Archive for October, 2011

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  • October 31st, 2011

The Brass Compass


This story is from my book of outdoor oriented ghost stories “Autumn Shadows.”  Happy Halloween and enjoy!

By Joel M. Vance

             “Be patient.”  I remember my Dad counseling me. It always drove me crazy.

            “Be patient–the rides at the Fair aren’t going to go away.”  Couldn’t he see that I was going to explode if I didn’t get on the Tilt-A-Whirl in the next five minutes?

      Later on: “Be patient.  You’ll learn how to cast.  Here, let me get that hook out of your shirt.”

      Still later: “Be patient.  You’ll learn how to hit those birds. Just take your time.  Get on one bird out of the covey and stay with him.”

      Easy for him to say.  He didn’t care that much about quail hunting anyway.  He had an  indifferent setter named Rex, next thing to a potlicker.  Rex was a payoff on a slow debt and my Dad thought he’d gotten a good deal.  What he got was an endless appetite.

      Dad didn’t kill a dozen quail in a season.  If the shot was there, he’d take it and sometimes hit it.  If it were doubtful he’d let the bird go and laugh about it putting one over on him.  I always figured if you could see them, you could kill them.  I wanted to catch fish and kill quail.  What was the point if you didn’t get something out of the


      He started taking me quail hunting when I was about seven years old.  They were short hunts because I couldn’t keep up otherwise, and he’d slow by half or more to make it easier for me.  Sometimes, when we were in the woods or on big farms with no landmarks, he’d haul out a small brass compass that had been my grandfather’s.

      “I know where we’ve been,” he’d joke.  “But I’d kind of like to know where we’re  going.”  The compass was about an inch in diameter with one half of the needle silver, the other black.  The gimbaled needle rotated over a field which showed the points of the compass, as well as degrees.  It had been made in Germany and was old.

      Once I asked him how it worked and he showed me how you line the needle with north, then sight on your desired direction.  I was astounded.  “I always thought that a compass pointed to where you wanted to go!” I exclaimed.

      He laughed for a good hour about that.  He told my mother when wegot home and she laughed, too.  For years after, when we were hunting with those who hadn’t heard the story, he’d haul out the brass compass and tell whoever we were hunting with about me thinking a compass pointed to where you wanted to go.

      It became a family joke.  If my parents wanted to go out, my mother would say, “Well, where are we going tonight?”

      And my father would reply, “I don’t know.  Let’s get the compass out and see where it points…”

      My mother died when I was in high school and my father lived on at the family farm while I went to college, carefully avoiding any courses that smacked of agriculture, and got a business degree.  I found that the world was ready for yet one more insurance salesman. so I started selling term policies to people who couldn’t define a term policy if their lives depended on it…which, I guess, it did.

      The money was pretty good, but I had to hump it all the time.  Commission sales are what you make of them.

      I’d get home to the farm a couple of times a year.  Mostly, I hunted on a game farm because the birds were sure and I could cram maximum shooting in minimum time.  Once in a while I took a trip with the boys to South Dakota for pheasants.  Quail hunting on the home place was too catch-as-catch-can for me. 

      “Come on down this year,” he wrote once.  “The nest season was great and there are birds everywhere.  I have a pretty good dog now and I’ll guarantee you some shooting.”

      But I didn’t make it that season.  Something came up.  I don’t remember what.

      Then my Dad had a heart attack.   As those things go, it was mild. Chest pains, nausea, enough to alarm him.  He checked into the hospital and they hooked him up to a bevy of monitoring devices.  Of course, I came at once.  By the time I got there, he was free of discomfort, feeling good and ready to go home.  “Don’t be in such a

hurry,” I said.  “You take it easy.

      “Never thought I’d hear you say that,” he said.  “You’re the one that’s always running.  I’ll be okay.  Just nature’s way of telling me to be patient.  It’s what I’ve been telling you for years.  I finally figured out that where people are in such a hurry to get isn’t anyplace

I want to be.”

      He took a sip of water.  Little plastic identification wristband, hospital gown, institutional glassware–I wanted to drag him out of there and stick him back in brush pants and a chamois shirt where he belonged.  It wasn’t right. 

      He reached in the nightstand drawer. “You take this,” he said.  The old brass compass was in his hand.  “I want you to have it.”  I made a gesture of protest and he pushed it at me.  “Go ahead.  Maybe someday it’ll point to where you want to go.”

      I didn’t want to take the compass.  It was too much as if he were giving away parts of himself in anticipation of the imminent collapse of the whole. “No,” he scoffed, reading my thoughts.  “I’m not going to die.  But I’m not going to get far from the road either.  You take it.”  He dropped it in my palm.  It was still warm from his hand.  I

looked at my grandfather’s engraved initials and coiled the leather

lanyard.  I fingered the end-button. 

      To make the end-button, he had sawed a cross-section from a deer antler. On the face of it, he had meticulously carved a tiny quail in flight, accurate even to the feathering of its wings and tail.  Even assuming I had the talent to do it, I never would have had the patience.

      “Thanks, Dad,” I said, wanting to say more, but not knowing how.  I wanted to say that it was wrong for him to be laid up with his life tottering on its foundations, that I wished we could go back and do all those things over…only at his pace.  I wanted to tell him that I missed Mom and that I loved him.  But I didn’t. 

