Archive for July, 2013

  • Blog
  • July 27th, 2013

Shootout at the Not-So-OK Corral

By Joel M. Vance


Am I missing something here?  Throughout the tediously long George Zimmerman investigation and trial, the focus of everyone—defense, prosecution, media and the general public seemed to be did Zimmerman shoot Travon Martin in self-defense or more specifically did he have the legal right to shoot someone he believed was threatening him.

Well, duh!  What about Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid, unarmed, approached at night by a gun-toting white guy in a state not noted for racial tolerance.  Did he feel  threatened?  Did he have the right to defend himself against an aggressive white guy with an attitude?

The whole thing hinged on the so-called “stand your ground” law which evokes more of a vision of “Gunsmoke” than it does “Inherit the Wind.”  Frontier justice supposedly went out with Wyatt Earp, et al, but apparently not in Florida and the other states (about half the country) which have similar laws.  It used to be the law that you had to retreat prudently if threatened.  Self-defense was a last resort.  Now with concealed carry laws common and with the stand-your-ground mentality and with racial tension higher than it has been in years and with a country that spends much of its energy being pissed off at everything, the stage is set for shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.

Sure, if someone broke into my house and threatened me or my family, I would have no qualms about shooting him.  Likewise if someone approached me at night in a threatening manner, especially if I knew he was armed (and I don’t recall that the prosecution which was every bit as muddled as was that in the O.J. Simpson case) ever determined that Zimmerman showed his gun before he and Martin scuffled.

So they fought and perhaps Martin did get him down and beat the crap out of him.  Wouldn’t you?  Given the apparent situation—Zimmerman with a history of racist comments to the cops he called, ignoring their order to stay in his car, following the black kid and accosting him—is it surprising that a fight took place?

So Zimmerman felt threatened.  Was he afraid the black kid was going to beat him to death with a bag of Skittles?  Did Martin follow Zimmerman and jump him?  Doesn’t make sense that a kid, pursued by an unknown threat in the dark, hands full, would go on the attack.   The whole thing reeks of a racial confrontation gone horribly wrong.  Zimmerman chose not to testify which was his right under the law, but it also prevented the prosecution from questioning him about the events, what was said, who threatened whom, what inflammatory rhetoric led to a fatal escalation.

And how do you think the case would have gone down had Zimmerman attacked Martin and Martin had shot him dead?  The fact is that only about one percent of cases where a black man shoots a white one are ruled justifiable, while in states with “stand your ground” laws 17 percent of whites shooting blacks is considered justifiable.

The prosecution bumbled the whole thing, hamstringing the jury so it almost inevitably had to acquit Zimmerman with a “not beyond reasonable doubt” determination.  The cops came on as the Florida equivalent of Barney Fife and the Keystone Kops.  Perhaps some measure of judicial commonsense will happen in civil court as happened with O.J.  Zimmerman has been adjudged innocent by a criminal case jury although there is no question that he shot an unarmed kid.  Normally that would outrage everyone, but not in a nation that still harbors barely hidden racial prejudice.

The decision brought out the spiteful bigotry of racists on Facebook and elsewhere.   In the view of the hatemongers, Martin “got what he deserved.”  He was, these pea-brained bigots claim, “a punk thug.”  What he was actually was black.  And it shouldn’t have mattered what he had done in his past, whether he’d been in trouble in school or elsewhere (which he apparently was).  Zimmerman didn’t know the background of the kid he confronted.  For all he knew, Martin was an honor student, star of the high school sports teams, and a church leader.  All he saw was a black kid in the neighborhood where he, Zimmerman, had no official standing and he confronted this kid who made the mistake of being black and then Zimmerman shot him dead.

Back in the 1960s Birmingham chief of public safety Bull Connor turned police dogs loose on and fire-hosed black protesters.  He didn’t know any of their backgrounds, except that they were black and they were annoying him.  That, in his narrow mind, justified the use of force.  George Zimmerman is pretty obviously of that Bull Connor mindset—he convicted Trayvon Martin on probability , not actuality. He can claim the justice system worked, but it didn’t.  He lucked out by being prosecuted by a bunch of incompetent clowns and by being defended by a team that managed to confuse the case to where no one knew what had gone on and decided that if the stories don’t fit you must acquit.

Blame a stupid six-gun mentality and a law that never should have been passed.   The Justice Department, considering a civil rights violation charge (which almost certainly will not happen) has impounded Zimmerman’s gun, but Zimmerman’s lawyer says the guy should get his gun back because he’s in danger.  Presumably that means some other black kid armed with a bag of Skittles might attack him.  A gun shop owner has offered him a free gun so he can fire at will.  As far as is known no quick stop has offered him a bag of Skittles as a defensive weapon.

It’s sad but believable that the case divided an already divided country even more.  Reaction cut both ways.  In the middle Martin’s family urged restraint.  On the left folks like Al Sharpton, who is as far removed as a black leader from Martin Luther King  as punk rock is from opera, immediately took center stage and orated.   It was like hearing the wind blow over a city dump.  On the right were the avowed bigots, spewing their hatred.  A particularly odious Facebook poster who usually reserves his venom for the President, posted this: “I am starting a new business. I hope it goes well. It will be called Ammo Hut. All you have to do is call in and place your order and we will deliver your ammo to you in 30 minutes or less with a Pizza of your choice. When the race war starts I will profit big time. A quick hot meal and fresh ammo.”

