Archive for January, 2012

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  • January 30th, 2012

Words Fail Me

                Newt: A small, sometimes slimy creature that can be found under a rock.  Or a large, slimy creature that can be found running for President.

                Beloved by the extreme right wingers who, apparently, have an awesome inability to identify reality, Newt Gingrich has more baggage than a fully-loaded Greyhound bus and is flogging God, Motherhood and hypocrisy toward the Republican nomination for President.  He hasn’t quite claimed the ability to walk on water but he does imply it.

                Although so far mostly what he has done is to annoy Mitt Romney, always a good thing, and make citizens with more than half a brain, shake their heads without hearing a rattling noise.   How can anyone with a claim to half a brain, fall into line behind this monumental fraud?  Let us count the ways:

  1. Ran out on his first wife while she was in the hospital being examined for cancer.  “You’re waiting for bad news?  Okay, here’s some….”  Although having Newt issue an exit line would qualify as good news.
  2. Ran around on his second wife with now No. 3.
  3. Second wife claims he asked for an “open marriage” so he could continue diddling now No. 3 while still married to her, No. 2. 
  4. Simultaneous to shenanigans of No. 2 and No. 3 was leading the House fight to impeach Bill Clinton for his extramarital hi-jinks.  Clinton was 20 years older than Ms. Lewinsky, with whom he was dress spotting.  Newt is 23 years older than No. 3, then his toy-girl.  No dresses have surfaced, but then no one is looking.
  5. Was forced to resign as Speaker of the House, amid allegations of ethics violations.  Fined $300,000 for those violations.  Vote was overwhelming, including most  Republicans.
  6. Being scrutinized for using hundreds of thousands of dollars of Super Pac money for private jet travel before he was a candidate and for non-political purposes, a legal no-no.
  7. Newt’s Super Pac benefited at least $5 million (and may get as much as $20 million) from Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul worth more than $21 billion.  Adelson owns the Las Vegas Sands and casinos in Singapore and Macau, China.  There’s your moral leader, right wingers—bankrolled by gamblers, run out of Congress, a serial philanderer.  But, hey, he said he was sorry.
  8. Denies lobbying for Freddie Mac and during banking scandals, despite raking in nearly two million in fees from the discredited outfit.  Claims he was only a “historian” and “advisor.”  Apparently advice consisted of conning them into paying him a bunch of money for his greasy expertise in insider cronyism, they did.  Historians all over the country are green with envy.  All they get is a meager salary for studying the events of yesterday, not thousands a month for influencing those of tomorrow.
  9. Attacks gutless media for asking embarrassing questions, so arrogant that he feels he should be immune from answering for his shady history.  Media crawls back under rock without following up.  Obviously the best defense is a good offense.  Media needs spine transplant.  Various earth tremors are not quakes, but Edward R. Murrow and Walter Kronkite turning over in graves.

10.  Repeatedly attacks fellow strange candidate Mitt Romney for his quarter billion dollar wealth and privileged upbringing.  However, Newt & No. 3 took luxury cruise early in campaign against advisor advice, whereupon most of them quit.  Current advisor staff seems to have stronger noses or perhaps far fewer scruples.  Had half million dollar line of credit at Tiffany’s.   At least he hasn’t claimed to be a man of the streets like Romney….yet.

11.  Vowed to “…go to the NAACP convention, and tell the African-American community why they “….should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.”  There are several million out-of-work Americans, of all ethnic persuasion, who would demand a paycheck if there were anyone providing them.  To single out the black community as the race of food stamps, excluding the other ethnic poor, reeks of racism.

12.  Recommended wholesale return to child labor, re 19th Century sweatshop situations.  Oliver Twist is not dead in Newt’s world: “You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor,” Gingrich said.  “And those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket.”  Considering that union janitors make roughly $28,000 a year, those 30 kids would gross less than $1,000 each for a year’s work.  Figure an hourly rate from that and you have kids making….well, 1800s sweatshop wages.  What’s Newt’s middle name again?  Fagin?  Or, more appropriately, the Artful Dodger.

  1. Claimed Obama is the Food Stamp President.  “More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.”Actually, more were added under Bush than under Obama, according to the most recent figures and Congressional action is mostly responsible for the increase, along with the economic woes, exacerbated by Bush era policies, deregulation and war expense.  In case Newt has forgotten it is Congress that establishes such programs as food stamps.  The President can only recommend.
  2.  Gingrich equates himself with the Republican-canonized Ronald Reagan and a campaign ad mentions Reagan creation of 11.1 million new jobs, 4.3 percent unemployment and a burgeoning stock market.  They all happened while Bill Clinton was President.  Reagan mentions Gingrich, then a junior Congressman, only one time in his diaries.   So much for the neo-Gipper.
  3. And finally, if you aren’t convinced that the Newster has the mental stability of Moe, Shemp or Curly Bill (take your pick), consider his pledge to establish a colony on the moon by the end of his second term (chances are the country wouldn’t last long enough for that anyway), and, if he can launch 13,000 moonies into orbit, to encourage them to petition as the 51st state. 

