Archive for December, 2010

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  • December 31st, 2010

The Original Storyteller

By Joel  M. Vance

If you haven’t seen “A Christmas Story” on television you’ve been dead for 20 years.  TBS broadcasts it for 24 hours every Christmas Eve.  It’s the legendary story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB Gun, the bully Scut Farkus, the Bumpus dogs, the Old Man and his beautiful Major Award Leg Lamp.

Yes, anyone over the age of 40, maybe 50, has rolled on the floor when Flick gets his tongue stuck on an icy post or when Ralphie receives a bunny jammie outfit from his aunt.  When Ralphie spills the lug nuts as his father is changing a flat and says, “Oh, Fuhhhhhh…..” there isn’t a kid alive who doesn’t remember getting caught by a parent saying the Magic Word and who still remembers the traumatic aftermath.

Like Ralphie, I remember the taste of soap, used to cleanse the mouths of adolescent cussers.  I called a fellow tot a “Son of a bee” and I really was not thinking of the “itch” part.  But my mother interpreted it as the complete phrase and marched me to the bathroom for some Lifeboy therapy.

And when Ralphie decodes the eagerly-anticipated Little Orphan Annie Decoder Badge and finds that the Secret Circle secret message says only, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” and gripes, “It’s a commercial.  Son of a bitch!” I empathized.

I had a very similar Captain Midnight Decoder badge, much like the scam that Little Orphan Annie was running, and which probably sent messages equivalent to Drink Ovaltine.  Like Ralphie, I had a Red Ryder BB gun which I used to pin my cousin inside his family outhouse, shooting BBs through the half-moon so they’d ricochet inside.

His mother took the gun away and probably said something like, “You’ll shoot his eye out, kid,” although I don’t remember for sure.

Yes, “A Christmas Story” is in many ways parallel to my early years.

In the 1950s, I would stay up until two or three in the morning to listen to a disc jockey who rarely played records.  He told stories about his family and growing up in the south side Chicago area where I was born.

The guy’s name was Jean Shepherd and in my formative years I decided to write stories just like his.  He wrote the stories that became “A Christmas Story” and he narrates the classic film.  He was my hero when I was in high school and has remained so ever since.

Maybe Garrison Keillor also stayed up late listening to him.  Shepherd was jealous of Keillor’s fame as a storyteller, believing somewhat rightly that he paved the way as a storyteller and should have been recognized as the Founding Father.

Shepherd had a series on PBS called “Jean Shepherd’s America” and he was a mainstay on New York City radio for years.  His stories were regular in Playboy magazine (and guys really DID read the magazine for his stories).   He had countless other outlets for his storytelling, including college one-man shows.

Jean Shepherd is sadly gone.  He died in 1999, ending decades of spinning tales about the human condition.  I give him full credit for inspiring my first book, “Grandma and the Buck Deer,.”  a ripoff of sorts because the stories would not have been inspired or written if I hadn’t been so infused with the spirit of Jean Shepherd.

So here, in tribute to the master storyteller Jean Shepherd, is the first story I wrote “in the spirit of Jean Shepherd”:


It all started with a note home from Miss Allendale, my fifth grade teacher, a wispy young woman who always looked on the verge of tears and carried herself with the nervous anxiety of a house wren.

“Here’s the word from the birdies to tell you the fifth grade has decided to entertain you.  All the children want to invite you to the school auditorium on Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.”

I read the note on the way home from school and felt like gagging.  “Word from the birdies, for Pete’s sake!” I exclaimed.  Miss Allendale’s prose could put a diabetic into a coma.  She had spent most of the afternoon studying each of us pensively, a bit apprehensively (though it was hard to tell since she always seemed apprehensive), gnawing a pencil eraser and frowning.  Occasionally when her glance rested on a particular kid a tiny birdflicker of a smile would wriggle over her mouth and she’d write something down on a pad of paper, and then resume her reverie.

We found in the last hour, that she’d been casting her epic which, contrary to the implication in the note, had been conceived and written by Miss Allendale.  It was entitled, “Children of the World” and featured simple songs, dances and situations from history and legend.  She assigned our parts just before school’s end.

“Bobby,” she told me, handing me a smudged mimeographed script, “you’ll be the little Dutch boy who saves Holland by putting his finger in the dike.  You’re the hero.  The whole play revolves around you.”

Well, now, that sounded a bit of all right.  With the massive confidence of Richard Burton, I said, “Okay, I guess I’ll take it then.”

My first speech was a soliloquy which wasn’t destined for the required reading list in English Lit., but which was, like Miss Allendale, childishly direct: “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy and nobody likes me.  Nobody pays any attention to me.  If only I could do something to make people notice me.  I wish I could be a hero!”

That Miss Allendale sure could write!

After my oration I was supposed to slump dejectedly beside the dike while a group of children trundled onstage and sang a tender ballad entitled “The Little Dutch Boy” composed by Miss Allendale (lyrics) and the band director (melody).

“All along he walked by the Zuider Zee,

Not a friend in the world had he.

He thought he’d never, never be big…

All alone like a friendless pig.”

I suspected Miss Allendale was stuck for a rhyme on the last line, grasping at straws, because I couldn’t see how a lonesome Dutch kid and an unhappy pig jibed.  “Water squirts through set behind Dutch boy,” the script directed.  “The dike has burst!” I was to cry, upon seeing the water.

But there was no one to hear me so I plugged the leak by sticking my finger in it, saving Holland from the angry seas.  Pretty neat stuff for a 10-year old.  Since practical time limitations precluded me waiting as long as the original Little Dutch Boy waited for help, the passage of time was explained by a little girl at stage right:

“Many, many hours waited he,

Holding back the raging sea.

Almost exhausted, he waited alone,

Like a hungry dog waiting for a bone.”

Miss Allendale was a great one for animal simile.  The play had a happy ending.  The fifth grade didn’t go in for grim realism.  Just as I was near the end of the my endurance, finger blue, someone happened along, found me, and sounded the alarm.  After that everyone burst on stage, shouting, laughing, and singing about what a hero I was.

I ran all the way home and into the kitchen yelling, “Mom!  I’m in a play at school!  I’m the hero!  I save Holland!”

“Well,” she said, rolling a chicken leg in flour, “before you save anything, go up town and get me a loaf of bread.”

“Ma  I can’t!  I gotta practice!”

“Bread, then practice.”  I could see John Wayne trudging off to town, stepping on his lower lip to get his mom a loaf of bread.  Uh-huh.

By the time my father came home I’d learned my part.  I dragged my parents into the front room and forced them to listen to me emote.  I gave it everything I had.  “That’s just fine,” my father said, rattling the Birch Lake Beacon.  “Which one of the Three Pigs did you say you were?”

