Archive for April, 2011

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  • April 27th, 2011

Romeo and Juliet…Dog Version

Joel and Would-Be Lover

By Joel M. Vance

I grew up with the stories of Albert Payson Terhune, whose noble collies approached canine romance as if it were a royal wedding.  Prince William and Kate Middleton are pikers when compared to Terhune’s four-legged lovebirds.
And then I matured (somewhat) and got into bird dogs and found that the reality of dog breeding is somewhat less enchanting than Romeo and Juliet.  Before our first experiment I still had fresh in my mind the hot ovulatory odyssey of a friend who spent $2,800 for a puppy with half a tail.
My friend had a pointer bitch that came of age.  The friend and her husband discussed transporting the lascivious lady to a nationally famous male, winner of top field trials.  Her veterinarian (who, it might be said, had nothing to lose and, as it turned out, a whole lot to gain) urged the couple to go for it.
The going involved a 2,000-mile round trip to Georgia.  The vet had taken vaginal smears and declared that the bitch was ripe for defiling.  The virgin had other ideas.  Dogs don’t really seem to enjoy procreation.  I’ve watched slugs mate on public television and they enjoy a languorous, positively lascivious courtship.  The frantic, often painful encounter between a pair of horny dogs seems more like a gang rumble than a moment of bliss.
When the couple arrived at the male’s kennel their female was outraged at the indecent proposal.  She snarled and snapped at the lusting male.  It took two strong men to hold her while the stud had his way with her.  “It was a rape,” my friend reported.
It also was unsuccessful.  The breeder allowed only one mating, with no guarantee of a pup (He was a breeder who needed to take up another line of work).  The couple had expected a second mating as insurance.  But the only thing in writing was the $500 check for the stud fee.
The investment included travel, motel and a novelette-sized sheaf of vet bills.  The worst was yet to come.  When the female failed to conceive the owner of the stud agreed to provide nine drops of frozen semen for a shipping charge.

