Archive for May, 2011

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  • May 30th, 2011

Nature’s Undertaker

By Joel M. Vance

I was motionless on a deer stand in northern Missouri when they drifted out of the dawn mist like black wraiths and the chill I felt had nothing to do with the morning temperature.

They settled into the tree above me with an unsettling rustle of funereal vestments, grim attendants to the possibly dead.

I swallowed heavily and the deglutitive gurgle was audible in the numbed silence, even to the turkey vultures who cocked their heads slightly.  Did I sense prim disappointment that I gave evidence of life?  Perhaps it was my imagination.

Buzzards are properly called vultures.  We probably could live without them (people do), but life would be a bit more messy.  They are the manure bug of the skies, performing a vital function…but most people don’t want to know about it.

Turkey vultures are as familiar in North American skies in the summer as the fleecy cumulus clouds with which they keep company.  Vultures have exalted the art of soaring and playing amid the invisible currents of air. Their airborne antics would make any glider pilot gnash his teeth in frustration when in buzzard company, for he is doomed to rejoin the earth long before they must.  Only on the ground is the turkey vulture awkward.

Nothing is more overcome with panicky clumsiness than a vulture when surprised by a fast-approaching automobile while it snacks on some creature who dueled with Michelin Radials and lost.  Of all the birds, vultures offer the most clear and demonstrable service to humanity.  They eat offal that otherwise could putrefy and become a human health danger.

A prime mystery of the animal world is how a vulture escapes the microbes that laid low his dinner, but escape it they do.  Experiments have shown that vultures have dined on enough anthrax or botulin to have killed susceptible animals ten times over…with absolutely no ill effects, not even heartburn.

Yet, for all the invulnerability of the buzzardial digestive tract, I can find no ongoing studies of why.  Don’t you want to know why toxins so terrible they make warmongers blanch and terrorists thrill go through vultures like ice cream through a child?

Whatever neutralizing agent lurks within the convoluted colon of a buzzard must be a powerful one indeed and it’s somehow comfortingly ironic to think that perhaps the cure for cancer can be found in the digestive processes of a bird scorned by some, ignored by most and that lives on rotted meat.

One study showed vultures easily outdid coyotes and crows in manufacturing antibodies to botulinum toxins.  Another focused on enteric pathogens, including Salmonella in the intestines of turkey vultures.  “Very little data exist on the intestinal microflora of carrion-feeding birds in general and ‘C. aura’ (turkey vultures) in particular, even though these birds may be reservoirs of bacterial pathogens,” concluded Donald Winsor, Allan Bloebaum and John Mathewson of the Biology Department of Angelo State University in Texas.

The lack of information on the digestive didoes of the vulture is typical of the total lack of appreciation of this fine bird.

Well, not total: there once existed, though tenuously,the Buzzard Council of America, founded in 1979 by a group of famous wildlife artists and outdoor enthusiasts.  The BCA grew by word of mouth until it numbered about a thousand members (I was a proud one).  Each year, America’s leading wildlife artists flipped a coin and the loser painted a buzzard stamp print.

The first was a turkey vulture, most common of North American vultures, the second a black vulture.  The third print was of the endangered California condor and the fourth (and final) print featured an African vulture.  The group became so popular that it began to dominate the careers of the artists and they shelved the organization until buzzard enthusiasm cooled a bit.  It has never, sadly, resurfaced.

A vulture’s cleanup duties are not altruistic.  They do it to survive.  Though members of the order Falconiformes, which includes hawks and eagles, buzzards rarely take live prey and really aren’t equipped to do it.  They’re slow and have feet more like chickens than like taloned raptors.  One writer described turkey vultures as “degenerate raptorial birds,” which could have been either a biological or social judgment.  The family name is Cathartidae which comes from the Greek word “kathartes” meaning “cleanser.”

Do buzzards stink?

One historic ornithologist, Elliott Coues, thought that the vulture not only stank horribly because of what it ate, but had an intrinsic stench that so deadened its olfactory sense that it didn’t mind diving headfirst into putrefying meat; however, I have been in petting range of a zoo buzzard and could detect no aroma at all, good or bad.  An ornithologist studying a nest found its young inhabitants aromatically inoffensive until they started eating carrion.  As some wise person said, “You are what you eat.”       Vultures have little sense of proportion and will dine on a juicy chunk of long-defunct mammal until they are too heavy to fly.  Then they sit around like overstuffed middle income television watchers until they digest enough to be able to fly.

There is almost nothing a vulture won’t eat if it’s dead.  Leonard Lee Rue III said he’d never seen a vulture dining on another vulture; although I once did and that scene has lingered with me as the epitome of something.  I haven’t decided what and try not to think about it.

However, one observer watched two turkey vultures snack on a defunct skunk and reported that they left the scent gland untouched.  Apparently even a vulture has its limits.

At close range a vulture of any species is of marginal beauty.  Its head is raw- skinned red and its feathers a dusty brown.  Most turkey vultures have the slightly frayed appearance of a seedy undertaker in some American frontier town whose customers generally wind up in the Boot Hill cemetery.

The turkey vulture has a six-foot wingspan which enables it to stay aloft almost endlessly on thermals rising from the heating earth.  Because nature’s elevators don’t start working until the sun gains authority, buzzards rarely soar before 9 a.m.  They often sit on damp mornings with wings outstretched, perhaps drying them.

Vulture parents are a mixture of good and bad.  They build no nest; the female lays two (sometimes one, sometimes three) eggs on the ground, often in a cave, crevice or hollow tree.

But both parents incubate the eggs for 30 to 40 days and both feed the young by regurgitation.  While it may not appeal to you nor me, pre-digested food (notice the euphemism, like “pre-owned car”)_works wonders on young vultures.  They’re ready for their maiden flight in eight to ten weeks.  They’re not bad looking as birds go–covered with a fleecy white down.  But that gives way to the bleak adult plumage.

