Archive for September, 2011

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  • September 27th, 2011

Puppy Love

By Joel M. Vance

             The late French actor Maurice Chevalier sang “Falling in Love Again” and that could be my theme song when it comes to puppies.  I am a helpless romantic about my dogs.  A hunting buddy says, “I don’t fall in love with my dogs, the way you do.”  He does—he just won’t admit it.  He is the kind who goes off by himself to cry over a dead dog; I do it in front of God and everyone.

             I once talked to another bird hunter who said, “If they don’t produce I put them down.”  I looked at him the way I look at cat vomit, but since he was far bigger than I was, I restrained my urge to put knuckle bumps on his head.  In my considered opinion the wrong animal got put down.  Like the kids my puppies are family, for better or worse, and they live out their lives, for better or worse.

My new guy is cute enough to melt the heart of Genghis Kahn.  Cap is his name and he is a French Brittany, appropriate for a French love song I guess.    He was supposed to be a gift to a friend…but then, well, I fell in love and, like an echo of something that happened to me at the senior prom only this time it went my way, I cut in on my friend, stole his date, and he went home alone. 

Cap was one of a litter of eight that was star-crossed from the get-go.  Mother Molly came in heat while her x-rays were somewhere in the limbo of the Orthopedic Foundation of America being checked for hip dysplasia.  She’d never showed any sign of the degenerative hip problem so we bred her.  And then the results came back: “moderate dysplasia.” 

            With that medical history I wouldn’t sell her puppies, but would give them to friends with full disclosure.  Molly swelled like a football and subsequently delivered.  One puppy arrived dead and one died shortly after birth.  The runt of the litter quickly became my favorite, the most outgoing and quickest to learn among the six survivors.   But he had a deformed esophagus, an incurable condition.  He couldn’t keep food down and despite intensive vet care, he died.

            I knew when we left him at our vet that he wouldn’t make it.  I cradled him on the way there, weak, but looking at me with faith in my ability to fix him.  I was heartbroken, took him in a tiny box across the lake and up the hill near the old log where our dogs are buried.  The grave was tiny and I watered it with my tears.

            Each time I visit the graveyard just off the trail I’m among friends who were more loyal, more trusting and more accepting than all but a handful of people I’ve known.  It’s one of life’s great injustices that dogs have such a shorter life than people.  We should age together and flicker out together.  That’s the way it should be.  That’s not the way it is.

            The surviving five grew exponentially.  One would go to our daughter and son-in-law, another to a young hunting friend.  A third was the one supposed to go to another friend, but he was the one that captured my heart.  He prowled the edge of the yard when the others were wrestling or looking for suck at their mother’s faucets.  He was a born adventurer.

            “Captain Adventure,” I said…and it made sense.  “Cap,” a good, sharp, short call-name and descriptive of his exploratory nature.  I looked at him more closely.  Long spaniel ears and a domed head.  He wasn’t a photogenic Brittany, like a couple of his brothers, but while they were dozing he was pulling up short at the flush of a butterfly, quivering with emotion.          

  I picked him up and scratched his belly.  He looked up at me, contented, his ear flopped over my arm.  Love flowered.  I heard Edith Piaf singing French torch songs—or maybe it was the tinnitus that plagues me from shooting too many shotguns for too long without ear protection.

            Cap’s explorations reminded me of Scruffy, who always got picked on.  But in the field he was his own master.  Possessed of the lungs of a Sioux warrior, he could and did run all day and without a shock collar to remind him of the humans he cherished, he might well have found new continents.  His kidneys gave out before his mighty heart did.

            Scruffy sat next to me and leaned and wanted my arm around him.  I was his security blanket.  I wasn’t going to bite him, the way his brother Jay did, or growl at him, the way everyone else did.  We were as close at those moments as brothers (“He ain’t heavy, Father—he’s my brother”).  Yet when I looked at him his eyes were searching the horizon.  I may have been scratching his belly, but his eyes were hunting.

            A few days after the puppies discovered they had hind legs to go with the front ones they would burst from their kennel and flood into the yard like a furry tsunami.  Cap (then still unnamed) led the charge.  Cap gnawed on my shoelaces but also indicated that he wanted to be picked up and fussed over which I did. After getting his dose of sugar he wanted to go exploring.  There’s woods and a glade with a nice muddy wet area where a puppy can splash and make canine mud pies.  There’s a trail toward our son Eddie’s house where three huge Labradors wait to bark at intruders.