Rehearsals went well for the first week.  I was ready for the big night but I wasn’t too sure about Miss Allendale.  She grew increasingly nervous as First Night approached.  It was her first production and she had a thriving case of  the jitters.  When someone forgot his lines, she gulped.  When the chorus lost the melody and wandered off in different musical directions like grazing sheep she blanched.  When the Russian dancers fell down she moaned.

The Russians gave her most of the trouble.  Ten youngsters stubbornly refused to learn the steps to a peasant dance and when they finally did get the steps right they lost their balance and fell down.  Several boys threatened mutiny because they had to put their arms around girls.  Miss Allendale cajoled, begged and threatened but the Russians remained stoically wrong.

Finally the big night came and all over Birch Lake fathers swore as they struggled into unfamiliar suits, mothers hovered, mouths full of pins, and youngsters wiped sweaty palms and tried to quiet galloping hearts.

There was a sense of excitement outside the school when we got there.  The night was filled with running, chattering kids.  Parents talked in the crisp dark about late-season fishing and early season hunting.  The auditorium was full of the shuffle and clack of seats being lowered and raised.  The curtain billowed as someone backstage bumped into it.  I went backstage for makeup and last-minute instructions from the harried Miss Allendale.

I found the group of Dutch boys and girls.  As if it had been waiting for me to arrive, trouble started. Little Mary Magee, who was to be the narrator of my scene, suddenly said, “I don’t feel so very good,” and threw up.

She started to cry and two members of the chorus joined her.  Miss Allendale came running across the stage, here eyes wide and worried.  “What’s the matter!” she cried.  “What’s the matter!”

“Ain’t nothin’, lady,” said the janitor, instantly on the spot with a mop and bucket.  “Little kid just pitched her cookies.  Happens every time we gotta ‘sembly.”

When Miss Allendale saw what had happened, she nearly fainted, but pulled herself together and sent someone to find Mary’s parents to tell them what had happened.  They soon came backstage and led their sobbing daughter toward the exit.  That left us without a narrator for the middle of the scene.  Miss Allendale made a quick, panicky survey of the survivors and finally drafted a little girl from the chorus.  She gave the girl a copy of the narration to study in a quiet corner.

She wiped her brow, cast her eyes briefly skyward, and rushed off to quiet a pair of pigtailed girls who were arguing loudly about the relative size of their roles.

Some of Mary’s mal-de-theatrics began to communicate itself to me.  A film of cold perspiration broke out on the palms of my hands.  Trying to calm myself I decided to practice my big speech, the final one, and found to my utter horror that I couldn’t recall even the first word.  I made a frantic grab for my battered script and looked at the speech.  Each sentence looked as foreign as Senegalese.

It was curtain time.  Oh, horrors!  Miss Allendale shushed us and hustled everyone offstage except the first scene players.  The rest of us huddled back in the wings while the curtain rose on a Gypsy scene.  Through the side curtains I saw a dim mass of faces, bathed in the hazy glow from the footlights.  The crowd coughed and shuffled its many feet, like some monstrous centipede with catarrh.

I tried to choke down a walnut-sized lump in my throat.  The Gypsy dancers whirled and rattled their tambourines.  Everything was going well until one little boy let go of his tambourine in the middle of a less-than-graceful pirouette and watched it sail out over the footlights into the audience.

There was a faint tinkle and crash from the darkness as it landed and a louder crash from the stage as a second dancer ran into the first, knocking both of them down.  A third dancer fell over the first two and everyone else stopped uncertainly.

Miss Allendale cried in a voice clearly audible at the back of the auditorium, “Pull the curtain!  Pull the curtain!” There was a rustle of nervous laughter from the audience and Miss Allendale turned an unhealthy ivory color.

The next act, however, was uneventful and both she and I settled down somewhat.  The missing speech began to come back to me.  It was nearing time for the Dutch act and I thought I’d better have someone put on my makeup.  Three harassed mothers had volunteered (much against their better judgment) to paint the faces of the players and they now were fluttering and swabbing frantically to keep up with the rush.

I managed to edge in front of a boy in the line leading to one of the makeup women.  “Hey!” he exclaimed, grabbing me by the shoulder.  “I was here first.  Go back to the end of the line.”  He pushed me and that made me mad.

”Nuts to you,” I said.  “I gotta get my stuff on.”

“Now boys,” said the makeup mother between dabs with a powder puff.  “Be quiet and don’t argue.  They’ll hear you.”  She motioned toward the audience with her puff.  The boy paid her no attention and shoved me again.  “Get back there or I’ll hand you a fat eye!” he hissed.

“You and what army, dummy?” I sneered.  He jumped at me and I dodged.  The makeup mother stepped back in alarm and raised her hands to quiet us.  Her heel came down on the bare foot of a little girl in a Hawaiian costume.

The girl gave a high scream of pain and the woman clawed desperately for her balance.  She grabbed the nearest support which happened to be the setting at the side of the stage.  The scenery had been designed to withstand normal wear and tear, but not a sudden assault by a full-grown woman.

The setting began to topple, then crashed, carrying the woman with it.  The two of them landed in full view of the audience with a thunderclap sound as the flat hit the stage floor.  All motion stopped onstage.  Several little boys giggled and the little girls blushed under their makeup.  The fallen mother was crimson.  Again the curtain was hastily pulled in the middle of an act.  There was hearty laughter, mostly male, from the audience.

The mother scrambled to her feet and shouted, “If I get my hands on those two little brats I’LL WRING THEIR NECKS!”

I melted into the crowd, my nerves singing like telephone wires.  I caught a glimpse of Miss Allendale, quietly crying, the tears streaming unchecked down her wan cheeks.  Two prop men replaced the fallen setting and Miss Allendale weakly signaled for the next act to begin.  She had resigned herself to whatever damnation results from artistic catastrophe.  She was going through the motions of running her dream production but her heart wasn’t in it.  Miss Allendale was a broken woman. Her shoulders hunched in dejection. Her movements were wooden and automatic and her eyes lifeless. Her hair was disarrayed.  Could nothing revive her shattered spirits?  I felt a great wave of compassion for her. Perhaps the Dutch skit would be such a blinding artistic triumph that all would be saved.  I owed it to her for her faith in me.  I could do no less than bring the audience to its feet, cheering, shouting “Bravo!” or what ever Birch Lake audiences shouted when they liked something.

Amazingly the tottering drama righted itself for the next two skits.  A number about Mexico, featuring Miss Allendale’s vision of the Hat Dance, went off without a hitch and drew a healthy round of relieved applause.  The skit just before mine, dealing with Hawaii, was perfect except for a slight limp from one of the hula girls.