Regurgitation is a neat trick (so to speak) often used by turkey vultures when threatened.  Vomiting may lessen their payload so they can make a quicker getaway or it may serve the same purpose as a skunk’s fusillade. If that doesn’t work, a vulture may collapse and appear dead.  No one knows if this is a purposeful escape maneuver or the result of psychological overload.

One playful ornithologist trapped several vultures and the birds, after realizing they couldn’t escape, all keeled over, whereupon the birdman decorated them with streamers, paper collars and colorful anklets, then freed them.

Barring accident (power lines are one threat, autos that surprise engorged birds another) a vulture can live a long, long time.  There are records of vultures living more than 100 years.

Ornithological literature does not abound with information on turkey vultures.  Most ornithologists seem slightly discomfited to be dealing with the birds and race through their meager life history as if rushing guests past a messy room.

Some writers are positively antagonistic to vultures.  The authors of Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America Edward Forbush and John May, said, “your Buzzard is a cowardly fowl and intends to take good care of his precious skin.  They often gather thus, not only about dead animals, but also about the sick or disabled when death seems imminent.  If the death of the victim seems assured, they approach their prey.  Over what follows, let us draw the veil.”

Ornithologists seem to feel honor bound to say something about vultures, though they’d rather be rhapsodizing about nightingales, so they salt their prose with apologies and disclaimers, then invariably speak of the bird’s grace on the wing.

It’s as if a historian were to write in graphic detail about the atrocities of Attila the Hun, then conclude, “But he was good to his mother.”

It’s true that a buzzard is not beautiful–but surely there must be a homelier bird somewhere.  Consider the superbly functional design: featherless head and neck, the better to shed gore.  Beak as sharp as poultry shears.  Raspy tongue to extract delicate morsels with the adroitness of a seafood gourmet picking at a lobster, feathered ruff a biological bib.

I find vultures much maligned, fascinating and likable.  They mind their own business, harm no one, perform a useful function without complaint and under working conditions that would have union workers on violent strike.  They’re poetry in motion and they seem to have a bit more brain than the average bird.

The one buzzard I was privileged to pet was a captive, fed on hamburger and, for all I know, chips and soft drinks.  It was curious, clever and friendly.  No buzzard ever started a war, though if there is an Ultimate War they will be in attendance after the gods “draw the veil over what follows.”

Were buzzards ever to fade from the skies our eyes would be the poorer.  Were they to change their diets, our health could be the poorer.

Up the buzzard!

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  • May 24th, 2011

The Utility Animal

By Joel M. Vance
Behold the most versatile animal on the planet.
The chicken.  No other creature offers so much, unless it is a ragingly-beautiful human with the mind of Einstein who is able to play point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.
People do not cherish the chicken for its intellect, however (one chicken lived for several months after its head was cut off).
Howard Kohn, in his wonderful book The Last Farmer, quotes a farm saying, “Scratch a chicken, By all you’ll find is chicken.”
But chickens put other domestic animals to shame when it comes to service to Man.  There are no cow eggs.  Cows do give milk, meat and hide, but they eat more, require more care and expense than a chicken which pretty well fends for itself.  And beyond a certain age, cows are limited.  Old cows aren’t prized for meat or milk, but an old chicken roasts up just fine for Sunday dinner.
You can’t tie exquisite trout flies from the body covering of a sheep.  Aside from wool and meat, the major contribution of a sheep is high-quality manure.
Pigs are pretty much a single talent animal.  They have to die and separate into component parts to serve…rather, to be served.  There are no fighting pigs, legal or otherwise.  Pig milk is not a premium item. Pork diffidently is shrouded by a disclaimer: it is “the other white meat” which implies a second place finish to “the first white meat.”
The turkey, however tasty, is largely a seasonal interloper while the chicken flavors evening meals year-round.  Ducks and geese are excellent on the table, but rare in the typical household.  None of the three lays eggs cherished by the multitude.
Ask any catfisherperson his or her favorite bait and chicken entrails, especially liver, will be high on the list.  Those same livers are beloved by country gourmands nationwide, nevermind that they are high in cholesterol—so is almost everything good.
The wild chicken was a belligerent animal and so are certain strains of present-day chickens–cockfighting, however reprehensible, occurs and you don’t hear about cow fights or sheep fights or even goose fights, though an aroused gander is a fearsome thing.
The chicken family is a delectable one on the table.  The chicken’s wild relatives (pheasants, quail, grouse and turkeys) are more numerous than ducks and geese, the only other domestic animals with widely-hunted wild counterparts.
Thus, the argument that the chicken is nature’s most valuable animal is hard to counteract.
Chickens, like most domestic creatures, evolved from wild animals.  An estimated 8,000 years ago a wild form of the chicken roamed in Southeast Asia (and still does).  Gradually it became domesticated to today’s barnyard fowl.
As domesticated animals, chickens are relative newcomers.  Most other farm animals succumbed to Man before the chicken—cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and even cats and dogs (the first to come in by the fire).  Chickens have been occupying our henhouses for about 4,000 years.  They were not native to North America and there are various theories as to how they got here, including a hitchhike with the Spanish conquistadors.
Today’s chicken is Rambo compared with the Pee Wee Herman fowl of yesteryear.  In 1923 the average chicken weighed 2.2 pounds at 16 weeks. Today that chicken would weigh nearly twice as much…at six weeks.  Size isn’t the only improvement in today’s chicken over those of our parents or grandparents.  A hen today lays about three times as many eggs as a hen did in 1930.
Also, the color of the egg has nothing to do with its taste or nutritive value.  Some breeds lay brown eggs, some white.  And the color of the yolk depends on what food the chicken eats–the more yellow the yolk does not mean the richer the egg.  And most of the dreaded cholesterol in an egg is of the “good” variety.
So there!
A fine book on chicken ranching is Backyard Poultry Raising by John F. Adams (Doubleday, 1977), a delightful mixtures of practical knowledge with wry insight.  Adams knows chickens.
Some discoveries about chickens come only with hands-on experience, literally.  During a chicken-killing/dressing operation which involved 80 birds, I found that you do not suffer chapped hands from immersing them in cold water all day because there is so much chicken fat involved it keeps your skin as soft as does the finest lotion.
I also found that flies attracted by the chicken blood bite fiercely, but your hands will be covered with gore, making it repugnant to swat.
These and many other lessons are available to the chicken aficionado.  Go into the barnyard and scratch out an education…..
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SIDEBAR

