Archive for August, 2011

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  • August 24th, 2011

Bible Banging

By Joel M. Vance


“I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty and paralysis to human thought.”

The speaker was Hank Morgan, in the sixth century….except it was Mark Twain in the 19th century in the voice of his Connecticut Yankee.  Chances are, confronted with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, today’s religious/political icons, Mr. Clemens would say the same thing.  He was never a fan of unchecked and unquestioned church power.  The thought of a religious fanatic in the White House should be terrifying to anyone who cherishes the concept of this country….but there is a huge body of the electorate who buys into the idea of the United States as a Christian country, nevermind those pesky Jews, Muslims and other oddities of religion (think Native Americans, who, after all, were here a long time before us Christians).

That the Founding Fathers were specific in ruling out a church-oriented state, is a minor fact to be ignored.  They all were ardent Christians, according to Bachmann et al, even though they weren’t.  Bachmann is so ignorant of our history that she lauded “Founding Father” John Quincy Adams for his opposition to slavery.  He was not a Founding Father; he was the son of one and was eight years old when the Constitution was adopted.  Of course the Minnesota flake also confused movie actor John Wayne with serial killer John Wayne Gacy so anything is possible in her strange world.

And she had the Revolutionary War beginning in the wrong state (at least she didn’t have Paul Revere riding to warn the British, like Sarah Palin did).  It’s easy to excuse gaffes because all politicians screw up….but when it’s either a pattern or deliberate misrepresentation it is inexcusable.  Bachmann has a history of such verbal pratfalls and you begin to see that she simply doesn’t care about the truth when a good lie will serve her better.

Bachmann’s warped knowledge of history apparently comes from a guy named David Barton, an evangelical minister and self-styled historian whose expertise in history has been dismissed by actual historians as “pseudoscholarship.”  He is a champion of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

In that view he is arguing with the likes of James Madison, called the Father of the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson who as most of us know (possibly not Michelle Bachmann) wrote the Declaration of Independence.  Madison said, “”The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

And Jefferson said, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

And John Adams, our second President, signed the Treaty of Tripoli which explicitly states, “The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”  Can’t get much clearer than that—except maybe to read the Constitution’s First Amendment which, in addition to giving Michelle Bachmann the right to say really stupid and ignorant things, also says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Our Constitution expressly forbids government from dictating how we worship.  In 1993 the Supreme Court reaffirmed a previous decision that government cannot restrict how a religion practices except for the “furtherance of a compelling government interest.”  Bachmann and Perry might argue that their administrations would figure out a “compelling government interest” so they could tell us how to practice their warped sense of religion—but one would hope the Supreme Court, as right-winged as it is, would knock the pins from under that ploy.

Although there are no guarantees—the Court has upheld a state’s right to prohibit the use of peyote by Native Americans in religious practices or for Mormons to practice polygamy.        Lest you think that the religious fanatics are harmless, consider what Mike Huckabee, one time Presidential candidate, now a Fox network mouthpiece, said in March about Barton, “I wish that every single young person in America would be able to be under his tutelage and understand something about who we really are as a nation. I almost wish that there would be a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, at gunpoint no less, to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country would be better for it. I wish it would happen.”

Don’t you just love the views of someone who says you should be forced at gunpoint to listen to his views?  It’s always inflammatory to summon up the hellish specter of Adolph Hitler, and I can’t believe Mike Huckabee literally meant what he said….but saying it brings up the grim specter of gunpoint argument which is not and never should be an American trait.

One blog commentor with rare perspicacity, summed everything up succinctly: “Religion is never the problem, it always has and always will be people that are the problem.

Bachmann, Perry, Barton, Huckabee—these are religious fanatics who are dedicated to imposing their will on everyone.  They shouldn’t be allowed to escape their records, their statements, and their associations.  They would, if permitted, abandon the ideal of religious freedom or, for that matter, of freedom in just about every area of our lives, to force adherence to a Biblical world view and make everyone subject to Biblical law rather than a secular (and American)  legal system. People are the problem and these are the people.

They are closely allied with “Domininism,” a belief that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions, including government.  Calvinist theologian R. J. Rushdoony, is the Godfather of the Domininism movement which among other things, believes in Christian home-schooling….and so does Michelle Bachmann who helped found a private school that got in trouble for pushing Christianity contrary to Minnesota state law.