      “Well, listen,” I said.  “I have to go.”  He nodded. “You hang in there, will you?”  He nodded again and smoothed at the sheet.  I stuck the compass in my pocket.

      The next time I was home, he had picked up a bird dog pup somewhere, a setter all feet and ears.  “What the hell do you need a bird dog for?” I blurted before I thought and I saw the quick hurt in his eyes.

      “I mean, aren’t you supposed to take it easy?” I asked, trying to smooth it over.  But we both knew I really meant, “You probably won’t live long enough to enjoy the dog.”  What a stupid thing to say!

      “I’m not exactly bedridden, you know,” he said mildly.  “If I take my time, I can do just about anything I want–maybe not as much or as often, but I get around.  Me and the pup, we get around.”

      We took the pup out that afternoon and it was obvious he’d stumbled onto a really fine animal.  Not quite six months old, she  pointed two coveys and several scatters, found  and fetched the three birds we knocked down with a mouth as soft and dry as goosedown. 

      I found myself continually ahead of Dad, adjusting my pace to half his and then less than that.  My youthful impatience had been tempered by the years…but not much, especially when I saw the pup run through a pair of scatters.  I sprinted halfway across a beanstubble field and whaled her.  I still was breathing hard when Dad caught up with me.

      “Let her make her mistakes,” he said.  “She’s too good to lean on.  She knows she did wrong.  You don’t have to beat it into her.  Be patient.”  I could see a muscle jumping in his jaw as he clenched it.  He was angry with me, but damn it, he was patient. 

      “I’m sorry, Dad,” I said.  “She’s your dog.  I don’t have any right to discipline her.”  But there was a spark of anger on my part, too.  “Be patient.”  God, would I ever stop hearing those words? 

      As it turned out, I would, sooner than I could have imagined.  One of Dad’s friends called me a week later.  Dad had suffered a fatal heart attack and would I come?

      And now, of course, I remembered all the things I’d wanted to say and never could, all the wasted moments, all the unspoken regrets.  I remembered, and I hurt with the impossibility of it.

      The farm mine to do with as I wanted–so was his no-frills Fox Sterlingworth side-by, and the pup who looked at me with confused worry, wondering where her adored master had gone.

      Did she remember me as the angry stranger whom her master seemed to like, but who beat her?  A dog’s simple mind must be filled with terrible anxieties, unrelieved by logic or intuition.

      The farm was self-sustaining–a sharp young tenant farmer insured a steady income.  There was no reason I couldn’t sell insurance nearly as profitably in the country as I did in the big town.  Between the two incomes, I’d have financial security and plenty of spare time.

      But time for what? 

      The pup looked worriedly at me, sensing my grief, no doubt missing her master.   “You’re mine now, Nellie,” I said.  She wagged her tail slowly. 

      I hunted the home place opening day, but there was a gloom that spoiled it.  Sure, I missed my Dad.  I hadn’t realized how much I would until I did–and then, of course, it was too late to let him know.

      The pup found three coveys, but I cut the hunt short.  Cut my shooting short of a limit, too.  There would be plenty of time to shoot the limit before the season ended. When I got back to the house and cleaned the birds, I realized there were three…and that I’d taken exactly the same tour with the pup that my Dad and I had taken on that

last hunt a year before.  Subconscious symbolism, no doubt.  Maybe a way of purging my grief.       

            Who knows?

      I was busy the rest of November and didn’t hunt again until early December.  The weather stayed uncommonly warm, so warm that some of Dad’s forsythia popped yellow one day, then curled when the temperature dropped below freezing the next night.

      Reminders of Dad were everywhere, but I was learning to meet them without that sharp pang of grief.  More now they were occasion for a quiet moment of recognition, like waving  to an old friend across a room.

      Finally I had all my policy ducks neatly rowed.  A couple of adjacent large landowners in the north part of the country not only bought policies from me, they also gave me hunting permission.  So I had about 2,000 acres of rolling hills, a free day, a good dog and a powerful bloodlust. 

      “Nellie,” I said to the pup as I laid out the hunting gear for the next morning, “We’re going to have us a time.”

      No need to hit the quailfields early– it’s one of the things I’ve always admired about King Bob.  He takes his time about crawling out of bed and doesn’t need to be hunted in the cold ache of dawn.

      I ate a leisurely breakfast, drank a couple of cups of coffee.  “Let’s go, Nellie,” I said, picking up my gear.  The pup bounced and squatted across the yard, her tail semaphoring joy.  I loaded the gun,

shells, vest and dog in the station wagon.  Still warm, almost sultry–certainly goofy weather for December.  I sure wouldn’t need a down vest or windbreaker.  No wind and no cold.  Shirtsleeve weather.

      It was cool for just the chamois shirt  and shell vest, but I knew the uphills would steam me up, even if the downhills didn’t. 

      The setter flowed over the lumpy ground like ground fog and I watched her do what she was bred to do with such grace and elegance that it became art.  “You picked a dandy, Dad,” I said out loud.

      The dog pointed at the tip of a finger of woods that stuck into the pasture and, wonder of wonders, the covey flushed over the ridge, rather than into the heart of the woods.  I killed a bird on the rise and missed a second.  The setter flash-pointed the dead bird, then

picked it up and brought it to me.

      I fluffed the ruffled feathers, feeling the body heat, and put it in my game bag, patted the dog on the head.  She wheeled and followed the line of the flush.