How to kill a chicken:  Do it on a cool to cold fall day. First cut off the head then stuff the bird neck down in the hole of a concrete block.  The birds can’t flop and will drain of blood.  Give it time to bleed and cool.  Extricate the chicken and dip it in near-boiling water.  This is a critical part of the process–if the water is too hot or the chicken is scalded too long the skin becomes tender and tears when you pluck the feathers.
You can hand pluck or use a commercial plucker which is a revolving drum studded with rubber “fingers” that drub the feathers off the bird.  It works amazingly well, leaving only a few long wing feathers and stubs here and there.
Finish-pluck by hand. There are several ways to dress a bird, but the objective is to separate the innards–organs and viscera–from the body.  First the feet come off (unless you want to dance the chicken for the kids).  Cut them at the knee joint, leaving the familiar drumstick attached to the body.
Then slice around the rump (some leave the rump attached, but I never knew anyone who ate chicken rumps and, frankly, never want to).  Insert the knife point on either side of the anus and slice up to the tip of the sternum.  Pull the rump away, exposing the intestines.  Take off your watch–it gets messy from here on out.
Reach inside and grip the gizzard, a large, hard organ that equates to the stomach in a person, and pull.  All the intestines come out with it.  Separate the gizzard (if you’re saving it) and toss it in cold water for finish work later).  Reach back into the body as far forward as possible and gently strip the liver and heart away from the body and withdraw them.
Put the heart aside.  The gallbladder is a small elliptical green-colored sac attached to the liver.  It must be carefully cut from the liver without puncturing the bile sac.  Bile is a lovely green color, but a bitter contaminant.  Excise the gallbladder and pitch it.
The liver is useful in two ways.  It is tasty as food, but quite high in cholesterol.  It also is the best possible channel catfish bait.  Fresh white intestines (as opposed to any other color) and stripped of their contents also are outstanding catfish bait.  Chicken liver is difficult to keep on a hook, so use a treble baitholder-type hook or tie the liver in a cheesecloth bag and run the hook through it.
After you finish with the rear end of the chicken, move to the front, cut excess skin from around the neck and strip out the crop and windpipe.  An alternative method is to cut on either side of the backbone with poultry shears, neck to rump, peel the backbone out and drag all the guts with it.  It’s easy to strip the lungs out, leaving a clean body cavity ready for cooking.  This method is ideal for frying- size chickens.
You can use neck and any other bones (if, for example, you bone the chicken) for the stock pot.  Some chicken gourmands nibble on the tip section of the wing, equivalent to eating a hand. I once knew a woman who fried the heads of chickens and ate the brains.  She also was fond of the soft pads of the feet.  She was not part of our dinner circle.

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  • May 17th, 2011

Dixie Days

By Joel M. Vance

The PBS special last night to observe the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders brought back all the sour taste of Montgomery, Alabama, in its most virulent, racist era.

We have our race baiters today, most working for the Fox so-called News Network, and they are just as odious as their Klan and White Citizens Council forebears.

Seeing, once again, the racist John Patterson still unapologetic for his unpardonable behavior made me ill all over again.  The blog below is from my memoir book “A Literary Weapon of Mass Destruction.”

 

DIXIE DAYS

By Joel M. Vance

 

I felt a glow of civic pride when Mr. Eisenhower took the oath of office in 1956 as a second term President because I had voted for him, my first chance to participate in the electoral process.

But it’s a long way from a glow to a visceral emotion that brought tears to my eyes, the way the Barack Obama inauguration did.  The presidents from Eisenhower to him paraded through my life, mostly having caused dyspepsia, excessive tooth-grinding and a sense of betrayal.

Not this one—I not only voted for our first black president, but also gave money to his campaign, the first time I loosed my normally tight fist to help out a political campaign.

And I am tired of hearing about Mr. Obama as “our first African-American president.”  He is, first of all, half white, second he is not from Africa, despite what the half-witted Birthers say, and third he is our president, all of us, black, white, yellow and red (or any combination thereof).  Let’s get off the race thing and let the man do the job.

When I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1956 the only job I could get, because of a looming military obligation, was with the now-defunct Montgomery, Alabama, Journal at $60 a week.

The Journal was the poor relative of the morning Advertiser where Grover Hall, Sr., the publisher, had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for taking on the Ku Klux Klan, but casual racism still prevailed, even in his relatively enlightened newsroom.  There were no black employees on the professional level.  Stories involving African Americans were segregated or non-existent except as they intruded on white society—the bus boycott and Ku Klux Klan rallies, for example.

Whatever Hall’s antipathy toward the Klan (and they mirrored those of decent white Alabamans), he still was a Southerner and believed in the separation of the races.  “Separate, but equal” was the watchword of liberal Southern whites, while the redneck racists believed in “separate and definitely unequal.”  And liberals trod lightly around the lynch mob. You never knew whose lawn the next cross would illuminate.

My co-worker and close friend Archie McKay had been a rural school principal when the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court decreed the end of school segregation.  “The school board asked me what I planned to do about it,” he said.  “I told them that I would obey the law.”  They fired him.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wound up his opinion in Brown v. Wade by saying, prophetically, “This ruling in favor of integration was one of the most significant strides America has taken in favor of civil liberties.”