The audience was receptive and the performers in the Dutch skit, sensing that conditions were perfect for a socko finish, were cocky and eager to have at it.  Everything seemed right for a smash finale.  I poised in the wings, waiting for the curtain, exhilaration flooding me.  This would be, I felt sure, the beginning of a dramatic career which would eclipse that of Johnny Mack Brown or even the Durango Kid.

The curtain rose.

I strode confidently from the security of the wings to the middle of the intensely lighted stage, alone and composed, the hush of the expectant audience almost palpable.

And suddenly a fantastic thing happened.  I realized that hundreds of critical eyes were fixed on my every move.  I was sure my fly was open, assuming I even was wearing pants.  My soul flooded with incalculable terror.  In less time than a lightning flash, my mouth went as dry as Death Valley, my limbs lost their coordination, and my eyes wallowed out of focus.  Fright bollixed my motor processes and I probably would have collapsed except that every joint was as frozen as if I’d gotten a cement transfusion.  All I could hear was a great roar, like the sea, and when I tried to lick my lips they were stuck together so tightly I couldn’t force my tongue between them.

Dimly I saw white faces of other children on the other side of the stage waiting for their cue but I couldn’t break the log jam in my head.  I stood rooted in panic for several million years, then very distantly heard a voice saying, “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy…”

I heard the phrase over and over again without realizing it was a hissed cue from backstage.  Finally the repetition triggering something and I croaked, “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy….”

Once the wheels were in motion I lost a bit of my fright and was able to finish the speech even though it lacked much depth of feeling.  I walked woodenly over to the dike painted on the rear stage flat.  There was a tiny trickle of water which I was not, at first, supposed to notice.  I didn’t.  I didn’t notice anything.

The chorus came on stage and warbled rather raggedly through the Friendless Pig piece and then crowded offstage, like a mob racing for a commuter train.  They should have been arrested for leaving the scene of an accident.

Dutifully I discovered the leak.  Or rather it discovered me.  I was sitting directly in front of the hole and someone turned the hose behind the scenery on full force.  The water hit me squarely in the back of the neck.

“The dike has burst!” I cried and then shouted, “Turn off that stinkin’ water!”  I leaped to my feet.  The audience roared, throwing me into another web of confusion.  Galvanized by the laughter I jammed my finger into the hole and a piercing wave of pain swept up my arm.  I had sprained the finger.

Someone behind the set was cursing softly as he tried to turn off the water.  I had poked the hose out of the hole when I stabbed my finger in it and the hose was lashing around behind the scenery.  Water seeped under the backdrop.

I sat with my back to the audience, ashamed to face them, and hoped that if death wouldn’t strike suddenly and end this, at least that I would faint and not revive until everyone in the audience had grown old and died.

The substitute for the little girl who had gotten sick marched out to the edge of the stage and promptly dropped her script into the orchestra pit.  She stood there panic stricken for at least a lifetime, and then burst into wails and had to be led off by one of the makeup mothers.

My finger was throbbing and I decided to take it out of the hole for a rest.  I didn’t think anyone would notice in the general confusion at the other side of the stage.  To my horror, I discovered that the finger had swelled and I couldn’t budge it, no matter how hard I tugged.  “My finger’s stuck,” I whispered, hoping the man who had been swearing at the hose would hear me.  But nothing happened.  I glanced at the front of the stage where the little girl was starting to read her speech from a new script. Evidently Miss Allendale had become grimly determined to finish the evening come hell or, appropriately enough, high water.  I began to sweat.

I pulled harder at the swollen finger and felt the entire setting stir slightly.  It teetered at the top.  I bit my lip and eased off the pressure.   The little girl finished her speech and the chorus came onstage and began to chant, “He’s a hero!  Look what he’s done!   He’s stopped the water!  He’s saved Holland!”

I whispered to the nearest kid that I couldn’t get my finger out of the dike but he didn’t hear me.  Two boys rushed over to me carrying a bucket and a trowel.  “Get your finger out,” one of them hissed.  “We’re supposed to fix the dike.”

“I can’t,” I told them.  “It’s stuck.”

“Come on! The second kid grated.

It’s stuck!” I repeated a bit louder.  I was getting mad.

“You better get your finger out or Miss Allendale will fan you good,” the first boy warned.

“I can’t!” I almost shouted.  ‘My finger’s stuck!”

I’ll get it out!” declared the second boy.  He clenched his jaw tight and grabbed my arm.  I started to shout a warming but too late.  He gave my arm a mighty jerk.

The setting started to topple as my finger came loose.  The thing hung in midair for a long time and we all scrambled out of the way.  It came down with a crash and a whoosh of air which nearly blew out the front three rows.  There were screams and shouted exclamations and through the hole created by the fallen set I saw Miss Allendale, her mouth working, her face blotchy.

The stage was a shambles and so was Miss Allendale’s show.  The next few moments were confused.  I found my parents in the crowd of people who had rushed to the stage to collect their threatened youngsters.  One Little League mother even had the gall to corner poor, terrified Miss Allendale and yell at her for quite a while.

I begged my parents to take me home, cried all the way, went to bed as quickly as I could get my clothes off, and curled into a tight fetal ball.

Miss Allendale never said a word about what had happened but I noticed that she never called on me for anything the rest of the time I was in her class.  She was married to an army lieutenant at the end of the school year and quit teaching entirely.  I never saw her after that.

The day after the assembly I decided to become a Texas Ranger when I grew up.


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  • Blog
  • December 24th, 2010

Junior’s Big Bass

By Joel M. Vance

The late A.J. (Junior) Samples of Cumming, Georgia, couldn’t remember his lines, couldn’t read cue cards, looked like 40 miles of bad road and couldn’t sing.

Hardly the star image.

But he did one thing better than anyone ever has and it made him famous.  He told history’s greatest fish lie.

Junior became a star on the syndicated country television variety show “Hee Haw” because of a taped interview made in 1967 with Jim Morrison, then chief of information for the Georgia conservation department.

Junior claimed he had caught a world record largemouth bass from Georgia’s Lake Lanier, a sprawling impoundment just across the road from Cumming.  The fish allegedly weighed 22 pounds, nine ounces.  Every schoolboy knows the world record is 22 pounds, four ounces, caught in 1932 by George Perry from Montgomery Lake, Georgia.

It is the outdoor equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s streak of hitting in 56 straight games.  Perry’s record has endured for more than 70 years and anyone who breaks it will have instant fame.  The endorsements alone will bring a fortune.  Junior Samples won fame and fortune even though his record claim was a flat-out lie.

Morrison interviewed Junior, a sprawling 300-pound heap of a man, on a front porch right out of Dogpatch.  “It was Squalor Holler,” Morrison said.  “The outhouse was in a corner of a stall in the barn.  There were no screens on the windows and there was trash and garbage laying out in the weeds.”