On that last interplanetary idiocy, he compares himself to JFK who pledged to put a man on the moon….and did it.  But there is a vast difference between pledging an achievable goal and plucking your campaign rhetoric out of the pages of Buck Rogers.  Newt has been to too many Star Wars movies and it’s time for him to warp speed back into the world of retired astronuts. 

Besides, given his history, it’s about time for him to go Bunny hunting again and he wouldn’t have time to be president of Earth and Moon both.  I say, in the immortal words of Ralph Kramden, “Pow! Newt!  Right to the moon!”


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  • Blog
  • January 26th, 2012

Old Barns

.By Joel M. Vance

 Old barns lean tiredly into the centuries, their construction magic buried.beneath caked manure, their curling boards hardened against time and termites. When they topple, one by one, they won’t be replaced, at least not by peers.  Butler Buildings dominate the rural landscape and,however efficient, low-cost and durable they are, they have the architectural charm of aBurger King fast food joint.

 Old barns are an expensive anachronism, as doomed to extinction as the stegosaur.   Even if an altruistic carpenter had the know-how to put together a building with pegs and square nails, where would he find boards 18 inches wide?  Where would he find beams a foot wide and deep, 30 or 40 feet long?  Not in today’s logs.  Today’s trees and today’s barns are puny, shrill little punks, compared to the mighty oldtimers.

Many old barns are being abandoned because they don’t suit today’s farming.  Modern machinery, designed to pull the world inside-out, is too big to fit the stalls built for horse-drawn mowers, hay rakes, single-bottom plows and cultivators.

And there’s no point in a haymow, beloved hiding and trysting place of farm kids from five years old to marriage, when there are weatherproof superbales that can stay in the field.    Haying was a mixed adventure.  It was hot and dusty and the chaff bit like chiggers, but there was the magic time when the hay wagon was loaded and you got to ride to the barn atop the stack.  The fear of sliding off the steep, sloped side was delicious.  The steel wagon wheels rumbled on the gravel and the horses farted and snorted with effort.

A gleaming fork dangled from a rope leading to a pulley over the haymow door.  It gulped a huge bite of hay from the wagon.  The farmer pulled this load up to the mow door, then across the mow on a carrier, high in the rafters, until he reached the spot he wanted to drop the hay.  He tripped the fork and it released its grip and the hay fell onto the mow floor.  Dust swirled in the sunbeams, like ballerinas and the kid below was pleased, as if he’d seen angels flying.

Most old barns I knew had simple gable roofs, no nonsense.  They were utility buildings, not architectural monuments.  It took some skill to raise a hip roofed barn, even more to put a gambrel roof on. 

All barns had  lightning arrestors–I never knew anyone whose barn burned, but it was a constant suppressed fear.  Missouri farmers also stood outside on April evenings, spitting Day’s Work and watching gray-green wall clouds coming from the west.  They were judging whether it was time to go to the root cellar.  A tornado could turn a barn into a ragged shambles in seconds; at best, would scatter pieces of the roof over half the county. 

Barns were a constant in my childhood, just as they have been a constant on farms since medieval times.  The word “barn” apparently comes from Old English “bere” meaning barley and “ern,” which is a place of storage.  The word “byre” referred to a shelter for cows.  Most barns became both–a grainery and a livestock shelter.  “Tithe barns” in England were wherethe Church housed its tenth of everyone’crop.  However, the abbey or monastery’s own produce was stored in a grange.  Go figure.

Some barns in my home, Missouri, housed tobacco and had louvered or hinged panels on the sides to admit air so the dread weed could cure.  Most tobacco barns have simple gable roofs, but some have intricate styles, such as a gable with hips on either end or a gable that sticks far out on either end (called a “top hat”) to shelter air vents at the gable peaks.

Dairy barns have still another design with a central walkway so Bossie and her sewing circle can come in of an evening for milking and social interplay. I once watched an old dairyman in Minnesota call the cows in.  They mucked through the slop of the barnyard as he called each by name: “Flossie, you get in her, you old bitch!  Maeve, head on down to your spot!  Missy, you know better than that; get the hell into your own stall!”  The air reeked with the sweet stink of fresh cow manure and the chill of October night settled in as the old farmer hooked up his machines, his only concession to modernization–no more hand-milking 40 cows. 

His barn cat was out of luck unless he poured a little raw milk in a bowl.  Used to be, a dairyman would aim a squirt every so often at the nondescript barn cat sitting nearby. Farmers became expert at hitting a cat in the mouth with a jet of cow-hot milk at five or six feet.

Many old barns were two-level, deliberately dug into a hillside (pioneer earth-contact construction) so the animals, on the lower level would have insulation from severe weather and also so hay, stored on the second level, could be gravity-fed to them.

