Archive for May, 2013

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  • May 31st, 2013

Who Said It?

By Joel M. Vance


Once a week the portly gentleman would come into our living rooms, sideways to the camera, turn and speak to us in a slushy English accent: “Good evening!”  It was, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, and his two-word salutation, complete with upper class English mushy articulation, is a good introduction to a look at the catch-phrase vocabulary of old time television fanatics.

You hear them every morning in the coffee shop—the latest cute quote that gets repeated endlessly until it not only is worn out, but also irritating.  When you hear someone badly imitate Maxwell Smart saying “Missed it by that much!” the first time it’s bearable….but after a hundred such mangled reiterations you begin to think in terms of justifiable homicide.

Along with “Missed it by that much!” as quoted by Smart, the hapless spy hero of “Get Smart.”  You have to hold your index finger and thumb about a half-inch apart to indicate by how much “it” was missed, but the origin of the statement is obvious to those of us who grew up clustered around a 17-inch Philco in the front room.

And before that it was radio.  When the dirigible Hindenburg blew up at Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937, announcer Graham MacNamee, horrified, moaned, “Oh, the humanity!”  Others have referred to that ever since—Newman, the porky neighbor of Jerry Seinfeld, said it during an episode when his mail truck caught on fire.

A comedian named Joe Penner said, “Wanna buy a duck?” and it quickly became the Phrase of the Day.  Is there a former kid, now 50 or more, who did not imitate Bugs Bunny saying, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?”  or Porky Pig stuttering, “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”?

Ever since the first snowy television image invaded our homes about 80 years ago, we’ve been adopting the catchphrases of favorite entertainers and turning them into part of the language. And before that it was radio.  People still say, “Just the facts, ma’am,” even though they’ve never seen or even heard of “Dragnet” and wouldn’t know Jack Webb from a spider web.

Personally I’d rather hear someone ask, “Wanna buy a duck” than to imitate Donald Trump, that egomaniac (can you imagine him as President?  I’d rather imagine Joe Penner’s duck saying, “You’re fired!”)  Or any of the water fountain comedians channeling Trump the morning after one of his idiotic shows.   Tina Fey’s devastating parody of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live,” saying, “I can see Russia from my back yard!” has almost entered the realm of catchphrase.

If Barack Obama persists in saying, “Let me be perfectly clear” about everything, he soon will find himself in the Pantheon of Trite.  Let me be perfectly clear about that.  Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live skewered George H.W. Bush saying “Not gonna do it!” to the point that every other would-be water cooler comedian was saying it too.  Little Georgie threatened to enter the realm of most-quoted with his “Bring it on!” but he was a living joke and it didn’t take.

Okay, a quick quiz.  See if you can identify the character and the TV or radio show associated with these quotes:

  1. Oooh!  Oooh!  Oooh!
  2. And awaaay we go!
  3. You bet your sweet bippy!
  4. Cheebugga!  Cheebugga!
  5. He slud into second….
  6. You beat everything, you know?
  7. Golleee!
  8. Book ‘im, Danno
  9. Well, isn’t that just precious!
  10. Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are
  11. What a revoltin’ development this is!
  12. Well, excuuuse me!
  13. We’ve got to nip it!  Nip it in the bud!
  14. Here come de judge!
  15. Put that in your Funk and Wagnalls!
  16. I coulda been a contender!
  17. Badges?  We don’ got no badges.  We don’ need no badges [he didn’t say “steenking badges”]
  18. Missed it by that much!
  19. It might be….it could be….it is!
  20. Hi-ho Silver!  Away!
  21. T’ain’t funny, Magee!
  22. Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?

Now if I have misquoted some character and you catch me at it, you win the Stale Cracker Award as the Trivia king or queen.  And if you want to know the answers, message me on Facebook & I’ll supply a list. One way to find out if anyone ever reads these blogs.

Meanwhile, as somebody or other once said, “Up, up and awaaaay!”