Morrison had no trouble finding Junior.  Cumming wasn’t much bigger than Junior anyway, and he was, if not a leading, at least a prominent citizen.  “He was racin’ cars and runnin’ a liquor store,” Morrison says.  Before that, Junior had run moonshine–it’s how he learned to drive a race car, another of his good ol’ boy careers.

Junior also fancied himself a carpenter.  “Drivin’ nails,” he drawled.  But he allowed–and here he paused as if he were trying to spit out a mouthful of cockleburs–that work had interfered with his fishing before he caught the record bass.  “But it ain’t gonna no more!” he vowed fervently.  “Ah’m gonna do a bonch uh fishin’!”

Junior’s interview was a masterpiece of misdirection.  “He told it so convincingly I believed him,” Morrison said.  Junior claimed he ate the world record bass.  “Ah’s lookin’ fer sumpin tuh eat!” he declared.  That would have invalidated his claim even if it had been true.  But he told Morrison the fish had been weighed in several places around the lake.

He claimed he couldn’t remember where the fish was weighed.  “Ah don’t know.  Ah was dronk,” he drawled.  “We weighed ‘im sommers and didn’t nobody dispute the word.  Ah showed him all over the county.  Ah reckon ah did.  Ah think ah did.  There’s plenty of people seed the feesh.  Ah thought we weighed ‘im down at Joe Hansard’s but Grace said Harold said we didn’t weigh ‘im down there, so ah guess we didn’t weigh ‘im down there.”

Morrison remembered , “I drove him all around that lake looking for who weighed it.  And the hell of it is, we found someone who said he’d seen the fish.”

Junior said he was fishing about a mile below Bald Ridge Marina (for those who dote on where-to information).  “On a smerged (submerged) island.

“Ah dropped mah anchor rock there on the island and ah peetched my little outfit out, that li’l 33 out?  Ah had some heavy equipment there in the boat an’ ah uz gonna put uh big lizard on them an’ git ready for uh big bass an’ ah just got one hooked an’ ah looked over there an’ seed my line a- stretchin’ out, a-straightenin’ out and I reached down and caught ‘im.  When ah jerked him, ah thinks ah’m hung fer it dint go nowhere when ah jerked.”

The fight, though, was unspectacular.  Junior knew better than to embellish a good lie so much it sounded like a lie.  “Atter he come up and stood on that tail and shuck that head three or four times he jist turnt over on his side and ah just drug ‘im right on in,” Junior said.

He showed Morrison the head of the fish and the size of it astounded Morrison.  Only a world record bass could have such a head…assuming the decomposing remains were those of a bass.

By the time Morrison saw the head, it was several days old and stinking.  “It was light-colored for a bass, but I figured a largemouth bass after three or four days of rotting might get a little lighter colored,” Morrison said.

When Morrison returned to Atlanta, he woke up a fisheries biologist and showed him the fish head by the light of a flashlight–not exactly the best conditions for identification.  The biologist said, “Jim, this is the finest bass that’s ever lived in the world.”  That was verification enough for Morrison.

The next morning, Morrison ran into Aubrey Morris, a reporter for Atlanta radio station WSB and told him the story.  Morris aired the story almost instantly.  “The cat was out of the bag,” Morrison saod.  “Then a biologist who’d worked in saltwater said, ‘hell, Jim, that ain’t no bass, that’s a red grouper.”

Hoax or not, the tape was country funny and Morrison played it on a Game and Fish Department radio show twice, once right after it was made and about six months later.  Each time, he was flooded with calls from people who were tickled by it.  The second time, two of the callers represented record companies.

During the original interview, Junior said something that either is totally puzzling or that reveals he was thinking phonograph record months before anyone else.  I didn’t think I had no record,” he says.  “I knowed I had a record, but I didn’t think I did on the fish.”  Did Junior Samples set out to create an entertainment career?  Some who knew him think he was just canny enough to come up with such a scheme.

There are at least two stories on how Junior came to have the head of a grouper in north Georgia, a long way from the ocean.  The one he told was that his brother saw the fish below a bridge, apparently tossed there.     The brother cut off the head and had it in the back of a pickup truck at an auto race.  “Someone asked who caught that big fish and Junior and his brother looked at each other,” Morrison said.  “His brother didn’t want to claim it, so Junior said he caught it.”

The other story is that the two of them swiped the fish out of someone’s car and ate it, except for the head.  Morrison photographed Junior with the fish head, even in comic poses with him wearing the head like a cap.

After the recording of Junior’s story appeared, Junior began to get invitations to entertain in country and western beer joints.  By then no one cared if he could catch record fish or not.  He could tell a world record fish story and that was good enough.  Before long, there was a commercial version of the interview, along with other stories.

In 1969, Junior reached the summit, if it can be called that, of country entertainment.  He joined “Hee Haw.”  Junior mumbled and stumbled his way through scripts designed to be deliberately baffling.  His charm was not that he read the jokes right, but that he read them wrong.

My late and dear friend Mitch Jayne played bass for the Dillards bluegrass band, the group that had a continuing role as the Darling family in the old Andy Griffith television show.  Jayne was a writer and former teacher who was as far intellectually from Junior Samples as the Metropolitan Opera is from “Hee Haw.”

But he liked Junior.

“Junior said things funny,” Jayne recalled.  “The stories just poured out and he always had his lower lip full of tobacco, so he kind of mushed his words.”

There was more to Junior Samples than a fat drunk whom everyone teased.  He only looked stupid; he was country smart.  He was canny enough to tell a huge lie and get knowledgeable people to believe it.  “Junior had the quality of cupidity,” Jayne says.  “He could take almost anything and turn it into money.  He started out delivering moonshine on a bicycle.  Picture that–this kid who probably weighed 300 pounds when he was 16 riding a bicycle loaded with hootch.”

For all his financial cunning, though, Junior missed a bet in the big bass story.  He did claim he caught the fish on a “Zebbyco 33,” a free endorsement for Zebco, but said the fish hit on “a leetle bitty what (white) bellied sprang (spring) lizard.”  Every lure manufacturer would have killed to be mentioned as the lure-of-choice.

Junior became famous enough that he was invited on “This Is Your Life,” the Ralph Edwards television show that allegedly surprised celebrities, then confronted them with people from their past.

Junior stayed in California with Mitch Jayne and his wife.  Jayne recalled his few days as Junior’s host with fond horror.  “The producers said, ‘you’ve got to keep him busy and keep him from going crazy,'” Jayne said.  “I figured what’s a week?  If I’d known what trouble Junior could be I wouldn’t have kept him a day.