Brown v. Board might have been the theoretical law of the land, but it still was years from reality in Alabama.  Alabama still would see police dogs set on peacefully-assembled blacks, and Gov. George Wallace would stoutly declare, “”I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in his 1963 inaugural address.

Oddly, Wallace was considered a closet liberal when I worked in Montgomery.  He was a district judge and was thought to harbor friendly feelings toward the black community.  This perception, whether warranted or not, cost him his first bid for the governorship in 1958 when John Patterson, who had the backing of the Klan, defeated him in the primary.  Wallace actually had the endorsement of the N.A.A.C.P.

Patterson had a distinguished past that, as far as anyone knew, did not include the wearing of bed clothing.  A Korean War combat veteran, he was the son of lawyer Albert Patterson who was gunned down in 1954 by persons unknown.  The elder Patterson, a Phenix City lawyer, had a history of defending racketeers who occasionally were stupid enough to get themselves indicted.

The younger Patterson ran for attorney general in his father’s place, campaigning on, as it were, the body of his father, and easily won.  He then led a mop up of Phenix City, then a sump pit of a town adjacent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, and that crusading effort in turn led to his candidacy for governor, opposing Wallace.

Wallace’s patron was Kissin’ Jim Folsom, his uncle by marriage and the incumbent governor who was among the more colorful of a long list of colorful Southern politicians.  By all accounts a sloppy drunk, he also was a shrewd politician whose base was rural redneck.  Ironically Folsom once invited Adam Clayton Powell, the famous and often notorious black New York City politician, to stay at the governor’s mansion.

That, needless to say, excited the good ol’ boys.  Big Jim (as he also was known) explained that it was the only way he could prevent Montgomery hotels from being integrated.  And it doesn’t say much for the mentality of his backers that they accepted this preposterous explanation.

It rings true that supposedly at a stump rally in some backwoods Alabama town, someone in the crowd shouted, “Hey, Jim, what’s that they’re sayin’ about you stealing all that money down to Montgomery?”

And Kissin’ Jim replied, “Hell yes, I stole—you want them city folks to get it all!”  The crowd cheered.

His nickname came from his penchant for planting sloppy kisses on babies and pretty girls.  Legend said that at a University of Alabama football game he scooped up a cheerleader and gave her a big kiss and she slapped the snot out of him in front of a full house crowd of Crimson Tide fans.

Folsom’s press conferences were highly informal, with Kissin’ Jim slouched in his chair, feet on the desk.  Once the police found him drunk and pissing against a wall in downtown Montgomery.  They let him go but made sure to tell the town’s newsmen, who wouldn’t report it because they enjoyed Folsom.  Hell, it was just good ol’ Jim relieving himself of an overdose of booze.  It was booze that cost him the governorship.  He appeared drunk on television in 1962 and when the primary election rolled around, he lost to his nephew, George Wallace.

Alabama politics, in common with those in most Southern states during the 1950s were incredibly decadent.  There was a procession of corrupt and usually racist louts as governors and Senators.  Among the most outrageous was Earl Long in Louisiana, whose brother Huey had been assassinated in 1935.  Earl K. (the “K” stood for “Kemp,” not “Klan” because Long’s political base had a strong black element) became notorious during his two terms as governor of the Pelican State.

Earl Long is given credit for the most famous line ever about politicians: “You know when a politician is lying—it’s when his lips are moving.”

Long’s second term coincided with my stay in Montgomery.  When the White Citizen’s Councils of Louisiana tried to purge the voting rolls of African Americans, Long rose to their defense, but did it so incoherently that his family tried to have him put away.  His infatuation with a stripper wonderfully-named Blaze Starr didn’t help his relationship with his wife Blanche.

Earl K. was portrayed as a rowdy, fun-loving old rogue by Paul Newman in the film Blaze.  So we had Kissin’ Jim and Louisiana had Ol’ Earl.  Earl’s nephew, Huey’s son, Russell Long took over for his daddy, serving as a U.S. senator from Louisiana for 35 years and was a staunch opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

West Virginia’s Sen. Robert Byrd, who spent more than 50 years in Congress, was a Klan member back in the 1940s.  He once said that the Klan promoted “traditional American values.”  He repeatedly took a racist position over his long career, including a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Perhaps the most complimentary thing about Byrd was that he was a pretty good country fiddler.

South Carolina muddied the racial waters with Strom Thurmond who ran for president on the States Rights (read that “white rights) party against Harry Truman in 1948.  He became a senator in1954.    He supposedly moderated his racial views in later years, as did so many other long-lived Southern politicians (George Wallace, Richard Russell, et al), but I have a built-in suspicion of politicians who suffer a change of heart in concert with social changes.  Could it be that they are pandering to the electorate rather than following the dictates of their conscience?  No—a politician wouldn’t do something that crass.

Well, old Strom did engineer the famous filibuster against the Civil Rights Act and at his 100th birthday party Sen. Trent Lott, the oily Mississippi legatee of the bigoted politicos of yesteryear, said, “”I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

That insensitive remark cost him his job as Senate Majority Leader, but he stayed  in the Senate until 2007 and I suspect he’s still sorry we didn’t elect ol’ Strom as our racist president.   Lott became a lobbyist, a move as surprising as a sunrise.

Georgia had Herman Talmadge, who had just left office as governor to be a senator.  He was one of the several segregationist southerners who got religion in later years—or, to be more cynical about it, realized that the black vote was increasingly important and courted it by mellowing earlier racist views.  Talmadge predicted that “blood will run in Atlanta’s streets” after the 1954 desegregation ruling by the Supreme Court.  He said he believed in segregation, but not that whites were superior to blacks.  And if you believed that he believed that, he probably had some Georgia bridges for sale.

