CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF

Taxpayers may have felt duped themselves after spending millions to build state-of-the-art Coors Field and then seeing the ballpark opened by replacement players due to the baseball strike. But at least the real Rockies returned to earn a play-off berth in the fall. That put the Rockies a step ahead of the Denver Nuggets, who, despite a valiant effort, struggled to overcome a spell of mediocrity cast when their mascot, Rocky, careened out of control during an attempted tomahawk dunk at McNichols Arena and wound up in the hospital with a back injury. It was enough to make local fans turn to the Colorado Avalanche for entertainment--ice hockey, after all, being preferable to the much-maligned "Ultimate Fighting Championships," since, unlike that timid undertaking, biting and gouging are not only allowed but encouraged.

Of course, winning games wasn't always as important to Nuggets and Avalanche ownership as was cutting a deal with the city for a new two-sport Pepsi Center arena, a stately pleasure dome slated to rise in the Central Platte Valley not far from the new taxpayer-subsidized football stadium Broncos czar Pat Bowlen is calling for. The city appeared gung-ho on both ideas, despite studies showing that luring thousands of fans into the valley on cold winter nights will cause the city to violate federal health standards for carbon monoxide levels.

Behind every brown cloud there's a silver lining, however, and the Webb administration was eager to get the Nuggets and Avalanche into the valley to provide some company for Elitch Gardens, the taxpayer-subsidized amusement park that opened for business last spring amid complaints of high prices, a ban on homemade picnic lunches and hour-long ride lines. Investors did a slow burn when attendance plunged 200,000 below initial projections, but they were glad the new park wasn't as hot as the old Elitch's in North Denver, which slowly succumbed to the efforts of enthusiastic arsonists.

For some thrill-seeking teenagers, a trip to Elitch's couldn't compare to another popular pastime: breaking into abandoned Titan I missile silos on the plains east of Denver. Empty since the mid-Sixties, the huge underground sites, dotted with mazes of tunnels and passageways, have become the "in" place to scrawl messages such as "death to whom closed the gates of hell." Said one Arapahoe County sheriff's deputy of the junior silophiles, "To me, they would be better off going in a cave."

So, apparently, would area children looking for modern role models amid the rubble. At least there they wouldn't have seen the regrettable December incident in which Santa Claus himself was bent up against a patrol car, frisked, handcuffed and taken to jail after allegedly engaging in a fight with his wife atop a Denver viaduct. Claus, who claimed to police that he was a street vendor selling copies of the Rocky Mountain News, was arrested after passing motorists phoned 911 to report that they had seen Santa Claus fighting with a woman at the intersection. Among the charges: disturbing the peace.

end of part 2

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