“He got off the plane wearing bib overalls and a striped tee shirt.  It’s all I ever saw him wear.  He had a cardboard suitcase with two pairs of overalls and three or four pairs of underwear and that just about filled the thing.  Later on, he gave us a pair of his overalls and we had a Christmas photo taken, my wife and I each in a leg.”

Jayne had just bought a station wagon.  Junior, after warning Mitch’s wife in the back seat to “get outa the line of farr, li’l lady,” proceeded to spit tobacco juice out the window all the way to Jayne’s home.

Jayne discovered that his new wagon had what appeared to be a brown racing stripe its entire length.  “It was like a flame job done by a drunk teenager.  We like to never got it off.”  Junior asked Mitch if he “lacked bald shreemp.”  “It took me a while to decipher that one,” Jayne said.  “He meant did I like boiled shrimp.”  Jayne bought 10 pounds, found that was barely an appetizer for the massive moonshiner.  Junior cooked the shrimp in the Jayne’s kitchen, then pitched the salty water in the back yard, almost instantly killing a huge chunk of the landlord’s cherished dichondra lawn.

Jayne was supposed to keep the Edwards show secret from Junior, but it became increasingly difficult because Junior kept trying to call home and no one was there.

That was because everyone he knew in Cumming was on a train (they were afraid of flying), headed to California for the show.  Jayne said, “Junior was ready to jump on a plane to Cumming–he’d fly in anything.  Junior wasn’t afraid of planes.  Planes were afraid of Junior.”

Junior became increasingly agitated about being out of touch.  Jayne, trying to keep Junior off the phone to Cumming, stayed on it himself, so after two days, Junior insisted on getting a motel room where he could use the phone to track down his wife, Grace.  Junior suspected Grace was running around on him.  “I told the manager to keep an eye on him because I had no idea what the man was going to do,” Jayne said.  “The first thing he did was spit in the lobby fountain.  Looked like a spittoon to him.”

Junior got drunk in the motel and called Mitch.  “He said he was sure Grace had run off and he didn’t care.  He said, ‘I’ll give her the house.  I’ll give her the hogs!'”

Junior called back and claimed he had flown to “Lost Wages” (Las Vegas) and picked up a waitress on each arm.  He wanted to say goodbye forever.  “He said, ‘Meetch, we’ll meet again some ol’ day, but it’ll be in a damn different place!'”

Finally, the producers caved in and confessed to Junior that he was to be the subject of the show and allowed Grace to stay with him until showtime.  “He didn’t like being fooled,” Jayne said.  “‘Hayull, Meetch,’ he told me, ‘they coulda trusted me.  Iffen they want a show, Ah’ll give ’em one.'”  And as each person from his past was introduced, Junior hauled out a huge red handkerchief and bawled and blubbered into it, acting emotionally blown away.  The show remains among the best-remembered.

Junior Samples had come full cycle–from tiny Cumming, Georgia, where he founded a career on an colorful con to national prominence, still gulling everyone.

Junior Samples died in 1983 of a heart attack in his beloved Cumming and he now is no more than a footnote in angling history and a fond memory for devoted fans of rustic tomfoolery.


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  • December 20th, 2010

The Old Chicken House

By Joel M. Vance

It is the most famous chicken house in the world.  It stands, somewhat shakily, given its advancing years, in a grove of trees in central Wisconsin.  It is the former chicken shelter converted by Aldo Leopold to a family retreat in 1935.

Leopold is rightfully called the Father of Conservation because the trained

The Leopold shack

Joel Vance reading "A Sand County Almanac" at the Leopold shack

forester/ecologist/writer was the first to put down in words understandable to everyone the feelings and vague concepts that any outdoor enthusiast has.

We just don’t have the talent to crystallize them in words.

The shack is on 80 acres of sandy soil within sight of a bend of the Wisconsin River.  Primitive trails wind through the property.  One follows a ridge in a curve back toward the main road and at the end is a glacial bounder with a brass plate reading, “Rest! Cries the chief sawyer.”

This is the phrase that Leopold used in one of his most famous essays, about cutting a tree and as the saw bit into the tree farther and farther, he reflected on the history that was happening at each pause for “rest.”  The crosscut saw he and his wife, Estella, used to cut the tree hangs in the old cabin.

Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack in 1948, fighting a grass fire at a neighbor’s, near his beloved 80-acre farm where the cabin sits.  He was only 61 years old.

The next year the book most identified with him, A Sand County Almanac, was published by the Oxford University Press.  That book has become the Bible for conservationists, for in those few elegant essays are more commonsense concepts than ever sprouted from any other conservation mind.  There is scarcely a word in the book that can’t be quoted to make a point (and they all have been, repeatedly).  It took about seven years from idea to finished manuscript and he had been notified that Oxford Press would publish his book shortly before he died.

You won’t find the shack except by accident or by good directions—it is today exactly as it was when Leopold’s spirit left his body to inhabit the trees he’d planted and the creaking boards of the old cabin.   You can feel his presence if you’re of a mind to.  Nothing has been changed.  There are two rude double-decker bunk beds which replaced a bare floor where the Leopold clan slept before they built the beds.

Mother and Father Leopold would spread straw on the plank floor and roll the five teenage kids up in blankets in a row, like human burritos.  There is a stack of photographs taken through the formative years of the farm and the kids.  They show a happy family, doing hard work on a worn-out farm.

Nina (Leopold) Bradley wrote of the day they were introduced to their dad’s new acquisition: “On this particular moment the understanding and sharing probably reached its lowest point as we stood shivering, gazing at Dad’s treasure, waiting for a miracle or some great blinding revelation.”

That would change as Leopold involved his wife and children in the restoration of the burned out farm.  The 80 acres was never meant to be a working farm in the traditional sense.  Fun farms are places where city folks who make their living elsewhere can come and connect with the soil.  But for Leopold it was far more than a Green Acres wannabe.  It was where he could practice and perfect the land ethic that he had been developing in his mind for years.

“I know clearly now why my father was basically a very humble man,” wrote his daughter Nina.  “It is a humbling thing to know important questions for which you have no answers.”

Leopold didn’t come to his philosophy overnight.  It was a lifelong process.  As a game manager in the 1920s he advocated and practiced the eradication of predators to increase game—primarily deer—in the Gila National Forest.  The result was an overpopulation of deer which ate itself out of house and home.

A philosopher was born when he shot a wolf and watched it die: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote in a famous essay titled “Thinking Like a Mountain.”  Only a mountain, he came to believe, has been around long enough to understand the relationship between man, prey and predators.  “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise,” he wrote.

“But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold’s fully-formed philosophy, what he called a land ethic, can be summed up in one sentence: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”  We all know this is true; we just don’t always treat the biotic community in the right way—pollution, degradation, bad land use, exploitation of natural resources all are violations of Leopold’s simple summary on how the world and nature can co-exist—in fact must in the longrun.