The tiny pipette of semen came in a container the size of a fraternity party beer keg.  Shipping bill?  Seventy-five dollars.
Frozen semen can only be implanted surgically and the surgery is tricky and major.  It took four hours and the bill was commensurate with the delicate nature of the operation.  This time the female was pregnant, but during hunting season, meaning they lost her services in the field.
Possibly as an in-your-face reaction to all the indignities perpetrated on her, the female produced only one puppy….which had to be delivered by cesarean section—basically a repeat of the operation that had put him there in the first place.  Understandably the groggy bitch blamed everything on the tiny stranger at her bosom and tried to kill it.  For the next nine nights my friend dosed the mother with tranquilizers to send her to dreamland so the puppy could nurse.
During the day, while my friend struggled to earn enough to pay the horrific bills, the pup and bitch went to the vet for in-house care.  On the tenth day the bitch finally accepted her son…but some time in the first week she had bitten its tail which became infected.  About 25 percent of the tail fell off, a serious cosmetic defect for a pointer.
And, adding insult to multiple injury, a neighborhood mutt bred their stay-at-home dog through a fence.  The couple no longer is married which may or may not be a result of the dog breeding nightmare, but it certainly didn’t help.
Despite the warning signs from this story we decided to enter the arcane world of canine concupiscence.  Traditionally the bitch is brought to the male.  That seems like a bit of chauvinistic animal husbandry, but there is logic behind it.  Presumably the owner of the female will sell puppies and realize great revenue while the dog owner gains either pick of the litter or a stud fee—relatively small potatoes.  Those who reason this way also frequent Las Vegas, optimistically planning to beat the house.
Pepper was our first potential momma.  She was two.  Our son, Andy, who was owned by Pepper, and I drove her to Minneapolis for her assignation with a stocky French Brittany named Baron.  We were so new to dog transport that we didn’t have a portable kennel—the car was our PortaPet and it began to reek like a barnyard.
Pepper wore black panties that my wife Marty had designed to keep the dog from dripping on the upholstery.  Females in heat do much self-maintenance and Pepper’s breath would have dropped buzzards from the sky.  She roamed the back seat, often plopping her paws on my shoulder to look through the windshield.  She panted in my face and I tried not to run off the road.
Each time we stopped for gas I’d strip Pepper’s lacy underthings off so she could pee, hoping to God that some burly redneck wasn’t at the next pump peering into our car to see what was going on.  Once I forgot and paraded Pepper in her Victoria’s Secret ripoff across the parking lot of a Quik-Stop where a bevy of customers gawked and snickered.
Pepper positively flounced as if she were proud of the damn things.  I trailed at the other end of the leash, looking as comfortable as the featured guest at a hanging.
The family who owned the male were strangers and we stood awkwardly in their garage as Pepper was introduced to her Dream Lover.  Baron looked bewildered (it was his first time also).  Pepper danced around him, tapping him with a coy paw.  She was as brazen as Madonna and he was still in his L’il Abner stage.  Pepper backed up to him, peering over her shoulder like a long haul truck driver jockeying a rig into a narrow alley.
Baron, after looking to his owners for guidance and finding only embarrassed faces and averted eyes, finally let genetics rule and he and Pepper scattered their virginity all over the garage.  But dog passion is short-lived and then comes the uncomfortable part.  The dogs “tie” and remain so until the male’s penis shrinks enough to set them free.  At this time both dogs want nothing more than to go their separate ways, caught up in a whirlwind of second thoughts.
Baron seemed to fear the connection was permanent.  Pepper glared at me as if it were my fault.  “Just hang loose,” I told Baron in a spectacularly inappropriate choice of words.  “I mean, take it easy—it’ll all be over soon.”   We stood around making small talk, trying to ignore the discomfited dogs.  Pepper subsequently had eight puppies and totaled another 20 or so before we retired her from motherhood, by which time I’d gotten pretty blasé about dog sex.
Marty is not quite as relaxed about as I am which probably is because she was forced to become a sexual facilitator for Ginger, one of our resident females.  This was before Pepper and even before our friend’s unhappy experience with the short-tailed pointer puppy.
At that time we knew nothing about breeding dogs.  Popular written material ignored the grimy mechanics and made dog romance more like Beethoven and his Dearly Beloved rather than Chip and Ginger.  We couldn’t find any gut level how-to-do-it.
Our vet rubbed his hands eagerly when he saw our old car clatter into his driveway.  He and I have had a vacation relationship for years.  He takes them and I pay for them.  “She’s in heat,” he announced after a series of tests worthy of the Brothers Mayo.  I could have told him that since Chip, our male dog, was busy climbing the ceiling and howling like a timber wolf with his naughty bits caught in a food processor.
Ginger, like my friend’s bitch, was highly uninterested in consummating this romance.  “We’ll have to help her out,” the vet declared, mentally adding a couple of days’ beach time in Belize.  “Helping out” was a euphemism for assisted assault.
I quickly arranged to be far out of town when the event occurred, so Marty inherited the task of vet’s assistant.  Without going into graphic detail, Marty was delegated to hold Ginger’s head and comfort her with soothing words while the vet worked at the other end like a crap shooter going for a lucky seven.
When I came home I was confronted by two females, both bristling and snarling.  The mildest comment was “Never again!”
And that was from Ginger.
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  • April 19th, 2011

“,,,,and the horse they rode in on.”

