Archive for June, 2011

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  • June 30th, 2011

The Road Less Traveled

By Joel M. Vance

Aside from emergency assistance a benefit of the 911 system is that the naming of all roads opens the way for recognition of people who otherwise would labor in obscurity.

Like me, for example.

There is, in south central Chariton County, Missouri, just south of Dalton, a dead-end gravel road, 1.5 miles long named “Joel Vance Avenue.”  I didn’t lobby for this; it just happened.  More puzzling than why anyone would name a road after me is who?  No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility and my attempts to find the culprit, if that’s the right word, have failed.  The search has taken on the aspects of an Agatha

Christie mystery.  I feel like Hercule Poirot, quizzing various county officials: “So you are ze personne of responsibility, non?”

So far “Moi?  Mais non!” has been the answer.

Until 911 came along, roads were just roads, described as, “The second gravel after you pass Elmer Smith’s place, you know, the one with the big red barn.”  Of course there were about 1,000 big red barns in the county and unless you’d lived there all your life, you’d never find the second gravel.

The 911 system beats someone calling the sheriff or police and saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.  I live a mile on the right from the Haley place.”  But if they say, “My husband got knocked unconscious by a falling pecan.  We live at No. 1 Joel Vance Avenue,” help is on the way.

Some Missouri counties have opted for numbers or letters to identify their obscure gravel roads, but Chariton County chose historical names (at least until they worked their way down the list to me).  The next road east is Val Verde, named for Gen. Sterling Price’s plantation.  The Confederate general captured my great grandfather in the Civil War.  My great-grand uncle formed Vance’s Rangers after a couple of trips to California during the Gold Rush where he collected only, as he said, a case of cooties.  Army life seemed to hold more promise than gold chasing, but he was wrong about that, too.

He enlisted his younger brother, great-grandpa, in the Rangers, a bunch of farm boys.  They were captured by Gen. Price’s army after about an hour of defending Glasgow.  The general, a Chariton County home boy at heart, spanked them on the butt and told them to go home and quit playing soldier.

Most think 911 is a new invention, but it goes back 41 years to 1968 in the United States when AT&T announced 911 would be its emergency number; however, England, New Zealand, Australia and Canada had three-digit emergency numbers well before that (England’s dates to 1937 and the number was 999).

Of them all, New Zealand’s 111 seems to be the simplest to dial—the number crowds the rotary stop on old fashioned phones and can be punched much quicker than any combination on numbers on touch tone phones.

The “Avenue” distinction in JVA is important because it elevates me beyond the plebian “Street” or, even worse, “Road.”  It’s not quite “Boulevard” in the royal hierarchy of roads, but it is light years from an alley.  Actually, those distinctions have evolved over the years.  While an avenue would be considered by most to be a superior thoroughfare to a street, Webster defines a street as “a public road in a city or town; especially a paved thoroughfare with the sidewalks and buildings along one or both sides.”

My road fails on all counts: it isn’t paved, it has no sidewalks and if you don’t count a decrepit barn, listing about two degrees from total collapse, it has only one building, an abandoned farmhouse set well back from the road as if the occupants were trying to avoid the non-existent traffic.

Joel Vance Avenue does, however, have a number of large pecan trees, a ubiquitous feature of the Dalton Bottoms.  They spread their branches over my road and shower it with the tasty nuts in October.  Although the third Webster definition of “avenue” equates it with “street,” the second definition is more pertinent to my avenue: “a roadway, pathway or drive, often bordered with trees.”  Although Webster doesn’t say so, pecan trees with their annual bounty are the finest border tree of all.

One sunny autumn day my wife and I scrambled about in the road ditch and picked up about six pounds of pecans.  It was a reversion to my teenage years when I earned spending money picking up pecans in the fields along these same, at that time, unnamed roads.  I got a nickel a pound and lugged a shotgun, hoping to get a crack at low-flying ducks returning to the Cutoff.

The Cutoff is an oxbow of the Missouri River, “cut off” from the main channel in the 1800s when the capricious Big Muddy decided to wander off in another direction.  It was the playground of my teenage years—a fishing hole in summer, duck hunting honey hole in autumn and ice skating arena in winter.

I split my chin playing ice hockey on the Cutoff, and had to be sewed up, so my blood is in that murky water.  It’s fitting that Joel Vance Avenue dead-ends at a gate which leads to a hunt club on the west side of the Cutoff.  You can see the upper end of the lake from the lower end of JVA.

I probably never would have known JVA existed except that a boyhood friend called and exclaimed, “I’ll bet I’ve been some place you haven’t!”  He added, “Most people have to die to get a road named for them.  How are you feeling?”  The next day my wife and I drove 120 miles to see my avenue.