Most of these big talking would-be gunslingers are gutless wonders but there is a hard core of racists who would cheerfully shoot every black person they could if they could get away with it.  Zimmerman probably falls into the former category.  He got into a situation where he couldn’t bluff his way out of it and shot in panic, not in deliberation.  If that were the case, manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge.

But we’ll never know unless he does it again and the cops and prosecution act like professionals instead of law school and police academy dropouts.


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  • Blog
  • July 22nd, 2013

Fingering Chickens

By Joel M. Vance

Mr. T.F. Potter, a gentleman who looks as if (judging from his photo) he would be gentle with a hen, wrote a book called Don’t Kill The Laying Hen for the American Poultry Journal Publishing Company.

Mr. Potter was jealous of his information, for the first page of the book promises that anyone infringing on his copyright is “liable to prosecution to the full extent of the law covering this subject.”  However, since the 13th edition of the book (which I have) is dated 1909, I am confident that Mr. Potter has gone to the Great Henhouse in the Sky, and that the information he so jealously guards has become common knowledge.

In fact I know it has–I used it some 50 years ago, not knowing that it was a copyrighted secret.  I speak of the fingering of chickens.  Mr. Potter’s method of judging the egg-readiness of hens involves the use of your fingers between the “lay bones,” as he calls them.

There also is something he calls the “bowel method,” but I’d rather not know about that.  The finger check was traumatic enough.  I’ve ever actually laid an egg, but I certainly have become uncomfortably intimate with the hen’s productive and/or reproductive apparatus.  While it is not something that I would list on my resume, I once judged chickens.

Back in my formative years, I fell in love with agriculture.  It was a romance like all romances–filled with pitfalls and briar patches, and ultimately I decided that farming was possibly the last thing I ever wanted to do.  But it took three years of the Future Farmers of America and a stint as a chicken judge to lead me to that conclusion.

My father was a farmer in the same sense that an infantry general is a foot soldier.  He supervised the operation of a 900-acre farm in Missouri.

Mostly that meant he talked with the tenant farmers who told him what should be planted and then he said that sounded good to him.  He occasionally cleared brush with the Doom Machine, a circular saw without any safety features and with enough power to cut the world in half.  He also did other things that made him feel useful and in charge, but principally he stayed out of the way.

Even though his roots were on the farm, his maturation and training were city.  His rural roots had been pruned and now lagged far behind the roots buried in city concrete.  He didn’t pine for his city days, as far as I know, but he couldn’t have driven a tractor to save his life, nor did he have a feeling for the rhythms of crops and livestock.  He was a foreman.

And I knew even less.  I’d never been on a farm, save summer vacations amid the fleas and horses that wouldn’t do right by me.  But my friends were farm kids and they seemed to associate congenially with sheep and hogs and chickens.

Animal husbandry sounded like something I could do.  I doubted I’d ever make a people husband (what girl would ask me to marry her?), but from what little I knew, farm animals pretty well took care of themselves and then you sold them for big bucks.

Big bucks also sounded good.  I’d never had any.  So Foster Sadler and Tommy Coy and I joined the Future Farmers of America at Keytesville High School.  The aim of FFA is “development of agricultural leadership, cooperation and citizenship.”

The foundations of FFA trembled when I decided to enlist as a high school freshman at Keytesville High School back in 1948.  Although I didn’t know it, I was no more a future farmer than I was a future astronaut or physicist.

My motives were not to become a successful farmer.  They were simpler.  I wanted a blue corduroy jacket with the FFA emblem, a cross-section of an ear of corn, on its back.  It was a status symbol ranking close to a Tiger letter jacket (as an athlete who had shot twice at the wrong basket in an eighth grade basketball game and missed both times, I was not a prime candidate for a letter jacket).

The only one of the dozen purposes of FFA that seemed to apply to my motives was “To provide and encourage the development of organized rural recreational activities.”  I equated “rural recreational activities” with parking on secluded country lanes with my female classmates, none of whom shared my enthusiasm.  I thought FFA would be a good way to meet girls, specifically the farmer’s daughter of fable.  I was wrong about that, too.

The Future Farmers of America is to agricultural aspirants as the Army is to those who yearn for hand-to-hand combat.  It is the organized, uniformed cadre of those who study agriculture in high school.

The organization began in Missouri in 1928.  The first line of the FFA Creed reads, “I believe in the future of farming, with a faith born not of words but of deeds…” which should have given me pause, had I bothered to read it.  I was long on words then as now, but my deeds tended toward quitclaim.

For one thing, I was a town kid, though my father owned a farm.  Town kids in Keytesville High School FFA in the late 1940s were like women in the pool hall.  It just wasn’t done.  There were farm boys and townies and they did not intermingle.

But three of us townies decided to break tradition.  Foster’s father, like mine, was a rarity for the time, a man whose home was in town, but who owned a farm.  In fact he was the school superintendent, a fearsome entity who intimidated me well into my declining years.