                 Oh, the delicious fear of those bellowing monsters.  Tuck your butt and race wide-eyed back to safety! Whew!  What a narrow escape!  I held Captain Adventure’s nose to the Lab kennel fence, and he and the fearsome monsters sniffed and they were buddies great chew toys and more tolerant of upstart puppies than those adult Brittanies who have little patience for insolence.

                With me puppy picking happens a couple of ways.  I look for the dog with initiative and with energy.  Molly, Cap’s mom, not only was the most curious of her litter; she also was the last to crap out.  When the others were sprawled, napping, she still was prowling.   And then there is the love-at-first-sight factor.   Chubby, my best friend-ever, was the last puppy of a litter of eight.  The rest had gone to new owners and one little male sat with his ears down, his expression that of something that badly needed deep affection.  I picked him up and he nestled close and I told my wife, “There is no power on earth that will separate me from this little guy.”

                       That remained true for the dozen years of his life.  He became my feel good dog.  More than once I got sick on the road and lay, feverish and miserable, on a lumpy couch while everyone else was hunting.  Chubby crawled up next to me, nestled close as he had when he was a miserable puppy, and we went to sleep.  When we woke, we both felt fine and we went hunting.

            Our son Andy’s first dog, Pepper, picked him.  Andy was 14 years old when we went to Iowa to watch a litter in action.  Andy drank a Coke, and then laid the can down.  The little pup picked it up and brought it to him.  “She liked me best,” Andy said simply.  Pepper lived 15 years and hunted to the last.  She became the boss bitch of the kennel and could quell uprisings among her rowdy youngsters with The Look, though they all outweighed her by a third.

            She could be willful and after that first pop can retrieve, she decided that retrieving was something she didn’t want to do and never could be persuaded otherwise.  But Andy never regretted his choice of a puppy and I never argued with him about it.  Her blood still enlivens the veins of our current eight French Brittanies.

            The three puppies each were chosen for different reasons.  I fell in love with Cap and Andy did the same with Stewie.  He was watching television and suddenly needed a puppy fix.  “I went to the kennel and didn’t turn on the light,” he says. “I just reached in and grabbed the first puppy that came to my hand.  He lay in my lap and looked up at me and I fell in love.”                                                                                                                                           

            Matty, the only female in the litter, was a unanimous choice.  We both wanted a female.  Except for that semi-annual three-week heat period, females have been far less trouble than males.  They don’t fight over trifles and they don’t pee on everything although that occasionally is justified.  Once my resident male dog hosed down the guitar case of a guy with a serious case of ego inflation, to my great satisfaction, and he bellowed in outrage.  “It was critical comment,” I told him.  

            Of course there also was the time when I was pontificating to a group of field trialers about the intricacies of dog training, when I noticed their attention had wandered.  I couldn’t understand why—my eloquence was at a peak.  And then I followed their eyes to my leg where my dog was busy sluicing the leg of my britches.  

            Underlying any puppy-pick is the uncomfortable knowledge that some of our current five adult dogs are aging.  The puppies are our investment in the future.  We know the time will come when the older dogs simply can’t go anymore.  Pucques is a dozen years old; Jay, Missy and Scruffy are 10.  Jay has arthritis and Missy has had a hip operation.     Molly, mother of the pups, is nine and in her prime.  She can, we hope, teach her upstart youngsters the ropes, just as Pepper did for her offspring years ago.  We merely go along for the ride when it comes to fieldwork.  Their genes have been at the game far longer than we have.

            And dog work is the be-all for me when it comes to bird hunting.  It is at least 80 percent of the fun.  The way I shoot, collecting a full game bag isn’t much of an option.  But seeing dogs I’ve lived with, loved and trained do the right thing makes my sleazy shooting inconsequential.

            Sometimes I take all five to the field and one freezes on point and the other four honor, locked in time and in my memory.  Once I moved in during such a sublime moment as the dogs quivered with anticipation. 

            I flushed a farm cat. 

           An outdoor writer once defended bird hunting without a dog.  I wondered if he’d ever hunted behind good dogs.  I’ll bet if he flushed a cat by himself the moment lacked a feeling of rueful satisfaction that at least he got to experience living calendar art.