There it was, joining County Highway MM.  I could see the Dalton grain elevator across the bottom fields, at the base of what was the river hill when the Missouri still flowed where Dalton now sits.  I worked at the elevator briefly one summer vacation until I crumpled the elevator pickup’s fender against a corner of a box car.  The boss examined his formerly creaseless pickup and explained that my services were no longer deemed necessary

A dirt road (still unnamed) runs up the hill which we sledded down on snowy winter nights, gathering speed until we flashed across Dalton’s main street, made a tricky S-curve and skidded across the railroad tracks before coming to rest near the Dalton Hardware Store, hoping en route that no vehicle traffic or trains were plowing through the crossing.

I asked about the origin of JVA at the Dalton post office, which referred me to the county 911 committee, which referred me to the Dalton Heritage Association, which referred me to the County Historical Society which referred me back to the 911 committee.

So I enlisted Janie Sue Brown, a high school classmate.  Janie Sue stands about five feet tall, but she’s implacable on the trail, a Chariton County version of Hercule Poirot.  But even Janie Sue admitted defeat and I am beginning to wonder if, instead of honoring a local boy, this road name isn’t someone’s idea of a practical joke, that I am the equivalent of a vulgar vanity license plate that slipped by the censors.  Could it be that, instead of the person who named the road being undiscovered, that person is part of an elaborate prank and is lying low?

Whatever its origin, there it is, Joel Vance Avenue, a sleeping pygmy among giants.  I could, I suppose, carry a photo showing me in front of the road sign (which cants about seven degrees south, as if already tired of notoriety) but if you think baby photos are boring, you haven’t seen anything.

And I fear that the punchline of the joke is that the daily mail will bring me a huge bill for gravel and road maintenance.


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  • June 23rd, 2011

I Hate Hate Groups

By Joel M. Vance

A double-barreled load of venom today. First to the Supreme Court which used to be derogatorily referred to as the “Nine Old Men” before they inducted some old women.  Doesn’t seem to have done much for their feminist sensibilities, though, because they now have ruled against more than a million women who were suing WalMart, charging gender discrimination.

The court ruled 5-4, with the right wing majority predictably siding with the megacorporation against the workers, whose suit claimed a pattern of discrimination stores-wide in hiring, promotions, pay and the other perks enjoyed by male employees.

In a separate class action lawsuit against WalMart, some 187,000 employees won a $187.6 million verdict alleging that WalMart denied them the paid rest and lunch breaks they were entitled to.  An appeals court agreed, but WalMart vows to continue fighting….no doubt right to their pet Supreme Court.

It has ever been thus.  It’s a man’s world and now it is a man’s corporate world.  Don’t believe it?  Ask a man.  I’ve always found it far more pleasant to work with and for women because too many guys suffer from testosterone poisoning which warps their thinking and tends to nudge them farther and farther to the land of the misogynist.

The thinking of the court doesn’t really matter because the decision seems to have been made on ideological lines—they sent a million women back to the kitchen, presumably barefoot and pregnant.  That WalMart was discriminating doesn’t seem to be much in question.  But that WalMart, the world’s largest superstore can tell the country how and whom to hire and what to pay them does.

These are largely the same judges who elected Little Georgie Bush, arbitrarily ending a recount which probably would have cost the brush-cutting Texan the election.  What’s next for this gang of 19th century throwbacks?  Return to 3/5 human status for black people?  Re-institute Prohibition?  Reverse Brown v School Board?  You probably can count on a reversal of Roe v Wade as soon as they get to it.

Right wing justice Clarence Thomas, who almost didn’t get appointed to the high bench because of his alleged sexist remarks and harassment of a woman, Anita Hill, now is tainted again.   The New York Times, hardly a supermarket scandal rag, reports improper ties between Thomas and influential rightwing funder and activist Harlan Crow.

Crow reportedly once gave Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, $500,000 to exploit the Citizens United decision and start a shadowy, Tea Party-related group called Liberty Central. He gave Thomas a Bible estimated at $15,000 that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, and allegedly provided the Supreme Court Justice with access to his yacht and private jet.

Thomas was one of the votes against women’s rights.  Thomas is the buddy of fellow justice Antonin Scalia who has often been in hot water for doing injudicial things—like going duck hunting with the unlamented Dick Cheney when the Court was considering a case in which Cheney was involved, or endorsing torture, quoting as his role model Jack Bauer, the fictional counter-terror agent in a television series.  Vote No. 2 against women.

Folks get thrown in jail for contempt of court, but hey, you get what you pay for.

The other blogshot is toward the right wing crazies who are hell-bent on killing Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971.  The SPLC has won multi-million dollar judgments against the Ku Klux Klan, that awful blot on the nation’s racial history.

The SPLC does not charge fees or keep money from judgments.  It relies on donors and that is how I got interested—because of a donation request from former Sen. George McGovern, who ran for president in 1972 and was soundly trounced by Richard Nixon.