Farming sounded romantic to us townies.  What drawbacks could there be to the bucolic life?  Outdoors all the time, soaking up sunshine and healthful vibrations.  It would have saved much trouble had any of us asked a farm kid how much fun he had.  For example, slopping hogs in the dark of a bitter winter before sunrise or working in fields by tractor headlight after a long day at school.  Bucking hay bales in the relentless Missouri summer heat was another thrill that somehow escaped our notice.

We vaguely envisioned being one with the land, feeling the good earth squishing between our toes, seeing crops blossom and fruit.  We identified with the landed gentry, the squire’s son, not the red- knuckled farm boys who made crude jokes about animal husbandry in the literal sense.

We needed a “Project,” a farm enterprise that authenticated our presence in FFA, so I acquired a Duroc gilt, a lovely red pig with long eyelashes and a virginal look that belied the fact that she was with child.  God knows who the father was (I was supposed to, but my record-keeping was not the stuff of which passing grades were made).

The romance of caring for this creature soon gave way to cold weather, sniffles, chapped hands, intestinal parasites (hers, not mine), manure and the other realities of farming.  I found that pigs have an ongoing life and, as self-reliant as they are, they do require some supervision, winter and summer.  The pig was mine in name only.  I found a thousand reasons why I couldn’t quite be there for her and soon her care was given to one of the tenant farmers.

Even though I really didn’t work my project, I continued the fiction so I could stay in FFA and maybe find some raison d’etre for me in agriculture.  I’d eliminated the frolic of pig husbandry and so far no nubile classmates had coveted my blue jacket.

Foster found our Purpose.

Each spring, Future Farmers across Missouri competed in agriculture-oriented events such as livestock judging.  The district winners advanced to the state competition at Columbia.

The mere mention of Columbia set our juvenile juices a-stewing.  Columbia was the Big Apple for Keytesville boys, most of whom had never been farther from home than Moberly.  It was the Forbidden City.  Chicago had long since faded from my memory and anyway, I’d lived there when I was pre- pubescent.  Wouldn’t have known a sin if I’d found one.  Now, however, I knew all about sin in the abstract and desperately wanted some hands-on experience.

Columbia is the home of the University of Missouri.  If there was no sin in Columbia, with all those randy college students, then there was no sin in Missouri.  We had to get there.

The first ever national vo-ag dairy judging had been won by a team from Keytesville in 1926, before there was a state FFA.  They traveled all the way to Indianapolis, IN, which, for a Keytesville kid, was equivalent to being shot to Mars.  If a bunch of Chariton County rubes could win national honors, we intellectual townies ought to be able to breeze through regional competition and win a trip to Columbia.  We’d even read books other than the Soils Manual.  I had read all the books of Thorne Smith and knew what step-ins were or, more to the point, what went in them.

And there were movie houses in Columbia that showed things you’d never see in a Doris Day movie: one showed foreign films and we all knew what went on in foreign films.  There were rumored to be nude women in foreign films.

We dreamed of roaming Columbia in the heat of the night, meeting experienced women who would lure us into sultry, dimly-lit dens of pleasure where we would experience the first sweet pangs of debauchery.  Almost anything we could imagine was debauchery compared to life in Keytesville.  Debauchery in Keytesville was a cheeseburger with fries and a double chocolate malt which, at most, would make you so sick you’d puke.  Columbia doubtless offered sins you couldn’t even read about in 1948.

But first we had to qualify.  We looked over the available competitions.  We ruled out livestock judging in any form because even the most casual farm boy knew more about the conformation of cows, pigs and sheep than we ever would.  The only conformation we’d even halfway studied was that of the cheerleaders and even that was an awesome mystery, the textbooks to which were closed.

Besides, farm animals tended to be large and unpredictable.  We’d all heard tales of sows getting farmers down in the pig yard and chewing off their legs.  And a cow’s eye was larger than most of my muscles.  I wanted nothing to do with a creature that was far stronger than I and that perhaps had a dim perception that I was nurturing him to the slaughterhouse.  Revenge is not necessarily beyond the ken of a male hog, especially after you’ve started his life by cutting off his nuts.

Live animals were out.

“Hey, look at this!” exclaimed Foster, our ringleader.  “Seed judging!”  It was buried in the fine print, a contest so minor that a real farm boy would have dismissed it in fine contempt.  Just what we were counting on.  We needed a contest with no competition to maximize our chances for a trip to the big town.  We really didn’t judge seeds; we identified them.  It was a matter of memory and there was no involvement with hoofed creatures.

Mr. Schmid, our Vo-Ag instructor, was baffled by town boys in agriculture.  He was kind, but it was as if he had been asked to tutor Asians or Inuits whose way of life was totally foreign.  He searched for common ground.

Once he took us on a field trip to castrate hogs and showed us how to do it with his teeth.  The Townies all got lightheaded and Tommy trotted over behind a haystack and threw up.  He asked for volunteers and the three townies shrank to the back of the crowd.  A farm boy eagerly knelt to the feast, his teeth snapping.

When we told Mr. Schmid we wanted to enter FFA competition, he was delighted to see us finally interested in agriculture.  “It’ll help you all your lives to know one seed from another,” he promised enthusiastically.

“Why can’t we just look on the package if we want to know what’s inside?” I asked.  He looked at me for a long time, one of many such gazes to come.