By Joel M.  Vance

I hate to be pessimistic, but has the country gone crazy or is it just me being an old fogey?  Six-year-old girls get felt up by security folks on one end of the airlines and air traffic controllers are asleep on the other.  Oh, yes, let’s not forget the drunken pilots in the middle and the airplanes themselves coming apart in midair.
We have  full body scans (when they’re not molesting little girls they want to make sure you don’t have a gelignite suppository), boob squeezing, no shoes, no water bottles (could be nitroglycerine), grandmas up against the wall because their artificial joints set off alarms—any terrorist with half a brain (and that’s giving them more credit than they deserve) would have enough sense not to challenge the air security net unless they’re six years old with a Sesame Street backpack stuffed with 40 pounds of explosives.
Instead any halfway competent terrorist would self-destruct aboard a commuter train, crowded with people, or go to a Yankees or Mets game or a Michigan football game (read “Black Sunday” sometime about a plot to blow up the Super Bowl).  Or they’d load up a container ship with enough explosives or biological weapons to wipe out a major city and there you go.
Only today I read about a suicide bomber who killed a bunch of soldiers in Afghanistan, including four “coalition” troops, dressed in a “coalition” uniform.  He was one of them (us) and blooey!  There were two other incidents the same week where Taliban suicide bombers blew away our youngsters while wearing our side’s uniforms.

Why are we in that Godawful country anyway?  Unless we ran out of rocks when I wasn’t looking, there’s nothing there we need.  Oh, yes, they have lots of opium poppies without which our supply of heroin might dry up.  Couldn’t have that happen.
We got rid of a president who dumped us into two wars and instead got one who retained the two useless wars and dumped us into a third.  And the economy is crippled, largely because of the cost of these wars (leaving human misery out of the equation).  Somewhere I just read that “war has become the nation’s major industry.”  What a sad commentary on what we are.
Yes, terrorism exists and yes, it is a threat to the country….but we have confused security with abrogation of basic rights and of the freedom to pursue happiness.  The government invades our privacy in myriad ways and justifies it all as “national security.”  And we buy the loss of basic human (no, make that “American”) rights as okay since we’re “safer.”  There actually were folks on television saying it was okay for an airport security guard to do to the six-year-old what would have gotten anyone else thrown in prison.  They felt “safer.”  They should have been outraged.
We are a frightened and unsure nation, filled with confused people all the way to the top.  On any given day Congress does more stupid things than most people do in a year.  The President, doesn’t matter which one—they all cave in—makes ringing pronouncements and nothing gets done.
Who can we elect when nonentities like Donald Trump or Michelle Bachman are even considered as viable Presidential candidates?  And what does it say about the news media who give these nutcases air time and ink?  Right now the 2012 slate of potential presidential candidates ranges from awful to even worse.  Doesn’t matter the party (I keep harking back to Will Rogers who said, “I belong to no organized party—I’m a Democrat.”)
We have many really stupid people wearing little hats ringed with tea bags who somehow equate themselves with the Minutemen of colonial times.  They brag about upholding the Constitution and there isn’t one in a hundred who has the foggiest idea of what’s really in that document and how it has been interpreted over the years or what it should mean to them.