McGovern was portrayed as a weak-sister gutless liberal by the right wing who conveniently ignored the fact that the guy was a pilot in World War Two who flew B-24 bombers in 35 combat missions over Italian and German-controlled  territory, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross (on his final combat mission his plane had 110 holes in it from flak and bullets) and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

By contrast, former vice-president Dick Cheney, who got five deferments from service during the Viet Nam war, accused McGovern of wanting to surrender in Iraq—the McGovern way, he called it.  McGovern opposed a stupid war as should anyone with commonsense.  The Cheney way has cost nearly 5,000 young lives and 35,000 or more maimed young people.

Anyway, Mr. McGovern says this: “The number of hate groups now stands at 1,002, a more than 50 percent increase since 2000, and the number of antigovernment ‘patriot’ and militia groups has nearly tripled in the last year alone.  Anger at the government, resentment of a black president, and bitterness over the dismal economy are likely to continue to fuel their growth and violence.”

One need only look at the Tea Party or listen to the hate-filled rants of the right wing commentators to see who is egging the nutgroups along.  When some neo-Nazi skinheads listen to Glenn Beck calling the president a racist, they are empowered to vigilante action.

Beck is the slimeball who said this: “”When I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining.”  Do you need to know any more about the hateful rhetoric of the right wing commentators?

When Texas governor Rick Parry, the same governor who suggested Texas should secede, rants about “returning to moral values” with the fervor of some backwoods evangelist, he is not offering solutions—he’s whipping up a lynch mob.  One can only hope that the mob chooses the ballot box over the rope, but the motive is the same.   The message is that “we have moral values” and they don’t.

The “they” happens to be me and anyone else who doesn’t agree with mindless anger.  Those who cry for the rope, whether metaphorical or real, are feeding on the anger that surfaces because of the bad economy or the stress of endless warfare or just because it’s hot and the air conditioner isn’t working right.  Discontent feeds on rhetoric.  Well, I’m angry too.  I’m angry at the right wingers who would eliminate Medicare and Social Security so they can give more money to Big Oil.  I had a gallstone busted up a while back and if it hadn’t been for Medicare the meager fruits of 50 year’s work would have vanished.  The bills probably will top $25,000 (they keep coming).  Medicare paid for much of it.

The right wing philosophy that says if people can’t pay their way the hell with ‘em is right out of Marie Antoinette and her alleged retort to the question about what happens to poor people: “Let them eat cake.” (which she did not say and which probably never was said by anyone….or maybe it was Rush Limbaugh?)  I do think everyone able should be required to work if he or she is physically able, even if it’s a welfare job.  The CCC and WPA were work projects during the Great Depression that kept much of a generation both employed and from starving.

But to concentrate wealth in the hands of the wealthy (as the Supreme Court consistently does by its decisions in favor of Big Business to the detriment of the working class) and to ignore the health and happiness concerns of those who are struggling to stay afloat is to revert to the days of the robber barons.  We need a president like Teddy Roosevelt who busted up the monopolies like they busted up my gallstone, or that other Roosevelt, who gave jobs to people eager to work.

We, unfortunately, don’t seem to have one.

Those who think change is to get rid of the hated black guy and elect one of the sorry lineup of Republican candidates are fooling themselves.  The right wing, under Bush, took a huge surplus and turned it into the biggest deficit in history, started two enormously expensive wars, sicced the banking, health care and speculative investment dogs loose and got us in a hell of a mess.  Electing one of them again would be like turning loose a whole pack of foxes in our chickenhouse.

Finally, don’t rely on the news media to expose the hypocrisy of the right.  They’re largely emasculated, either by fear of their corporate bosses or by sheer incompetence.   All the hate groups want is some twisted validation for their anti-social agenda and they get it through a combination of self-serving commentators who get coverage for their outrageous views.  It’s a vicious cycle—the more extreme the talk the more coverage it gets.

Controversy sells and the mainstream news media today is in the business of business, nevermind the important issues.  Anthony’s weiner is far more interesting to the news anchors and their slack-jawed listeners than is good government as it occasionally is practiced.

No one reads anymore so they hear only what some dolt spouts from a canned news release or from his or her twisted mind.  On Fox, home of the biggest mouths ever to disgrace the broadcast media,  Glenn Beck sailed on until he began to run off sponsors more than he ran off at the mouth.  That would never do.  After all, alleged news is business, right?

I’m giving to the Southern Poverty Law Center and if some right wingnut gets elected President, hey, I could always apply to be a greeter at WalMart…..


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  • June 17th, 2011

The Tie That Binds

By Joel M. Vance

Okay, it’s a mystery that Agatha Christie couldn’t have solved on deadline with a $1 milllion contract hanging on the line.  How can a big ol’ guy with hands like an NFL guard tie a trout fly the size of an elf’s weskit?

I have delicate hands, those of a concert pianist, maybe, or an artist who uses a single strand of camel hair to paint landscapes on the head of a pin.  And I can’t tie a No. 2 wooly bugger without it looking like a road-killed Persian cat.

Thus is life.

Fortunately I know a few people who tie flies that look more like insects than something out of a guide to the Ephemera of the World.  Trout crawl out of distant trout streams and hitchhike to their tying benches to attack their creations.  I couldn’t catch a trout with one of my flies and a quarter-stick of dynamite.