      I wasn’t dumb enough not to realize there was a weather front moving in, but I was dumb enough not to pay attention to where I was going.  The farm was a sprawling complex of ridges and wooded gullies, with some grain fields on the ridges, but mostly pasture.  The birds were on the fringe of the woods and once I realized that I followed the

treeline, flushing a covey that flew deep into the woods, then working a covey the dog pointed.       

            I doubled on that one.  Doubles are hard-come-by at the best of times for me, but I took a bird rising, a woodcock shot, then swung right to drop a second one.  It was a pretty double, hard shooting, and I congratulated myself and the dog.

      “We make a good team, Nellie,” I told her.  I had five birds, one shy of a limit, and figured it was time to start the swing back to the car. 

            Wherever the car was…   I realized that I was totally turned around and there were no landmarks, no sun, nothing to guide me.  The sky had clouded over and I hivered with the sudden cold that came with a sharp, rising wind.   The temperature had dropped appreciably.     

            I tried to retrace my path, but quickly gave that up.  The front obviously was a dark and cold one and if I didn’t get to a warm place fairly quickly, I could be in serious trouble.

      It was totally ridiculous getting lost in farmland.  There had to be a section road within a half-mile or so regardless of what  direction I took, so I turned and started walking in what I hoped was a back-trail direction. 

      A half-hour later, I came to a creek which was high and impassible.  Given plenty of time, I could have followed the creek downstream to the Lamine junction and walked the bank until I spotted a

farmhouse.  But I didn’t have plenty of time.  In fact, I already was in trouble.  A cold rain had started spitting down and the wind drove it through my game vest and shirt.  I began to shiver, mostly from the cold, but some from fear.  My teeth were chattering and I remembered all the horror stories I’d read about hypothermia, especially the ones that cautioned you can die of it even when the temperatures are well above freezing.

      I already had a couple of the symptoms– shivering and chattering teeth.  Confusion and disorientation are supposed to be a couple others and I was confused and disoriented when I started out. 

      Then I remembered the compass and dragged it out of the vest pocket.  I looked dumbly at it until the needle came to rest…and realized that unless I knew what  direction I wanted to go, the compass was useless.  The rain came harder, interspersed with sleet that stung like thrown shot. 

      “I always thought they pointed to where you wanted to go,” I mumbled.  Pointed to where you wanted to go.  I looked again at the tiny compass in my hand and my shivering drove the needle around.  My thoughts were roiled, but I thought I heard my Dad laughing about my idea of the way a compass works.

      The silver tip of the needle slowed and came to rest and I sighted over it to a distant ridge, topped by a distinctive big storm-struck oak.  I started stumbling toward it, across the field, bowed into the buffeting wind.  Not gonna make it, I thought.  It was difficult for me to think and I had to force myself to concentrate on the big tree.

      Nellie stayed close by, not hunting now, sensing I was in trouble. 

      Finally I was at the base of the ridge and it seemed as high as Everest.  Once I slipped and fell painfully against a stump and had Nellie not licked at my face I would have just shut my eyes and given it up.

      “Okay, dammit,” I said in a weak voice.   “Okay.”  It took forever to get to my feet, then I was moving again, like a drunk on the verge of collapse. 

      I topped the ridge, weaving and lurching, and wiped the rain from my face.  The gate where I’d parked was no more than a hundred yards from me and just beyond it was the blue pickup truck. 

      It took me ten minutes to get to the truck and somehow make my numb hands open the door.  Once the heater began to thaw me, I leaned my head against the steering wheel and I began to cry as I hadn’t since I was a kid.       

            When I got back to the home place, I cleaned the birds and my gun and put them away, then got out the little compass and wiped the moisture from it with a damp cloth. 

      The next day, I drove into town to the Soil Conservation Service office and asked for an aerial photo of the place where I’d been hunting. 

      I easily found the high ridge on the large blowup photo, the woods I’d gone through to get to the top, and the field where I’d looked at the compass.  I lay a ruler along  the line from that location to where the truck had been parked and set the compass on it.

      The silver end of the needle pointed to north…more than a hundred degrees from the direction I’d taken during the storm.  I put it back in its leather pouch and put that in my pocket and gave the photo back to the clerk.

      Outside, the first snow of the season was falling, big wet flakes.  Nellie was sitting in the driver’s seat (that way I couldn’t leave without her).  Maybe we’d go for a short hunt in the afternoon, maybe not.       

            On the other hand, I might go out to the cemetery and spent a few moments alone.  Just talking over old times.

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  • October 27th, 2011


By Joel M. Vance      

The only difference between Christopher Columbus and me is that he wasn’t looking for a fishing hole.  Well, that and the fact that he’s been dead for five hundred years.

            But we’re both explorers, always sailing around that next bend in hopes of finding new country.  My idea of new country is a pool in a remote creek that hasn’t been visited by someone with a hook and a worm since Chris was a pup.

            I have spent many hours slogging through jungles, traversing steep mountains (okay, hills, but quibble, quibble), enduring more storm, sleet and dark of night than the U.S. Postal Service.

            All in the name of finding that honey hole, undisturbed by Joe Angler.  “You keep going until all the gum wrappers and cigarette butts and footprints quit and then you start fishing.” Those were the words of my fishing mentor, George Mattis, an old Wisconsin river rat who invariably caught more and bigger fish than I did.