They get their information from Fox News, owned by an Australian whose history is “nevermind the facts, give ‘em sensationalism and stir up the rabble—sells newspapers.”  Anyone who hires Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and several other lynch mob advocates cannot in any way be called responsible.  Edward R. Murrow and the pioneers of real television journalism before CBS became, like the other networks, a celebrity showcase, must be whirling in their graves.
Old people like me will recall when Lyndon Johnson famously said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation” after newsman Walter Cronkite, called “the most trusted man in America”, visited Viet Nam and returned to say we had no chance of “winning,” whatever that meant.  Or when Murrow took on the evil Joe McCarthy and destroyed him.  Today we have budding McCarthys and no Murrow.  We have three mini-Viet Nams and no Cronkite.
Discounting Fox News, which is no more a news organization than the Cartoon Network, the mainstream outlets are a paper tiger.  When CBS tried to film the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration said no, it was a matter of national security, and CBS caved in.  Other attempts to film the damage also were thwarted by British Petroleum and the administration, which doesn’t say much for Obama’s dedication to the First Amendment.  It also says something about his cozying up to the oil giants, no matter how egregious their behavior.
And, speaking of oil giants, how does this make you feel, American taxpayer, to know that Exxon Mobil, yes the company that created the other historic oil spill in Alaska, paid no federal income tax in 2009.  Chevron made $10 billion profit and also got a $19 million rebate.  Other major corporations, including some of the banking giants who tanked the economy with their bad loans, got incredible tax breaks.  And of course the CEO’s of those groups all are making obscene salaries for being incompetent and criminally negligent.
That many people believe the crap that oozes from Fox News is a measure of how dumbed-down and frightened we have become.  If you think “no child left behind” will solve our educational shortcomings, ask a teacher.  You’ll quickly find that good teachers, those who think outside the box, who challenge their kids and try to make them think, are constrained and constricted inside the narrow confines of that program which strives not to encourage exceptional students, but to make everyone average.
The country is so confused and frustrated that it’s almost understandable why some would turn to a Tea Party (which really is no organized political party) in hopes that there might be a solution for all our turmoil.  That’s the underlying problem—we have a country falling apart and we don’t know what to do about it.
We vote for presidents who promise a thousand points of light or a new day or whatever and it’s the same ol’.  We elect representatives who prove to be just as venal, incompetent and sleazy as the ones we turned out.  We cry out for health care reform, banking reform, reins on corporate greed, environmental reform….and nothing happens or what does is so twisted and perverted that it winds up being worse than the problem it was supposed to solve.
Out here at the end of a dead-end gravel road is 40 acres of woods, a small lake with bass, sunfish and channel catfish, no sodium vapor yard light to corrupt the night sky, no through traffic, 10 affectionate Labs and Brittanies, dogwoods currently in full bloom, a gobbler seeking companionship just over the ridge.  Louis Armstrong from the 1950s is on the radio, the spring sun is shining and the garden is sprouting.
When night comes we can and do shut off the television and the radio, put the newspaper in the recycle bin, pour a glass of cabernet and sit on the deck and watch the stars.  I saw a UFO the other night.  I’m sure I did—it was a steady, bright light, not a plane or a satellite, that flared briefly and slowly faded.  Perhaps the truth really is out there.  One can only hope.
But until the little green men come down and straighten out the mess we’re in, my mantra has become, “Screw ‘em all and the horse they rode in on.”
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  • April 14th, 2011