Mark Van Patten has parlayed his ability to turn the negligees of defunct roosters into bits of fluff that make trout salivate into a business which includes a television show on Public Broadcasting.  It take much skill beyond thread and feathers to interest anyone in watching someone make love to a gob of feathers.

Watching road tar congeal would seem to hold more promise of drama, but Mark manages to grab the bored watcher and jerk him onto the tying bench with him.  People whose idea of an ideal trout fly consists of two kernels of Jolly Green Giant on a No. 12 hook find themselves investing in rooster capes apparently spun from gold, vises that become vices and other ephemera of the fly tying addict.

Mark’s show has gone international and for all I know Thai trout are suffering from creations inspired by his weekly efforts.  This from a guy who took off for two weeks when he was 15 years old, telling his folks he was going camping, and went to Woodstock.

He and his 14-year-old buddy had tickets, bought on the sly, and an antique Dodge they’d bought for $50 which had no seats–they used milk crates to sit on.  The gas money gave out somewhere in Ohio and they traded their tickets to a bunch of flower children in a decorated Volkswagen bus for enough money to fuel the Dodge.

Mark went on from Woodstock where he claims the bare back end of a skinnydipper in the documentary about the rock concert is his to become the youngest ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Conference.

He also formed Missouri’s first stream cleanup team and no coordinates the nation’s largest stream cleanup program for the Missouri Conservation Department–and ties trout flies for fun and profit. One of the web pages on Mark’s web site shows a photo of him with his Jack Russell terrier, Jake.

I suspect that more than on hair off of Jake’s chinny chin chin has wound up hiding a hook.  In my fly tying days, a mania that fortunately was cured by taking up golf, which is a worse obsession than fly tying, we had a multi-colored collie who used to run and hide every time I brought out the fly tying vise and a pair of scissors.

Since those traumatic times with the collie I’ve sought out those who tie trout flies and suck up to them shamelessly, begging for a fly fix.  Mark was a natural for my sickening sycophancy.

He was working on a memoir, including the story of the Woodstock trip, and I volunteered to give him suggestions.  “I’ll tie you some flies,” he said.

All right!

And it came to pass that Mark showed up one day with a fly box and I popped it open and the effect was like opening the door to an outhouse and finding the Taj Mahal inside.

There were exquisite dry flies in several sizes, wet flies and nymphs.  The ghost of Dan Bailey hovered over us, exclaiming, “Oh, wow!”  I had messed around with a few words, mostly making messy black marks, and Mark had countered with art.

It was trading horse apples for golden goose eggs.

“They”re too pretty to fish with,” I wailed, like a little kid.

“I’ll teach you how to tie them,” Mark said grimly.  “Given your skill with raw materials you won’t have to worry about pretty.”

Things work out.


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  • June 10th, 2011

Stage Fright


By Joel M. Vance

Ben Franklin said that death and taxes are the only inevitabilities, but I’d add the inevitability of being asked to perform in public.  Sooner or later someone will ask you to give a program, make a presentation, accept an award or otherwise put yourself at risk of humiliation.

“Imagine they all are naked,” is the advice often given to those with flop sweat.  As rampant as my imagination is (I can, for example, imagine Angelina Jolie naked with no problem whatever), I could not mentally disrobe an audience.  Rather I imagine them as Goths, armed with studded clubs, dressed in animal skins and with eyes as red as those of a hungry jaguar.

Death, taxes, public performance–of the three, the latter is the most terrifying.  You don’t have to think about dying.  You just do it and no one will be critical of the way you did it. Taxes are only criticized when you don’t pay them.  But an audience is chock-full of critics, just waiting for you to fart loudly or succumb to projectile vomiting right in the middle of your slide show.

A few folks have managed to combine death and performance.  The great Metropolitan Opera baritone Leonard Warren died onstage, ironically during a performance of Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny.”  And Brooklyn Dodger mogul Branch Rickey suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking at his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Most people faced with their first public performance (or, for some, every performance) would welcome death rather than the terror of getting up in front of an audience.  My first encounter with public performance was enough to keep me from public exposure the rest of my life, and I’ve often wished it had.  I was 15 years old and my mother talked me into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for the Methodist Church congregation.

Aside from a geriatric lady who fell asleep in a front pew, punctuating my quavering song with syncopated snoring, it was a sympathetic audience—it was the Christian thing to do.  Then a somnolent wasp lost its balance and fell on my neck.  Apparently it blamed me for its clumsiness for it stung me and I exclaimed “God damn!” which was both appropriate and inappropriate, given the setting.

I didn’t face an audience of more than two or three people for many years after that, but part of my job for the Missouri Department of Conservation was to make public appearances and once again I was forced into the lion’s den.

One outing was at a turkey calling contest in Hermann, a German town fond of its beer.  And there was an open bar during the contest, after which I gave a stirring address on conservation.  The crowd, those who weren’t looking at their watches, applauded (possibly the brevity of the talk) and everyone milled around in the crowded high school gymnasium.