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  • May 24th, 2013

A Taxing Situation

By Joel M. Vance

Yahoo!  Let’s ride that spavined horse all the way to the 2014 election!  The right wing finally has its Got-‘em-by-the-short-hairs moment and they won’t let go.  Congress, that circus of inept clowns, has seized on the so-called IRS scandal to go after President Obama with a fury they haven’t been able to muster for five years, try as they might.

It’s the first time they’ve had a real issue and boy are they gleeful.  To see the right wingers stumbling over each other in their haste to set  up hearings is like watching clowns in a rundown circus desperately trying to get a crowd reaction.  Give  them fright wigs and big flappy shoes and they’d be at their true calling.

Is this really an issue?   Should the IRS have given Tea Party types special scrutiny?  You bet your ass—the Tea Party is a disorganized band of extremists whose only aim is to dissolve most of what made the country what it is, including anything that smacks of the federal government.  Nevermind the cost to the roads they drive on, usually recklessly, or the bridges they cross or the education system (who needs education when you’re so comfortable being stupid?).  Nevermind social programs, which benefit a bunch of foreigners and minorities.  Nevermind Medicare, that Communist plot by the black guy to do something awful, whatever it is.  Nevermind taxes that fund programs that ultimately benefit even the drooling Tea Partiers.  Get rid of ‘em!  In fact, let’s just shoot anyone who is not a White Anglo Saxon Protestant because they’re probably Communist Socialist Fascist Muslim Terrorists.  And Democrats, too.

Well, I’m a White Anglo Saxon Methodist which probably is marginally acceptable but I think the Tea Party (which really does not exist as a single entity but is mostly just an assortment of pissed off grumps looking for something to be angry about) no more deserves tax exempt status than I do.  They are overtly political and in no way are they educational or any other standard by which tax exemption is authorized.  I don’t mind them ranting and raving, but I think they should have to pay taxes to do it, just as I do.   And if their extremist rants raise warning flags in various federal government agencies, so be it.  Quit whining about Big Brother picking on you.  You asked for it.

Obama’s handling of the so-called scandal is unfortunately typical of his handling of most problems—waffle and obfuscate and kowtow to the lynch mob.  Where is Harry Truman when you need him?  Probably whirling in his grave like a centrifuge.  I also cannot imagine President Eisenhower putting up with the shenanigans of today’s Republican lightweights exemplified by the human puppy piddles, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.   Lyndon Johnson would have had both of them in the woodshed for a well-deserved hiding.   They would have returned to Congress with sore butts and a better attitude.

But Obama is not likely to become a lion at this late stage.  He has the unfortunate burden of being the first black man elected President and, like Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier, he has had to walk a careful path.  They don’t come right out and say hateful things, the way they did with Robinson or other folks of color who dared to demand equality, but it’s there.  There can be no other reason for the irrational hatred of the Tea Party types for the President.   Obama has been the prime target of the bigots since Day One.  We always have had bigots, evil hatemongers, and always will, humans being what they are.  But it’s rare if not unique for so many to be so loud and overtly obnoxious.  It’s probably a reflection of unrest with the economy (which has steadily improved under Obamacare and for which he gets little credit), an increase in electronic outlets (like this one) where anyone can say anything, no matter how outrageous, and a plethora of problems that seem to keep piling up and on.  Global warming, rising prices, lower wages, jobs migrating overseas—life just seems to get more threatening all the time and who better to blame than the black guy at the top?

Obama often is tentative when he should be forceful.  A good example is that he delayed visiting the awful scene of  tornado destruction in Oklahoma for several days.  That indecision and seeming indifference certainly cost Little Georgie Bush brownie points (“doing a heck of a job, Brownie”) after Hurricane Katrina and it doesn’t look any better when Obama does it.   He should have been on the ground in Moore hours after the storm struck.  As is all too often the case with him, he made grandiose promises to “stand beside you”, etc., rather than putting rubber on the road en route to the stricken town.  As the old saying goes, talk is cheap.  Get bodies and relief goods there S.A.P.  Take charge.  Right now.

