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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5763

Neil Steinberg

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Missing the nutcases | Don't get me wrong. I like having an office. It's quiet. There's room for tons of books, wall space to hang stuff I want to show off, and an awesome view of the lake and downtown. But I miss the nuts.

No, smarty-pants, I don't mean my colleagues, who are actually a very level-headed group of people. Too level-headed, in fact, not like the old days, when I once watched a co-worker climb the Dubuffet sculpture in front of the Thompson Center, or try to, until the police arrived . . .

Enough of that. When I say I miss the nuts, I of course mean the nutcases who call the city desk. People who aren't journalists probably have a healthy fear of nuts (note to those in the helping professions: Yes, mental illness is a serious problem, and, if you look on your desk, I bet there is a stack of dull journals treating the matter with all the seriousness you think it deserves. Read those, and save us both an unpleasant exchange on Monday). The public thinks of nuts as big, scary, unshaven guys loping off in the distance, talking loudly to themselves, fingering the kitchen knives in the pockets of their tattered raincoats.

But to reporters, desperate for a break in their routine, nuts are the people who phone newspapers and claim to be the czar's daughter, the lost Anastasia, or say they are using their television set to communicate with John F. Kennedy in heaven, or the victim of an enormous, worldwide conspiracy involving the CIA, the queen of England, and Kellogg's Rice Krispies.

As a student of the human condition, I always took an interest in nuts and developed a knack for detecting, above the din of the newsroom, the peculiar, aggrieved tone in the voices of overworked editorial assistants trying to get the nuts off the phone. "Sir, I'm sorry . . . this is a newspaper, the president isn't h . . . no . . . sir, please . . . I can't just . . .''

Hearing this, I would leap up in my chair and gesture them to transfer the call to me. They would do so immediately, of course, relieved and grateful, and I would have a new nut to add to my collection.

My favorite was the guy who called to say he had developed a flying saucer, using secret anti-gravity technology. It was in his garage. Now, most reporters would ignore such a person, skeptical of his claim, but--to this guy's surprise--I was eager to see the saucer. Caught off guard by my enthusiasm, he said the disc still had a few kinks to be worked out, but as soon as he had it ready, he would be in touch. Before he hung up, though, I got his phone number, and every few months would phone him and ask if the saucer was ready for a test drive. It may seem like I was tormenting the poor man, but I really just wanted to shine a light into his world. I could practically see the little house--maybe his mother's--the garage in back, filled with bundles of old newspapers, rusty bikes, and the saucer itself, cobbled together from refrigerator boxes and shower curtains and galvanized garbage cans, sitting on sawhorses in the middle of his garage, forlorn and sagging and earthbound.

The saucer guy always seemed embarrassed at his lack of progress, explaining that the craft wasn't quite ready, but it would be, soon.

Which is a long way of saying how excited I am that the Raelians are back. Those with tastes for the bizarre might remember the Raelians from 1998.

Sorry. The Raelians are a European cult of people who follow the teachings of a French former race car driver who claims that, in 1973, 4-foot-tall aliens kidnapped him and revealed the secrets of the universe.

Back then, a Chicago physicist named Richard Seed had made headlines by announcing that he would soon clone a human being, and the Raelians reared up and offered their support.

We're still waiting for Seed, but now the Raelians are back, claiming that they have produced the first cloned human baby. Sure they have. Cloning is quite a task, and I hate to judge a situation based solely on the looney beliefs of the people involved. But just as you wouldn't expect the next great surgical advance to come from Christian Science, so it's a safe bet that a scientific hurdle as high as human cloning isn't going to be leapt by some frothing outer space cult.

First, you'd think a scientist would be involved, and not just the Raelian spokeswoman at a news conference in Florida. Look at it this way: If you were the doctor who achieved human cloning, would you let the Raelians take credit? Second, did you notice the conspicuous lack of the mom and the baby? All it would take to prove their claims would be a few cells scraped off mother and child, and an independent lab to test them and see if they are genetically identical.

The Raelians say the test will happen next week. Right. And George has a piece of land; we're going to be farmers. That we-have-the-proof-and-it's-coming sidestep is the defining trait of frauds over the centuries, from alchemists to those cold-fusion idiots in Utah. The wonder is always displayed--the perpetual-motion machine set on the table, the black velvet cloth about to be removed--then somehow the thing is yanked away. The man with the flying saucer in his garage phones the good news, but we never see the saucer fly. It's sad that people believe this nonsense, but they do. No wonder people hate journalists.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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