            George was 70 years old, going on 15 and hiked as if he were training for the Olympics.  Once we hiked far back on some brook trout stream and it was hot and I was thirsty and, of course, had not brought a canteen.  George was impervious to all discomfort.  I kept stumbling as I tripped over my tongue.

            Finally I croaked, “George, I gotta get a drink.”  I flopped down on the bank and buried my head in the dark, cold waters of the creek.  George regarded me impassively. “Beavers poop in it,” he said.

            Streams do have their perils.  There was the watch cow that regarded me as a dangerous intruder and charged.  It’s difficult to outrun a bellowing heifer in waders (I was wearing them, not the cow), but I did it. 

            Another time a friend and I were far from the car when dark came.  I mean coal mine dark—no moon, no starlight.  Just plain dense dark.  “Do you smell watermelons?” my buddy asked in a tremulous voice.  I thought he was hungry and planned a raid on some farmer’s melon patch, but he added, “They say cottonmouth moccasins smell like watermelons.”

            Suddenly the fishy night smelled like watermelons and venomous snakes and I was a long way from home and wanted my mommy.  My bare legs felt like targets and I imagined a battalion of snarling snakes zeroing in on me. 

            There have been few people in history with the ability to walk on water, but I did my best to join them en route to the car.  It was like the joke about the two guys and the charging grizzly bear.  “I hope we can outrun that bear!” exclaims one.  “I don’t have to,” says the other guy.  “I just have to outrun you.”

            I beat my fishing buddy to the car by a couple of yards.

            Our family doctor was concerned about whether I was getting enough exercise, so I invited him on a fishing outing.  We left the car at a remote low water crossing and he strung up his fishing rod and got ready to cast.  “No, no,” I said.  “Not here.  We have to walk a little.”  “Walk” was a euphemism for crashing through brush that would have daunted a Cape buffalo and sliding into steep gullies, only to clamber up the other side, wading through sucking gumbo.

            After about 30 minutes of this, he was sweating, huffing and wheezing and he said, “If you keep doing this you’ll be dead before you’re 30.”  Easy for him to say—he was only a doctor.  We did catch fish, though, far from the car.  I don’t think he enjoyed it.

            It was in Maine or New Hampshire or one of those way off states where they speak a form of English not heard since the time of George III.  I strung up my fly rod, decided to wet wade in shorts and decrepit tennis shoes and set out on a remote stream that looked trouty.  I had slogged perhaps a quarter mile, falling no more than a half dozen times on the snot-slick glacial rocks, when I discovered why there were no other anglers on this juicy stream.

            There is, in upper New England, a little insect called the black fly.  Its color is black, but so is its heart.  Possessed of teeth only seen elsewhere on piranha in the Amazon rain forest, a swarm of these lethal bloodsuckers can reduce a grown man to howling tears in a matter of seconds.  I’m not sure what the Olympic record is for the quarter mile, but I beat it by many minutes, skipping the surface of the water like a flat stone.  There were newspaper reports at the time of a particularly violent thunderstorm, but it was just me swearing.

            Then there was the time that I went exploring for a Wisconsin lake that hadn’t been fished since the voyageurs canoed though.  I had a Geological survey map which showed the lake, no road to it…but a railroad track that paralleled it.  It would be a two-mile hike from the highway crossing, but well-worth it when I got there and the fish hit everything I threw at them.

            Now, the problem with maps is that they don’t show you the downside.  They can draw contour lines and shade in vegetation with green, but there’s no way to depict blazing summer sun.

            I was wearing chest waders and most idiots can determine when it’s too hot to hike two miles along a broiling railroad track in chest waders.  Most…in fact, all but one.  Before I’d gone a half-mile I was sweat-sloshing inside the waders, my face the interesting crimson shade often seen on the faces of those exposed to atomic radiation.

            But the Vance family trait known as Sheer Bullheadedness kept me going for a mile, a mile and a half, and finally two miles.  I slid down the railroad embankment, trudged through several yards of brush and came out on shore.

            And there, right across the lake, in the parking lot off the road that had been built since they printed the map, was a bevy of cars, picnickers and anglers.  There were boats crowding the little lake.  Someone waved at me.  I lifted a tired hand and clambered up the embankment and started back toward my far distant truck. 

            I heard a sound behind me and turned to see a handcar approaching.  I got off the tracks and the track workers wheeled up to me, then stopped.  They looked at the curious sight of a man in chest waders now far from any visible body of water, clutching a fishing rod in a sweaty hand. 

            “Lost a lake?” asked one of the grimy railroaders.  They all sniggered and sped off, not offering me a ride. 

            Think how much more fun history would have been if Stanley had tracked Dr. Livingston down in darkest Africa and instead of asking, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” had said, “Hey, fishin’ been any good?”

            At least I had a worthwhile goal in mind.


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  • October 18th, 2011

Go Redbirds!

I’d like to think, in my romantic, impractical way, that the hallowed shades of Harry Caray and Jack Buck are looking on with appreciation and delight (not to mention the shades of Gabby Street and Gus Mancuso), now that the St. Louis Cardinals are in the World Series.

They all were the voices of my childhood who carried me through measles, chicken pox and mumps, on into adolescence and through the angst of teenagerhood before major league baseball became a game of our heroes playing musical chairs with their contracts.