Just as he could have taken charge of the IRS kerfluffle instead of trying to downplay it.  You have to admire Obama’s self-control even as you criticize him for cool disdain.  Considering that the Congressional leaders are a bunch of malcontented incompetents whose only goal is to gain political advantage, the country be damed, it is a small miracle that the President hasn’t lashed out at the “do nothing” bunch, just as Harry Truman did when confronted with a braying bunch of nincompoops.   The right wing-dominated House has but one aim and that is to thwart Obama, no matter the cost to the nation.

So many of the Congressional reps, House and Senate, are so reprehensible as to warrant only a head shake and a sick feeling and the thought How could we have been so dumb as to elect this bunch of dim bulbs!.  Congress is busted, folks, an arm of government so corrupted and divisive and corrosive of democracy as we wish it were, that the only viable solution seems to be to get rid of it and start over.  Unfortunately the government doesn’t work that way although now it doesn’t work at all.  And the Supreme Court abdicated its brain and its function as a leavening entity when it ruled corporations are people and can buy legislators without restriction.  So, two thirds of the government is crippled and the other third is hamstrung.  Doesn’t leave a whole lot to be thankful for, does it?

You get what you pay for and, thanks to the Court, we have gotten a special interest paid-for Congress that no more represents the common good than does a pod of hippos wallowing in an African river.  They’re dangerous and so is our Congress.  The hypocrisy of politicians, especially when they get to Congress, is both astonishing and depressing.  But what’s most depressing is that they get away with it.   They tell credulous folks what sounds good no matter that it’s a lie and the credulous buy it.

My wife and I live on a dead end road in the middle of woods, with a small lake just off the deck.  We listen to the owls and chuck-will’s-widows at night, the tree frogs and bullfrogs and we get more sense out of them than from all the prattlings of the fractured spectacle we call government.  And if the evening news consistently makes us froth with anger, a few hours with the critters sooths the inner beast.

Was that a frog I heard?  Or just another Congressman swallowing a fly?


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  • May 16th, 2013

Digging History



By Joel M. Vance


I was crouched in the lea of a western Kansas cut bank, a bitter November wind slicing overhead, gratefully dipping my spoon in a bowl of Hearty Hodgepodge with steam rising from the dish, spreading the succulent aroma of the food, along with miniscule but welcome warmth.

It was the noon break from an unsuccessful morning pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on my camp stove.

This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cut banks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of the tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.

It was 640 acres that nominally belonged to me.  Back in the 1940s my father’s partner, a loose cannon who once had bought a 17-room abandoned railroad hotel with no running water and with only a single outhouse for its distressed customers, had also bought a section of prairie land in Kansas.  At that it was better than the sawmill he also bought, despite the fact that all three partners lived in Chicago where there was little demand for raw lumber.

The partner hadn’t seen the land himself—bought it on a whim and because it was a bargain.  My father and his brother, the other partner, also had never visited that far away bargain they were helping to pay off.  Now my parents were gone and so were the other partners.  I inherited their Kansas prairie empire with the elderly widows of the partners, neither of whom had cowboy genes.  So, it was a voyage of exploration for the partnership and for me.

The nearest pheasants were 20 miles south, bunched around a reservoir. I would hunt there, camp out on the prairie.  The only
structure on the bleak landscape was a decrepit corral, long unused.  My tent billowed in the ceaseless prairie wind and I shivered while I fueled myself with Hodgepodge.

Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.

I used the spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a saurian relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.bison skull

And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.

A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a grapefruit.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps bullet or possibly even earlier to a Plains Indian hunter’s arrow.

I could dream up a half dozen scenarios, all romantic, about how this animal reached its gravesite two feet beneath the thin shortgrass of Western Kansas. The poet in me flowered; the pheasant hunter receded.  It wasn’t so much that I’d found an historic bison skull, although that was exciting enough, but that it was on MY land—or at least one-third my land.