Over in Arkansas Orville Faubus was just prepping himself to be the poster child for segregation.  In 1957 Gov. Faubus ordered 270 National Guardsmen to occupy Central High School in Little Rock, which was to be integrated the next day by nine black students.  That’s white southern odds: 270 of our armed soldiers against nine little black kids.

The incident is legend in the long struggle for equal rights for blacks.  Norman Rockwell painted a famous Saturday Evening Post cover which showed a proud black girl being escorted to the school by paratroopers, sent by President Eisenhower.  Georgia Senator Richard Russell compared the federal troops to Nazi storm troopers.

Faubus closed Little Rock’s schools in 1958 to keep blacks out.  The entire incident served, mostly, to establish Arkansas as a place you wouldn’t want to go unless you’d been born there…and if you had, you wouldn’t brag about it.

More than 40 years later I hunted ducks on a farm near Stuttgart, Arkansas, and told the genial owner that I was a writer.  “I don’t have much use for writers,” he said.  “I’ll tell you a story—back in 1957 there was a picture that ran all over the country of a National Guardsman keepin’ a little black girl out of the school at the point of a bayonet.  I ain’t had much use for newspapermen ever since.”

I thought this is the guy—he was the Guardsman! Since he still looked fully capable of using a bayonet I let it drop.  Will Counts of the Arkansas Gazette was the photographer who took many of the most memorable photos, including one of a pair of guardsmen with rifles telling Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students, to leave, even as they let a white girl pass through their line.

I wondered what I would have done had my National Guard commanding officer told me to stand in front of teenage girls, bayonet at the ready, and keep them from entering a school that they had a legal right to enter.

Fortunately by the time I joined the Guard in Missouri, the schools were integrated and, indeed, one of the first journalistic campaigns I got involved in as a sports editor was raising money to send Charlie Williams, an outstanding black athlete at Mexico High School, to the 1960 Olympic Trials.  The town backed its favorite son, financially and emotionally, and even though he didn’t make the team, he did well as a high jumper and came home a local hero.

Although de facto segregation had ended in Missouri’s schools, it would be a decade before African Americans became professional-level state workers in any numbers.  Missouri lagged behind some Southern states in that regard.

If Arkansas was a refuge for redneck racists, Mississippi was no better and possibly worse.  A year before I went to Montgomery, two white thugs had kidnapped and brutally murdered a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, Emmett Till.  The Sheriff claimed that “rabble rousers” had planted evidence against the good ol’ boys on trial for the killing.  After they were predictably acquitted, they confessed their guilt to a writer, William Bradford Huie, whose article about the murder appeared in Look magazine.

Later, in 1964, three civil rights workers would be murdered in Mississippi, but Sen. James Eastland would tell President Lyndon Johnson he thought it was a hoax, whereupon Johnson is quoted as saying, “”Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say ‘The nigger caused it, helped out some by the Communists.'”

All in all, the climate in the South in 1956-58 was scary.  It got worse before it got better, but it still was an uncomfortable time.  I worked at the Journal in the interim between dramatic episodes in the Civil Rights movement.  It was just after the Montgomery bus boycott and before the Freedom Marches of the 1960s.  Montgomery had an edgy feel to it, even in summer when the South became soporific.  As a quasi-Yankee I never was completely comfortable.  It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Martin Luther King was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a young leader just finding his life work.  The most prominent civil rights leader in Montgomery then was Ralph Abernathy, pastor of the First Baptist Church (the Dexter Avenue Church originally was named the Second Baptist Church, since it was the second black Baptist church in Montgomery).

Two months after Martin Luther King’s home was bombed in 1956 he made an historic speech at the Dexter Avenue church in response to the expulsion from the University of Alabama of Autherine Lucy, a black woman, in early February.  “Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness,” King said.

The forces of darkness were in control and would remain so for the next decade or so, until after I had left Montgomery and gone home to Missouri, a state with its own dark forces, but more covert about it.

The bus boycott started Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was tired and sat toward the front of a city bus.  City ordinance decreed that blacks could not sit in the same seat as whites and that in the middle and front of the bus whites had priority.  She was ordered to move to the rear and refused.  Police arrested her and the city’s black leaders urged blacks to boycott the bus system.

On Dec. 5, four days after the boycott started and after Ms. Parks was convicted of violating the city’s segregation ordinance, an estimated 5,000-7,000 blacks overflowed the Holt Street Baptist Church and voted to continue the boycott.  They elected King president of the Montgomery Improvement Association—a group to organize and further the boycott—and he showed a flash of his soon-to-be-famous oratory when he said, “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

The iron reference recalled Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech, made in 1946, nine years earlier a few miles from my Missouri home, at Fulton’s Westminster College.  The bus boycott, planned to be a one-day protest, lasted almost exactly a year and was an unqualified success—at least 90 percent of former black bus riders opted to get around some other way.  The bus companies lost an estimated $3,000 a day.  Ultimately the Supreme Court, in another landmark decision, ruled that Montgomery could not segregate its bus system because it violated the Constitution.

That ended the bus boycott, but only escalated the racial tensions that exploded in the 1960s.  There continued to be isolated incidents that indicated the simmering rage just under the surface.  While we lived there someone shorted out the transmission lines of the local television station, WSFA, by throwing a chain over them.  As I remember it was in protest of the station carrying the Nat King Cole television show.

Cole, a native of Montgomery, was the first black to have a network show and had been a hugely successful jazz and popular singer since the 1930s.  He was the son of a minister, had moved with his family to Chicago when he was four.  His birth name was “Coles” but he dropped the “s” when he became a professional entertainer.

Considered among the finest jazz pianists in history, Cole became a crooner and the story is he started singing when a drunk in a nightclub insisted he sing some old chestnut, but that’s manufactured legend—Cole had sung since his teenage days.

