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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 www.joelvance.com 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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