And if those old ladies would think I would in any way share ownership of this skull with them, they would be dreaming.  They could have my share of the annual 30-acre wheat crop (which usually got hammered by hail or wind anyway).  Give me the skull.

Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, Kansas chose the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871.

But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear a path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull bison with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.

By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow rather than from disease, old age or accident.  It would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of some European interloper who left it to rot.

But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.

A bison skull is not a knick-knack.  It has weight and size and dominates whatever it rests on.  As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.

No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.

He held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  Beyond his appreciation of the historic value of the skull, the artist in Charlie appreciated it as a prop.  He once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.

So the skull went to Charlie and I went back to daily life.  I forgot about the skull, consumed by work and far from the gully where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me the watercolor that is shown in the illustration with this story.

Bison skull painting

The framed painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.

The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”

Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.

For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as were the thrill shooters of the bison. When the bison ruled the prairie there were no pheasants or, for that matter, no Anglo-Saxons looking for new territory.   Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that the pioneers and market hunters slaughtered in numbers to rival their tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.

Given the fragility of bird bones you’d be unlikely to find the 19th Century skeleton of an historic pinnated grouse, even though they died in numbers to rival the bison.  But that bison skull persevered as a tangible memory of a time, a time when passenger pigeons darkened the skies and dead prairie chickens filled springtime leks with their eerie booming and ducks blackened the sky like storm clouds

Now we have pheasants in place of prairie chickens, cows in place of bison and roosting starlings blackening the sunset sky.  Of the three pheasants are the most agreeable, but not always the most cooperative.  I had slogged all morning around the frozen cattail sloughs of the reservoir, put up a couple of spooky roosters out of gun range, cursed their uncanny survival instincts—gaudy winged coyotes.

Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves in North America.  Once Kansas joined the stampede to introduce this gaudy interloper, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks below only South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.

I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.

And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull

It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.




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  • May 8th, 2013

Becoming Old Rusty


By Joel M. Vance

A dusty gravel road in rural Missouri in the 1940s.  I am 10 years old, learning to ride a red-and-white one-speed bicycle….and not doing well.  The damn thing consistently wants to run into the ditch and throw me, like my uncle’s devious pony which I have not learned to ride either.

A car comes along and I bend over the recumbent bicycle, my knees skinned, road grit embedded in various parts of me, as if examining the Hell Machine for needed maintenance.  I keep my head down so the driver doesn’t see my tears turning the road dust to mud.

No training wheels for me—I’m going to master this alien contraption if it kills me which it threatens to do.  But a couple of hours later I wobble down the road to the farmhouse, upright after a fashion, and begin a nearly seven-decade affair with the bicycle.

Before the summer ended I was transporting the little girl from the next farm over on the support bar, careening through the back pasture where fireflies sparkled in the night and possibilities were endless.

Years later, on an English three speed which I had bought at a yard sale and appropriately named Old Rusty, I sped through another night en route to work.  The streets were deserted in the pre-dawn and the old bicycle with all those gears was a magic machine that effortlessly carried me past silent houses, bumping across the railroad tracks, all too soon at my office.

Then I went to work in a hill town and found that if I wanted to ride to work, five miles away, I needed more than three gears.  Old Rusty went to the shed and continued to live up to its name.  I got a 10-speed Motobecane Grand Record, one of the better road bikes of the 1970s.

My legs became as tempered steel. I rode 100 miles in a charity race, five miles out, five miles back ten times with a penny per mile pledged by my sponsors who had no idea I was trying to break their charity bank.  I led all riders that day and got to eat lunch with city dignitaries who seemed baffled by anyone who would even want to ride 100 miles on a bicycle.

There were hazards in bicycle commuting.  Twice cars unaccountably turned into my path, forcing me to slam on the brakes and hit the road in a reprise of that long ago day on the gravel road.  I invented new and admirable combinations of time-tested curse words.

Another time a woman passenger, holding a baby, spit on me as they passed me.  I still ponder that from time to time, wondering if the kid grew up to be Charles Manson.