Even though I came from a state where schools still were segregated and where racism was everywhere, I believed in racial equality and silently cheered the 1954 Supreme Court decision..  I just didn’t speak up in Alabama.  Race was an ever-present element when I was at the Journal. There was a constant frisson in the city, like the almost inaudible singing of high-tension wires overhead—maybe those wires the racists shorted out.

I found a yellowed clipping of an unsigned Journal editorial I wrote which contains one line that was inserted by an editor. This is what I said “The town of Forest, Miss., has decided it won’t play the Star-Spangled Banner before its home football games this year because it reminds the citizens of the current integration strife.  Instead the band will play ‘Dixie’.

“It’s a shame that the inhabitants of Forest are so embittered that they can’t stand with pride to the national anthem which makes no mention of integration but stands as a salute to the traditional American freedom, written in the heat of a battle for that freedom.

“It strikes us somewhat like disrespect to the American flag because it’s a sign of the federal government which has as one of its branches the Supreme Court which is responsible for the integration row.

“Regardless of the issues involved in integration-segregation—and certainly all Southerners are united against integration—this spiteful act is something like a person knocking out his wife because her father didn’t approve of their marriage.”

There’s more, but I’d like to think that “all Southerners…” comment inserted by my editor was a subtle distancing of me, a border state refugee, from “real” Southerners.  Of course even if that’s true, I was ignoring a vast percentage of “real” Southerners—the black community.  And it was easier to take shots at Mississippi, an easy target because of its poor white trash image than it was to take shots at our own upscale Alabamians who, of course, were wonderfully advanced and willing to do everything possible for the black man…except share a bus seat or school room with him.

“We don’t,” the society editor of the Journal told me, “hate the nigras.  We’re doin’ all we can to take care of them.”  Which, of course, included lynching.  But she was devout in her conviction that Southern white folks treated black folks just fine, and if only the Yankees would stay to hell up North where they belonged, the nigras would stay where they belonged and everything would be as happy as it had been for a hundred years.  That’s what is known, I think, as a fool’s paradise.

I reported in August of 1958 about a group of rednecks erecting a mock scaffold at the Court Square fountain in Montgomery.  “Shoppers and passersby around the Court Square fountain saw a truck pull up about 9:40 a.m. with a scaffold,” I said.  “Right behind it was a blue station wagon bearing the insignia of the ‘Alabama Labor News.’

“While a trumpeter played ‘Reveille’ a group of men from the truck set up the gallows.  Then a second group from the station wagon dragged out two dummies, one the representation of a Negro, bearing the sign ‘NAACP’, the other the representation of a white man with a sign saying ‘I Talked Integration.’

“The two dummies were summarily hung while someone sounded a Confederate yell and the trumpeter played taps.

“Shortly after the demonstration, about 11 a.m., police tore down the scaffolding on order of Mayor W.A. Gayle.

“A sign on the front of the gallows took a further swipe at the unions, saying ‘Built by Union Labor.’  According to one organizer of the rally, ‘This is to show the union leftists who preach integration that we mean business.’

“Two dead crows adorned the top of the gallows and signs saying ‘Jim Crow’ were printed on the wooden uprights.

“’The program,’ said one of its organizers, ‘is in general expression of contempt for the Supreme Court.  ‘Reveille’ symbolizes the awakening of the South to its problem and ‘Taps’ represents the death blow we’re going to deal the ruling.’

“Two small Confederate flags fluttered in the breeze above the dead crows and a second Confederate yell sounded as the men in the station wagon drove off.

“The crowd reaction was generally puzzled.  Comments ranged from that of one man who said, ‘They ought to bring out dummies of the judges and hang them, too,’ to that of a little girl who tugged at her mother and queried, ‘Mommy, is that all?  Is that all?’

“’I don’t know, honey,’ the mother replied.  ‘I don’t know what it’s all about.’”

I knew and I hated every God damned moment of it.  I was increasingly uneasy in Montgomery, fully aware I had no business in this climate.  Missouri was de facto segregated, wholly against what I believed, but it lacked this persistent air of suppressed violence.

God knows the Show-Me State had and still has an abundance of incredibly stupid and cruel rednecks who would unleash their inner dogs if given the chance, but I didn’t believe that they were as blatant as they were in 1950s Alabama.  “Police,” I wrote, “paved the way for the truck and station wagon which drove down Dexter Avenue to the Square, stopping traffic.”

I suppose, under the First Amendment of the Constitution, these nut cases could preach their message of hate before the city dismantled its symbol and I guess the cops had no choice other than to make sure it didn’t get out of control, but it was another unsettling incident that increasingly made me eager to get out of the South.

Or maybe I was just homesick and surfeited with the sight of grits on my breakfast plate (Missourians would have recoiled and growled, “What the hell is that!”

My wife and I loaded our meager possessions in a 1950 Ford and headed north out of the 1950s and into the 1960s.

And now we have a president who has transcended the grimy times of not-so-long-ago and he carries not only the hopes and dreams of Martin Luther King, of the African-Americans, of us all….but also of this one aging White Anglo-Saxon Methodist who has had way more than enough of racism.

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  • May 11th, 2011

Hot Time in the Old Town

Waiting for dinner

By Joel M. Vance

 

You say you haven’t been invited to compete on “Dancing With Minor League Celebrities Who Never Are Going to Be Big Timers”?  Don’t despair—if you’re lucky and know the right people you could be invited to the annual Knox County Turkey Season Barbecue competition.
Kansas City and Memphis have claimed top honors among barbecue fanatics nationwide, although there are many contenders (Texas, especially), but when the final tally comes, when the Great Grillmaster in the Sky adds up the score and designates the “Griller to the Gods,” don’t count out someone from Edina’s annual Turkey competition walking away with top honors.
It all began 16 years ago when Tim and Beth Schrage decided to invite some friends and relatives, who gather every year to hunt turkeys, for a barbecue.  Some of the group, including cousin Phil Hopkins and his wife Linda, were barbecue aficionados and someone came up with the idea of having a contest.
So good has Phil and Linda” Smokin’ Guns Barbecue been that they are building a new restaurant in North Kansas City.  And they are probably going to compete in a New York City against about 70 other grillmasters.