 Old barns were havens for wildlife. Barn owls nested high in the rafters and kept the rodent population under control, with the help of a black rat snake or two and the ever-present barn cat.  The hiss of adisturbed young owl and its ghostly face glimpsed in the dark recesses of the loft were enough to scare the snot out of an adventurous youngster.  Barn owls are becoming the most rare of the owls because of the decline of the habitat that gives them their name.  The modern barn doesn’t lend itself to owl habitat. It might also be that rodenticides kill of owl food (and, possibly, the owl which eats poisoned rodents).  Old English barns actually had “owl holes” to admit the winged mousers. 

No American farmer I ever met would any more dream of eating a pigeon out of his barn than he would an owl, but the English encouraged pigeons by building dovecots into their barns and pigeons (rock doves) provided food in winter. Barn swallows flickered, blue-black, through the shafts of sunlight, trickling in through gaps in the boards in those barns of yesterday.  Pigeons chuckled somewhere in the dark vault near the roof.  Mice rustled in the chaff, aware that winged death was possible at any moment.

There always was a barn covey, a family group of quail that gravitated to the barn, possibly attracted by spilled grain or perhaps because the weedy cover around the building was good.  They were the farmstead pets and while the farmer would let hunters shoot any other bird on the place, he made a point of saying, “Now, don’t you shoot any of my barn covey!”

It’s considered cool today to invent a hex sign for an outbuilding, but if devil avoidance is the object, prayer is better.  The famed hex sign is not really a cabalistic design to ward off the devil–it’s no more than a decoration added to Pennsylvania Dutch barns that has made its way into legend as a magic symbol.  And “barn red” paint isn’t a legacy from Indians; it was a concoction of skimmed milk, lime, linseed oil and color (and since red oxide of iron was plentiful, red predominated).  Red also absorbed the sun’s heat in winter, though black would have been even warmer (and hell in summer).  Today, few old barns have any color left.  The paint has weathered off and the gray-silver boards aren’t even allowed to sink into the ages, like the bones of the dead.  Instead, they become a backdrop for a yuppie’s bar.

The urban rage for barn siding as paneling in rec rooms and elsewhere seems to have subsided in recent years, but weathered barn siding commanded premium prices a couple of decades ago until there was a danger that there would be more barn boards in the suburbs than there were in the country. 

The barn tools that built the old barns have disappeared into museums and sometimes antique stores.  No one uses an adze, froe, framing hatchet, maul, broad ax, mortise ax, auger or corner chisel anymore.  Most old barns, even if their understory structure is sound, have been re-roofed and nine times out of ten, the new roof is metal.  If you wanted to restore an old barn to its historic appearance, you’d have to use shake shingles at $400 a square or more. 

So, even most of the old barns are not pristine.  It’s like seeing Sitting Bull or Cochise wearing an Atlanta Braves baseball cap.  There’s something out of time, out of synch.  But then even historic barns in “original” condition might have additions or changes from several different eras.

When a new barn went up, it was rare to import materials.  If there was rock on the place, it was quarried or picked up for foundations.  Northern states, glacially tilled, had no dearth of granite rocks for a foundation.  Mostly, they were laid up in rock walls onto which the wood part of the barn was built.  But down south, sandstone or limestone ledges had to be blasted to get chunks which then were chiseled or bored and split to square them.  The blocks became foundation stones and below-ground walls.

Often, an itinerant sawyer would bring his portable mill to the farm to cut and saw timber for the barn.  Most Missouri barn siding is oak, partly because oak is the prevalent tree, mostly because it is hell for stout.  “You can’t drive a nail by hand in an old oak board without boring it first,” says one old barn enthusiast.  “An air hammer will do it because it’s so fast and powerful.  You kind ofsurprise the board with it.  And termites rarely challenge a weathered oak board.  Perhaps it’s just too tough for the little chewers.

The decline of the barn began almost exactly a century before I was born–when Cyrus McCormack invented the mechanical reaper and harvester in 1834. No longer was there a need for a threshing floor, nor could most barns store the increasingly big farm machines (incidentally, the word “threshold” comes from a board, placed vertically across the door to the threshing floor so the grain wouldn’t blow out with the chaff).

You marvel at the skill of the old carpenters who built barns.  They left their signature in the hew marks on the plates and girts and cross beams and posts.  They built the many sub-structures on the ground, then raised them with all the neighbors.  A barn raising was a time!  The farm wife, proud of her kitchen, loaded a couple of oak planks laid across sawhorses, with enough food to feed twice the attendance, and she thought she’d failed if it wasn’t all eaten.