Then I drifted away from bicycling, a function of age, I thought—but in retrospect it was more because of laziness.  One day after my bicycles had been stored for years, I looked at the Motobecane and was shocked to find it rusted, a revisitation of Old Rusty.  Shamed into action, I reconditioned the Motobecane and also a newer Trek with 18 speeds.

I grimly launched on Missouri’s Katy Trail, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails project, riding eight miles the first day, 13 the next.  I was back in business on a limited basis. If I still were in the business of riding 100 miles in a day I could do the length of the Katy in two days and a morning.  The Katy ultimately will stretch from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers near St. Charles in eastern Missouri to Kansas City.

The Katy as a bicycling/hiking trail dates to 1986 when train service stopped between Machens in eastern Missouri to Sedalia in the west.  The National Trails System Act provides that abandoned rail rights-of-way can be set aside in case they’re ever needed again.

A sugar daddy was necessary so the state could buy the railbed and he was Ted Jones, the creator of the nationwide network of Edward D. Jones investment offices founded in St. Louis by his father.  Ted Jones and his wife Pat chipped $2.2 million into the Katy project.  Subsequently Union Pacific donated 33 miles of trail from Sedalia to Clinton and other money helped shape today’s 225 mile total.

Once the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad was a thriving business.  It came to life the same year the Civil War ended, linking border state Missouri with free state Kansas and slave state Texas.  Whatever enmity remained from the war gave way to free commerce among the former enemies.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment in the history of the Katy was when William Crush, the railroad’s general passenger, arranged as a publicity stunt to have two locomotives collide like two mammoth rams butting heads.  There were 40,000 spectators to see the event…and three of them died when the locomotive boilers exploded, scattering shrapnel in all directions.

Today the former railbed of the Katy in Missouri is a state park, heavily used by bicyclists and hikers.  My 100-mile days (and legs) behind me, I choose now  to ride 10 miles or so at a time and as if it were planned, there are small towns just about every 10 miles where a cyclist can stoke up on food and beverages (including at several wineries).

The Trail didn’t come without controversy.  Adjacent landowners claimed they owned the abandoned railbed but they lost that fight.  Some snarled that they would be overrun by hippies smoking dope, scattering trash and killing livestock, probably for Satanic rites.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to find any trash on the trail (NASCAR driver Carl Edwards sponsors a segment of Adopt-a-Trail, a volunteer program to clean up any trash), the cows graze contentedly (and undisturbed) along the Trail, and it’s doubtful anyone smokes dope because it’s too hard on the lungs.

Historically towns along the track were called whistle stops.  Now they are where cyclists can wet their whistles.  Most have facilities, including restaurants and lodging and for a few the Trail has meant rescue from ghost townhood.  On any given Saturday morning in Rocheport, the Trailside Café will be jammed with cars and cyclists coming and going east toward McBaine or west toward Boonville and the streets of the historic little town which once headquartered the Civil War sociopath Bloody Bill Anderson, will swarm with Lycra-clad visitors.

I sometimes ride with other geriatric survivors from my working days.  In warm weather I try to be on the Trail by 8 a.m. when it still is cool.  Much of the Trail borders the Missouri River, often so close that if you veer too close to the edge of the Trail you might take a bath in the Big Muddy.

Much of the Trail huddles under spectacular cliffs, some soaring 400 feet straight up.  Once there was a pair of goats that promenaded on miniscule ledges far above the trail in Cole County, but they vanished—perhaps the victim of someone with a .30-06 and delusions of African safaris

Five miles west from the North Jefferson trailhead is a pair of benches and a picnic table, looking out on the Missouri River.  The benches are in memory of Mel Carnahan, former Missouri Governor who won a race for the United States Senate several weeks after he died in a plane crash.

The picnic bench is in memory of Mark Sullivan a close friend and co-worker who took up bicycling in his retirement and organized an annual ride and picnic on the Trail.  Now the annual picnic is named for him.  I stop at the table and think about the times we hunted ducks and played basketball together.