Keep ’em Separate

By Joel M. Vance

Let me quote several statements and see which one(s) you agree with.
1. “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
2. “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
3.  The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretense, infringed.”
4.  [T]he Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…
And finally,
5. “It [the social philosophy] will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life.
If you subscribe to the last statement and are angered by the other four you probably lean extremely right, hang tea bags from your NRA ball cap and think Obama is a communist Muslim born anywhere but the United States.
The last statement belongs to Adolph Hitler, 1933.
The first three belong to James Madison, called the Father of the Constitution (No. 3 is his original wording for the First Amendment).  No. 4 is from the Treaty of Tripoli, approved by Congress and John Adams in 1797.
Understand I am not espousing any alternative religion (i.e. Muslim) or making a plea for secularism, agnosticism or atheism.  Just a Madisonian plea for separating church and state, no matter the church.  The state is the United States of America, no other.
And, yes, I am well aware that we are one nation “under God” and “in God we trust.”  Muslims say, “God is great ” and the militant among them reinforce that with bullets and bombs.  I have no objection to the Pledge of Allegiance reference to God, nor to spending money with trust in God printed on it.
Just as long as the government does not mandate that I sally forth armed with lethal weapons and presumably operate under God’s banner.  Imposing what churchy folks have interpreted as God’s will has caused more heartache than any other cause in the history of Christian nations (think the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Ku Klux Klan).
The right wing is fond of saying we are “a Christian nation” and trumpeting the values of a “nation founded on Christian principles” and the unlamented president George W. Bush was the champion of “faith-based initiatives” which amounted to giving government money (i.e. your money and mine) to religious groups.
Religious groups do wonderful work.  The Salvation Army is what charitable groups all should be.  They do it with the dollar bills that we all (I hope) religiously drop in their red buckets come Christmas time.  They don’t do their many good works with tax money.
To my simple mind “Christian principles” is summed up in the Golden Rule and if that has merit, then why are there so many intolerant, bigoted and mean-spirited S.O.B.s parading their Christian virtue?
Separation of church and state…it’s an old idea whose time has come and is in danger of being gone.  Increasingly a candidate’s church habits mean more than his or her ability to govern.
When Barrack Obama was running for President most of the attacks against him had a religious base—either his choice of preacher or the claim that he is a Muslim.  It has gotten so if a guy (or a girl, Hillary) doesn’t wear his religion like a uniform he or she is unfit to be President.
When did religion become a qualification for high office?  John Kennedy had to proclaim that he, not the Pope, would make decisions if he were elected, but that’s the first time I remember anyone worrying about how faithful the President was when the church bells tolled.
All our presidents have been religious to some extent, some more than others, but when George Bush started claiming that he got his directions from God, it was puzzling—God wasn’t on my ballot.
Almost every president has asked for help for the nation from God and that’s fine.  Many said that without God the nation could not function.  That also is fine.  That’s asking for help, but that is not the same as letting any religion dictate the course of events, policy or laws.  Iran is a theocracy and it’s doubtful any Christian, no matter how religious, would lobby for a Christian counterpart in this country to Iran’s Muslim-dominated government.
Abraham Lincoln was urged by the equivalent of the Christian right in his day to free the slaves immediately to which he replied, “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”
He reserved the right to make Presidential decisions, not wait for God to speak to him.  Obviously he chose the right course—but he chose it, although he may well have prayed through long nights for Divine guidance.
It wasn’t so long ago that Jews in this country were discriminated against and considered unfit for country club membership or in many other areas open to Christians.  Now Jews are integral to the community and Israel is our primary ally in the Mideast, supported with money and political zeal.
This is not because of any sudden tolerance for the Jewish religion, but because of the shifting winds of politics.  We still tolerate Saudi Arabia, from whence came most of the 9/11 terrorists, not because we endorse their religion but because so far we haven’t had to go to war with the Saudis….and they have a lot of oil.
International politics and various religions are a crazed spider web like that spun by a spider on LSD.  We can’t do much about the realities of the rest of the world, but we should be able to control our own system when it pertains to government and religion.
As long as the Tea Party fruitcakes dominate the right and as long as the right has the clout it currently has grabbed we are in danger of losing the fundamental separation of church and state.  Deep six that historic element of our country and you might as well give up individual liberty and other fundamentals of our freedom.  The camel’s nose is firmly in the tent.
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  • April 8th, 2011