            You had lemonade and ice tea (not “iced tea”–don’t you know anything?).  There was watermelon and maybe home-made ice cream, a tedious exercise that made the kid who was turning the paddle wonder if the end result was worth the effort.  If you didn’t grow up on an old-time farm, you can’t fully appreciate a real barn. You lay in the haymow on a hot summer day, looking through the open mow door at theground far below.  Maybe the girl from down the road was there, too, but unless you were more adventuresome than the average farm boy you did no more than threaten to tickle her or maybe try to steal a kiss that landed somewhere on her cheek or bumped her nose so hard it brought tears to her eyes and made her sneeze.

Mostly you talked about what you wanted to do when you grew up.  Get away from the farm, that’s for sure!  Wasps hung in the doorway like little helicopters and the clover and alfalfa smelled inexpressively sweet and you didn’t know that this was a summer that would never come again and that you would never forget.

The girl down the road?  Gone where they  go.  You saw her once a few years ago.  She grew up and married and got divorced and took to drink.  She didn’t talk about what she was going to do, only what she had done, which wasn’t much, and you wanted to cry.

I once went back to the farm where I spent summers.  Those who lived there lie in the Asbury Cemetery, a half-mile up the road.  The big maples in the front yard still were there, bent a bit more, but aren’t we all?  The house was empty, echoing with ghosts of Grandpa Vance and Uncle Finny and Aunt Sis.  No smell of drop biscuits, nor woodsmoke from the Warm Morning kitchen stove, no yellow, warm light from a coal oil lamp, just a dampmustiness that stuck in my nose.

An empty, cracking, peeling old house and, out back, an even more decrepit barn.  The barn once sheltered drying tobacco, Uncle Finney’s main cash crop.  He dibbled the plants into the wasting earth in spring, protected them with cheesecloth, hoed them by hand, sprayed them with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide, to keep the tobacco worms at bay, cut the mature plants and stripped the leaves in a little grading shed, then scrambled around on rickety poles in the big old barn to hang the tobacco for curing, 

He chewed his home-grown, stripping a mouthful off a golden leaf, and died of stomach cancer and there surely is a moral in that.  Now the tobacco barn was swaybacked and sagging, doors canted on rusted hinges.  Pigweed grew where the pigs used to be, beneficiary of their countless deposits. 

Virginia Woolf said, “Barns and summer days in the country, rooms where we sat all now lie in the unreal world which is gone.”I looked at the old barn on a gray winter day and tried to recall the warmth of summer, the sound of cicadas and the silvery laugh of the girl down the road, but I couldn’t do it. 

I shivered and turned away as the cold wind pushed a dangling door and made the remaining hinge moan.  I heard voices in that rusty cry that I didn’t want to hear.

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  • January 17th, 2012

Dog Judgment


                By Joel M. Vance

                Seamus did to Mitt Romney exactly what Mitt Romney deserved.

                He shit all over the probable Republican candidate for President.

                In case you are unfamiliar with the details of the famous Defecation Gate, Seamus was an Irish setter belonging to the Romneys in 1983 when they went on a family vacation.  They strapped the dog’s portable kennel to the top of their station wagon and set out on a 12 hour trip (apparently it was against Massachusett’s  law to transport an animal atop a vehicle but apparently legal restrictions don’t apply to venture capitalists).  Somewhere along the route a Romney kid noticed an unfamiliar brown ooze trickling down the tailgate from above.  Romney pulled into a filling station, hosed the dog and the car down, and resumed the journey—with Seamus, now drained and soaking wet, back in the kennel.

                We have 10 dogs in our family and, as reporter Chris Wallace, a Lab owner, said to Romney on Fox News, we would no more dream of strapping a dog atop our car than we would one of the kids.  The point is not the doubtful intelligence of carrying the family pet on top of the vehicle, but in that Romney never stopped to drain the dog until it was too late.  Apparently it never occurred to him that dogs, like humans, have fundamental body needs.

                The kids can whine, “I gotta go,” but the dog can whine all it wants atop the wagon and no one will hear it.  Seamus did what he had to do.  Some of the details are lacking but from long experience I know that Seamus did not carefully back up to the kennel gate and let fly—he (or she; it’s unclear as to sex) crapped all over the inside of the dog crate.

                Thus Seamus not only was wet, but so was his or her kennel assuming Romney cared enough to sluice out the fouled interior).  I don’t care if it’s deep summer—barreling along at highway speed is going to be mighty uncomfortable for a wet dog in a soggy kennel.  Romney’s lack of compassion, of understanding of or sympathy for his dog’s plight certainly brings into question his mindset in general.  This is a guy who says he enjoys firing people and who says that the reason Americans are upset with the unequal division of wealth in the country is because the poor people are envious of the rich ones (i.e. him). 

                This guy has no more empathy for the 99 percent than any given despot.  Romney had the unmitigated gall to talk about the “80 percent of us middle class” people.  If he’s middle class, then I want to be middle class like him.  Actually—I don’t.  I don’t in any way want to be like a guy who would treat his dog like he did and I don’t envy his money because it obviously has created a warped person who mistreats dogs.  Not a nice guy.