Leopold’s idea of a biotic community in which everything is hooked to everything else is not new—it goes back a century or more before his time—but no one before (or since, for that matter) has lined it out so clearly. “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Even as he was advocating predator elimination, in 1922 he also was advocating roadless wilderness, a concept that wouldn’t reach legal status (as the National Wilderness Preservation Act) for more than 40 years.

From the Southwest, Leopold migrated to Wisconsin where he would enjoy his greatest accomplishments.  They included chairing the game management section at the University of Wisconsin, founding the Wilderness Society in 1935, being a founder of the Wildlife Society in 1936, creating and chairing the Department of Wildlife Management (note the change from “game” to “wildlife) at the University of Wisconsin in 1939…and beginning the series of essays that would become A Sand County Almanac in 1941.

Threaded through those achievements were days spent at the cabin in Sauk County (the “Sand County” of the essays).  His experiences there triggered his reflections on man and nature.  The first part of the book is a month by month chronicle of happenings at the shack.  “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.  It is here that we seek—and still find—our meat from God.”

A native stone fireplace dominates the cabin, but it must have been mighty cold in a Wisconsin winter in that uninsulated cabin…and they did spend winter days and nights there.  “My dog does not care where heat comes from,” Leopold wrote one cold February, “but he cares ardently that it come, and soon.”  He writes of the shivering dog pressing close to him as he lays a fire in the rock fireplace of the cabin.  “I must touch a match to them [kindling splits] by poking it between his legs.  Such faith, I suppose, is the kind that moves mountains.”

A crude board serves as a bookshelf and there, next to a journal in which visitors can record their impressions, is a first edition of Round River, Leopold’s other popular book, which also was published posthumously in 1953.  It was a mighty temptation and I suspect I earned some points from higher authority by not adding the book to my collection of Leopoldiana.

Chances are the bookshelf board washed up on a flood.  “Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests,” Leopold wrote.

Sometimes the flood would strand Leopold in the cabin.  “I see our road dipping gently into the waters, and I conclude (with inner glee but exterior detachment) that the question of traffic, in or out, is for this day at least, debatable only among carp.”

On a December day the shack was cold and a fire in the fireplace would have been welcome but it was not up to me to light that fire and there was no dog huddling close in hopes of warmth.  I went outside and walked toward the river.  Someone, perhaps a Leopold kid, had nailed a cow skull to a gnarled oak in the river bottom.  There were ducks on the river.   There were deer tracks in the sand.  A trophy buck bounded away at one corner of the property while I was there, and a flock of sandhill cranes fed in a nearby crop field.  Wild turkeys were feeding in yet another field.

The forester in Leopold never left him.  Much of the land restoration on his 80 acres and, over the years, on neighboring land, involved tree planting.  Today huge pines he and his family planted line the ridge trail, giving it a cathedral effect.  You can sit on a rude bench overlooking a slough and gather your thoughts or just soak in the quiet.  The wind soughing in the treetops whispers truths that you almost can understand.

The kids who once slept on the cabin floor all matured into conservation work.  Daughter Nina (Bradley) created the Leopold Foundation which works to restore worn out land and has brought health to more than 15,000 acres so far.  Carl Leopold became a plant physiologist who founded the Tropical Forest Initiative to restore forests in Costa Rica.  Luna became chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and is considered one of the foremost earth scientists of the 20th century.  Estella became a professor of botany at the University of Washington.  Starker, the oldest son, died in 1983 after a long career as a professor of wildlife ecology, writer (five books and more than 100 scientific papers) and advisor to the National Park Service.

Both Sand County Almanac and Round River were illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Charlie Schwartz, my late friend and role model.  Charlie is the only authentic genius of my experience and it was inevitable that he and his wife Libby become intimates of the Leopold family.  Charlie, a biologist as well as an artist, did landmark research on prairie chickens in north Missouri in the 1940s at the same time Aldo’s son Starker was working on wild turkeys in the south part of the state.

When it came time to illustrate the books, Charlie was the logical choice.  Whether it was his idea or Leopold’s to decorate the cover of A Sand County Almanac with a trio of geese calling frantically to their airborne kinfolk, the subject choice was perfect.  “Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails,” Leopold wrote.  “Our geese are home again!

“It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh.”

As I stood near the old shack a large flock of Canada geese lifted off the nearby Wisconsin River, flared their wings briefly over the shack as they passed in review, then continued on to a lunch date in a nearby cornfield.


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  • December 16th, 2010

The Machine To End All Machines

By Joel M. Vance

The noise was near-deafening, but the operators were impervious to it.  They were graduates from the Missouri School for the Deaf and heard nothing.  But I can hear it still, in my mind, a constant metallic clatter that is unmistakable to anyone who worked around a print shop a half-century ago.

My venue was a small town newspaper, The Mexico, Missouri, Evening Ledger. I was the sports editor and wrote my stories on sleazy copy paper that was of such poor quality that it seemed ready to disintegrate even before it came out the other end as hot type, spilling from a Linotype machine in dizzying profusion.

Each of the four Linotype machines in the print shop stood seven feet tall and squatted six feet from side to side and front to back, behemoths like something from a science fiction movie.  Their noise spilled into the newsroom every time anyone opened the swinging door between the two rooms.

This was light years from today’s muted newsroom and print shop where everything is clean and pixels rule.  We were an anachronism waiting to happen in 1959.

The Linotype had been around for more than 60 years, and my typewriter, a manual Royal, had been around longer than that.  There was no such thing as a computer.  The tentacles of modern technology were just beginning to creep into newspaper production.  “Digital” if anything meant toes and fingers.

Many had tried to invent a workable typesetting machine (Mark Twain went bankrupt investing his fortune in one that didn’t work), but no one had succeeded until Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant, developed the first crude Linotype in 1884.

The marvelous Mergenthaler machine had a run of nearly a century, from the 1890s to the 1970s before modern photo-based printing supplanted the clattery old machines.  After 10 years, at the age of 32, Mergenthaler had refined his machine and Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune, allegedly exclaimed, “Ottmar, you’ve done it again!  A line o’ type!”  And thus the name….

More than 100,000 Linotypes would dominate newspaper pressrooms for the next 60 or more years.  Mergenthaler became a victim of the White Plague, tuberculosis, and died young at 45 in 1899.

Setting a line of type on the Linotype is a fairly simple process on the surface, but like the operation of the human body, an incredibly complex one behind the scenes.  Everything happens amid a constant clunking and clattering of moving parts and tumbling matrices that has a manic quality, as if the Linotype were a robot on amphetamines.

