Archive for April, 2014

  • Blog
  • April 27th, 2014

Beware The Ferocious Fungi

By Joel M. Vance

It was delicious, with an almost meat-like consistency and earthy flavor.  Just like the button mushrooms you get at the supermarket.  I savored the flavor and swallowed the mushroom.

Then my imagination kicked in.

Intellectually I knew better, but my imagination shouldered certainty aside and shouted, “What if you just ate a Destroying Angel!”  My throat went dry and my heart leaped.

I knew the inside of the cap I had eaten was pink which is supposed to identify a harmless meadow mushroom.  The gills were not the ghostly white of a deadly Amanita, terrifyingly called the Destroying Angel.  But what if I somehow had made a mistake?  What if I were suffering from a weird color blindness and white looked pink?  What if….

I knew just enough about mushroom poisoning for imagination to be my worst enemy.  I knew that if I had eaten a Destroying Angel my liver would liquefy and I would die screaming with my bird dogs around me, licking me and not understanding… and…oh, geez, what a dummy!  I’ll never eat mushrooms again! I vowed.  Just let me survive this one!

I did survive, of course.  It was a meadow mushroom, cousin of the familiar supermarket button mushroom, gathered from the wild, innocuous and tasty.  Many other mycological misfits have not been so lucky.  Every year across the country some folks die from eating poisonous mushrooms.  There are few mycologists who have not become ill from eating mushrooms and at least one nationally-recognized mushroom expert died from eating the wrong one.  Some react to mushrooms that would not affect most people.

Nicholas Evans, author of the immensely popular book The Horse Whisperer should have hoped that the horse would whisper back: “Don’t eat those mushrooms!”  Evans and his entire family nearly died from mushroom poisoning after snacking on Cortinarius speciosissimus an English killer mushroom which contains the same chemical time bomb as the more familiar Amanita family.  All suffered serious kidney damage and now undergo regular dialysis.

The telling point is that Evans is a forager of long standing and thought he knew what he was collecting and eating.  But the one that did him in, like so many deadly mushrooms, resembles an edible and choice species.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers gets reports of about 10,000 mushroom poisonings annually, of which a quarter are potentially life-threatening.  The Destroying Angel’s Latin name is Amanita phalloides and half a cap from one is enough to kill you.

Mycology sometimes seems on a par with alchemy, astrology and perhaps political science.  Experts agree on little except that if you swallow a bite of the Destroying Angel you’d better get your affairs in order.  Among the killer mushrooms are the Amanita virosa, Amanita verna, and the Angel, Amanita phalloides.  Minor differences among them become insignificant on an autopsy report.

A Cornell University web site has the most succinct and accurate description I’ve seen: “The Amanita are primarily identified by the presence of a universal veil completely covering immature mushrooms, a volva or cup around the base, a partial veil which may be in the form of a ring on the upper stalk, free to slightly attached white/cream colored gills, and a white spore print.

“Unfortunately, some of these identifying characteristics are delicate and can be removed by rain, wind or animals. This is only a major problem if you are trying to eat the edible Amanitas. It is essential that all the identifying markers be in place to differentiate between deadly Amanitas and edible ones. If after all this, you still insist on eating Amanitas, then you’re on your own!”

There are an estimated 70,000 mushroom species and of those perhaps 250 are edible and another 250 are poisonous.  Many of the rest are unidentified.  Mycologists live for identifying a new species and some live (or die) to test its edibility.

Mycologists are, like devotees of anything, fiercely dedicated to their avocation/vocation.  “You see evidence of hostility, a fear of mushrooms,” said Dr. Manny Salzman, a retired radiologist from Denver and a mushroom devotee.  “If you go to a park, it’s very common to find a mushroom kicked over. No one would ever think of kicking over a flower.”

I confess to having kicked over mushrooms, not through fear, but because they have a certain inherent kickability.  I also avidly search for the elusive morel in the springtime and will eat as many as I find—but morels are the easiest of all mushrooms to identify, the tastiest and the least likely to result in projectile vomiting.

Like most dangerous items, poisonous mushrooms are not all bad—they contribute to vegetative decay and thus to the forest floor ecology.  And, proving that one man’s poison is another creature’s meat, slugs and rabbits are unaffected by the Angel/Death Cap poison, just as buzzards are unaffected by anthrax and other toxins that would turn a human inside-out.  Is there, in the gut of a slug, the solution to biological warfare?