The Smokin' Guns rig

And they would be formidable competition for anyone—in 1999 SG won the Grand Champion title in the Jack Daniels World Championship against 41 other teams.  Since, they’ve been in about 200 competitions across the country.
Phil drifted into barbecue competition as a hobby and it now is his business, a thriving one since he was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the popular Food Channel program with spikey-haired host Guy Fieri (he’s just the same on camera or off,” Phil says.  “Only time he wasn’t talking to anyone and everyone was when he was on his computer checking on his California restaurants.”
Phil was a metal fabricator in Kansas City and when he and Linda decided to open a barbecue place in 2003, they located in the industrial district of North KC, serving lunches to the work force in the factories and other businesses there.  It didn’t take long for the word to spread and now the 50 seats are full virtually every day—SG serves about 150 barbecue hungry folks every day.
You can find SG by chance….or by getting directions off their web site http://www.smokingunsbbq.com.
There is nothing more American than turning an activity into a competition—else how to explain “Dancing With The Stars.”  Each year in Edina there is competition in several meats and also desserts.  Barbecue often is a guy thing, like being able to spit for distance or sharpen a pocketknife, but increasingly there are husband/wife teams.  Some have a single Weber grill while others have elaborate rigs that require a trailer and vehicle to pull it.
The one constant is ribs which are the crowd favorite and there have been years when the end of the serving line was out of luck, rib-wise.  The canny among us (me, for example) schmooze with the grillers while they’re cooking, dropping hints with the subtlety of an anvil on their foot that we’d like to sample a rib or two.
If you (me) play your cards right you can be so full by dinnertime that you barely can eat a plate or two of pulled pork, a couple more ribs, a couple of deviled eggs, a heap of baked beans, a twin heap of potato salad and at least one dessert, some of which are artistic enough to warrant inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum of Good Eats.

Surveying the field

The number of friends and the number of barbecue competitors has blossomed over the years to the 2011 total of 135 friends and usually a half-dozen or so teams, competing.  The obvious winners, beyond those who go away with a t-shirt and copious praise, are the visitors who get to sample ongoing grill creations all afternoon, and then absolutely stuff themselves about 6 p.m. when the tables are set, there is an invocation, and no one goes home without barbecue sauce on his or her fingers.
Judges come from the crowd and are not immune from being bribed with a foretaste of ribs or pulled pork or chicken before the cutthroat competition begins (at least I’m not, which is perhaps why I’ve never been a judge).
Beyond the obvious highlight of the eating itself, there is anticipation among the teams as to who takes top honors in each category and who the overall champion is.  It was no overwhelming surprise that Smokin’ Guns came out on top in 2011….but only by one point over the Scrapyard Chefs.
For the visitors it’s the afternoon talkfest, but for the cooks it’s an all-day affair.  Some start about breakfast time firing up their grills and of course there is the matter of preparing the various meats, much of which involves rubs with more secret ingredients than Col. Sanders ever dreamed of in his most fervent moments.
The visitor talk centers around turkey hunting, morel mushrooms, crappie fishing and the general state of the world outside Knox County.  Kids play touch football or shoot goals, Tim and Beth’s dog barks for attention and scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings are brought to life.

Appetizers

This is real America, nevermind the blatherings of cheap politicians, the dreary economy, the divisiveness and mean-spiritedness of too much of the country.  This is the America I grew up in and remember from long ago when there were fireflies that made the night a jeweled masterpiece and kids still played games they invented, without structure and stifling adult supervision.
One year Dave Mackey, my longtime hunting buddy and Beth’s father, brought a bag of morel mushrooms and fried them for his friends.  But in 2011 the morel crop got hammered by cold weather and the coy fungi hid out.  We had to make do with samples of moist, juicy hamburgers which no doubt had Ronald McDonald weeping in envy (plus the obligatory ribs, bacon-wrapped jalapeno peppers and other tidbits to tide over the drooling crowd).
The knock on Chinese food is that you’re hungry again an hour later.  I thought of this about halfway en route home when I suddenly realized that I lusted for another rib or one of those delicious jalapenos.  Apparently great barbecue is like popcorn—you can’t eat just one of anything.
It would be another year, a lifetime for a barbecue, before I once again could experience a rib fix from Smokin’ Guns or whine my way into freebies from the other contestants.  Perhaps there is a place in society for a group called Ribaholics Anonymous.
But I hope not……
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  • May 3rd, 2011

Democracy Among The Vegetables

By Joel M. Vance

It is 8 a.m. in Missoula, Montana, and I am looking at the huge hill that overhangs the town like a brood mare with her colt.  A faint trail zig-zags up this hill to a huge “M” which presumably stands for “Missoula” or maybe “Montana” or possibly for my wife Marty, whom we call “M.”
I could scamper up this hill for a morning workout or I can opt to look slightly downhill where there is what my fond-of-Spoonerisms family calls a “marmer’s farket.
Every Saturday from the first Saturday in May to the fourth Saturday in October Missoulians and outlanders gather at the Clark Fork Farmer’s Market below a bridge over the Clark Fork River on Highway 12 to see an almost bewildering array of produce, products and some artifacts that defy classification.
For example for $12 you can buy a packet of moose droppings that, when ignited like incense, have a wonderful woodsy aroma.  And, yes, it is real moose droppings, gathered by Jerry Black from the wild in cold weather when indigenous moose are feeding on willows and other vegetation that lends a very pleasant aroma to their smoking pippies.
“They make great birthday presents,” says Black.  In a town where Moose Drool is the favorite local beer, incense wafting from smouldering moose droppings seems perfectly normal.
Armed with a packet of billets doux from the antlered world, you can gravitate to a small bench occupied by a 10-year-old urchin whose sign advertises “Free Magic Tricks.”  He will amaze you with a card trick and then one with a pair of metal rings that are not magnetized and then, magically, become so.
While the tricks are free, there is a tip glass and it is filled with dollar bills.  “I’ve only been here ten minutes,” says Henry, obviously en route to a Bill Gates-like fortune, at least until his voice changes.