            Before we even get to the farm cat stage there are months of drill on the simple stuff: “Sit!”  “Stay!”  “Come!” and, most important “Whoa!”  Puppy training is an exercise in frustration for dog and man.  Never long on patience, I do much grinding of teeth when a puppy just can’t get simple things like “stay” when it’s perfectly obvious to me what I want him to do.  But, I remind myself, I never could learn algebra either.  In fact I burst into tears and threw my college algebra book against the dorm room wall.  I count it a blessing that our dogs don’t hold us accountable for our mistakes.  We yell at them for busting a covey, but they accept it when we miss a meatball shot.  We snarl at them for pointing a rabbit, only to see a huge covey flush (which we salute with a pair of aimless shots). 

               Finally there comes the moment when the puppy sits, reluctantly, for a few seconds and I exclaim, “Okay!” and he comes to a treat and we both sigh with relief.  After all, a puppy does not want to sit.  He wants to run and wrestle and chew and have fun.  I did not want to learn algebra.  I wanted to run and wrestle and chew and have fun.

            Once I was demonstrating my training techniques for a cub reporter who wanted to do a feature story on an outdoor writer famed for his dog training expertise.  I was distracted since she was quite attractive, therefore wasn’t thinking when I chose Molly as my demonstration dog.

            Molly had just been to the vet who had flopped her on an examining table so he could stick her with needles and otherwise violate her body.  I picked her up and plunked her on a table which I built originally to hold beer and brats, not dogs-in-training.  Molly didn’t wait to see if someone in a white coat was approaching with a big needle.  She screamed like a violated maiden, struggled out of my arms and vanished into the woods.

            I grinned weakly, looking remarkably like the Mad Magazine covers featuring Alfred E. Neuman, and said to the bemused reporter, “I guess she doesn’t want to be trained today.”  Then one leg of the table came unglued and the whole thing slowly collapsed.

            Training now is a private exercise between me and Cap.

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  • Blog
  • September 21st, 2011

What’s New, Pussycat?

By  Joel M. Vance            

We have a charming cat whose testicles have never descended.  He has, in the words of a famous bawdy song, “no balls at all.”

                I’m beginning to wonder if the same affliction isn’t affecting our President.  After all, he is faced with the most ludicrous assortment of right wing clowns, armed with enough nutty and often dangerous ideas to make his re-election seem as surefire as fishing with a quarter stick of dynamite.

                But he insists on caving in on one issue after another and each time his approval rating sags more.  When he moved his job creation speech to another day because that tanning booth refugee John Boehner whined that it would interfere with a Republican “debate” (a forum where each of them assaulted the dignity of the office of the President before listing their dubious qualifications to do the job) it showed a definite lack of mountain oysters. 

                I can’t help believe that Lyndon Johnson would have had Boehner and his Senate counterpart, the smirking Mitch McConnell, in the Oval Office for a come-to-Jesus session that would have left both quivering in their golf shoes.  Harry Truman would have said, “the hell with the sorry lot of you” and given the speech at a time of his own choosing.  FDR would have figured out a way to hamstring the less than dynamic duo politically.  Ike would have explained that he was the commander-in-chief, just as he was in Europe, and they weren’t and they’d better shape up or they would be scrubbing pots in the Senate and House kitchen.

                That those first three all were Democrats is immaterial; they were strong leaders and brooked no nonsense from nonsensical Congressfolk.  The Republican Party, home of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, has become a refuge for religious zealots and crass toadies of megacorporate interests.  Mr. Eisenhower’s dire warning to beware of the military-industrial complex has come sadly true. 

                The Republicans of today seem dedicated to jerking the country right back into the 19th century and the era of the robber barons.  Where is the trust-busting Teddy who walked softly and carried a big stick?  Obama has proved that he does carry a big stick from time to time—he sent those who killed bin Ladin.  But of course the right wingers immediately claimed that it was all because Little Georgie set the stage.  Obama has launched five times as many killer drones after al Queda and the Taliban as Little Georgie ever did.  But he still insists that he can work with those whose only aim is to make him a one-term president.  If he can’t see that he’s ignoring reality. 

                I got a flu shot recently and it cost me nothing.  The government, through Medicare, paid for it.  That’s the plan that the right wingers want to dismantle or turn over to the health care jackals.  Social Security?  It is a major part of our meager income.  Leading Republican contender Rick Perry called Social Security a Ponzi scheme, as if all of us 40 million or so Social Security recipients were involved in some Bernie Madoff-style ripoff.  Listen old people, don’t you understand that this pack of scavengers on the body of the nation is dedicated to rending your flesh?