But we decided to be the best damn seed judging team KHS ever had (not to mention the first).  We worked before and after school hours, pawing through seed samples and studying written material and we blew out the opposition (one other team) in the district.  Columbia, if anything, proved duller than Keytesville.  College students looked at us as if we’d just crawled out of a manure heap and the foreign film we skulked in to see was incredibly boring.  The only nude woman was built like Tugboat Annie and was dead.  I tried to whip up interest in her flabby exposed breast but it was no go.

Instead of a steamy boudoir, we fell into exhausted sleep on creaking Army cots in company with 5,000 other sweating Future Farmers in the University’s Brewer Fieldhouse.  The sultry air was filled with groans, moans, sneezes and snorts, coughing and snoring and some other sounds.

Our choices were two: we could abandon FFA or we could try again as sophomores to solve the riddle of Columbia (the riddle of agriculture was a lost cause).  Surely, Columbia held more for us than and the thousands of coughing, belching Blueclads in Brewer Fieldhouse.  But first we needed another snap contest.  Once you’d been in a competition, you could not repeat it.  Foster studied the catalog.

“Meat judging!” Mr. Schmid exclaimed, aghast.  We were joking with the gods of Agriculture.  We showed him the catalog.  “Why don’t you judge sheep or cows or something like everybody else?” he grumbled.

But we learned about marbling and other esoterica of the butcher and we finished second (among three teams) in district competition.  Good enough to send us on another expense-paid vacation to Brewer Fieldhouse.  The same group of air swallowers had returned, noisier than ever, and the foreign film house was closed for lack of business.

Instead, we went to a mainstream movie house which featured what must have been the last vaudeville act to play Missouri.  A sweating fellow came out and announced that he would play two trombones at the same time.    “Yeah, but you got two heads!” shouted some balcony wit and we all roared.  College humor was just as sophisticated as we’d imagined.  Still, sitting in a movie house in Columbia watching terrible entertainment wasn’t much different than being in Keytesville.

Then we became juniors.  One last chance to pervert ourselves in the city.  We studied the FFA competitions catalog far more assiduously than we ever did the Soils Manual.  No luck–we’d used up the easy competitions.  It looked as if we might have to deal with live animals for the first time.  Foster’s brow furrowed in concentration.  This was a test of his skill at finding the easy way.  Finally the worry lines smoothed, he turned to us with a broad smile.  “Chicken judging!” Mr. Schmid roared.  “What’s the matter with you boys, anyway?”

But judge chickens we did and some basic misconceptions quickly cleared up.  We had only a hazy notion of how you judge a chicken.  First, we assumed it was chicken meat we would be asked to judge, like those steaks and chops from the year before.  We assumed we would gaze upon the defunct bodies of chickens, rating their suitability for the roasting pan.

Our eyes glazed over when Mr. Schmid appeared with several live, smelly hens.  They clucked, fussed and, worst of all, held their droppings in reserve until the moment when a fastidious chicken judger was most vulnerable.

For those who may not be familiar with the way laying chickens are judged, let me explain: Assume you are right handed.  You scoop up a chicken, not an easy task since chickens resent scoopment, stuff her under your left armpit, tail to the front.

Hold her immobile with your left arm, lift the tail with your left hand.  The right hand contains the gauge by which you measure a chicken’s egg-laying ability–your fingers.  If you remember the Boy Scout and Cub Scout salutes, you can judge chickens because you give the hen a sort of Cub or Boy Scout salute, only horizontal, laying the two-or- three fingers against the egg vent to measure its span which gives you an idea of how large an egg the chicken is capable of delivering.

If there is such a thing as a one-finger chicken, it is destined only for the pot.  It would lay eggs an ambitious robin could beat.  Two fingers (a Cub Scout chicken) probably is a pullet, an egg virgin.  She may develop, but she is not yet a performer in the hot competitive atmosphere of big time egg laying.

A three-finger chicken is the standard and goes to the henhouse to perform her matronly duties.  She is a soldier in the trenches, reliable and productive.  She is the backbone of the egg machine.

Perhaps somewhere there is a four-finger chicken.  He who owns a four-finger chicken is blessed.  Egg producers dream of the four- finger chicken.  A four-finger chicken could name its price in any henhouse in America.  This is what I learned in chicken judging.  We went to the district meet, flexing our fingers, filled with competitive fire.

The top three teams would qualify for state.  Since we had not yet been in a competition with more than three teams, we were confident.  There were four teams and we finished fourth.  Mr. Schmid looked sadly at us and we hung our heads.

I decided that farming was not my vocation and told Mr. Schmid that I would not be taking Vo-Ag my senior year, nor be a member of FFA.  His face cleared, the furrows smoothed from his brow, he became expansive.  “My boy,” he said, “what are your plans?”

“I dunno,” I mumbled.  “Maybe become a writer or something….”

“Good!  Good!” he exclaimed expansively.  “Good!”  He wandered off to a small group of freshmen who were wearing their new blue FFA jackets.  Mr. Schmid had spent his life talking above the roar of tractors and was slightly deaf.

“That boy and his friends judged chickens,” he bellowed in what he thought was a whisper.  “Only chicken judges I ever had.”  Their eyes slewed toward me, as if they were looking at a two-headed calf.

I knew there would be no more chicken judges at Keytesville High School, that Vo-Ag at my high school had crossed a low water bridge and would not return by the same route.