Mushrooms in their edible form are an economic benefit and in Wyoming a social one as well.  The prison honor farm at Riverton has developed a mushroom farm, raising edible portabella, button and crimini mushrooms that produces about 65,000 pounds a week.  Most of the nearly $200,000 raised annually by the program aids victim’s compensation, child welfare or Department of Corrections operating cost.

All three species are familiar to supermarket shoppers.  Some wild species, every bit as edible, have not been tamed, either because they can’t be farm raised or because their shelf life is so short.  Some edible varieties are harmless to almost everyone, with emphasis on “almost”.  Other fungi, even if edible, would turn a prospective diner off either by their appearance or their name (think of the Dog Vomit Slime Mold).

Even shaggy manes or morels, supposedly safe for everyone, have caused reactions in a few diners, though not fatal ones.  Inky cap mushrooms (of which the shaggy mane is one) are excellent eating but if you drink alcohol near the time you eat them you are likely to become ill.  The culprit is a chemical called coprine, similar to the drug Antabuse, used to treat alcoholics by making them ill when they drink.

The False Morel contains a chemical identical to one type of rocket fuel and will poison a person unless the mushroom is boiled at a high enough temperature to vaporize the “fuel.”  The Amanita muscaria contains a kind of human rocket fuel—it is the “magic mushroom,” used by some native tribes and by some counterculture types as an hallucinogen.  It will fly you to the moon faster than a Frank Sinatra ballad, but you’ll suffer a crash landing at the end.

Lewis Carroll apparently indulged in A. muscaria while writing Alice in Wonderland.  Given that the Mad Hatter probably was a victim of mercury then used in making hats, it’s a fair leap of logic to think the Dormouse was a proscribed chemical space cadet and the Cheshire Cat really didn’t fade away—it was Carroll himself who zoned out.

According to mushroom legend, a shaman would eat A. muscaria  and his tribe then would drink his urine– apparently the bad side effects of the mushroom are neutralized by the urine, but what neutralizes the bad side effects of drinking urine?

A. muscaria also can be used as a pesticide (its nickname is “fly agaric”).  Break small pieces into a shallow saucer of water.  Flies drink of the lethal brew, fly off in a fatal frenzy and die.  Flies and humans alike are well advised to stay away from the Amanita genus, even the ones that probably are safe.  “Probably” isn’t good enough.

There is no North American plant as deadly as the Angel, possibly no animal.  One mycologist claims more people have died of mushroom poisoning than have died from rattlesnake bites.  Certainly the fabled black widow spider is a venomous piker compared to virosa.

What makes the Angel so insidious is that it masquerades as other wonderfully edible mushrooms.  A young Angel may look like a young meadow mushroom or a young puffball, both often described as “edible and choice.”  All mushrooms in an area may not be of a single species.  You could find a little Amanita lurking among a flock of meadow mushrooms.

Ike Forester, president of the North American Mycological Association, said with unintentional irony, “What’s not to enjoy about wild mushroom hunting?  Sometimes you find a bounty of culinary prizes, high priced in the gourmet shops, and dinner can be an unbelievable experience.”  That last would make a fitting inscription on the tombstone of a gourmet who dined on the wrong mushroom.

The only sure preventive is to discard any unfamiliar mushroom.  Stick with morels or shaggy manes.  Let a competent mycologist check out any unfamiliar mushrooms you collect (although competent mycologists have become statistics themselves).  Alexander Smith, who literally wrote the book on mushrooms, The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide (University of Michigan Press, 1958), said “Those who do not intend to pursue the study of mushrooms beyond the scope of this book should never eat any of the edible Amanitas.  The dangers of a mistake are out of all proportion to the enjoyment of a new dish.”

What are the dangers from the most dangerous of the poisonous mushrooms?  Something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.  The Angel poison seems to last forever and there is no way to de-toxify the mushroom to make it safe to eat.

The poison is protein, composed of amino acids.  More than 95 percent of all mushroom fatalities involve Amanita mushrooms.  The cyclopeptide has two deadly agents, but the effects of neither show up until as much as 24 hours later, too late for a stomach pump or anything short of prayer.

By the time the first stomach pain, vomiting and distorted vision occurs, the poison is in the bloodstream and is besieging the liver.  The victim probably will survive the effects of the faster-acting poison, called phallotoxin, and may even think he is recovering.  Then the other agent, amatoxin, sets in and lasts for several agonizing days.  Death rate is estimated from five to 40 percent or more and even survivors may have permanent organic damage.