                He can grin and try to con his way into the Presidency, but facts are facts.  He’s a venture capitalist who buys flush companies, drains them of cash and discards them (and their employees).  The old term for these guys is “robber baron.” 

                Ruthlessness is the defining character of a venture capitalist, no matter how much they hide it with a hale fellow well met demeanor and hard-to-believe claims of worrying about getting a pink slip (the only pink slip Romney ever was around was one from Givenchy bought by his wife)

                The last time there was a dog scandal involving a President or a candidate was when Lyndon Johnson aroused the ire of the dog lover community by lifting one of his two beagles (inspirationally named Him and Her) by the ears.  However Johnson also was fond of howling in duet with a mutt he rescued from a Texas filling station.  That lovable trick helped ameliorate the snarling of the offended doggie ear protectors. The Great American Dream—to go from garbage can rummaging in Texas to the White House.  Now that’s Democracy in action. 

 Harry Truman defended his Johnson over the ear-lift incident:  “What the hell are the critics complaining about.  That’s how you handle hounds.  Mr. Truman, who did not have a First Dog, also said, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.”

Contrast Johnson’s populist pup with poor Seamus breezing along at flank speed atop the Romney wagon, his bowels in an uproar.  Wonder Mitt didn’t fire him and get a pet rock. 

                Then there was a tearful Richard Nixon vowing to keep the little dog Checkers, a gift, in spite of accusations that he was cashing in from rich backers.  (Any rich backers Nixon may have had are chump change compared to the bloated Super Pac sugar daddies that buy today’s candidates.)  Nixon,  hounded  (sorry for the dog pun) by the allegations, made  what became known as the Checkers speech in which he cried poor, using as an example his wife’s plain Republican cloth coat and  emotionally defended  accepting the gift of a cocker spaniel, which his daughter Tricia named Checkers.

                If you want to “unfriend” the nation’s dog lovers (thank you, Facebook for that odious corruption of the language), stick Rover atop your car and head out.  Do not stop or think about him until suspicious substances begin to give the vehicle an unlovely paint job.    

                It’s easy to make fun of Romney’s cluelessness about dogs; less entertaining to think of him as the leader of the free world.  Judgment is one hallmark of a President and , someone who lacks enough savvy to take care of his dog isn’t exactly exhibiting thoughtful behavior. 

                Romney says envy drives those who aren’t wealthy (almost everyone) toward those who are (him).  Is he so arrogant that he doesn’t realize that overwhelmingly Americans think the distribution of wealth in the country is seriously out of balance and that their attitude is not caused by envy but by a perception that there’s something wrong with a system where the rich get richer on the backs of the not-so-rich?

                Those not-so-rich folks are the bulk of the voters and if they’re listening to this guy tell them they’re just a bunch of jealous whiners, they’re likely to say, “Go stand under a sick dog.”  We had one spoiled brat in the White House for eight years and he started two dreadful wars, ran the country into the worst debt in history, and deregulated the financial dogs (sorry for another dog allusion) to kick the nation into a recession of a depth not seen for more than 70 years.

                It certainly was not all Bush’s fault, but he signed off on the programs and policies that have led us into our present economic morass.  He should have spent more time petting his dogs and less time tampering with what at the time was a burgeoning economy and a healthy middle class.

                Romney’s let-‘em-eat-cake philosophy is right out of the robber baron playbook.  He’s a throwback to the plutocrats of the Gilded Age and it’s too bad there isn’t an existing time machine to launch him back to the 1800s where he could hobnob with the bloated moguls of that era.

                He could ride on top of it……


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  • January 12th, 2012

Work With Me, Andy’s


By Joel M. Vance

             Prohibition spanned 13 years, an unlucky number for those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages.  The 18th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1919 and was repealed in 1933.  It was called “The Noble Experiment” by those who didn’t frequent Columbia’s legendary Shack.

            Beer came back for real with the end of Prohibition and from that time on The Shack was what it would always be until it closed May 18, 1984.  Four years after it shut down a mysterious fire destroyed the grease-impregnated old building and today a circular driveway covers the gravesite.  Perhaps it was a grease fire from a hamburger cooked on a phantom range by a phantom student cook.  A friend, Jim Auckley, worked at the Shack when he was in college and tells about the cooks having a pet cockroach, though how they told one from another is puzzling.  

The Shack was not a roadhouse in the redneck sense.  No one bounced pool balls off your head; no one challenged you to a fight in the parking lot.  It was where you went for a couple (or more) glasses of beer and then off to the dorm to study for Sociology, a study that to me was as arcane and indecipherable as necromancy.

            The original Shack dates to the 1920s when the Chandler Davis family opened a sandwich shop which came to be called “The Davis Tea Room.”  It was a popular hangout for students between classes and by 1929 it had become a beer joint.