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  • Blog
  • July 14th, 2013

The Kiss

By Joel M. Vance

She was slim and elegant, in a rust-colored knit dress.  I mumbled and fumbled and imitated the vintage Mortimer Snerd.  Her name was Martha Lou Leist and she was a blind date, arranged by a friend.  Everyone called her Marty.

She has been my wife for 57 years and counting, but in the spring of 1956 she was a mystery package wrapped in a knit dress.

Her father was not around when I stopped to pick her up so I didn’t have to endure a paternal inquisition, feeling like a field mouse penned up with a black rat snake but her mother and I endured an awful minute or two making small talk, something that, in 1956, I was no better at than I would have been at explanation if I were a soldier who had projectile vomited on  Gen. George Patton’s shoes.

I’m sure Vangie, who would become a dubious mother-in-law, thought her daughter had, through a dreadful twist of fate, been linked for the evening with someone on work release from a school for the mentally challenged.

Amybook59Marty drifted into their front room and I gulped because she shimmered.  You’ve seen old black-and-white movies where they filmed the ingénue through a lens coated with Vaseline, giving the lady a hazy, shimmering glow?  That’s the way Marty appeared to me.  She seemed to float through the room, much as did the vintage Glinda, the Good Witch of Oz.

Billie Burke, who played Glinda, had a distinctive voice and so did Marty.  Marty’s voice was throaty, unlike that of so many girls of then and now who talk through their noses.  I didn’t know right off if this was THE Girl of My Dreams, but she certainly was a waking moment of consequence.

I hadn’t seen or met her before the date.  I went to Keytesville High School and she graduated from Macon High School.   The only time the two schools had interacted was during a basketball game.  Keytesville won.  Marty was a cheerleader, but I hadn’t noticed her, concentrating instead on mind control over my coach so he would put me in the game.

He didn’t and the two teams went their separate ways.

Now it was four years later and Marty was a junior at the University of Missouri, majoring in education, and I was a senior, majoring in journalism.  My parents had moved from Dalton, near Keytesville, to a log lodge just outside Macon after I graduated from high school.

I knew no one when I came home on weekends or during summer vacation.  And I was entirely too shy to haunt Louie’s, which was the local soda fountain/hangout for my contemporaries.  Louie’s featured a sliced pork sandwich called a Pig Hip which Marty fixes today, six decades later.  Invariably it upsets my stomach–either an innocent physical reaction or a Freudian enteric.

Our house was across the road from the Macon Lake, a large reservoir holding both the town’s water supply and a bounty of bass and bluegills.  So on weekends home I fished and fantasized about meeting the girl of my dreams.  That it was unlikely to happen on the shores of Macon Lake didn’t occur to me.  I was more likely to meet some grizzled local fisherman who chewed Day’s Work and needed a shave. I didn’t know what my dream girl would look like or be like, but she had to be someone who could put up with my incredible gaucherie.  I had a wealth of college knowledge, but my practical experience with life and love was at the day school level.

John Zollman was a college acquaintance who hailed from Macon.  I complained that, being a recent émigré to Macon I didn’t know anyone and spent my weekends at home much as I spent them when I didn’t go home—alone and lonesome.

John got tired of my whining and said he knew a girl who maybe would go out with me since she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend or so he had heard.  I slobbered on him like an eager puppy, begging him to set up a blind date for me.  We could double date and I’d even provide the car (praying that my father would agree and that I could rid the car of farm detritus and the hairy fallout from the family dog before I picked up my mystery date).

The timing was serendipity—Marty indeed had been going with the same fellow for years, but had given him the boot only days before John asked her to accept a blind date with a guy he knew.  “My boyfriend was fooling around with other women,” Marty says.  “I’d finally had enough of it and told him I didn’t want to see him again.  He’d been drinking too—he was drunk when I told him.  It’s what killed him finally.  Some people said he drank because I left him, but he was drinking before I left him, so I don’t believe it.  It was his problem, not mine.”

The boyfriend, whom I never met, would turn a puffy middle-age and die young.  Today I shudder to think of what my life would have been had she not accepted that blind date and instead married her longtime beau.  Or, for that matter, what her life would have been.

John returned from a weekend in Macon and said it was a done deal.  I quizzed him about this girl he knew.  “She’s really nice,” he said.  That, of course, could mean anything from “She darns her own socks,” which was a chauvinistic euphemism of the times for a girl who was not attractive, to “She’s neat,” which did not mean she darned her own socks but that she was, in today’s lingo, a stone fox.

“She’s really nice” sounded encouraging, but not entirely reassuring.  I wondered what John Joel 1956had told Marty about me: “I don’t think he darns his own socks” was a possibility or “He’s really nice” which probably was a stretch and no more encouraging when said about a boy than about a girl.

In a sense, both of us were on a rebound date.  She had dumped her beau and I was bouncing a from an infatuation with a girl from Oklahoma, whom I had met while at R.O.T.C. summer camp at Ft. Sill.  That girl had recently sent me a letter announcing that while I was a really nice guy she didn’t love me and never would.

I didn’t really love her either I realized after a period of pouting.  Rejection never is fun, even if it means the end of what was, at best, a casual relationship.  And a long-range romance between a girl who didn’t love me and lived 600 miles away was doomed from the start.  I could not woo her with my guitar and stock of sappy love ballads which, to that date, no girl had requested anyway.