Rushdoony declared himself pro-slavery (and this was in the 1960s!) and was adamant that the Bible should rule, not secular law.  Biblical law can be pretty tough.  The Old Testament is filled with examples of cruel punishment.  The death penalty was dictated for all sorts of behavior, including homosexuality.  In fact Exodus says that anyone who does any work on Sunday should be put to death.  So if your lawn needs mowing, you’d better check the calendar.

The New Testament is much more tolerant and in line with most people’s ideas of a moral life without the threat of horrible punishment.  Still, Galatians says, “We know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires.”  I wonder who the judges would be who would interpret legal questions according to faith and the Bible, rather than the law books.  And would we then need a Congress….or a delegation of preachers?

One Domininism writer, George Grant, the former executive director of Coral Ridge Ministries, which now is Truth in Action Ministries, said, “Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ—to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.  But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice … It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time … World conquest.”

And that should frighten every American, especially those who have had even a fleeting thought about voting for either Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann.




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  • August 15th, 2011

It’s the God’s Truth!

By Joel M. Vance

As Dorothy nervously tiptoes through the Land of Oz, she chants , “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” her voice quavering with fear.  Apparently Oz has resurfaced in northeast Ohio.  The police in New Philadelphia, Ohio, according to the Associated Press, “….are cautioning that a wolf may be roving in the same area of northeast Ohio where people have reported seeing what they thought was a mountain lion.”

It’s not quite lions and tigers and bears, but close.  No one, as yet, has reported a yeti or Sasquatch, but any day now.  The AP continues, “Police Chief Jeff Urban in New Philadelphia has urged residents to keep children, pets and pet food indoors because of an animal he described as a “large, silver dog.” He says there are reports that it has killed ducks and a deer fawn, though none about the animal being aggressive with people or pets.”

I don’t want to make fun of those fearful folks in Ohio, especially if some large animal carries off Little Eva, but wildlife rumors are the stuff of coffee shop discussion and have been for decades.  The culprit almost always is the state wildlife agency which is accused of stocking the rumored animals for unknown but undoubtedly sinister purposes.

If there is a Himalayan equivalent of the Corner Cozy Cup, there are several Good Ol’ Sherpas crouched over cups of yak butter tea agreeing that things have gone to pot since the conservation department stocked those yetis.

Wherever there is a local coffee shop, you’ll find a tableful of good ol’ boys building up the latest wildlife rumor.  Wildlife rumors are as virulent as prairie wildfire.  All it takes is someone’s stray Labrador retriever, glimpsed in a field by a passer-by.  The retriever becomes a black panther and within moments the rumor expands. The black panther was stocked by the conservation department (a) to control deer; (b) to discourage poachers; (c) for dark and devious purpose, best left unexplained.

No organization is more subject to rumor than the Conservation Department.  It’s fair game, pardon the pun, for every wild story around.

Rattlesnakes are a persistent creature-of-rumor, from Missouri to Maine.  One Missouri story is that the state is trading wild turkeys for rattlers and aerial seeding the snakes in the heavily-wooded Ozarks (the snakes are put in water-filled balloons to break the fall).

The January, 2006, issue of the Department of Conservation magazine has a letter from a reader saying, “We heard a story that we’re hoping is not true,” the letter began.  “We were told the Conservation Department has released a bunch of rattlesnakes in Mo. Because they are listed on the endangered species.”

Not true.  Rattlesnakes are a rumor that persists, like the beheaded snake that refuses to die until the sun goes down (or maybe that’s snapping turtles).  Tom Shoener, who was with the Maine Fish and Wildlife Department’s magazine, recalled that back in the 1970s a rumor began that Maine, the only state with no rattlesnakes, was stocking them.

“An outdoor writer who was upset with our pheasant stocking program fancied himself a writer of satire,” Shoener said.  “He did a piece about the snake stocking program and people took it seriously.”

So did the Legislature when letters began to come in from irate constituents.  “We were in dire financial straits at the time,” Shoener said.  “We had a bill for a permit increase which was desperately needed and had a heck of a time convincing the legislators that the snake story wasn’t true.”

Some rumors are induced for a purpose.  Some years back, a conservation agent plagued by hand fishermen, those hardy, if illegal, souls who reach into dark, creepy subsurface crevices in rivers to grab large fish, dropped a rumor at the coffee shop that the Department was stocking alligators.

“It cut down on the hand fishing for a while,” he said.

Let an exotic creature surface and instantly there is a rumor that the state conservation department is stocking the creatures.  If a porcupine pops up far south of its range or an armadillo far north, why everyone knows that the department is responsible.  “My aunt says she heard from her cleaning lady that her brother knows a guy who was there when they dumped them out.”