            Prohibition put an end to the serving of real beer, but “near beer” at least gave the college students some feeling of a Roaring Twenties beer bust.

            The Shack was not upscale on its best day, but even its best days were pretty good in retrospect and as much as I admire Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, the statue of Beetle where the Shack once stood is no substitute for the ramshackle old green-painted beer joint which epitomized the 1950s University of Missouri campus. Walker was an MU grad and an habitué of the Shack.

            We understood ramshackle–we were a ramshackle admixture of country boys and returning Korean vets, stirred together with St. Louis sophisticates and Kansas City urbanites who often weren’t far removed from the farm themselves.  Beer joints were as endemic to Columbia as were the ivy-clad brick buildings that made up the Red Campus.          Even the names of the beer joints invoked today like a ritual prayer bring a shiver of recognition to old grads, not to mention a ghostly whiff of beer, cigarettes and a hint of vomit: The Shack, Andy’s Corner, The Stables, The Tiger Club, The Black and Gold. 

            The Shack was eternal, like Mecca or some other holy place.  The other joints achieved popularity for varying lengths of time. Andy’s Corner had been a rural roadhouse a couple of miles south of town, populated by old barflies and locals.  It was south of The Stables, a popular hangout, and no one prospected farther south to see what was over the hill.

            But after the Foster brothers took over the Big Smith crowd quickly disappeared into the night, clutching their longneck Stags.  Billy Dale and C.R. Foster were from Keytesville, where I went to high school.  C.R., the older of the two, had been in the service and I didn’t know him, but Billy Dale was a year ahead of me in high school and it was natural that homies would gravitate to Andy’s.

            Today the site of Columbia’s Andy’s Corner is obliterated by a shopping mall and the exact spot where the roadhouse stood now is Murry’s, a restaurant and jazz club, also a campus favorite, but without the grimy ambience of Andy’s.  The food is good and there is a small plaque on the wall proclaiming it as the site of Andy’s Corner.  No one who works there knows the history of the plaque.  “Andy’s?  Yeah, I heard about it,” said a waiter.  “I guess it was where old people went.”

            And also when we were young people.

            In its own rustic way Andy’s was as decrepit as The Shack.  The main building was not so bad, though almost always too small for the crowds of beer-drinking students that crowded into it.  To get a booth you needed get there early and never move except to answer a call of nature—and you needed big people to guard your sit-down spot while you ventured outside, winter or summer, to use the facilities.

            The facilities basically were the entire world.  The single outhouse was so foul that no one used it other than as a target.  The hosing contest was a regular event at the Corner.  Sometimes it was an endurance endeavor, other times for distance (or, more accurately, height, since we used the side of the outhouse as a target.  .  No female would dare to visit that ancient shelter, no matter how imperative the need.  I suspect some tottered into the woods that crept close to Andy’s and the rest just held on until they reached home. 

            Guys, being guys, just hosed the outhouse from the outside and, if the urge struck several guys at the same time they’d organize a contest, with the stakes usually being more beer. An ad for Andy’s in the campus humor publication The Missouri Showme showed a cartoon coed leaving the outhouse while guys flocked around, peeking through the half-moon air vent and slavering the way they did then. 

            “We’re Just Like One Big Happy Family Here!” said the copy.  “Nothing’s Private At Andy’s Corner.”

            By the time Andy’s hit peak popularity rock and roll was in full flower.  The Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie” was the record of choice, though Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knockin’” was a close second. The juke box never was silent and neither were the patrons.  Perhaps in the afternoon the locals could creep back in for a quiet brew, but not after suppertime.  Andy’s grew increasingly crowded and noisy until about 10:30 when guys with University dorm dates had to think about getting their girlfriends home before curfew (11 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on weekends). 

            The penalties for missing the curfew were Draconian: “late minutes” could cost grade points and enough of them resulted in expulsion.  It was an example of how repressive the administration was that a girl with a perfect academic score and a wild streak could flunk out because of accrued late minutes.

            Girls had little freedom, even in sororities.  It was a male-dominated society.  Men could stay out all night if they wanted.  There were no rules for them, other than in the dorm itself where noise was not tolerated and neither was drinking, although plenty of both went on, depending on the vagaries of the housemother. 

            Housemothers were a phenomenon that went the way of Studebakers—gray-haired ladies, probably widows, who ruled with what was supposed to be motherly concern, but actually was the power of God.

            A housemother had the right to search your room for illicit booze (Drugs?  Not in the 1950s).  If she found something wrong and didn’t like you, you were history. Our housemother was a grandmom-type who roosted in a room or maybe apartment on the first floor.  There were floor monitors, older students who picked up a few extra bucks by agreeing to be ratfinks for the establishment.  It was the system and no one blamed them for it.  You lived within the system which was several light years more repressive than today’s permissive college atmosphere.