                There is not a single one of the Republican potential candidate slate who in even the faintest way subscribes to government aid for the elderly, poor or otherwise disadvantaged of our citizens.  Rick Perry says Social Security is unconstitutional, a “monstrous lie.”  Well, he should know about monstrous lies—he tells enough of them.

                Let’s concentrate on this latest cowboy from Texas since Michelle Bachmann not only is goofy, but also fading badly in the polls and Mitt Romney isn’t much liked by the Tea Party nutjobs who seem to be in charge in the Grand Old Party (let’s remember, Lincoln, T.R. and Ike when it indeed was grand).

                Perry has been governor of Texas three times, which raises two important points: 1. Term limits are a good thing; and 2. The voters in Texas are living in an alternate universe.  Of course Minnesota voters elected the crazy woman several times and Jim Diment (or is that demented?) is a voting booth darling in South Carolina, so Texas isn’t the only state that elects the weird.  Perry recently was cheered by those stout Christian Tea Party types because he has overseen the execution of 234 convicts.   Apparently his religious followers believe that’s the way Jesus would have governed if only He’d had the electric chair.

                But the more that rational people find out about Perry the more likely they are to write in Mickey Mouse as an alternative.   Much was reported about Perry’s evangelical prayer meeting which attracted 30,000 extreme right wing evangelical types and featured speakers such as preacher John Hagee (who compared Perry to Lincoln—talk about ass-kissing!).  Hagee is the pulpit pounder who was too radical for John McCain and who said God used Hitler to hunt down Jews to force them to go to Israel (The Second Coming supposedly hinges on Israel’s reconstitution as a Jewish nation).

                Could you trust a President who embraces a man who believes that Hitler was God’s emissary?  Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi said this about Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio:  “I went down there and joined this church. We were taught to vomit demons into bags. It was a very, very weird situation.”  Hagee and his hugee, Rick Perry, also make me want to vomit into a bag.

The Tea Party freaks also cheered when, during the TP (no, Tea Party, not toilet paper) sponsored debate among the Republican candidates, Ron Paul implied that if a young man didn’t buy health insurance and then developed a fatal disease, he should be encouraged to die.  Paul is a doctor.  That’s the prevailing Tea Party Christian, Golden Rule attitude.  The hypocrisy of these bigoted zealots makes me sick.  Thank God I have Medicare. 

                Perry, at his Prayerathon, read from the book of Joel (not this Joel, whose books are somewhat lighter in tone) to the effect that natural disasters such as the current extended drought and resultant forest/grass fires can be solved by getting on your knees and praying for repentance. While that may be helpful in the long run, I’d opt for several rainy weeks and an army of fire fighters.  Never one to pass up a chance to play cheap politics, Perry blamed the Administration for the amount of damage from the fires because they responded too slowly (in his opinion—although if you want an example of slow and inadequate government response, Katrina springs to mind).

                                The chances are the Republicans will not nominate either Perry or his airheaded counterpart, Bachmann and instead will turn to a more mainstream candidate like Mitt Romney or some  as-yet-unknown contender.  After all, Obama was a lightning strike for the Democrats.  Perhaps the Republicans will find someone who is not a retread like fat ol’ Newt Gingrich, or a nutjob like most of the rest of them. 

                If so Obama is in trouble. 

                His timidity has cost him major points among the Progressives and liberal Democrats.  Whether it’s because he fears being perceived as “uppity” because of race, or whether it is an innate reluctance to do battle or whether he really believes, despite the overwhelming evidence of three years that the right wingers will work with him only he knows.  I want to see him bang the table and then bang some heads. 

                When he caved in to polluters by delaying ozone regulations until 2013 he put at risk thousands of smog-threatened citizens and angered environmentalists.  He has a former lobbyist/lawyer for Monsanto in charge of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety program.  These are not moves conducive to trust and good governance.  It’s what you expect from someone in thrall to big business and the polluters of yore.

                The last time I voted enthusiastically for a President (before Obama) was for Mr. Eisenhower and I have not regretted that ballot since.  It was my first chance to weigh in on who would lead the country.  Since, there has been a procession of fair to awful presidents, none of whom excited me until Obama did in his “Yes, we can” Presidential campaign.

                Well, if we indeed can, let’s get to it or the inmates will take over the asylum.