A fellow who had spent most of the evening sampling the lager, weaved over to me and slurred, “You Joel Vance?”  I modestly admitted that I was.  “You the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine?” he challenged.

Now that is the kind of question for which there is no saving answer.  You admit you write bullshit or you say that you’re not the guy who writes it, an obvious lie, making you both a liar and a purveyor of bullshit.  “Hey, Charlie!” he shouted at a fellow halfway across the gym.  Heads turned.  “You know who this is!” he bellowed, indicating me as if calling attention to a noxious bug.  “This is the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine!”

My late boss Jim Keefe was a self-destructive type, his own worst enemy (he once walked into a parking meter while ogling a pretty girl and broke three ribs).  Once he was making a talk from a stage below which loomed an orchestra pit.

Carried away by his rhetoric, he gestured dramatically, lost his balance and fell with a thunderous crash into the orchestra pit.  There was stunned silence.  Then he rose from the darkness, clambered back on the stage, faced the crowd and said, “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to grab an audience!”

Rodney Green, an education consultant, now retired, from the Missouri Conservation Department, was giving a talk to perhaps 100 Girl Scouts and their mothers and leaders.  He chose to talk about snakes and had a couple of non-venomous snakes in a cotton sack.

One was a kingsnake which he had not gentled.  As he held the snake in one hand, he carelessly passed his other hand by the snake’s mouth and the kingsnake obligingly bit him and held on.  Blood began to stream down his hand and wrist.  The snake was firmly fastened and Rod, thinking to make the best of a bad situation, said, “See how the snake’s fangs are recurved so it can hang on?  And it has an anti-coagulant in its saliva so that’s why I’m bleeding.  Does anyone have a spoon or something to pry the son of a….the snake’s jaws open?”

With help Rod got the snake loose and silently congratulated himself on handling an embarrassing situation not only well, but educationally.  But he wasn’t done with snakes for the day.He also had a black rat snake and, believing it was somewhat more docile than the kingsnake, he hauled its three-foot length out of his sack.  While demonstrating something he passed the snake in front of him and it leaned over and grabbed the crotch of his britches, fortunately not all the way through to the tender bits inside.

But it startled him and he let go the snake which dangled, swinging to and fro, from his crotch at which the 100 Girl Scouts broke into giggles and shrieks and the adults turned crimson.  Rodney, who knows a good story when he creates one, has refined and expanded the story into epic proportions over the years, but for most folks an experience like that would lead to an intense desire to crawl under a rock.

The perils of performance got summed up for me graphically when I was invited to speak to an evening meeting of a local fraternal club.  Usually there are 30-40 members who manage to stay quiet for 20 minutes after the tail twister has done his inane job and they’ve inhaled a gob of roast beef and mashed potatoes and, in some cases, knocked back a couple of stiff drinks.

Then they return to talking to each other about things they’re really interested in (stocks, land development, golf, the weather, etc.) and I go home.

But I expected at the very least a free meal.  There were two men at the restaurant when I arrived.  Three more showed up close to meeting time. That seemed to be the peak attendance. “We usually have more…” the club president said, leaving unsaid what I assumed he was thinking “…but they heard you were speaking.”

There were no plates on the table and no one appeared bearing steaming platters heaped with delectable food items.  We made small talk until I realized the five of them were waiting for me to do something.  “Is this a dinner meeting?” I asked finally—hell, we were in a restaurant for God’s sake.

“Oh…well, we all ate before we came,” the president said.  “But you go ahead.  We’ll wait.”  My stomach growled and I was miffed enough to take him up on it. So I ordered a cheeseburger and we waited for a while until it came, then they all watched me eat it.

Suppressing a belch, I got up to make my talk after which the president approached me with a paper sack.  “We have a little something by way of thanks,” he said and I hoped it was a fifth of Jim Beam, even a bottle of 75-cent Sweet Lucy wine.  God knows, I needed a stiff belt.

He withdrew a framed certificate from the sack and said, “Here,” thrusting it at me.  I started to take it and he jerked it back.  “Wait a minute!” he said.  He began to scrub at the glass with his thumbnail and I realized the price sticker still was on it.  It was a flimsy $.98 frame from Woolworth’s.

“That’s okay,” I said, half-jokingly.  “Leave it on—then I’ll know how much you thought of me.”

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, continuing to scrape furiously.



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  • June 5th, 2011

The Four-Finger Chicken









By Joel M. Vance


(Most of this is from my memoir Down Home Missouri, available through my web site–no one can know too much about chicken judging)



Mr. T.F. Potter, a gentleman who looks as if (judging from his photo) he would be gentle with a hen, wrote a book called Don’t Kill The Laying Hen for the American Poultry Journal Publishing Company.

Mr. Potter was jealous of his information, for the first page of the book promises that anyone infringing on his copyright is “liable to prosecution to the full extent of the law covering this subject.”