I started listening to the St. Louis Cardinals when I was a sick little kid, living in Chicago and the Cardinals came to town with guys named Musial, Schoendienst, Moore, Kurowski and Cooper.  Then we moved to Missouri where those guys lived and played and it was a new world.  Harry Caray was the broadcaster and if I had a dollar for every  time I heard him shout, “It might be….it could be….it IS!  A home run!” I could buy box seat tickets at Busch Stadium for most of the home games.

Harry Carey had a penchant for former catcher sidekicks with Street, Mancuso and Joe Garagiola, the only one of the Cardinal voices still alive.  Then it was Jack Buck who took over the lead microphone when Harry defected to Chicago.  I would fall asleep at night to those voices telling me how the beloved Cards were faring.  I never went to a game in St. Louis and only once to a live game anywhere.  That was in Chicago.  The only box seat I ever bought was at Wrigley Field in Chicago when the Cardinals came to town.  Karl Miller and I were working a summer job between college years and we called in sick so we could see our beloved Redbirds.  The box seat directly behind third base cost a whopping $3.50.  We saw Stan Musial hit a line drive so  hard into right field that it bounced off the ivy-clad wall all the way back to the second baseman, holding Musial to a single.

Those were the days when a player because of the now-discredited reserve clause spent his entire career with the same team.  While it amounted to indentured servitude, it also created a fan base that could root for a favorite knowing that the team and its players had a stability lacking today when a player is with a team only so long as a better offer doesn’t come along.

Ironically it was a Cardinal, Curt Flood, who challenged the reserve clause and ended the long era of sports slavery.

So now the Cardinals are back in the World Series with their 18th National League pennant, after an improbable late season run that brought them from 11 ½ games back going into the final month.  They’ve won the first two rounds of the post-season.  They whomped up on Philadelphia and humiliated the much favored Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth game at Miller Field.

They played like that first great Cardinal team, the Gashouse Gang of the 1930s, running hard, playing as if the game was about more than big dollars.  Albert Pujols, today’s incarnation of the greats of the past, homered early and then gave up his body to make a diving tag and shook off the injury like the stoic players of yesteryear (Ted Williams played most of the 1950 All Star Game with a broken arm after running into the fence while catching Ralph Kiner’s line drive).

Now the Cardinals are playing the Texas Rangers starting tomorrow, Oct. 19.  Win or lose they have done a comeback for the ages, comparable to the legendary 1951 comeback from 13 ½ games back by the New York Giants to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers and then win a playoff when Bobby Thompson hit a three-run homer against Ralph Branca to trigger Russ Hodge’s hysterial shout of “The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”  I saw that game through a snowstorm of static on a black and white television set.

Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst, the heart of the first great Cardinal team in my life, still are around, still living in St. Louis, still epitomizing baseball as it once was.  To be sure players did leave their home team in the old days but usually because they were traded or retired.  When Enos Slaughter was traded to the hated New York Yankees it was as if an era ended.  And when Harry Caray left St. Louis for Chicago our world began to disintegrate.  Maybe those incidents and not Middle Eastern unrest, global economic woes and political disharmony is why the world is so screwed up today.

There have been other great Cardinal teams and players—Flood, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson for example.  I saw Gibson (on television) strike out 17 batters in a 1968 World Series game against the Detroit Tigers. Today’s Cardinal team just set a playoff record for the most starting pitchers who failed to get past the fifth inning and had a combined earned run average over six.   Gibson’s three Series total earned run average was 1.89 and it was an astonishing 1.12 for the whole 1968 season.    By the way, Gibson’s season salary his first World Series year was $28,000 (1964) and his last (1968) was $85,000.

By contrast there is not a single pitcher on today’s Cardinal team making less than $414,000.  Consider also that Stan Musial was criticized when he became the first player in the majors to make more than $100,000 a year.  Consider also that Ted Williams, certainly the greatest hitter who ever played baseball (sorry, Hornsby, Ruth, Cobb, et al) made $20,000 in 1941 when he was the most valuable player on the Boston Red Sox team and that year became the last player to hit .400.

Williams finally worked his way up to $100,000, which in terms of today’s dollar still was less than a million dollars a year.  Today journeymen ball players routinely make million-plus salaries.  Is it any wonder that some of us dinosaurs look at today’s national sport as more concerned with money and less with sport?

When I see the Wall Street protesters rallying against greedy corporations, I wonder how it would be if the fans did the same to greedy major league owners and players.  But all that fades away when Albert Pujols corks one into the left field bleachers and I hear in my head “It might be….it could be…it IS!  A home run!”

Go Redbirds!



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  • October 13th, 2011

The Dread Weed

 By Joel M. Vance

             Sunlight filtered through the cracks in the old barn, making the dust motes dance like ballerinas.  Dust is what I remember from those days—dust that choked in the autumn sun, dust that choked even more in the cold winter night. 

            This was Chariton County, Missouri, tobacco country and the light streamed through the loose siding of an old tobacco barn on my Uncle Finney’s place.  Uncle Finney, Roy Finnell, was a bantam rooster of a fellow, still with the rolling gait of the sailor he had been in World War One.  My aunt, Lilah Mae, was Sis to nearly everyone.  She was Aunt Sis and he was just Finney. 