Almost as persistent as rattlesnake stocking is the story that the wildlife department is stocking cougars for nefarious reasons.  Sometimes it’s to frighten deer or elk so they’re harder for hunters to kill.  Other times it’s to control deer populations

Oddly, the story that mountain lions exist in various states, dismissed as rumor for many years, has proved to be true—Missouri had two killed by vehicles in a year’s time after denying the existence of the animals in the state for more than half a century.  If Missouri has them, so probably does Kansas, Iowa and other states that have declared the animals non-present (Iowa thought its last lion vanished in 1867).

But the state wildlife agencies are not stocking them, especially with black helicopters (a frequent element of the rumor).  That much is true.

In Pennsylvania and other states the rumor circulated that the Game Division, in cooperation with insurance companies, was releasing coyotes to kill off deer and reduce auto-deer collisions.   West Virginia biologist Ray Knotts said he thought hunters who couldn’t kill a deer were spreading the rumor.  “The coyote right now is just a good scapegoat,” he said.

While most wildlife rumors involve animals, fish aren’t exempt.  North Dakota reported a two-headed northern pike and there actually was a photo.  But the photo probably was fake and no one at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department could find any credible evidence that it actually existed.

Sometimes the creatures involved don’t even exist, sound like something out of Winnie the Pooh.  Missourians long believed that the Conservation Department had stocked “honey bears,” whatever those are.  You still hear occasional references to them, at least 50 years after the original story began.  Black bears are expanding their range into states like Kentucky and Missouri, but not because, as rumor would have it, the state is stocking them.

Another longtime Missouri rumor is that stocked “Mexican quail” (more properly Texas bobwhites) have replaced the native bobwhite.  They are smaller than the original bird, goes the story, and more prone to flush wild, fly farther and always hide in the woods.  Actually there were Mexican quail stocked, but they quickly vanished, not into the gene pool, but into various predatory tummies.  Probably less than a half-dozen years after the last stocking, the Mexican birds had been absorbed into the native population and no expert could tell the difference.

And Mo-Mo, the Missouri version of the Sasquatch or Yeti or Big Foot, hasn’t made an appearance for many years, but was a frequent source of coffee shop chatter for months in the 1960s.  It’s only a matter of time until the hairy he/she resurfaces.

Or maybe not—the Montana rumor was that a rancher, Steve Kukowski, shot a Big Foot a few years ago and wildlife officials confiscated the defunct Sasquatch for God-knows-what awful purpose.  Kukowski says the whole story is baloney

A good friend, who worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks , said, “I have no comment.  The FBI cleaned everything up.” Bill was joking…but also asking for it because the coffee shop rumor mill does not recognize humor.

It only recognizes two-headed fish and airborne rattlesnakes….






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  • August 2nd, 2011

Flying High With Billy Barnstorm

By Joel M. Vance


More than 30 years ago I created a town.  It was before Garrison Keillor invented Lake Wobegon, but it did have a lake and it had eccentric characters and a family.  I called it Birch Lake, a thinly-disguised version of Birchwood, Wisconsin, my mother’s home town where I spent summers as a kid.  My cousins Pat  Catman and Sam Soper think they’re the cousins in the stories about Birch Lake, but the kids really are me—or the me I wanted to be.

I started these kids out in elementary school and they had girl friends who were flat in front, but mysteriously appealing.  My kids got in trouble usually without trying—kind of like real kids.

Now I’ve aged my kids to teenagers, filled with the sap and sappiness that goes with testosterone poisoning, and the result is a book titled “Billy Barnstorm, the Birch Lake Bomber” and it’s available to you right now for $15.99 plus $3 shipping and handling.  So confident am I that you will laugh, maybe puddle up a time or two, and be entertained that if you buy the book and aren’t happy with it, I’ll refund your money—I almost said “happily,” but “grumpily” is closer—but I will refund it.

Think Christmas gift.  Or gift to all the now grown-up kids we used to be.  This is about boys discovering that girls aren’t flat in front anymore and that hormones are a frightening epidemic.  I call “Billy” a novel, but it’s more a collection of short stories with the same characters, loosely strung together in a plot that leads up to a climactic encounter with history.

My friend Pat McManus, who knows plenty about kid characters who get into trouble, enjoyed Billy and said, “A current of humor runs through everything I’ve read by Joel Vance, and Billy Barnstorm is no exception.  It’s a wonderful trip back in time, and by no means to a simpler time, at least for a boy coming of age.  The ending is powerful and perfect.”