However, since the 13th edition of the book (which I have) is dated 1909, I am confident that Mr. Potter has gone to the Great Henhouse in the Sky, and that the information he so jealously guards has become common knowledge.

In fact I know it has–I used it some 50 years ago, not knowing that it was a copyrighted secret.  I speak of the fingering of chickens.  Mr. Potter’s method of judging the egg-readiness of hens involves the use of your fingers between the “lay bones,” as he calls them.

There also is something he calls the “bowel method,” but I’d rather not know about that.  The finger check was traumatic enough.  Know that when I talked about the mechanics of egg-laying in the previous chapter, I spoke with some authority.

Not that I’ve ever actually laid an egg, but I certainly have become uncomfortably intimate with the hen’s productive and/or reproductive apparatus.  While it is not something that I would list on my resume, I once judged chickens.

Back in my formative years, I fell in love with agriculture.  It was a romance like all romances–filled with pitfalls and briar patches, and ultimately I decided that farming was possibly the last thing I ever wanted to do.  But it took three years of the Future Farmers of America and a stint as a chicken judge to lead me to that conclusion.

My father was a farmer in the same sense that an infantry general is a foot soldier.  He supervised the operation of a 900-acre farm in Missouri.

Mostly that meant he talked with the tenant farmers who told him what should be planted and then he said that sounded good to him.  He occasionally cleared brush with the Doom Machine, a circular saw without any safety features and with enough power to cut the world in half.  He also did other things that made him feel useful and in charge, but principally he stayed out of the way.

Even though his roots were on the farm, his maturation and training were city.  His rural roots had been pruned and now lagged far behind the roots buried in city concrete.   He didn’t pine for his city days, as far as I know, but he couldn’t have driven a tractor to save his life, nor did he have a feeling for the rhythms of crops and livestock.  He was a foreman.

And I knew even less.  I’d never been on a farm, save summer vacations amid the fleas and horses that wouldn’t do right by me.  But my friends were farm kids and they seemed to associate congenially with sheep and hogs and chickens.

Animal husbandry sounded like something I could do.  I doubted I’d ever make a people husband (what girl would ask me to marry her?), but from what little I knew, farm animals pretty well took care of themselves and then you sold them for big bucks.

Big bucks also sounded good.  I’d never had any.  So Foster Sadler and Tommy Coy and I joined the Future Farmers of America at Keytesville High School.

The aim of FFA is “development of agricultural leadership, cooperation and citizenship.”  The foundations of FFA trembled when I decided to enlist as a high school freshman at Keytesville High School back in 1948.  Although I didn’t know it, I was no more a future farmer than I was a future astronaut or physicist.

My motives were not to become a successful farmer.  They were simpler.  I wanted a blue corduroy jacket with the FFA emblem, a cross-section of an ear of corn, on its back.  It was a status symbol ranking close to a Tiger letter jacket (as an athlete who had shot twice at the wrong basket in an eighth grade basketball game and missed both times, I was not a prime candidate for a letter jacket).

The only one of the dozen purposes of FFA that seemed to apply to my motives was “To provide and encourage the development of organized rural recreational activities.”  I equated “rural recreational activities” with parking on secluded country lanes with my female classmates, none of whom shared my enthusiasm.

I thought FFA would be a good way to meet girls, specifically the farmer’s daughter of fable.  I was wrong about that, too.  The Future Farmers of America is to agricultural aspirants as the Army is to those who yearn for hand-to-hand combat.  It is the organized, uniformed cadre of those who study agriculture in high school.

The organization began in Missouri in 1928.  The first line of the FFA Creed reads, “I believe in the future of farming, with a faith born not of words but of deeds…” which should have given me pause, had I bothered to read it.  I was long on words then as now, but my deeds tended toward quitclaim.

For one thing, I was a town kid, though my father owned a farm.  Town kids in Keytesville High School FFA in the late 1940s were like women in the pool hall.  It just wasn’t done.  There were farm boys and townies and they did not intermingle.

But three of us townies decided to break tradition.  Foster’s father, like mine, was a rarity for the time, a man whose home was in town, but who owned a farm.  In fact he was the school superintendent, a fearsome entity who to this day intimidates me.

Farming sounded romantic to us townies.  What drawbacks could there be to the bucolic life?  Outdoors all the time, soaking up sunshine and healthful vibrations.  It would have saved much trouble had any of us asked a farm kid how much fun he had.       For example, slopping hogs in the dark of a bitter winter before sunrise or working in fields by tractor headlight after a long day at school.  Bucking hay bales in the relentless Missouri summer heat was another thrill that somehow escaped our notice.

We vaguely envisioned being one with the land, feeling the good earth squishing between our toes, seeing crops blossom and fruit.  We identified with the landed gentry, the squire’s son, not the red- knuckled farm boys who made crude jokes about animal husbandry in the literal sense.