            Finney was born in 1884, nine years before his wife.  He joined the Navy in 1906 and was on the crew of the battleship USS Virginia when Teddy Roosevelt sent the fleet around the world to demonstrate American might.  “Walk softly, but carry a big stick,” said Teddy.

            Finny and Sis raised six of their seven children, including Roy Joe who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and twins Doris and Dorothy, the youngest of the brood.  The first born, William Don, born in 1911, died at four months.

            Finney’s chin was stubbly; his jaw usually collapsed because he had neglected to install ill-fitting false teeth.  His battered hat was cocked rakishly–he never lost the insouciance of the World War one sailor who had rolled into foreign ports, intent on exotic pleasure (almost any pleasure would be more exotic than that available on a hard rock Chariton County farm).  Finney was rarely out of overalls, even on trips to town in his Model A Ford.  But those trips earned a freshly-laundered set. 

            His only dress suit was reserved for funerals and an annual trip to sell his tobacco at auction in Weston, Missouri, or, more rarely, all the way to Lexington, Kentucky..

            Finney was a tobacco farmer.  It was his cash crop.  Everything else on his few acres went to the family good—the milk cow provided cream for wild blackberries, plus suck for her occasional calf.  The chicken scavenging for food Saturday in the dust of the farmyard was tomorrow’s Sunday roasted bird.  The pig, rooting happily among the slops in its trough, would hang from a rusty hook in the smokehouse come cold weather, its hams slowly tanning from smoke and salt rub.

            Baths were rare (the water had to be heated on the Warm Morning wood stove and dumped into a galvanized wash tub).  Soap came from fat rendered from the slaughtered hogs, mixed with lye, leached from stove ashes, with salt added to harden the soap into cakes.

            There was no lack of wood ashes, even in the hot months.  All summer the kitchen was stifling with heat from the stove as Sis canned bounty from the garden and from fruit trees in the back yard.  The land produced what the family needed, from squirrels deftly harvested by my grandfather, to poke greens, collected from along the gravel road that ran by the farm.

            This was a subsistence farm and were it not for the fleshy green leaves that Finney so carefully shepherded to brown, dried hanks of tobacco, Sis and Finney would have had virtually no spending money.  Tobacco was labor-intensive, more, perhaps, than any other agricultural commodity, but it was all Finney knew to do. 

            Missouri is in the so-called “burley belt” of eight states, including Kentucky (which produces 80 percent of all the burley grown).  The others are Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.  Burley is a cigarette tobacco, but Finney opted to chew his, stripping a leaf and crumbling the dried product in his seamed and callused hand before stuffing it in his mouth.  His toothless jaw would work as he munched the pungent tobacco, a trickle of amber runneling down a seam at the side of his mouth. 

            Early in the spring Finney planted tobacco seeds in flats, under cheesecloth to keep late frost at bay.  The spindly seedlings, nurtured with barnyard manure, straightened and strengthened.  Finally they were big enough (and the weather was warm enough) that they could be transplanted to the small field just north of Sis and Finney’s tiny farmhouse. 

            Finney had a quarter-acre tobacco allotment.  The federal government established acreage allotments on tobacco in the 1930s, guaranteeing farmers a minimum price for their crop, but also limiting the amount they could grow.  Even had Finney wanted to, he couldn’t have raised much more tobacco than his small allotment permitted.  It simply was too much work and there wasn’t enough help.

            My aunt Sis, a large woman, was not physically able to do the bending and sheer effort involved in planting the seedlings.  And I was barely helpful, scrawny and city-stupid, spending my summers on the farm so my Chicago parents could have a respite from parenting.  It doesn’t take much know-how to punch a hole in the ground and that was as advanced as my tobacco husbandry got.

            Finney hand-inserted each plant, using a dibble, a sharpened stick (maybe a chunk of old hoe handle) which punched a hole in the plant bed.  Stick the plant in the hole, press it firmly in place with the side of the dibble and move on to the next plant.  It was backbreaking work, swinging from one plant to the next with Quasimodo-like agility.

            Planting was only the beginning of the long trip from seedling to dried leaf.  At 60 days the plant produced a flower head which Finney clipped off.  Then he suckered the plant.  Suckers are shoots that sprout between the stalk and a major leaf and sap energy from the plant (tomato growers sucker their plants for the same reason).  Suckering and topping lets the plant concentrate its energy in leaf growth. 

            After the little plants got over the shock of transplant they began to grow and to encounter a host of natural enemies, especially the tobacco worm, a large green caterpillar also called a tomato worm.  The caterpillar, larva of a hawk moth, is large and voracious enough to do much damage to plants.

            Finney’s solution, and that of other tobacco farmers of the time, was to spray his crop with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide (copper arsenate and copper acetate).  At the time it also was used as a base for bright green paint.  It’s a wonder any child, living with lead-based and arsenic-based paints, ever grew up normally or at all. 

            Mid-September was time to cut the plants at their base, another long session of bending over.  Finney then spiked the stalks onto tobacco sticks, poles about the diameter of hoe handles, sharpened on one end, a half-dozen or so plants to each stick.  The sticked tobacco ripened in the field for several days, then Finney took it to his unpainted old barn to hang for air drying.

            This was the part of the tobacco farmer’s job that was no place for an acrophobic.  Finney racked the sticks starting at the top of the barn.  Usually neighbors or whoever Finney could corral into helping would hand the sticks up to him, at the topmost level, where he perched on the rafters like a monkey.  He’d rest a stick across adjacent rafters, each far enough from the preceding stick to allow air circulation.  When a row filled, he’d move down a level and start again.  When the crop was in the barn Finney could turn to the rest of his farm while the leaves dried for about two months. 