Perhaps there is in a farmer’s market hope for the future of the country’s economy.  Two other pre-adolescent entrepreneurs are raking in the cash, oblivious to the pervasive lure of MP3 and Game Boy.  Ellea Becker, 11, and Phoebe Autio, 10, have brought their violins and they trade songs, scratching out “Flop-Eared Mule” along with more upscale melodies.
It’s not Izaak Perlman, but they do have an open violin case rapidly filling with dollar bills.
And then there’s Sara Knapp, 11 years old, selling dog biscuits that she makes herself.  The money she collects already has paid for her booth space, a hockey camp in Canada and the avowed purpose of the venture–money for canine cancer research, donated to the American College of Veterinary Medicine.  Sara has two firm goals in life: to be a veterinarian….and a professional woman’s hockey player.
Many of the vendors are Asian and their produce reflects Far Eastern cuisine. One sells dried morel mushrooms, the most delectable of fungi, for $10 per small basket.  The family collects the mushrooms from burned over pine forests.
A farmer’s market is a microcosm of America.  There are more than 6,000 nationally, ranging from a few stalls with fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and perhaps home-made salsa to elaborate county fair extravaganzas.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers markets have grown exponentially since the first year, 1992, that it kept statistics.  Then there were 1,755. By 2010 the number had grown to 6,132. It’s a billion dollar a year industry and in a time when encouraging small business is both mandatory and politically desirable, it’s a winning trend.
Farmer’s markets have become endemic to every town where folks raise gardens with more than they can eat or preserve.  They make salsa, sell eggs, chickens, beef, bison–you name it–and the end product becomes available to those who appreciate home-grown produce and lack the space or time to do it themselves..  The would-be gourmet cook freaks out at the lush produce, proudly proclaimed as “organic” or the $4/dozen eggs from “free range” chickens.
Most farmer’s market produce contains no additives, no chemicals, nothing to adulterate the purity of the products and the signs will tell you so.  Then there is baking in profusion, croissants and pastries to cause a Niagara of drool.  Some is gluten-free, but all is good and, with a cup of coffee from one of several outlets, you can sit by the Clark Fork, named for the William Clark of Lewis and, and watch a black Labrador sport in the water, see bicyclists pass on the several-mile bike path and watch little kids play hide-and-seek among a trio of huge metal trout statues.
It’s cherry time with the first blush of Flathead Valley cherries mounded on several tables.  Probably Montana cherries are no sweeter, no meatier than those of other regions, but on a high desert morning where sweat dries quickly and thirst is always a sunstroke away, a juicy cherry is as close to Heaven as sinners are likely to get and still be breathing.
I buy a container of cherries and sip a cup of decaf and breakfast on a massive croissant, mixed with chewed cherries while I watch a dog chase a tennis ball across the greensward just outside the boundaries of the Market (no dogs allowed).
Missoula is a college town–University of Montana–so it has its complement of saggy-britched, long-haired counterculture types with, if not left-wing, at least antisocial tendencies (“You know,” the local coffee shop habitues will tell you, “them Commie types with hair down to here.”).  Then there are the genuine left wingers who actually go to the polls–granola-crunching bicyclists who voted for Obama and consider killing an elk or moose tantamount to killing their mother.
They do not appreciate the gun culture of Montana as one vendor originally from Minneapolis tells me.  “They just shoot ‘em and let ‘em lay,” he says, ignoring that only outlaws do that either in Minnesota or Montana, and that the admirable conservation group The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is headquartered in Missoula and does wonderful work promoting the health of the elk population.
And there are the fellows with handlebar mustaches that curl up at the twirled ends, cowboy boots worn at the heels and skin like tanned whang leather who consider George W. Bush a soul brother and are certain that Ronald Reagan now dwells at the right hand of God.
This is the West, a red state which somehow occasionally elects a liberal representative who puzzles the Limbaugh addicts and thrills the Evian water guzzlers.  The political spectrum mingles at a Farmer’s Market as if it were the ephemeral middle ground that President Obama seeks so ardently and never seems to get.  Because they’re all there for the same thing–a croissant (“one uh them sweet roll things, thankee ”) and a cup of Joe and to look at the stuff that neighbors have dragged out of their gardens and spend some time in town before it’s back to the sere range or the organic chicken farm.
An adult fiddler saws at his instrument, not selling anything except old time melodies.  “You need a second on guitar,” I say and he says, “Where’s yours?’ and I reply, “A thousand miles away.”  “I can play all the instruments,” he says.  “But not at the same time.”
Reluctantly I move on–reluctantly because there is nothing more fun than following the A and B parts of a fiddle tune played in G or D or A, one of the keys I know three chords in.
A local musician sings self-composed songs, finger-picking a guitar.  She has CDs for sale and looks to be about 12 years old.  Maybe she is the sister of the pre-adolescent prestidigitator, a family of entertainment entrepreneurs.

Perhaps if there is a future detente between the right and the left in this country it will not occur in the halls of Congress or on the stump, but in a Farmer’s Market over a cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a sticky bun while a country fiddler plays accompaniment and a small boy offers to do magic tricks.
Political harmony?  Now that would be a magic trick……
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