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Symbolic : States Turn to the Unusual to Fill Their 'Official Somethings' List

December 20, 1985|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

The state Legislature recently designated the rare blue mineral benitoite as California's official gemstone, putting it on a pedestal alongside such luminaries as the California dog-face butterfly (official insect), desert tortoise (official reptile) and saber-toothed tiger (official fossil).

Benitoite was more fortunate than needle grass, whose nomination as California's official grass was killed last year after some lawmakers joked that marijuana would be a more appropriate choice.

A Fortuna, Calif., elementary school class's attempt to change the state song from "I Love You California" to "California, Here I Come" also died after the Native Sons of the Golden West protested that the latter sounded like something that outsiders would sing.

California isn't the only state to become caught up in debates over its pantheon of state somethings during the last few years.

Connecticut recently named Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale its official hero--but only after a pledge by his legislative supporters to consider naming an official heroine next year.

And a New York Assemblyman's proposal to honor Sam (Uncle Sam) Wilson, a 19th-Century meatpacker, as official state patriot failed this year, but has been reintroduced.

Return of Traditional Values

Some recent state symbol bills seem to signal the return of old-fashioned patriotism. Some reflect current concerns over the environment. And others stem from more traditional influences, such as everyday politics, chauvinism and school kids in search of class projects.

Also, the often-lighthearted bills are a break from life's harsher realities.

"I think these kinds of bills provide some light moments on days that are dull or worse," said Massachusetts state Rep. Richard T. Moore, sponsor of the official state march, "The Road to Boston."

"It's the same reason newspapers carry human-interest stories."

Moore, however, conceded that a colleague's pending official-state-muffin bill "might be going to an extreme."

Then, again, Massachusetts houses 25 other symbols, including four official rocks (three historic, one industrial). California is overshadowed with just 18.

Louisiana's gallery of state symbols has been enlarged to include the Catahoula cur (official dog), the alligator (official reptile), and the crawfish (official crustacean).

Why the crawfish?

"Crawfish is the bravest animal there is," Louisiana state Sen. Elwyn Nicholson said the other day. "You put a lobster on the railroad tracks, he just lies there and gets run over. Put a crawfish on the tracks, he raises up his hands to fight when the train comes at him."

Shortages in Some Categories

With statehouses adopting more and more official symbols, shortages in some categories were inevitable. New York named the beaver its official animal despite protests from the Oregon Senate that that rodent was already spoken for. Milk is the official drink of Minnesota, Louisiana and Arkansas--although you won't get any complaints from the dairy industry, which sponsored each bill.

The onslaught of state symbols would be even heavier except that occasionally a nominee is rejected.

The honeybee went down to defeat as the official insect of Missouri this year after a sarcastic legislator tacked on an amendment that would have made the mule the official animal. A measure to cite the tuba as Wisconsin's official musical instrument was killed by Assembly members who termed it unworthy of their attention. The armadillo was rejected as official mammal in Texas on the grounds that it's a might too homely.

And Rhode Islanders were deprived of an official cheese in a partisan conflict--Democrats were pro-ricotta, Republicans anti-ricotta.

Recalling the cheese fight, reporter Tom Morgan of the Providence Journal said: "It turned into a real Frankenstein Muenster. I still think we'd have an official cheese if only Sen. John Romano had gotten involved, but he refused."

While benitoite, California's state gemstone, recently went on exhibit in the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, state symbols often fade into obscurity after their initial splash of publicity.

Most People Forget

Neither the crawfish nor the alligator is on display in Louisiana's Statehouse and Sen. Nicholson admits that "most people forgot about (the bills honoring them) right away . . . except one fellow who sent me a drawing. It showed a crawfish saying to an alligator, 'Now that we're organized, where do we go from here?' "

The fact that admission to the state honor roll may result in nothing more tangible than a mention in tourist brochures leads critics to contend that such bills are a waste of time.

After the California Senate refused to confirm an official grass, official dance (the square dance) or change the state song, John Hendricks, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) explained:

'Search for Attention'

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