The last time I saw Mark was on the Katy Trail.

The Missouri River flows along the Trail over half of its length, from Jefferson City to St. Charles.  The moody Muddy sometimes slips its banks and chews chunks of the Trail, but the Department of Natural Resources is quick to repair the damage.  In 1993 and again in 1995 the Missouri swelled from bluff to bluff, closing major highways and cutting the southern half of the state off from the north, save for a couple of high bridges.

Those were supposed to be 500-year floods, but the river that led Lewis and Clark west does what it pleases when it pleases.  In August it can be low flow enough to expose huge sandbars, ideal for a campout.  Cyclists can wave to the river campers.  Barge traffic has nearly ceased on the big river, although taxpayers continue to prop it up as they have for 100 years.  Now most boating on the Missouri is by canoe or motorboat.

One day I rode from McBaine to Rocheport and passed a marker identifying a campsite used by Lewis and Clark near the start of their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5.  Though the river has been shackled and debased by levees, wing dikes and other manmade intrusions, it’s still possible to feel a frisson of history, especially if you’re all alone on the Trail and of a romantic mind.

Having outlived the original Old Rusty and having lived with the second incarnation for 30 years, I’ve concluded that I’ll rust out before my bicycle.




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  • May 1st, 2013

County Fair



By Joel M. Vance

My home, Missouri, has 114 counties and on any week during July there will be a county fair somewhere.

Missouri, in common with much of the Farm Belt, had been drought-stricken one long summer.  A seemingly endless parade of high pressure systems sailed across the weather map, bringing high, blue skies and numbing heat.  It was a bleak time for farmers, seldom relieved.  The county fair offered a day and a night away from the relentless drought.

Farming today is a precarious business at best, always threatened by economic ambush or by weather.  The average farmer, even one who lives on a farm (many don’t) does not subsist on the land–if he subsists on anything, it is government subsidy.

Once I tried to find someone who still butchers his own meat and came up with only one name–and he was a teacher who did it as a sort of curiosity, a living history exhibit.  The concept of subsistence farming went out with the end of World War Two when huge war machines became huge farming machines and the idea was more and bigger fields, all financed by the banks.

Farmers bought additional land at high prices, riding a crest they thought never would break.  Farming was on an economic high as intoxicating as drugs and bankers and farmers alike succumbed to its lure.  Then the wave crested and dashed on the rocks of reality and many farmers couldn’t make enough to pay the interest.

Those in the economic shadows looked to a big crop to come back into the sun.  .  And then it got dry in May and stayed dry and the crops withered in the field and there wasn’t much to do about it but rattle into town in the morning and sit in the coffee shop and bitch about the lack of rain. Everybody talks about the weather, but no one can do anything to change it.

Only thing to do was go to the fair and throw baseballs at weighted milk bottles, as hard as you could.  The fair I went to was not much different than any other county fair–a little shabbier than some, but better than others.  Rural celebrations are more real than the manufactured, glossy shows of urban areas.

The shimmering July heat dissipated with evening, but the sky remained cloudless, rainless.  The rickety Midway rides clinked and whistled.  More obvious was the bellowing roar of mud marathon competitors near the grandstand.  The brute engines snarled and trumpeted like great beasts in the jungle.  More than 100 competitors, a record, drove massive pickup trucks into a 50-yard pit that had been hosed to a quagmire.  The idea was to see how far they could go before they bogged down.

It is today’s version of when braces of oxen strained against stone boats.  In my youth, tractors pulled a skid onto which waiting men would step, one by one, as the sled drew even with them.  Sooner or later, the tractor would lose traction and spin its tires.

On the face of it, it was baffling that thousands of farmers would pay to see farm vehicles drive through mudholes when drought had baked the land like an overdone pizza.  Maybe it was the sheer delight of seeing wet soil again.

Fairs have changed from the time when the most important competition was among virile bulls or the most successful home economists.  The woman who puts up the finest jar of peach preserves today finds her name buried far down in the columns of the local paper, but the winner of the demo derby will have a photo and a headline.