Nick Lyons, a wonderful publisher, editor and writer, read “Billy” and said he would have published it….except he is retired.  Nick said, “This is vintage Vance–which means that it’s earthy, hilarious, fast-paced and quick-witted, and packed with characters and incidents you can’t forget.   It also has a shrewd fix on teenage longings and lust in the l950s, and this comes to a head in the delicious last chapter, full of that lust and surprise–a real knockout.   I loved BILLY BARNSTORM.”

Most of the incidents in the book really happened in some form or another.  When my favorite Aunt Vic was a girl a barnstorming pioneer aviator improbably named Monk Morey came to Birchwood and Aunt Vic went for a flight with him.  She and a wild child cousin combined to become the girl in the title story.

Once a friend from Texas told me about sneaking into the tent of a hoochy-coochy dancer at the county fair when he was a kid.  Voila! as the French probably don’t say.  It became the basis of the first chapter featuring Flame LaTouche, her bra, and my intrepid teenage hero.

Almost everyone in the book is an amalgam of people I’ve known and mostly admired.  Scuz Olson could almost be someone I once knew, but we’ll keep his identity secret to protect the guilty.

These stories are everywhere.  After all, we all grew up (some of us more than others).  My friend Mike Levy, who sadly died not long ago, once told me of an incident where he managed to get both his thumbs hooked on either end of a fishing plug.  “Did you ever try to drive with your thumbs hooked together?” he asked, rhetorically.

No—I hadn’t….but I used the anecdote in a humor column, then realized my teenage hero was a likely candidate for something like that, wrote a short story which I sold to Gray’s Sporting Journal.  It took first place in a contest and by then Mike was mightily tired of me making money off of his misfortune.  “I’ll never tell you anything again,” he said.

Bless him, he has his own book, sadly published posthumously, with Five Valleys Press, the same publisher of “Billy” and it is a fine read.   I miss him and I also miss all the folks who in one form or another contributed their anecdotes and personalities to “Billy Barnstorm,” but who didn’t live long enough to realize their inadvertent contribution.

I grew up reading about Huck and Tom, and Penrod and Sam.  And I fell in love with a succession of, first, little girls, and then bigger ones.  Tom had his Becky Thatcher. I seem to remember that Penrod and Sam didn’t have time for girls, but that was their problem.  I had Helen Lipske to whom I sang “Sentimental Journey” across the gulf between her apartment and ours.  She thought I was a dork.

She was right.

Fortunately the girl I fell in love with years later, finally and irrevocably, did not get involved with dogs in a parade doing unseemly things, although today after 55 years of marriage she is involved with the daily care and feeding of the family’s six Brittanies plus four Labs.  Marty is the epitome of the girls in “Billy Barnstorm” and the reason I create people and situations that I hope entertain.  I do it, I realize, for her, hoping that she will be impressed by the inventiveness of this guy she fell in with so many years ago.  She’s my audience, my sounding board and my inspiration.

And in a convoluted way she is responsible for another story that’s churning around in the maelstrom that passes for my imagination.  The football coach at her high school is legendary and a friend and fellow writer Bill Clark is interested in doing a book on his career.

Marty volunteered to give Bill some contact names and we all had lunch.  Bill, who has a million stories, told about officiating a basketball tournament once.  After the first round, he was heading home when the local cop, a Barney Fife wannabe, stopped him, accused him of being drunk, and made him walk the center line.

Bill never had a drink in his life.  In the next round of the tournament Bill spied the cop at the doorway of the gym and stopped the game.  “That man looks drunk to me!” he said to the crowd.  He then made the cop walk the end line after explaining to the crowd what had happened to him.  Everyone applauded Bill and it turned out the cop, who was very unpopular, was forced to quit.

Perhaps that incident, turned into a story, will appear in the next Birch Lake book.  I can see Elmer Blosser, the fat, incompetent Birch Lake constable, walking the end line at a Birch Lake High Bobcat game, but in the meantime “Billy Barnstorm” is coming in for a landing.  I didn’t intend for this to turn into an extended commercial but it kind of got away from me.

I’ve been a professional writer for more than 55 years and I really think “Billy” is the best thing I’ve ever written.  Certainly it was the most fun I’ve had.  Everyone wants to create a childhood that is without serious trauma—nothing worse than teenage love affairs gone wrong or fish that fight back.

If you’re looking for a few hours of escape or to give that escape to someone else, check out “Billy Barnstorm” at or order direct from Joel Vance, Box 1664, Jefferson City, MO, 65102.  It’s $15.99 plus $3 s/h.  I’ll inscribe it any way you want.

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