There were four Linotypes in the Ledger pressroom and usually at least one operator was trying to clear a malfunction—with 5,000 working parts, a Linotype was a breakdown waiting to happen.  Although the operators were mute, they could cuss with body language as artistically as anyone with speech.

I floundered at first but then it began to make sense, like being exposed to a foreign language on a daily basis.  I learned to read type in its inverted state, put the stories in the right place and do it all before the ever-present daily newspaper deadline.

The deadline was immutable and there was no absolution for missing one.  You closed at 11 a.m. or you would shortly be invited to take up another line of work.

Somehow it all worked six days a week.  There was only one time it didn’t–the assassination of President Kennedy.  It happened just as the paper was going to press.  Immediately the front page was void and the press idled, while the newsroom frantically remade everything.

My sports page had gone to bed and I was ready to go home when the news editor shouted, “The President has been shot!”  The teletype machine rattled off Associated Press stories a at 60 words per minute.  I could type faster than that, but the machine couldn’t.

None of our Linotype machines could set the 96-point headline we ran: “President Slain.”  It had to be hand-set.  A pressman, his hands trembling, pulled each letter from a type case and spelled out the dreadful words.  It was a moment of history revisited because pressmen around the country had done exactly the same thing on April 15, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln died.

The teletype machine chattered and disgorged a tangled pile of perforated tape, containing dreadful words from Dallas.  The Linotype machines spewed their jangling torrent of brass matrices, hot lead poured against them and the slugs tumbled into the type trays to deliver the worst news we’d had in our lifetime. The cacophony, always there even with good news, seemed louder and more threatening, echoing the disorientation of a country turned upside-down.

We were on the verge of losing our Linotypes to the digital age, but we lost something more important that day.  We lost our innocence.


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  • December 13th, 2010

Things That Go Bump In The Night

By Joel M. Vance

I don’t believe in ghosts…and yet there were those fresh batteries that unaccountably went dead….

Like all kids of my generation, I spent Saturdays at the local movie theater trying not to wet my britches as various ghostly apparitions loomed over me on the silver screen.

Were there real ghosts?  You betcha!  They lurked in the closet or in the basement and no one my age would dare go near a graveyard after dark.  And then I grew up and stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and ghosts.  The local graveyard, once a place of drymouth fear, became a favored place for parking with one’s sweetheart.  It was quiet there and affection flowered with no interruptions from folks you could see through.

By middle age the only ghost I believed in was the fading image of my 401k, but then there were those batteries that went dead.

It happened during a “psychic investigation” in a huge old antebellum mansion, abandoned and nearly gone to ruin.  Over the decades one inhabitant had committed suicide in an upstairs bedroom.  The place went through the trauma of the American Civil War.  There was reputed to be a slave burial ground near the house.  Everything reeked of the supernatural.  The dank, cavernous cellar was spooky enough to frighten Stephen King in the daytime, let alone at night.

If ever a place deserved to be haunted it was this one.  A friend had invited a pair of self-proclaimed psychics to investigate the old mansion.  So my wife Marty and I joined them to spend as much of the night there as we could stand.

Because the house was being renovated there was no electricity or heat and it was November, which meant it was cold and dark both inside and outside.  Any of the famed “cold spots” that supposedly signal the presence of spirits would have been masked by the overall and quite natural chill.

The psychics, who were about as strange as the phenomena they were pursuing, claimed to sense all sorts of ghostly presences.  “Ooooh!  There’s someone on the staircase!”  I saw nothing.  “Look!  Ectoplasmic mist!”  I saw no mist and suspected it was condensation on the camera lens or maybe my breath.  I felt cold, but nothing else, no psychic tickles.  Oh, yes, and bored.

The psychics took many digital photos which showed “orbs” over which they exclaimed excitedly.  Orbs are little balls of light that show up on film or a digital image and could be (and probably are) dust motes or flying insects or camera light leaks—all earthly phenomena, nothing supernatural or paranormal.

I thought it moderately odd that one or two orbs remained in one spot, at a landing on the curved staircase.  Dust floats and it was too cold for bugs to fly.  “I get the feeling there’s a little boy sitting there,” said one of the psychics.  I got the feeling my toes were about to turn blue and fall off.  If it was a little boy, why didn’t he look like a little boy, not a 40-watt light bulb?  But what do I know about spirit manifestation?

I had brought along two Marantz professional quality tape recorders, equipped with batteries fresh out of the package.  They should have been good for several hours of recording “electronic voice phenomena,” those whispers from the Other Side that we don’t normally hear.  Theoretically you get home and just after you are recorded saying, “Well, there’s nothing here,” a hollow voice quite clearly says, “Let’s do lunch.”

I set one recorder on an upstairs landing, near the bedroom where the suicide happened; the other halfway down the stairs.  When I checked them an hour or so after I turned them on…both recorders were dead, batteries drained.

According to the folks on the popular SyFy channel’s “Ghost Hunters” show, “entities” can drain energy from sources such as batteries to gain strength so they can manifest themselves, open or close doors, knock, rattle chains, whatever.

Nobody manifested or rattled—I just had dead batteries with no explanation.  As much as I wanted to believe the resident spooks had stolen my juice, I couldn’t lay it to anything other than coincidence, cold weather, defective batteries or sheer bad luck.

The little boy orb?  I’d have been more convinced if I’d seen a diaphanous little kid sitting on the stairs giving me a ghostly grin.  The psychics were thrilled by all the activity which I didn’t share.  I was haunted only by a vicious cold that I caught in the dank mansion.

Maybe I’m ghost-immune.  Many friends have had paranormal experiences.  For example a fellow instructor at a writing workshop said she stayed in one of the college dorms alone one night and was visited by a benign ghost.  “There was a feeling of peace,” she said.  Of course it could have been the sherry she was nipping.

I stayed by myself in the same dorm, perhaps the same room, a couple of times and was visited by nothing, not even a mouse.  A niece, in another college dorm room, felt an invisible presence holding her down for a terrifying few moments.  Dorm rooms seem to attract either spirits or stories about them.  Perhaps I’m just not tuned into the specters of academia.  The only presence I ever felt in my college dorm room was the astral projection of the housemother, looking for forbidden beer—but maybe that was paranoia.

It’s not that I lack the imagination to believe in ghosts.  Not long ago on television I saw “The Uninvited” with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, a spooky 1940s ghost movie set on the foggy English moors.  It had scared me to the brink of enuresis when I was 10 and as an aging skeptic, alone in my basement, I felt the hair rise on my neck and I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.

Maybe I’m with ghosts like poet Gillette Burgess was with purple cows: “I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one….”  Ditto ghosts for Joel Vance.


You really should buy my books because they’re quite entertaining and besides I need the money.