RUNNING THE FASS BRICK

It is the end of an era of sorts.  Gary Filbert recently died.  He was 80.  Gary had been director of the Show-Me State Games, a landmark sports program that involved folks from all ages in various competitive sports.  Before that he was coach of the Missouri Western College basketball team and before that he was athletic director/basketball coach at Mexico High School when I was the sports editor at the Mexico Evening Ledger.
For a decade we hung around together, went canoeing on the Little Piney, played on a town team basketball team, partied and were, most important, friends.  Of all those years, I most remember one incident.  I wrote about it and here is what I wrote:
Gary  Filbert was the Mexico Bulldog basketball coach.  He had been a couple of years ahead of me in college, a Marine Corps veteran called “Pops” by the rest of the team because he was 24 years old to their 18-20, married and with children.
He was a fine coach who later went on to a successful career coaching the Missouri Western College basketball team and finally as the administrator of the Show-Me State Games, an annual event that gathers pickup teams in various sports from around the state which became the largest and most successful such program in the country with nearly 40,000 entrants.  The Games have an estimated $8-9 million direct impact on Boone County where the University of Missouri/Columbia is located, and $15-16 million or more in indirect benefits.
Gary and I became friends beyond the usual coach/reporter relationship (which sometimes is contentious and no fun—ask those who covered Bobby Knight or Vince Lombardi).   Gary and I went on a canoe trip together and caught green sunfish and we socialized.  But Gary was not beyond using my sports page criticism to inspire the team.  “You gonna let that little son of a bitch talk about you that way!” he said before a big game. The Bulldogs came snarling out of the locker room, determined to show the local press how tough they were and they did.
It might not have been Knute Rockne exhorting his team to win one for the Gipper, but it had the same effect.  I never held it against him—probably would have done the same thing myself.
He allowed me to play on a town basketball team which mostly featured him and a couple of the other coaches.  We played other town teams and, for me, the excitement came in having a real uniform that fit.  When I was a freshman in high school I weighed about 112 pounds and there were no uniforms small enough for me, so I wore one that hung on me like a banner reading “Benchwarmer!”  I also didn’t own a jock strap and was terrified that my briefs would become as loose as the uniform pants (which in those days were short, unlike the baggy knee-length britches of today) and would expose my shortcomings.
Gary hosted the coach of the French Moroccan national basketball team, a budding athletic program that then probably played on the level of a fairly good American junior high school.  Moktar (either last or first name—I never did learn) was to spend a week with Gary and his family and he supposedly had some English.
I supposedly had some French—13 hours, of which none were conversational.  “You know anybody that speaks French?” Gary asked.
“Well, I had some in college…” I began.
“You’re my interpreter!” Gary declared in a tone which brooked no disagreement.  “Make this guy feel at home.”
“Feeling at home” was impossible if I couldn’t figure out a way to import the Moroccan desert.  It was midwinter when Moktar deplaned after dark in St. Louis, a bitter wind dropping the wind chill far below the mid-20s air temperature.  There were no palm trees, camels or other trappings of his native land.  I also couldn’t speak Spanish, Arabic or Berber, the other languages of the country.
To make it even more traumatic for the poor kid (and he wasn’t much older than I was), Gary had organized a party to welcome Moktar.  Only problem was that while Gary was collecting Moktar in St. Louis we were back in Mexico sucking up beer.  By the time the exhausted Moroccan and Gary got back to the house we were having a wonderful time.
I’ve often wondered since what this bedeviled Bedouin thought.  Plopped down in a foreign country after an exhausting flight, barely able to speak rudimentary English, then a 100 mile ride through a bitter, snowy night with someone who spoke no French, then dragged into the middle of a bunch of boisterous drunks.  I don’t know if he was Muslim or not, eschewing alcohol, but I feel pretty sure he wasn’t in the mood to tie one on.
I really liked Moktar and desperately wanted to make his brief stay in the United States a meaningful moment in international relations.  It devolved into something more like Graham Greene’s The Ugly American, but not because I wanted it that way.
The next day Gary corralled me and we headed for Columbia to meet with Kent Kurtz, the basketball coach at University High School.  Moktar and I chatted on the way to Columbia, mostly in sign language and free form French that would have had Ward Dorrance, my college French professor, writhing on the floor, clutching his roiling stomach.
It’s amazing how chummy you can get with someone who is in the same boat you are.  Moktar spoke English just about as good as I spoke French.  My only advantage was a French-English dictionary, which I clutched like a dead chicken.  When we stumbled on an unfamiliar word (about every third or fourth one), we’d pass the book back and forth, depending on which language we were mangling at the moment.
My secreted copy of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller never got thumbed as avidly as that dictionary. Then we reached Columbia and met Kent in the gym which was alive with the echoing sounds of basketballs and player shouts, a sound that instantly evokes memories in anyone who ever played for a small town team in a gym with a varnished floor, turned orange by age, with dim lights and backboards only inches from the wall.  “This is Moktar,” Gary said.  “And this is our interpreter.”
Kent shook hands with me, unsure whether I was French, Moroccan or maybe somebody from the State Department.  “He’s the Ledger sports editor,” Gary added.  “Explain how you run the fast break.”
Kent launched into an involved explanation which I would have had trouble translating into real English, much less French.  “Eh, bien,” I mumbled.  “Le fast break, vous comprenez?”
“Fass brick?” Moktar said, his brow furrowed like a spring cropfield.  “Fass brick, qu’es-que ca?”
Vite!  Vite!” (Shit, what’s the French for “break”?).  “You know, I mean vous savez, le rebound et trouvez le balle downcourt…un moment!”
I frantically thumbed through the Good Book, looking for “rebound,” “downcourt” and other basketball terms that were not there.  And I realized that I’d told him to find the ball downcourt, not pass it there.  And Moktar looked close to tears.
This game he’d been hired to coach was impossible.  He’d come to learn the magic of basketball and all I could do was make it even more mysterious.  It was a low moment in international relations and possibly the root cause of Mideastern unrest in modern times.  Morocco never has had a world class basketball team, even as other nations have raised their court ability to compete with the United States.  It’s all my fault and I’m just really sorry.
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  • April 4th, 2011