We needed a “Project,” a farm enterprise that authenticated our presence in FFA, so I acquired a Duroc gilt, a lovely red pig with long eyelashes and a virginal look that belied the fact that she was with child.  God knows who the father was (I was supposed to, but my record-keeping was not the stuff of which passing grades were made).

The romance of caring for this creature soon gave way to cold weather, sniffles, chapped hands, intestinal parasites (hers, not mine), manure and the other realities of farming.  I found that pigs have an ongoing life and, as self-reliant as they are, they do require some supervision, winter and summer.  The pig was mine in name only.  I found a thousand reasons why I couldn’t quite be there for her and soon her care was given to one of the tenant farmers.

Even though I really didn’t work my project, I continued the fiction so I could stay in FFA and maybe find some raison d’etre for me in agriculture.  I’d eliminated the frolic of pig husbandry and so far no nubile classmates had coveted my blue jacket.

Foster found our Purpose.

Each spring, Future Farmers across Missouri competed in agriculture-oriented events such as livestock judging.  The district winners advanced to the state competition at Columbia.

The mere mention of Columbia set our juvenile juices a-stewing.  Columbia was the Big Apple for Keytesville boys, most of whom had never been farther from home than Moberly.  It was the Forbidden City.  Chicago had long since faded from my memory and anyway, I’d lived there when I was pre- pubescent.  Wouldn’t have known a sin if I’d found one.  Now, however, I knew all about sin in the abstract and desperately wanted some hands-on experience.

Columbia is the home of the University of Missouri.  If there was no sin in Columbia, with all those randy college students, then there was no sin in Missouri.  We had to get there.

The first ever national vo-ag dairy judging had been won by a team from Keytesville in 1926, before there was a state FFA.  They traveled all the way to Indianapolis, IN, which, for a Keytesville kid, was equivalent to being shot to Mars.

If a bunch of Chariton County rubes could win national honors, we intellectual townies ought to be able to breeze through regional competition and win a trip to Columbia.  We’d even read books other than the Soils Manual.  I had read all the books of Thorne Smith and knew what step-ins were or, more to the point, what went in them.

And there were movie houses in Columbia that showed things you’d never see in a Doris Day movie: one showed foreign films and we all knew what went on in foreign films.  There were rumored to be nude women in foreign films.

We dreamed of roaming Columbia in the heat of the night, meeting experienced women who would lure us into sultry, dimly-lit dens of pleasure where we would experience the first sweet pangs of debauchery.

Almost anything we could imagine was debauchery compared to life in Keytesville.  Debauchery in Keytesville was a cheeseburger with fries and a double chocolate malt which, at most, would make you so sick you’d puke.  Columbia doubtless offered sins you couldn’t even read about in 1948.

But first we had to qualify.  We looked over the available competitions.  We ruled out livestock judging in any form because even the most casual farm boy knew more about the conformation of cows, pigs and sheep than we ever would.  The only conformation we’d even halfway studied was that of the cheerleaders and even that was an awesome mystery, the textbooks to which were closed.

Besides, farm animals tended to be large and unpredictable.  We’d all heard tales of sows getting farmers down in the pig yard and chewing off their legs.  And a cow’s eye was larger than most of my muscles.  I wanted nothing to do with a creature that was far stronger than I and that perhaps had a dim perception that I was nurturing him to the slaughterhouse.  Revenge is not necessarily beyond the ken of a male hog, especially after you’ve started his life by cutting off his nuts.

Live animals were out.

“Hey, look at this!” exclaimed Foster, our ringleader.  “Seed judging!”  It was buried in the fine print, a contest so minor that a real farm boy would have dismissed it in fine contempt.  Just what we were counting on.  We needed a contest with no competition to maximize our chances for a trip to the big town.

We really didn’t judge seeds; we identified them.  It was a matter of memory and there was no involvement with hoofed creatures.

Mr. Schmid, our Vo-Ag instructor, was baffled by town boys in agriculture.  He was kind, but it was as if he had been asked to tutor Orientals or Eskimos whose way of life was totally foreign.  He searched for common ground.

Once he took us on a field trip to castrate hogs and showed us how to do it with his teeth.  The Townies all got lightheaded and Tommy trotted over behind a haystack and threw up.  He asked for volunteers and the three townies shrank to the back of the crowd.  A farm boy eagerly knelt to the feast, his teeth snapping.

When we told Mr. Schmid we wanted to enter FFA competition, he was delighted to see us finally interested in agriculture.  “It’ll help you all your lives to know one seed from another,” he promised enthusiastically.

“Why can’t we just look on the package if we want to know what’s inside?” I asked.  He looked at me for a long time, one of many such gazes to come.

But we decided to be the best damn seed judging team KHS ever had (not to mention the first).  We worked before and after school hours, pawing through seed samples and studying written material and we blew out the opposition (one other team) in the district.

Columbia, if anything, proved duller than Keytesville.  College students looked at us as if we’d just crawled out of a manure heap and the foreign film we skulked in to see was incredibly boring.  The only nude woman was built like Tugboat Annie and was dead.  I tried to whip up interest in her flabby exposed breast but it was no go.