Long-range romance seemed to be my specialty.  I’d had a few dates with a cute girl before the end of my junior year, but she transferred to Southern Methodist University before the start of my senior year and that was the end of yet another short-term relationship.  At least I knew my upcoming date with the Macon girl wouldn’t end with her being in some Southwestern state while I stayed in Missouri.  Macon was 90 miles away, not 900.  Although with no car home might as well have been 900 miles away most of the time.

I’d already written an unpublished novel or two, based on my vast knowledge of the human condition, and I fantasized that Martha Leist and I were like two strangers orphaned by a storm of love, adrift in a sea of uncertainty (and yes, that’s the goofy romanticism that I was prone to).  We each were ready for new encounters (or I was—I couldn’t speak for her, at least until I’d met her).

So I buttoned my blue Sears and Roebuck oxford-cloth shirt with the button-down collars, tucked it into a pair of cords, pulled on a genuine imitation cashmere black v-neck sweater and slipped into blue suede shoes.  They were shiny on the toes where they had worn smooth and I buffed ineffectually at them with a wire brush trying to raise some sort of nap.   I also buffed ineffectually at my crew cut which stuck up at odd angles, like a sheep sheared by a five-year-old.  I was Joe College, home for a big date with a home town girl, but looking more like L’il Abner, adrift on an Ivy League campus.

Who knew what the night would bring?  In my mind was the hope that it would end in a thrash of passion, but the odds were against it.  None of my other dates had.  Still….

The culmination of most dates, at least in the mind of the boy, was to spend some time on a secluded country road “necking.”  I’m not sure where that euphemism came from, since the neck was among the least important body parts involved, but that’s what we called it.  “Kissy-face,” “swapping spit,” and “licky-face” were other unsavory descriptions of what usually was much kissing, accompanied by hand wrestling.  It was a revelation to many boys, including me, that girls were far stronger than I thought they were.  The tiniest slip of a maiden could arm wrestle a fairly hefty date to the mat if he tried to put his hands in unwanted places.

Double dating in the 1950s was a comparatively chaste affair.  If you were the couple in the rear seat you had a certain measure of privacy, but in the front one of the couple was the driver which limited passion while the car was moving, and also there was the awareness that just behind you two people could see and hear everything you did.

Blessed was he who had a gearshift on the steering column because the floor shift was as large an impediment to lust as a chastity belt.  A stalwart young lad’s aim was to inveigle his date to the back seat where, it was alleged, incredible events were possible.  Of course if there already was a couple in the back seat that option was out.

Only once did I entice a girl into the back seat of the family Ford.  She was a couple of years younger and I argued briefly with myself, the Good Angel snarling, “Cradle robber!” and the Bad Angel responding, “Shut up, you troublemaker!”

We parked on a gravel road somewhere north of Dalton, not far from her home, and I suggested a little drink.  I had a half-pint of some really cheap whiskey that an older boy had bought for me, remembering Ogden Nash’s adage that “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”  I took a little sip of the awful stuff, gagging slightly, my eyes watering, and offered the bottle to her.

She recoiled as if I were proffering a timber rattler and exclaimed, “No!”  I thankfully put the bottle away since I would rather have swigged vinegar, and suggested we move to the back seat.  To my utter amazement (and instant trepidation), she said, “Okay.”

Whatever the other advantages of our aging Ford, none was more apparent that night than its efficient heater.  So wrapped up in my approach strategy was I that I didn’t realize the heater was spouting enough British Thermal Units to melt the polar ice cap.  She was hot, all right, but not in the sexual sense.  I think she just wanted to get away from the roaring furnace under the dashboard.

Since it was about 20 degrees outside we opted to clamber over the front seat back, as suave a maneuver as a thunderous belch during a religious moment of silence.  She was wearing a prom dress that had about 75 yards of stiff crinoline under the long skirt so it rode up like sea foam on a tsunami.

There we were in the back seat and we looked at each other (I could barely see her over the tidal wave of crinoline), her at me with the apprehensive intensity of a jacklighted deer, me with a leer that was supposed to be reassuring, but probably came across as the rictus of someone with severe gastroenteritis.  I slid closer to her, batting down the crinoline like someone fighting his way through a pickup load of cotton candy.

We kissed awkwardly and unsatisfyingly—both our lips were dry and it was like rubbing two sheets of sandpaper together.  Enough foreplay I thought.  Let’s go for the gold!  I clawed at her bosom and she recoiled, batting my hand away.  I searched for something to say—some suave argument along the lines of “I’ll transport you to heights of passion you never dreamed possible!”

“Aw, common!” I whined.  Moonlight lit her face enchantingly as she quavered in response, “Do you love me?”

She might as well have thrown a bucket of pig slops on me.  Love?  I barely knew her.  My objectives were not the stuff of Milton, of Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Browning and Keats.  More like Henry Miller, Anais Nin or maybe Mickey Spillane (the only one of the three I’d actually read).

“Well…er…ah…gosh!” I said articulately.  “I mean I like you, but I have to be honest…I don’t love you…”  Thinking about it these many years later I still wonder whether it would have made any difference had I told her I loved her beyond the stars, that we were destined to be one, etc.