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  • September 14th, 2011

Sometimes Life Just Simply Sucks


Dave, as I will always remember him.....


By Joel M. Vance

It was the most beautiful day we had had for weeks, bright sunshine and 70 degrees after endless days of stifling 90 to 100-degree heat and muggy humidity.  The sky was cloudless and achingly blue.  It was a perfect day to be alive.

It was the day after my dear friend of 42 years was killed in a tractor accident.  Dave Mackey and I shared everything from a bed in a rude grouse hunting cabin to his 500 acres of wildlife paradise.  He was everything you’d want in a wildlife conservationist and his profession was working with the land—he was a district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, formerly the Soil Conservation Service until he retired.

I spoke at his retirement dinner, telling jokes and stories and wishing him a long and happy retirement.  It was exceedingly happy, but far too short.  Dave was 66 when his tractor turned on him.

Dave practiced what he preached, year after year.  He cherished quail hunting beyond everything and worked to make his several farms quail friendly.   But no turkey season went by without him adding a fan and beard to his collection of trophy gobblers.  And his freezer bulged with venison, plus what he gave to friends, family and the needy.

He found morel mushrooms where others couldn’t, knew more about wildlife biology than many professional biologists.  He worked with the Missouri Conservation Department professionals often in various studies.  He was a founding member of his local Quail Forever chapter.

When the Wetland Reserve Program passed, Dave began lobbying area landowners to involve them in restoring what had been historic boggy ground and today you’ll find WRP marshes all around the Edina area.  He was a fierce advocate of the Conservation Reserve Program and told about one young farmer whom he helped enrolled in CRP.  “It saved his farm,” he said with pride.  “Otherwise he would have lost it.”

Dave’s son Todd grew up behind a shotgun, fishing rod or bow.  Dave bragged how Todd killed a nice deer behind the local sportsman’s club shooting range, within sight of town.  And when Todd married his childhood sweetheart, Sally bundled up in warm clothes and joined the family at the hunting cabin in the woods.

Daughter Beth married another quail hunter, Tim Schrage, and the two of them put together an annual  get-together to celebrate the spring turkey season and eat good food.  It started as friendly competition among several hunters, each bragging that he could put on world class barbecue.  Now, still  friendly, they compete as teams in a barbecue contest, and tell the kind of outrageous stories that always surface when you get a bunch of hunters together.  Gradually the event took on the aspect of a community fair with a big crowd showing up.  They bring side dishes and there even is a dessert contest.

A half-dozen two-person teams would pit their grill skills against each other while the rest of us slavered at the delicious aromas from a half-dozen charcoal pits, and hoped for samples, like a pack of hungry dogs hanging around the dinner table.  Beth and Tim design T-shirts for the winners which are cherished as avidly as any world championship, but the real prize is a dinner that the Food Channel mavens could only dream about.

Some years while waiting for the ribs to cook, Dave and I would drive out to a cabin he’d built by a tiny pond and look for morels or make a couple of casts in the pond.  Maybe we’d pet the horses he bought for his grandkids to ride or look at his feeder calves.  We’d talk about conservation on the land and how it could be better.  He had spearheaded an extensive system of flood control ponds on the watershed of aptly named Troublesome Creek, and once we got up early and tried to sneak on a bunch of Canada geese roosting on one of the ponds.  Didn’t work.

Other times we would duck or goose hunt on a 10-acre lake that he and Doug Rainey bought together.  Doug was a wildlife biologist for the Conservation Department who retired and shortly developed a cancer which killed him.   That, too, was a sad event—I covered Doug as a high school athlete during my days as a sports editor.  Mortality is no respecter of age or, sorry to say, of human worth—the sons of bitches seem to plow along unchecked while the best of humans get shortstopped.

Dave rarely missed a wing shot but, like me, he got increasingly gimpy and reluctant to tromp the weary miles we once covered on wiry legs.  Once, on a grouse hunting trip in Minnesota, Ted Lundrigan and I were at the top of a wooded slope, Dave at the bottom.  Our plan was that if grouse flushed they would fly downhill, giving Dave a shot.

We flushed three grouse, one at a time, and there were three shots and when we met Dave he was smiling with his limit, thanks to us.