            Missouri tobacco is air cured and the barns are specialized, with louvers to control air flow (Finney’s barn was so old and filled with cracks that it didn’t need louvers).  By contrast some tobacco, called latakia is “fire-cured” by drying it in closed barns with heat from fires that gives it a smoky flavor.

            By the time the tobacco was cured the weather was cold, often bitterly so, and Finney would move the tobacco stick by stick to his stripping shed, a small building where he worked under the light of, in the early days, a coal oil (kerosene) lantern, later a dim electric bulb.  The dust was thick enough to chew by itself.  Finney would strip the leaves into hanks ranked by their position on the stalk.  He’d wrap a final leaf as a tie to hold the gathered stems of each hank.  When the tobacco crop was in hanks it was ready to go to an auction warehouse for sale.

            There was drama in the annual tobacco auction, held just before Thanksgiving each year.  Growers took their leaf to one of several cities where buyers bid on it, depending on the quality.  Finney almost always took his tobacco to Weston.  It was make-or-break time for his annual income, but never was there a bonanza, no matter how good the crop or how high the quality.  The auction was a buyer’s game and the farmer, his back still aching from the long summer and fall of incessant labor, generally got the short end of the tobacco stick.

            Weston is a backwater town on the Missouri River, historically a launching pad for wagon trains to the West.  In addition to tobacco, it is the home of the McCormick Distillery, the oldest whisky factory west of the Mississippi River, which made it a place of respect among thirsty Plainsmen.

            Its two tobacco warehouses today are the only ones west of the Mississippi River.  Nearly all Missouri’s tobacco today is grown in Platte County, where Weston is located (at its peak, tobacco was grown in all but one of Missouri’s 114 counties).  But Weston now is more of a tourist town than it is a tobacco center.  McCormick’s now is owned by a foreign corporation and no longer allows tours.  One tobacco warehouse doubles as a flea market auction center.

            Change has come to the old home place as well.  Sis and Finney are buried in the Asbury Cemetery, joining a century’s-worth of relatives.  The cemetery is adjacent to a small white Methodist Church, almost visible from the former tobacco patch and less than half a mile from their abandoned home.

            Finney’s tobacco patch today is in corn or, more often, weeds and the barn is a shambles, barely standing on one end.  Sis and Finney’s house is vacant and almost collapsed and the floor under my grandfather’s small addition to the main house has fallen into what once was the cistern.  The bedroom where my grandfather died is inaccessible across the hole where the floor caved in.  When I was eight or nine years old I sat on that floor and read adventure stories in True and Argosy and Bluebook magazines while he rocked and read a book—his taste ran to Jack London. 

            Finney chewed his home-grown for half a century, no doubt accumulating a dose of arsenic, increasingly hazardous as time passed.  He developed stomach cancer and died in the 1970s.  Sis lived on for 15 years but there was no more tobacco grown on the home place and none of the children came home to live. 

            In 1990 the six surviving children, now grown old and stooped, gathered to watch an auctioneer knock the place down to a stranger.  The fellow wanted it for deer hunting with his buddies and today there is a trailer permanently parked near where the outhouse once stood, just about on the site of the smokehouse.  The once-lush garden is a weed jungle and what once was open now is a tangle of rank vegetation.

            Only memories remain and they are as ephemeral as mayflies.  Nothing I knew seems the same, save the huge pair of maple trees on the front lawn that once shaded the Finnells as they cooled of a summer evening and ate fresh-picked watermelon and listened to the drone of grasshoppers while the tobacco leaves wilted just up the road.


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  • Blog
  • October 4th, 2011

Remembering Ike

 By Joel M. Vance

            “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

            The words of a tree-hugging, wimpy liberal, eh?  Guy oughta be put in uniform and sent to war to find out what it’s like (the right wingers make much of the fact that the last two Democrat presidents were not military men, forgetting that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t either). 

            Anyway, those pacifistict words, so galling to the chip-on-the-shoulder warriors of the right (like Dick Cheney who never served a day in uniform and who had five deferments) are from an April 16, 1953 speech by Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, a Republican….and the commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Europe during World War Two (or didn’t you war makers know that?). 

            Mr. Eisenhower famously implored the United States to “beware the military-industrial complex” in his farewell address and it only takes a reading of the headlines to realize how badly we’ve screwed that advice up.  We’re in two wars that will cost an estimated $1.3 trillion by the end of the 2011 fiscal year and like the fable of the tar baby we can’t seem to pull loose from either one.  Afghanistan has been around for twice as long as World War Two and unless we’re in the market for more rocks or opium, what’s the point.

            Iraq was a phony war concocted by a president who apparently wanted to prove something to someone—leave it to the Freudians to figure that one out—and a vice-president with his hands on the puppet’s strings who apparently isn’t comfortable unless someone else’s kids are dying.

            If you think the $1.3 trillion is justified, but also think the country’s economy is in a hell of a mess, consider that the estimated 2011 budget deficit is anywhere from $1.2 to $1.5 trillion.  While cessation of showering money on Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t even out the deficit at home, it sure would go a long way….and that money could go to public works and other projects that would provide jobs and stimulate the economy.  We throw $3 billion at those two benighted countries every week, much of it total waste or stolen by the corrupt leaders of both countries.