But I told the truth and she said, “Take me home” and I did and that was our only date.  On the way home I stopped and poured the whiskey out, shivering beside the idling Ford, while the winter stars glittered and the car radio played Patti Paige’s inane “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”

The bottom line was that I did have to be honest because in that instant when I could have crossed the line between truth and fiction I realized that this was a girl I’d known and liked for a long time and I couldn’t deceive her.

On that first double date, with John Zollman and his girl friend there was no possibility of a back seat encounter, nor did I want one.  In fact I was intimidated by this regal girl with a throaty voice.  We went to a movie, which neither of us remembers today, then to a roadhouse where the college crowd (and the local rednecks, male and female) gathered.  In the spirit of Midwestern mis-spelled beer joints, it was called the Moonwinx.

It was a quintessential Missouri roadhouse, parking lot crammed with cars, someone vomiting in the bushes at the edge of the lights, Webb Pierce lamenting lost love on the jukebox, smoke so thick you could sell it for cotton candy, the roar of conversation.

Marty’s warm hip nestled next to mine and the knit dress soaked up stale cigarette smoke like a sponge.  Kids I didn’t know came by and talked with Marty, John and Pat while I crouched uncomfortably in my corner of the booth.  I knew that everyone there was comparing me with her ex-boyfriend, probably unfavorably.  Thus is born paranoia.

I don’t know who suggested we leave, but it was a welcome idea, especially to me—I wanted to get away from those inquiring eyes.  We breathed deeply of the fresh air outside.  I drove by the lake to the log lodge where my parents had lived until they recently had moved to a tiny house a dozen miles away.  I made an inane joke about running out of gas right in my driveway as I drifted to a stop beside the silent, dark house.

“Nobody home,” I said.  “Actually my folks don’t live here anymore.”  I gestured to a small outbuilding.  “That’s where I used to write stories,” I said.  I described the inside as if it were a writer’s den, but the actuality it was more like a wolverine’s den.  I fiddled nervously with the radio, looking for romantic music, but could only find Ray Charles growling, “Come Back Baby!” with religious fervor.

There were murmurs from the back seat, rustling sounds as John and his date melded, and I gulped and took a deep breath.  Charles Boyer would not be acting like Mortimer Snerd.  I swallowed again, leaned toward Marty and kissed her without touching anything but her lips.  I remember that kiss as if it were yesterday.

Her lips were as soft as a down comforter on Christmas Eve and I inhaled a scent that, like fine wine hinted at summer and curing alfalfa hay and love.  Had Marty asked me at that moment, “Do you love me?”  I would have exclaimed, “Hell, yes!”Marty-Joel wedding

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  • Blog
  • July 5th, 2013

Bubble, Bubble, Toil But No Trouble

By Joel M. Vance

You might have found sourdough starter in Martha Washington’s kitchen on a frosty New England morning.  And, given loving care, starter from Martha’s time still could be enlivening some lucky baker’s kitchen.

You too can make a batch of sourdough pancakes with starter that conceivably was created by a frontier housewife, fending off Indian attacks with one hand and running a plow behind a horse with the other while she waited for the starter to ferment.

In its simplest form, sourdough is a mix of flour and water, although some recipes call for mashed potatoes or milk.  The key is the activation of natural yeasts and bacteria that convert sugars in the grain into lactic acid and carbon dioxide.  As an old advertising slogan goes, “Better Things Through Chemistry.”

The difference between commercial bread yeast and the wild yeasts of sourdough is that the commercial yeast can’t survive in an acid environment, while sourdough yeast thrives on it—thus non-sourdough breads don’t have the distinctive tang that gives sourdough its name (although true sourdough need not be sour—taste depends on the strain of yeast bacteria and other factors).

Ah, lovely baking smells arise from ingredients that have been around since long before Martha Washington rolled up her sleeves and prepared to fortify George with some hot biscuits.  Sourdough has been around at least since the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt and some say for six thousand years.

Because sourdough bakers reserve a small amount of each batch as “starter” for the next it’s possible Imhotep’s own starter could be providing baked goods for eager customers in a Cairo bistro today.  Perhaps Ponce de Leon, looking for the Fountain of Youth, didn’t realize it was sourdough starter he was after, not some mythical Florida spring.

The Boudin bakery in San Francisco has kept its sourdough starter alive since 1849.  Dried starter from Frisco and from Alaska is prized among sourdough bakers.   It’s no coincidence that Alaskan gold prospectors were nicknamed “sourdoughs.”  They enjoyed their risen bread as opposed to flatbreads with the consistency of a concrete block and even went so far, according to legend, as to store their container of starter in their longjohns to keep it from freezing.

Better not to think about the life history of starter dating from the Jack London era in Alaska.

While sourdough is foremost a baking concoction, some have used it for such diverse enthusiasms as tanning hides or glue.  Remember making “paste” out of flour and water in kindergarten?   Left alone, kindergarten paste is likely to become sourdough starter.   Most call the basic ingredient “starter,” but for some it’s “sponge.”  Apparently Kentuckians call sourdough “spook yeast” and use it to bake “spook bread.”