Becoming Old Rusty

By Joel M. Vance

A dusty gravel road in rural Missouri in the 1940s.  I am 10 years old, learning to ride a red-and-white one-speed bicycle….and not doing well.  The damn thing consistently wants to run into the ditch and throw me, like my uncle’s devious pony which I have not learned to ride either.
A car comes along and I bend over the recumbent bicycle, my knees skinned, road grit embedded in various parts of me, as if examining the Hell Machine for needed maintenance.  I keep my head down so the driver doesn’t see my tears turning the road dust to mud.
No training wheels for me—I’m going to master this alien contraption if it kills me which it threatens to do.  But a couple of hours later I wobble down the road to the farmhouse, upright after a fashion, and begin a nearly seven-decade affair with the bicycle.
Before the summer ended I was transporting the little girl from the next farm over on the ? bar, careening through the back pasture where fireflies sparkled in the night and possibilities were endless.
Years later, on an English three speed which I had bought at a yard sale and appropriately named Old Rusty, I sped through another night en route to work.  The streets were deserted in the pre-dawn and the old bicycle with all those gears was a magic machine that effortlessly carried me past silent houses, bumping across the railroad tracks, all too soon at my office.
Then I went to work in a hill town and found that if I wanted to ride to work, five miles away, I needed more than three gears.  Old Rusty went to the shed and continued to live up to its name.  I got a 10-speed Motobecane Grand Record, one of the better road bikes of the 1970s.
My legs became as tempered steel. I rode 100 miles in a charity race, five miles out, five miles back ten times with a penny per mile pledged by my sponsors who had no idea I was trying to break their charity bank.  I led all riders that day and got to eat lunch with city dignitaries who seemed baffled by anyone who would even want to ride 100 miles on a bicycle.
There were hazards in bicycle commuting.  Twice cars unaccountably turned into my path, forcing me to slam on the brakes and hit the road in a reprise of that long ago day on the gravel road.  I invented new and admirable combinations of time-tested curse words.
Another time a woman passenger, holding a baby, spit on me as they passed me.  I still ponder that from time to time, wondering if the kid grew up to be Charles Manson.
Then I drifted away from bicycling, a function of age, I thought—but in retrospect it was more because of laziness.  One day after my bicycles had been stored for years, I looked at the Motobecane and was shocked to find it rusted, a revisitation of Old Rusty.  Shamed into action, I reconditioned the Motobecane and also a newer Trek with 18 speeds.
I grimly launched on Missouri’s Katy Trail, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails project, riding eight miles the first day, 13 the next.  I was back in business on a limited basis. If I still were in the business of riding 100 miles in a day I could do the length of the Katy in two days and a morning.  The Katy ultimately will stretch from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers near St. Charles in eastern Missouri to Kansas City.
The Katy as a bicycling/hiking trail dates to 1986 when train service stopped between Machens in eastern Missouri to Sedalia in the west.  The National Trails System Act provides that abandoned rail rights-of-way can be set aside in case they’re ever needed again.
A sugar daddy was necessary so the state could buy the railbed and he was Ted Jones, the creator of the nationwide network of Edward D. Jones investment offices founded in St. Louis by his father.  Ted Jones and his wife Pat chipped $2.2 million into the Katy project.  Subsequently Union Pacific donated 33 miles of trail from Sedalia to Clinton and other money helped shape today’s 225 mile total.
Once the Missour-Kansas-Texas Railroad was a thriving business.  It came to life the same year the Civil War ended, linking border state Missouri with free state Kansas and slave state Texas.  Whatever enmity remained from the war gave way to free commerce among the former enemies.
