’s no: “Spring has sprung/ The grass has riz/ Where last year’s/ Careless drivers is”) but it’s heartening anyhow.

Roadside poetry--even terrible roadside poetry--can’t be a bad thing.

That’s why the Burma Shave strategy crops up from time to time, even though the company planted the punch line to its last verse in 1963.

Last year, Irvine traffic engineers posted their own earnest Burma Shave renditions at road work sites:

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“If time is important/ in your commute/ don’t come this way/ use an alternate route.”

The roadways of Ventura County yearn for poetry.

Surely the school districts can take their message of accountability to teenage drivers exiting the school parking lot:

“His fate was clear/ As grades fell flat:/ To ever ask,/ “Want fries with that?”

Anti-development groups can post meaningful billboards beside their favorite threatened vistas:

“Endangered plant/ Imperiled frog/ And don’t forget/ That choking smog/ Dump (insert Ahmanson, Newhall, etc., as appropriate.)”

Parents outraged by the occasional dousing of students with agricultural chemicals can express their anger like this:

“Little scholars/ Teacher’s pride!/ Suck down gobs/ Of pesticide!”

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As for the folks in Casitas Springs, I wish them the best in their decidedly uphill battle. I just hope they don’t wake up one morning to find Caltrans workers--who have heard from more than one citizens group about bad roads--nailing their own verses to the eucalyptus trees:

“Plead and threaten/ Wheedle and whine/ Cram your petitions/ Just get in line/ Caltrans.”

*

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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