            “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”  So said Gen. Omar Bradley, Ike’s boss and another pretty well-known soldier.

            Yet another soldier  said, “What a cruel thing is war:  to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”  That was Gen. Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife.

            How wise and sad these words from famous warriors about the horrors of their profession and how much more insightful what they said than the babblings of today’s mental pigmies whose mantra seems to be “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.”   

            If the Tea Party types want to canonize a Republican, forget Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann, those relics of the Inquisition who would have us all worship their way or be burned at the stake.  Mr. Eisenhower was raised in a Mennonite household that was very religious.  He did not join a church until after he became President (try that today).  He joined a Presbyterian Church a month after his first inauguration.

            But it was under his administration that the words “under God” became part of the Pledge of Allegiance, and he said this when he signed the bill: “”In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

                Notice he did not say we are a Christian country or that religion should dominate politics, just that religious faith (without specifying a dominant faith) should be part of the nation’s fabric.  It is an axiom of war that “there are no atheists in foxholes” and chances are pretty good that anyone who takes a bullet is going to cry out for God’s help.  A fellow named James Morrow said this, “’There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.” 

            The right wing extremists believe that might makes right and that they are on the side of God.  Jesus might have an argument with that concept.  I recall that Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (Or “cheesemakers,” if you’re a Monty Python fan.)  Nothing about warmakers or mongers. 

            Mike Huckabee, that Arkansas Bible banger who would rather make money on Fox News than run for President, has been trying to make the case that Jesus was in favor of war and forget that Sermon on the Mount.  Huckabee is pictured with his arm around his great buddy Chuck Norris.  Now there’s a pair to inspire confidence.  Huckabee is a certified preacher—how can he justify his inflammatory rhetoric with the Golden Rule which, to me, exemplifies what Christianity should be all about.

I am a great fan of Benjamin Franklin, along with Thomas Jefferson, the most monumental thinker among the Founding Fathers.  He said, “All wars are follies, very expensive and very mischievous ones.  In my opinion, there never was a good war or a bad peace.  When will mankind be convinced and agree to settle their difficulties by arbitration?”  We’re still waiting, Mr. Franklin, sir. 

            You could argue that Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, said, “Walk softly but carry a big stick.”  No argument with that—but the warmongers seem to forget the “walk softly” part of it and thump their cowboy chests and pretend to be John Wayne (who never saw a day in uniform). 

            Bachmann voted “no” at pulling troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Herman Cain, the new darling of the muddled Republicans, said, “Diplomacy must never compromise military might.”  So the hell with you, Mr. Franklin and your idea of diplomacy!  Oddly, another Republican who seems to be too commonsense for the nutjobs on the right, John Huntsman, said, “Bring troops home from Afghanistan. Playing Afghan traffic cop doesn’t serve strategic interest. Boots on the ground: expensive & not critical for security.”

            With an attitude like that he doesn’t stand a chance.  It’s not that all the candidates are raving rocket launchers.  Ron Paul has a long history of mixing commonsense with nonsense.  Contrast this: “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; Al Qaeda was not in Iraq,” with this, “Cut $20 billion in Green Zone air conditioning to force troops home.”  It sounds nuts, but then almost everything Michelle Bachmann says sounds nuts.

                Mitt Romney’s record is like Missouri weather—wait a couple of minutes and it will change.  In June, 2011, he said, “We should withdraw from Afghanistan after 2012.”  Two months later, he said, “Stay in Afghanistan until our generals say to leave.” 

                Two of the most ardent supporters of our Middle East follies have been Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, dragging Obama along behind them like a child’s sled on bare ground.  So the war enthusiasts aren’t all on the right hand side.  Newt Gingrich, that antique from yesteryear, occasionally speaks with more intelligence than the supposed and accused Peaceniks on the Democratic side: “Get out of Arab region rapidly; make new strategy.”  And, “Iraq policy is a mess.”  Who could argue with that.  But, like Romney, he wanders all over the policy landscape looking for magic bullets.

                When you boil down the whole argument on war/no war you come to a decision: do we judge our wars by what is perceived gain for the nation, or do we weigh the cost against the lives that are lost?  What have we gained in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to more than 4,000 American lives lost and God only knows how many citizens of those countries?  We were not directly attacked as was the case with World War Two.  We didn’t even have a “provocation” as happened to precipitate the Spanish-Amerian War or to involve us in World War One.  Instead we’ve embarked on a series of wars since 1945 where the most appropriate reflection should be What the hell were we thinking!

                We toppled a dictator in Iraq, but installed a corrupt and ineffective substitute.  And the world is filled with dictators.  Who’s next?  North Korea?  We went down that slippery slope once and it cost 50,000  American lives.  We chased a dreadful theocratic gang of fanatics from Afghanistan into the hills of Pakistan, but have we defeated them?  Doesn’t look like it, judging from the headlines.  Al Qaeda still is a terrorist act waiting to happen.  As long as there are religious fanatics there will be 9/11s.  As long as crazy people are willing to commit suicide to kill others, they will. 

                Is it worth our freedom as citizens of the greatest nation ever to give up those freedoms (think Patriot Act)?  Might be time for everyone to go back and read the kid story about Chicken Little.


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