            In fact, the entire University regulatory system was repressive.  Students basically had no rights.  The Dean of Students, nicknamed Black Jack Matthews, had Solomonic clout.  He used it judiciously but inspired fear by the fact of his absolute authority.  He once hauled a classmate, Stan Krueger, and me before him because we had played blues on guitar and harmonica too loudly in the music department, well after hours.

            We had found an amplifier and a microphone and I had a clip-on electric pickup for my little Martin acoustic guitar.  We plugged in, turned the volume high, and tried to emulate B.B. King and Little Walter.  It sounded more like King and Walter, a couple of Ozark coonhounds, baying treed, but we thought it was really cool until the head of the department started taking names and passing the information along to Black Jack.

Dean Matthews scared the wadding out of us, threatening expulsion if we got caught doing such a heinous thing again, and sent us into the sunlight, grateful still to have our posteriors and our standing as students.

            There were no authority figures at Andy’s, other than Mizzou Tiger football fullback Ray Detring who occasionally tended to the bar and to obstreperous drunks.  Andy’s was a refuge for the study-stressed. I never did a sociological study but I’d bet that most of the student patrons were rural kids who grew up around roadhouses that looked much like Andy’s.

             Today there is a thriving Andy’s Corner Bar in Bogota, New Jersey, quite highly-rated and presumably with an indoor toilet.  I doubt they serve Stag or Carlings and I know they don’t serve Griesedieck Brothers which has been defunct since about the time Harry Caray defected as the St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster and moved to Chicago. While I’m sure the customers at the New Jersey tavern go away satisfied, I’ll bet “Work With Me Annie” never is played at top volume and it’s possible that you even can carry on conversations farther than six inches away.

            And if you organize a peeing contest in the parking lot the chances are the local constabulary will haul you off. The old Andy’s had a feeling of home that started with it being run by home town boys, and featured that icon of my pre-college youth, the outhouse, the only difference being that we used the one at home, jousting with wasps whose philosophy was that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

            Going outdoors for relief might have been unusual and daring for St. Louis boys, but it was nothing new for farm kids.  We did it all the time.  For me a hot shower in a tiled bathroom was a stunningly beautiful experience, having bathed in a galvanized washtub for the previous five years since my father gave up his job in Chicago to move to a place in Missouri with no plumbing.

            Eating anything at the original Andy’s was a daring leap into uncharted culinary waters, with the ever-present threat of diseases normally seen only in undeveloped countries where various insects are a major food group.  But it was ours and we cherished it for those brief months that defined the mid-1950s.

            Even as an Andy’s cheeseburger lingered uneasily on the palate for days, so does the memory of Andy’s and the insidious double-entendre of “Work With Me Annie” (“Ahooo, ahooo….).

The Andy's gang, beers in hand

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  • Blog
  • January 3rd, 2012

Killing Time

            My Aunt Vic gave me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch as a college graduation present.  Armed with a diploma and a Rolex I expected to shoehorn into the social circles where surnames are followed by academic designations and all wrists are branded by Rolex watchbands.

            My eyes, a charming bright blue, have been likened to Paul Newman’s famous orbs (although the rest of me is closer to Alfred E. Neuman).  That was one link between me and Mr. Newman; the other that he was a fan of Rolex watches and wore one when he drove his race car in competition.  I wore mine when I drove my Hillman Minx to work.  James Bond also wore a Rolex in Ian Fleming’s spy novels, as did Sean Connery when he played the famous 007 in the movies.  We both have thinning hair and a Rolex and that ends the similarities between me and Sean Connery.

            My Rolex was a status symbol far advanced from a bachelor’s in journalism and was the only status symbol I owned.  I did not have an Aston Martin or a membership in the country club.  I owned no stocks or endowments.  My starting newspaper salary was $65 a week, nothing extra for overtime.  My savings account consisted of a slowly-maturing $50 War Bond, bought by my parents when I was a toddler.  

            But I had a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and it guaranteed I would know what time to show up for work and what time to quit.  It functioned as elegant starting blocks in the race of life, a sprint to where I would activate its self-winding mechanism through vigorous clipping of bond coupons.

            And then it died.  It just quit running.

            My Webster Collegiate dictionary, a relic of college, along with my degree and my Oyster Perpetual, defines “perpetual” as “Lasting or enduring forever.”  Apparently Rolex’s definition varies from Webster’s because, about 30 years into the life of the Perpetual it died in the tradition of T.S. Eliot: “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

            I quoted this to a watch repair man, showing him the stilled second hand.  “It whimpered when it quit?” he asked in astonishment.

            “No…that’s a literary allusion…nevermind,” I said.  “Can you fix it?” 

            He quarantined it for several days and then told me that he couldn’t get parts for it anymore, that Rolex did not make them for a watch not even 50 years old.  “You mean that a perpetual watch is obsolete in less than half a century?” I said.  “That’s not my idea of perpetual.” 