Instead of a steamy boudoir, we fell into exhausted sleep on creaking Army cots in company with 5,000 other sweating Future Farmers in the University’s Brewer Fieldhouse.  The sultry air was filled with groans, moans, sneezes and snorts, coughing and snoring and some other sounds.

Our choices were two: we could abandon FFA or we could try again as sophomores to solve the riddle of Columbia (the riddle of agriculture was a lost cause).  Surely, Columbia held more for us than and the thousands of coughing, belching Blueclads in Brewer Fieldhouse.

But first we needed another snap contest.  Once you’d been in a competition, you could not repeat it.  Foster studied the catalog.

“Meat judging!” Mr. Schmid exclaimed, aghast.  We were joking with the gods of Agriculture.  We showed him the catalog.  “Why don’t you judge sheep or cows or something like everybody else?” he grumbled.

But we learned about marbling and other esoterica of the butcher and we finished second (among three teams) in district competition.  Good enough to send us on another expense-paid vacation to Brewer Fieldhouse.  The same group of air swallowers had returned, noisier than ever, and the foreign film house was closed for lack of business.

Instead, we went to a mainstream movie house which featured what must have been the last vaudeville act to play Missouri.  A sweating fellow came out and announced that he would play two trombones at the same time.    “Yeah, but you got two heads!” shouted some balcony wit and we all roared.  College humor was just as sophisticated as we’d imagined.  Still, sitting in a movie house in Columbia watching terrible entertainment wasn’t much different than being in Keytesville.

Then we became juniors.  One last chance to pervert ourselves in the city.  We studied the FFA competitions catalog far more assiduously than we ever did the Soils Manual.

No luck–we’d used up the easy competitions.  It looked as if we might have to deal with live animals for the first time.  Foster’s brow furrowed in concentration.  This was a test of his skill at finding the easy way.  Finally the worry lines smoothed, he turned to us with a broad smile.

“Chicken judging!” Mr. Schmid roared.  “What’s the matter with you boys, anyway?”

But judge chickens we did and some basic misconceptions quickly cleared up.  We had only a hazy notion of how you judge a chicken.  First, we assumed it was chicken meat we would be asked to judge, like those steaks and chops from the year before.  We assumed we would gaze upon the defunct bodies of chickens, rating their suitability for the roasting pan.

Our eyes glazed over when Mr. Schmid appeared with several live, smelly hens.  They clucked, fussed and, worst of all, held their droppings in reserve until the moment when a fastidious chicken judger was most vulnerable.

For those who may not be familiar with the way laying chickens are judged, let me explain: Assume you are right handed.  You scoop up a chicken, not an easy task since chickens resent scoopment, stuff her under your left armpit, tail to the front.

Hold her immobile with your left arm, lift the tail with your left hand.  The right hand contains the gauge by which you measure a chicken’s egg-laying ability–your fingers.  If you remember the Boy Scout and Cub Scout salutes, you can judge chickens because you give the hen a sort of Cub or Boy Scout salute, only horizontal, laying the two-or- three fingers against the egg vent to measure its span which gives you an idea of how large an egg the chicken is capable of delivering.

If there is such a thing as a one-finger chicken, it is destined only for the pot.  It would lay eggs an ambitious robin could beat.  Two fingers (a Cub Scout chicken) probably is a pullet, an egg virgin.  She may develop, but she is not yet a performer in the hot competitive atmosphere of big time egg laying.

A three-finger chicken is the standard and goes to the henhouse to perform her matronly duties.  She is a soldier in the trenches, reliable and productive.  She is the backbone of the egg machine.

Perhaps somewhere there is a four-finger chicken.  He who owns a four-finger chicken is blessed.  Egg producers dream of the four- finger chicken.  A four-finger chicken could name its price in any henhouse in America.

This is what I learned in chicken judging.  We went to the district meet, flexing our fingers, filled with competitive fire.

The top three teams would qualify for state.  Since we had not yet been in a competition with more than three teams, we were confident.  There were four teams and we finished fourth.

Mr. Schmid looked sadly at us and we hung our heads.

I decided that farming was not my vocation and told Mr. Schmid that I would not be taking Vo-Ag my senior year, nor be a member of FFA.  His face cleared, the furrows smoothed from his brow, he became expansive.

“My boy,” he said, “what are your plans?”

“I dunno,” I mumbled.  “Maybe become a writer or something….”

“Good!  Good!” he exclaimed expansively.  “Good!”  He wandered off to a small group of freshmen who were wearing their new blue FFA jackets.  Mr. Schmid had spent his life talking above the roar of tractors and was slightly deaf.

“That boy and his friends judged chickens,” he bellowed in what he thought was a whisper.  “Only chicken judges I ever had.”  Their eyes slewed toward me, as if they were looking at a two-headed calf.

I knew there would be no more chicken judges at Keytesville High School, that Vo-Ag at my high school had crossed a low water bridge and would not return by the same route.



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