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  • December 7th, 2010

County Fair

By Joel M. Vance

My home, Missouri, has 114 counties and on any week during July there will be a county fair somewhere.

Missouri, in common with much of the Farm Belt, had been drought-stricken one long summer.  A seemingly endless parade of high pressure systems sailed across the weather map, bringing high, blue skies and numbing heat.  It was a bleak time for farmers, seldom relieved.  The county fair offered a day and a night away from the relentless drought.

Farming today is a precarious business at best, always threatened by economic ambush or by weather.  The average farmer, even one who lives on a farm (many don’t) does not subsist on the land–if he subsists on anything, it is government subsidy.

Once I tried to find someone who still butchers his own meat and came up with only one name–and he was a teacher who did it as a sort of curiosity, a living history exhibit.  The concept of subsistence farming went out with the end of World War Two when huge war machines became huge farming machines and the idea was more and bigger fields, all financed by the banks.

Farmers bought additional land at high prices, riding a crest they thought never would break.  Farming was on an economic high as intoxicating as drugs and bankers and farmers alike succumbed to its lure.  Then the wave crested and dashed on the rocks of reality and many farmers couldn’t make enough to pay the interest.

Those in the economic shadows looked to a big crop to come back into the sun.  .  And then it got dry in May and stayed dry and the crops withered in the field and there wasn’t much to do about it but rattle into town in the morning and sit in the coffee shop and bitch about the lack of rain. Everybody talks about the weather, but no one can do anything to change it.

Only thing to do was go to the fair and throw baseballs at weighted milk bottles, as hard as you could.  The fair I went to was not much different than any other county fair–a little shabbier than some, but better than others.  Rural celebrations are more real than the manufactured, glossy shows of urban areas.

The shimmering July heat dissipated with evening, but the sky remained cloudless, rainless.  The rickety Midway rides clinked and whistled.  More obvious was the bellowing roar of mud marathon competitors near the grandstand.  The brute engines snarled and trumpeted like great beasts in the jungle.  More than 100 competitors, a record, drove massive pickup trucks into a 50-yard pit that had been hosed to a quagmire.  The idea was to see how far they could go before they bogged down.

It is today’s version of when braces of oxen strained against stone boats.  In my youth, tractors pulled a skid onto which waiting men would step, one by one, as the sled drew even with them.  Sooner or later, the tractor would lose traction and spin its tires.

On the face of it, it was baffling that thousands of farmers would pay to see farm vehicles drive through mudholes when drought had baked the land like an overdone pizza.  Maybe it was the sheer delight of seeing wet soil again.

Fairs have changed from the time when the most important competition was among virile bulls or the most successful home economists.  The woman who puts up the finest jar of peach preserves today finds her name buried far down in the columns of the local paper, but the winner of the demo derby will have a photo and a headline.

The fairgoers are a mixture.  An old farmer wore new striped Big Smith overalls and a clean cap.  A slinky blond wore too much makeup, a tank top and shorts designed for a junior high cheerleader which she might have been a decade earlier.  Heavyset farm wives displayed a lifetime of starchy food.

Older men were weathered; the young bucks muscled under rolled-up sleeves or T- shirts. Maybe it was my imagination, but the Fair had a forced cheerfulness about it.  Nature had betrayed the farmer. The cornstalks were fired and spiky.  Soybeans were ankle high when they should have reached nearly to the waist.  Bankers were acting nervous, like a cottontail when the coyote is hungry.

The local conservation agent manned two exhibits, one featuring stretched and cured pelts of Missouri furbearers, the other titled “Farming and Wildlife.”  No one even paused to look at the latter because the question is farming and survival, not farming and wildlife.  But the furs were popular, and the agent explained pelt differences to two young girls who fingered the sleek, short hair of a beaver hide, maybe dreaming of becoming Lauren Hutton alighting from a gleaming Chrysler.

No professional promoter puts on the Platte County Fair.  It is volunteer, from the grizzled farmers manning the ticket gate to the dentist who has a rickety booth advertising cut-rate orthodontics. I was hungry and wandered past the dentist to a booth featuring a fish dinner.  With iced tea, it cost $4.50 and I got a plate heavy with two generous chunks of scored, deep-fat fried carp, no doubt from the nearby Missouri River and possibly laced with most of the world’s known carcinogens.  But it was superbly done.  Carp cookery is an art.  It takes someone whose hand with smoking lard oil, cornmeal, salt and pepper is as sure as that of George of the Ritz’s with a crepe.

There were the obligatory side dishes of baked beans and cole slaw and I fell to hungrily, then headed back to the building where there was to be a fiddle contest.  In an adjoining building, a teenage rock band, cheap amps cranked to the max, shouted incoherent lyrics to girl friends and a few contemporaries.  The fair crowd was not partial to heavy metal.

But the local bluegrass band filled the hall.  They played for an hour before the fiddlers’ contest.  Fiddling has been a Missouri music staple for more than a century.  Decades ago there were fiddling contests in the Capitol; now the contests are sadly gone, leaving only the wind and confusion of a typical state legislature without music.

They once were called Old Fiddlers’ Contests, but so many of the old fiddlers now play “Billy in the Lowground” in some celestial contest that they’ve done away with age discrimination.  Today’s old fiddler is likely to be a teenager.  There is a curious generation gap–contestants either are in their 70s or are younger than 30.

Fiddlers must play a standard piece, then a waltz, finally a “show tune.”  But the “Orange Blossom Special” is banned from contests.  Every fiddler would choose it because of its pyrotechnics.

A young woman from Kansas began with a Cajun tune and her clear, simple playing transported us to a fais do do in Lafayette, down in Sout’ Louisian’.  She got a big hand and smiled a sweet smile that had to earn points in the judging, no matter what the rules say.  Her waltz was the “Missouri Waltz.”  No fool this kid–this is Harry Truman country.

A tiny boy, sitting on the dirty floor of the wooden building where the contest was held was mesmerized by the throbbing fiddle.  A rawboned man laughed at him and he ducked his head in teary embarrassment.  The girl’s show tune was “Redwing,” unadorned, but with full-throated tone.  She hit the notes squarely without squawk.

Presently the judges returned and she was the winner of $125 and a big trophy.  She played a couple of numbers with the bluegrass band and then the crowd, its attention diverted by the distant grandstand tumult, began to evaporate.

Out on the Midway, a young farmer with sleeves rolled up on his blue work shirt stared up at the Basketball Throw: “Two Goals Wins” and rubbed his hands on his dirty jeans.  From this angle anything was possible and he reached in his pocket for a quarter.

I headed out into the clear, starry night and looked to the West where the last traces of daylight showed a few clouds.

Anything was possible.


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