The fairgoers are a mixture.  An old farmer wore new striped Big Smith overalls and a clean cap.  A slinky blond wore too much makeup, a tank top and shorts designed for a junior high cheerleader which she might have been a decade earlier.  Heavyset farm wives displayed a lifetime of starchy food.

Older men were weathered; the young bucks muscled under rolled-up sleeves or T- shirts. Maybe it was my imagination, but the Fair had a forced cheerfulness about it.  Nature had betrayed the farmer. The cornstalks were fired and spiky.  Soybeans were ankle high when they should have reached nearly to the waist.  Bankers were acting nervous, like a cottontail when the coyote is hungry.

The local conservation agent manned two exhibits, one featuring stretched and cured pelts of Missouri furbearers, the other titled “Farming and Wildlife.”  No one even paused to look at the latter because the question is farming and survival, not farming and wildlife.  But the furs were popular, and the agent explained pelt differences to two young girls who fingered the sleek, short hair of a beaver hide, maybe dreaming of becoming Lauren Hutton alighting from a gleaming Chrysler.

No professional promoter puts on the Platte County Fair.  It is volunteer, from the grizzled farmers manning the ticket gate to the dentist who has a rickety booth advertising cut-rate orthodontics. I was hungry and wandered past the dentist to a booth featuring a fish dinner.  With iced tea, it cost $4.50 and I got a plate heavy with two generous chunks of scored, deep-fat fried carp, no doubt from the nearby Missouri River and possibly laced with most of the world’s known carcinogens.  But it was superbly done.  Carp cookery is an art.  It takes someone whose hand with smoking lard oil, cornmeal, salt and pepper is as sure as that of George of the Ritz’s with a crepe.

There were the obligatory side dishes of baked beans and cole slaw and I fell to hungrily, then headed back to the building where there was to be a fiddle contest.  In an adjoining building, a teenage rock band, cheap amps cranked to the max, shouted incoherent lyrics to girl friends and a few contemporaries.  The fair crowd was not partial to heavy metal.

But the local bluegrass band filled the hall.  They played for an hour before the fiddlers’ contest.  Fiddling has been a Missouri music staple for more than a century.  Decades ago there were fiddling contests in the Capitol; now the contests are sadly gone, leaving only the wind and confusion of a typical state legislature without music.

They once were called Old Fiddlers’ Contests, but so many of the old fiddlers now play “Billy in the Lowground” in some celestial contest that they’ve done away with age discrimination.  Today’s old fiddler is likely to be a teenager.  There is a curious generation gap–contestants either are in their 70s or are younger than 30.

Fiddlers must play a standard piece, then a waltz, finally a “show tune.”  But the “Orange Blossom Special” is banned from contests.  Every fiddler would choose it because of its pyrotechnics.

A young woman from Kansas began with a Cajun tune and her clear, simple playing transported us to a fais do do in Lafayette, down in Sout’ Louisian’.  She got a big hand and smiled a sweet smile that had to earn points in the judging, no matter what the rules say.  Her waltz was the “Missouri Waltz.”  No fool this kid–this is Harry Truman country.

A tiny boy, sitting on the dirty floor of the wooden building where the contest was held was mesmerized by the throbbing fiddle.  A rawboned man laughed at him and he ducked his head in teary embarrassment.  The girl’s show tune was “Redwing,” unadorned, but with full-throated tone.  She hit the notes squarely without squawk.

Presently the judges returned and she was the winner of $125 and a big trophy.  She played a couple of numbers with the bluegrass band and then the crowd, its attention diverted by the distant grandstand tumult, began to evaporate.

Out on the Midway, a young farmer with sleeves rolled up on his blue work shirt stared up at the Basketball Throw: “Two Goals Wins” and rubbed his hands on his dirty jeans.  From this angle anything was possible and he reached in his pocket for a quarter.

I headed out into the clear, starry night and looked to the West where the last traces of daylight showed a few clouds.

Anything was possible.



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