Perhaps the most bizarre moment in the history of the Katy was when William Crush, the railroad’s general passenger, arranged as a publicity stunt to have two locomotives collide like two mammoth rams butting heads.  There were 40,000 spectators to see the event…and three of them died when the locomotive boilers exploded, scattering shrapnel in all directions.
Today the former railbed of the Katy in Missouri is a state park, heavily used by bicyclists and hikers.  My 100-mile days (and legs) behind me, I choose now  to ride 10 miles or so at a time and as if it were planned, there are small towns just about every 10 miles where a cyclist can stoke up on food and beverages (including at several wineries).
The Trail didn’t come without controversy.  Adjacent landowners claimed they owned the abandoned railbed but they lost that fight.  Some snarled that they would be overrun by hippies smoking dope, scattering trash and killing livestock, probably for Satanic rites.
Today you’d be hard-pressed to find any trash on the trail (NASCAR driver Carl Edwards sponsors a segment of Adopt-a-Trail, a volunteer program to clean up any trash), the cows graze contentedly (and undisturbed) along the Trail, and it’s doubtful anyone smokes dope because it’s too hard on the lungs.
Historically towns along the track were called whistle stops.  Now they are where cyclists can wet their whistles.  Most have facilities, including restaurants and lodging and for a few the Trail has meant rescue from ghost townhood.  On any given Saturday morning in Rocheport, the Trailside Café will be jammed with cars and cyclists coming and going east toward McBaine or west toward Boonville and the streets of the historic little town which once headquartered the Civil War sociopath Bloody Bill Anderson, will swarm with Lycra-clad visitors.
I sometimes ride with other geriatric survivors from my working days.  In warm weather I try to be on the Trail by 8 a.m. when it still is cool.  Much of the Trail borders the Missouri River, often so close that if you veer too close to the edge of the Trail you might take a bath in the Big Muddy.
Much of the Trail huddles under spectacular cliffs, some soaring 400 feet straight up.  Once there was a pair of goats that promenaded on miniscule ledges far above the trail in Cole County, but they vanished—perhaps the victim of someone with a .30-06 and delusions of African safaris
Five miles west from the North Jefferson trailhead is a pair of benches and a picnic table, looking out on the Missouri River.  The benches are in memory of Mel Carnahan, former Missouri Governor who won a race for the United States Senate several weeks after he died in a plane crash.
The picnic bench is in memory of Mark Sullivan a close friend and co-worker who took up bicycling in his retirement and organized an annual ride and picnic on the Trail.  Now the annual picnic is named for him.  I stop at the table and think about the times we hunted ducks and played basketball together.
The last time I saw Mark was on the Katy Trail.
The Missouri River flows along the Trail over half of its length, from Jefferson City to St. Charles.  The moody Muddy sometimes slips its banks and chews chunks of the Trail, but the Department of Natural Resources is quick to repair the damage.  In 1993 and again in 1995 the Missouri swelled from bluff to bluff, closing major highways and cutting the southern half of the state off from the north, save for a couple of high bridges.
Those were supposed to be 500-year floods, but the river that led Lewis and Clark west does what it pleases when it pleases.  In August it can be low flow enough to expose huge sandbars, ideal for a campout.  Cyclists can wave to the river campers.  Barge traffic has nearly ceased on the big river, although taxpayers continue to prop it up as they have for 100 years.  Now most boating on the Missouri is by canoe or motorboat.
One day I rode from McBaine to Rocheport and passed a marker identifying a campsite used by Lewis and Clark near the start of their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5.  Though the river has been shackled and debased by levees, wing dikes and other manmade intrusions, it’s still possible to feel a frisson of history, especially if you’re all alone on the Trail and of a romantic mind.
Having outlived the original Old Rusty and having lived with the second incarnation for 30 years, I’ve concluded that I’ll rust out before my bicycle.
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