Sourdough aficionados use various containers to store their starter, but all agree that metal is a no-no.  The acids in the starter corrode all but stainless steel.  Some advocate a wooden bowl while others swear by earthenware crocks.  All reluctantly agree that plastic is acceptable but do it grudgingly, probably because Mrs. Davey Crockett didn’t use Tupperware.  Glass is okay if you’re not carrying it around in your underwear (if it breaks it could be disastrous).   All also agree that the top should be covered, but not sealed so that gas can escape.  Home brew is fond of blowing its cork, so to speak, and starter can do the same if tightly sealed.

Starter thrives at 75 degrees, basically room temperature.  Excessive heat will kill it and cold will send the microbes into dormancy—thus you can store starter in the refrigerator if you’re not using it (but warm it for an hour or so before you do).

Anything with the weight of history on it is bound to pick up myths and legends along the way.  Sourdough is no exception and perhaps the most intriguing myth, at least for guys, is that the use of sourdough starter rather than baking powder arose because guys believed baking powder was an anti-aphrodisiac.

No self-respecting macho frontiers man would give up his biscuits and gravy.  Enter sourdough starter, exit baking powder.

You can create sourdough starter just about anywhere by mixing flour and water and letting it stand at room temperature.  Bacteria and yeast molds in the flour and in the air begin their magic and pretty soon you have a bubbling cauldron that would have delighted the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…” except that the end result is delightful).

Some experiments suggest that it isn’t the wild yeasts and bacteria, but the ones already present in the grain; others insist that local invaders are absolutely essential for that certain something.  Sourdough is not without its controversy.  There is good evidence that certain regions have more delectable wild spores and germs than others and thus starters from Alaska or San Francisco are sought after.  Supposedly one Lower 48 restaurant paid big money for starter that dated to the Gold Rush days in Alaska.  And sourdough born in a brewery where beer yeasts are prevalent can produce some delectable baked goods.

But merely fermenting flour and water is no guarantee of a delicious starter.  The result may be as rank as a roadkilled skunk.  Better to rely on proven starter from reliable sources—there are plenty advertising on the internet.  Starter usually develops a yellowish fluid atop the white.  Just stir that back into the starter and bake away.

My friend Soc Clay, a Kentucky outdoor writer, has delved into the mystery of sourdough and has come up with a cookbook and a packet of time-tested starter that he dries and sells.  Autographed copies of Soc’s Mad Trapper Sourdough Baking–On the Rise Since the 1800s are $17.45 from The Catchall Press, 4240 Minmor Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45217 or by emailing him at, or calling him at 606-932-4126, or mailing him at PO Box 514, South Shore, KY 44175. 

You can make your own starter from a multiplicity of recipes on the internet.  If you’re in the mood to be overwhelmed, Google “sourdough starter” and you’ll come up with 331,000 references in one-twentieth of a second.  Google “sourdough recipes” and you can choose among 1,040,000 possibilities.

Soc dedicates his book to two old friends.  One is Sam Roberson “who supplied me with the current version of Mad Trapper Sourdough Starter.  Sam was a dedicated Alaskan who found the frozen North seventy years ago.”  Roberson lived in Tennessee now, but the blood of Alaska “coursed his veins.”  Roberson got the original Alaskan starter from Tom Landon more than a half-century ago.

Both sourdough and beer are creations of bacterial action–the fermentation of grain to create the end product.  Drink beer or eat sourdough pancakes and you are swallowing fungus and bacteria.  But don’t despair and call 911.  These are benign bugs and harmless (to humans) fungi and baking kills them.

The beautiful bugs and precious microplants have two purposes: 1. to add flavor to the baking.  The human tongue recognizes four “flavors”: sweet, bitter, salty and sour, (the soul of sourdough).  The yeasts convert sugars in flour into lactic acid, giving the starter its sourness.   And, 2. To leaven the baked item—that is, to create carbon dioxide bubbles which give baked goods their fluffy texture.

Eating unleavened bread can be like chewing a two-by-four.  Matzo bread, without a leavening agent, is the Hebrew substitute for leavened bread during Passover.  The custom of eating it comes from the flight of Israelites from Egypt in such haste that, according to the Bible, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise.  Eating unleavened bread is a form of homage to the life of servitude endured by Old Testament Hebrews.

But I suspect it wasn’t long after the Israelites settled down that they had sourdough starter working and risen bread in the oven–unleavened bread may be a culinary hair shirt, but enough is enough.  If there is any aroma guaranteed to activate the salivary glands, it’s that of baking bread.

Fresh-baked sourdough bread dipped in olive oil or slathered with butter is as good as food gets.  Bread baking is the epitome of sourdough magic and not all of us are Houdini in the kitchen.

In the interests of full disclosure, if I had baked a handle on it, my first loaf of sourdough bread could have been used for a curling stone.  The crust was virtually impenetrable with anything short of a jackhammer and the interior, while of good consistency, was tasteless.  Obviously sourdough bread baking takes some practice.  I turned to pancakes and had immediate success—one cup of starter, a tiny splash of cooking oil, one egg and a pinch of sugar, a pinch of baking soda, combined with just enough whole wheat flour to thicken the batter.  The cakes were thin and porous…and delicious.

Since, I’ve used starter to make cornbread which was just right—moist but firm, tasty and altogether delectable.  I’m zeroing in on breakfast biscuits now, with a side of country ham and each biscuit drizzled with honey.

And I’m thinking of taking up curling…..




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