There has been no limit to the hospitality of the Mackey family to us.  The “us” almost always was me, Dave and Spence Turner.  Spence has known Dave as long as I have and possibly has spent more time with him, hunting turkeys and deer and quail.  The three of us were a band of brothers every bit as tight knit as any trio you can think of.  It was Spence who called in tears to tell me about Dave—and this is a man we called The Iron Man for his indomitable willpower and guts, a man not given to idle tears.  Spence lost a leg to infection early in 2011, but within a few weeks was back fishing, mobile on an artificial limb.  It takes a lot to make this man cry.

Dave would laugh about Spence being so eager to get to the turkey woods that he would get up at 4 a.m., banging around in the kitchen as he fixed a pot of coffee without which he cannot operate.  “Why are you up so early?,” bleary-eyed from interrupted sleep.  “It doesn’t get light for a couple of hours.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Spence would answer, taking a hefty gulp of coffee.  “Ahhhhh!  That’s better.”

So it went through the years.  We helped Dave trim his lake’s bass population—which probably averaged two pounds or better.  But Dave was a crappieholic and bass were an inconvenience.  Still, no matter how many of those whomping bass we took out of the lake there were just as many the next time.

I often wondered how I could repay the generosity of this man who so eagerly shared his home, his food and his hunting and fishing honey holes with Spence and me.  I renewed his “Gun Dog” subscription every year and when I developed a dynamite recipe for salsa I took him pints of it.  It wasn’t enough—I knew that—but it was heartfelt and I wished I could do more.

Real friendship is not about who owes whom, but about sharing whatever you can.  I did my best to grab the check every time we ate lunch in some greasy spoon during a hunting trip, but even then I had to threaten him to get it done.

I told our son Andy about Dave.  He has hunted and fished with Dave since he was old enough to carry a shotgun.  He and Todd shot goals together at the local gym when they were teenagers and he has been as close to Dave as either Spence or me.  A few weeks ago he and Dave toured Dave’s lake in a small boat while I waded the shore with a fly rod.  Predictably they caught more fish than I did.  It was the last time we saw Dave.

Andy held his face in his hands and said, “It’s not fair.”  No it isn’t.  The old saying is that “Life isn’t fair,” but that doesn’t make the unfairness of it any easier to take.  And being philosophical about rotten things happening is for philosophers or Mother Teresa.  As for me I want to go out and shout at the sky, “Why, damn it!  Why!”

When you lose a buddy you can cry and feel crappy or you can do what I’m doing—cry and then write about the good times and the meaning of real friendship.  I know hundreds of people, but only a few in my life have had the impact that earns the title “friend.”  Dave was one of the four or five who fit that category.

Yes, I will miss him terribly.  The world is a much emptier place without him.  But I can’t bring him back and, in time, the unfairness and shock of his death will fade and the memories of the good times will prevail.  Dave did what all of us should aspire to do—he influenced and inspired a wealth of people and that is a legacy that transcends material goods.

I loved and respected Dave Mackey and his dear family.

Writers are supposed to have the right words.

But there are none.


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  • September 1st, 2011

Billy Flies In

By Joel M. Vance


Below is an excerpt from one chapter of my newest book Billy Barnstorm, the Birch Lake Bomber.  It’s available for $15.99 plus $3 s/h from and you’ll find the rest of the story there.

We just returned from Birchwood, Wisconsin, the real Birch Lake, where we saw the home of Monk Morey, the inspiration for the title story, and visited with many of the folks who contributed their personalities to the residents of Birch Lake.

Normally I wouldn’t so blatantly plug my books, but what the hell—I’m old and closer to destitute than I am to Bill Gates, so here’s the commercial:


The Starlight was the Birch Lake local dance hall.  On Saturday nights the Jack Pine Mellotones filled the northwoods air with polkas and schottisches.   The simultaneous stomp of a couple hundred Scanahoovian work boots sounds like rolling thunder:  “Dad a dada dad a duh duh…STOMP…dad a dada dad a duh duh…STOMP!”

It was enough to cause war with Sweden.

After a young lifetime of accordions and clarinets I’d had enough of wind-powered instruments.  When I was about eight I stumbled onto the Grand Ole Opry on our burly Zenith console radio and was transfixed.

The signal leaped across the country, from Nashville, streaking north through Illinois and into Wisconsin, over the dairy barns and pastures, into the beginning of the North Woods, finally to Birch Lake where it was sometimes scratchy and fading.

Uncle Dave Macon, the Dixie Dewdrop, whaled away at an old banjo and whooped and hollered about his days hauling merchandise in a horse-drawn wagon (this was before my unfortunate experiences with horses).

And Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger (I wondered if he wore six-guns and carried a badge), played an acoustic guitar, none of those electric wires trailing from it, and sang about “mamas,” those hot-blooded creatures we North Woods kids only dreamed about.

I lusted to play the guitar—not just play but also sing, just like Gene Autry.  We’d watched the immaculate Gene keep order on the range when we were little kids.  Gene Autry was the cleanest human being I’d ever seen, his Ipana smile nearly blinding.  Gene could fight four or five black-garbed villains and never pop a sweat and look as if he’d just stepped out of the shower into clean clothing.  It was miraculous.

Did he ever treat a cow for scours on that ranch of his?  Ever wrestle a powerful calf to the ground to castrate it?  I just couldn’t put him in a wrinkled, filthy wool shirt, spattered with cow shit.  In comparison, John Wayne was a hopeless slob who couldn’t sing.  But he could and did shoot bad guys dead where Gene just shot the guns out of their hands and then started singing—which is when most kids started throwing Milk Duds and popcorn and yelling at the Birch Lake Rialto screen.

But I liked to hear Gene sing.  I would sooner have confessed to consorting with female pigs, but secretly I lusted for a guitar, not a six gun.  I’d pray for the right atmospheric conditions so I’d get a skip from Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry would come in clear.

I never told anyone I was listening to Hank Williams and Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells.  Every bohunk farm kid was listening to Frank Sinatra and Joni James.  I was learning the words to Roy Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway.”

I met Rusty when Hal and I were playing catch in the flat behind the station.  We always had our gloves and a scuffed baseball.  I caught for the Birch Lake Cookies, our town team, and Hal played left field.  But I wanted to pitch.  That was the glamour position.  Who cared about someone squatted behind the plate wearing padding and a sweat-stained mask that hid his face and smelled like an old sock?

Rusty Adams had curly, sand-colored hair, a smattering of freckles and a slightly pugged nose, but not enough to be unattractive.  He reminded me of Van Johnson, the movie star.  He was about 23 or so, with a wide grin and he looked like the kind of fellow a father instantly would trust with his nubile daughter.  I looked, I thought, like the kind that the father would see and start searching for a place to hide the kid and then for a double-barreled shotgun to protect her.  But then I always figured fathers could read minds.

The two o’clock rumbled through and the engineer waved.  We waved back.  “You ever ride a train?” Hal called.  He stretched, checked an imaginary runner, and threw what he thought was a curve ball.  It barely popped in the glove.  I peggd it back out of the crouch.

“Once, with my folks when I was little,” I said.  “We went to Minneapolis and I got stomach cramps and pooped in my pants.”

Hal thought he was Bob Feller.  He leaned back to put something extra on the next pitch and heaved a throw six feet over my head.  I flipped the mitt in the air and miraculously stopped the ball.

Rusty had spotted Hal and me playing catch and had come over to watch.  “You handle the tools of ignorance pretty well,” he said from the shadow of the station house. “Tools of ignorance…that’s what they call catcher’s gear.”  I nodded.  Couldn’t have expressed my feelings any better.  The new guy had a soft southern accent.

“Well, I’d rather be a pitcher,” I said.  “But the coach thinks I’m a jerk.”  I didn’t add that Coach K thought I was a jerk in general, not just because I wanted to pitch.

“Lemme show you something,” Rusty said.  He held out his hand and Hal flipped him the ball.  “Here, see can you catch this.  Be careful.”  I figured if I could catch Scuz Olsen, the Soo League burnball king I could catch some rag arm railroad guy.

I set myself for a fast ball, maybe even faster than Scuz’s erratic hummer, but instead I saw the moon, a slow floater that your Grandma could handle one-handed.  It made Scuz’s slowest pitch look like a screamer.  It trundled lazily down the 60 feet between us and I could see the seams—the ball was not rotating.

Then the pitch unaccountably staggered and dropped as if it had hit some invisible obstruction and then it hit me in the crotch, right under my glove.  And then I moaned and fell over and lay in the dirt, my lower abdomen trying to turn inside out.

As I scrabbled in the weeds, imitating the dying spasms of a beheaded chicken, my only thought was that I would never be able to discover the intimate delights of girls.  I was ruined down there and for the rest of my life.  What a terrible thing to do to a teenage virgin!


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