            He shrugged and said, “I’ve got some really good watches for $100.  Run on batteries.”  The Rolex went back into its original case in a drawer with old pocketknives, my passport, decorative belt buckles and lint-covered breath mints.  There it languished for a decade while the $100 watch marked time with nary a missed second.

            How can a watch be “perpetual” unless it has been running at least since the time of the Pharaohs?  And I haven’t seen any hieroglyphs of Tutankhamun sporting a wristwatch. 

The Rolex company is just over 100 years old.  The corporation was founded in 1905, a toddler among timepieces.  Rolex actually is English, not Swiss, in origin, although today its world headquarters is in Switzerland.  One story about the origin of the name is that founder Hans Wilsdorf thought that “rolex” is the sound a watch makes when it’s being wound.  Mine, of course, made a tiny whimper.

            A Rolex watch has been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and to the top of Mt. Everest.  Mine never went higher than the highest spot in Missouri, Taum Sauk Mountain (1,772 feet) or deeper than six inches in a trout stream when I stepped on a condemned slippery rock, did an acrobatic pratfall that would have gained the envy of Buster Keaton, and the watch flew off my wrist and plopped into the shallows.

            In 1927 Mercedes Gleitze was the first English woman to swim the English channel and she did it with a Rolex Oyster watch tied around her neck.  Although she nearly died of exposure, the watch was in perfect shape after 10 hours submerged.  Chances are then my watch’s short dip in Roaring River Creek was not what caused its fatal illness.

            Watch doctors varied in their opinions as to what malady afflicted it.  One watchmaker took it apart and said the self-winding mechanism was worn out.  Self-winding is an invention from 1923 (introduced in 1931 on a Rolex).  A tiny balance wheel swings back and forth with the motion of the wearer’s arm and powers gears and other mysterious stuff that winds the mainspring. 

I suspect that if I were operating a jackhammer 15 hours a day it might stress the self-winder into exhaustion, but I’m just your average couch potato, occasionally raising my arm to grab a Bud or another nachos.  My winder should last a thousand years (actually, being “perpetual,” it should last forever—just ask Mr. Webster). 

            I was reminded of the old Timex watch commercials on black-and-white television that bragged the cheap watch with the Rolex sound-alike name would “Take a licking and keep on ticking.”  The Rolex motto is “The masterpiece of watch craftsmanship.”  Nothing about licking or ticking.

Years passed and my Rolex moldered among the detritus of my life, a pearl among swine, albeit a pearl that told the right time only twice each 24 hours.  I ran across it while searching out my fifth grade report card and decided to beard the horological lion in its den.  I called the New York Rolex headquarters and spoke with a gentleman whose accent reflected advanced educational institutions where the annual tuition equaled what I spent in four years at the University of Missouri and who doubtless spent more on one sneaker than the cost of everything in my closet.   

He told me that Rolex did not make parts for that watch anymore but I was too intimidated by his smarmy accent to ask why in the hell a watch with “perpetual” in its name would be outdated in half a century. He gave me instructions on mailing the watch to them in a tone that resembled the way one speaks to children who can’t quite grasp long division, a mixture of pity and resignation.

                        The estimate allowed that Rolex possibly could make my watch functional again though it never would keep Rolex time and who knows how long the duct tape and Elmer’s glue would hold?  Cost?  About $1,000. 

                        That would have paid for 10 of the watches I’d bought to replace the defunct Rolex, but I didn’t bring that up—had he known I’d defaced my wrist with a $100 watch he probably would have hung up on me.

                        The watch went back among the rusty pocketknives for several more years and then I read an article about a rural watchmaker who specializes in Rolex repair.  He is in the tradition of shade tree mechanics who are open a couple of days a week if they feel like it, but who could turn a 1923 John Deere tractor into a competitive NASCAR vehicle.

                        I explained my plight and said Rolex wanted $1,000 to maybe fix my watch.

“They want you to buy a new watch,” said the little watchmaker, who I think was named Geppetto, although I may be confusing him with another craftsman.

“Yeah, right after I buy the surplus aircraft carrier and renovate it as a luxury liner,” I replied with heavy sarcasm that flew past him like a Nolan Ryan hummer.

But I was paying him to fix watches, not to appreciate subtle humor and after I sent him the watch and a few dollars he returned it running with James Bondian éclat.  I’m practicing my Paul Newman chuckle.

He refurbished (is there such a thing as “furbishing” so that later you can refurbish?) the watch and it ran like a new watch, although it ran about two minutes fast a day.  Perhaps it was trying to make up the lost years.

After about a month of struggle, the Rolex once again became one that tells the correct time twice a day.  It’s back in the drawer with the knives and lint-covered Rolaids and I am wearing the battery-operated Mallard watch which cost $100 and which has operated flawlessly and accurately for years.

For what Rolex wanted to fix my Oyster “Perpetual” I could buy 10 Mallards, keep one for myself and shop the other nine to Rolex owners who wonder what the hell time it is.


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