There are a number of treatments, none of which is surefire, and the most dramatic and last-ditch is a liver transplant.  Disregard any old wives’ tales about how you can tell poisonous mushrooms from their peace-loving cousins or how you can de-toxify a lethal one.  None are true. For example, silver coins or spoons do not necessarily change color if a poisonous mushroom is in the pot.

It’s possible to get a handle on mushroom identification by making a spore print.  Mushrooms propagate by spores.  To make a print, cut the cap of a collected mushroom in two pieces, moisten each and put one piece on a sheet of dark paper, gill side down.  Put the other piece on a sheet of light paper.  Cover each piece with a drinking glass to hold in moisture.

In a couple of hours the mushroom should have deposited enough spores on the papers to show color.  Amanitas invariably have white spores which would show up on the dark piece of paper.  Other mushrooms, depending on species, may have pink or rusty brown or purple spores.  Colored spores in no way guarantee edibility—any mushroom, like peanuts and dairy products, can be toxic to someone with an allergy.

Mushroom poisoning goes back a long way.  Euripides wrote of a mother, daughter and two sons “destroyed by pitiless fate” after they ate mushrooms and “strangled by eating of them.”  The Roman emperor Claudius, stepfather of Nero, supposedly succumbed to an Amanita.

Let‘s hope it would be less dramatic and disgusting than the remedy espoused by Nicander of Colophon who wrote of a potion that contained, among other things, the dung of a domestic fowl, after the downing of which you stick your finger down your throat and “vomit forth the baneful pest.”  I’ll bet!

It’s estimated there are more than two million as-yet-unidentified fungi giving mycologists plenty of room for discovery, experimentation and the potential to become a statistic.

Caution is the key word.  Don’t eat unfamiliar mushrooms or any about which there is any doubt.  Discard old or frost-bit specimens.  Better yet, stick with ones you absolutely know are harmless and keep your imagination in check.

Remember, the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap were not named out of affection.  They have been proving their right to the names for thousands of years.




Read More
  • Blog
  • April 13th, 2014

Trophy Fish

By Joel M. Vance

My Uncle Al wasn’t imaginative enough to nickname the pike—calling it Scarface, for example.  To him it was just “that goddam fish!” but he was obsessed by it.

It was a northern pike he had hooked and lost twice, a pike of a size not seen by him or any other Birch Lake angler in many years, certainly not in his considerable lifetime.  It was an anomaly, a throwback to the pioneer days before Birch Lake was invaded by armies of modern anglers, armed with the fishing industry’s latest technological weapons.

Pike of that size in the early days had to worry about a few Ojibwas with rudimentary spears or, somewhat later, a few white anglers with Tru Temper steel rods, Pflueger Supreme reels and braided line that often was rotten enough to break with a sharp tug.

The big northern sulled in the weedbeds around Penny Island and had a whitish scar running across its forehead, perhaps from a gaff that missed or from who knows what.  Maybe even a fish spear just missing through a hole chopped in the thick ice during the winter.

It had been there for a long time, gaining length and weight and the scars of battle.  Al figured it would run upwards of 35 pounds and, while he made a fair sideline income from guiding tourist-anglers, he carefully avoided guiding them anywhere near the haunts of the big fish.

He didn’t want anyone catching that fish but him.  Fortunately for Al the day had passed when the trophy anglers invaded the lake.  Virtually all of today’s fisherpeople, including the ones Al guided, were after bluegills and lake perch, small fish in abundance.  Rarely did anyone venture through the Narrows into the wide part of the lake where Penny Island crouched almost unnoticed.

The monster pike lurked around a weedbed on the far side of the tiny island.  Al would approach the weedbed with the caution of an errant husband sneaking to an assignation—fearful that an alert fellow angler would ferret out his secret and beat him to the huge fish.  Not that it would be easy, even if you knew where the mighty fish lay.  Trophy fish don’t get that way by being dumb.

But in one of his rare generous moments Al took the Methodist minister fishing on a Saturday afternoon, figuring to earn some afterlife points which anyone who knew him would agree that he needed.  In the spirit of Christian charity (and because he figured the minister was not much of an angler), he drifted near the Penny Island weedbeds.  And, wouldn’t you know it, on the good reverend’s very first cast there was a brutal strike and the Holy Rod bowed as if in genuflection.

“Got a big one!” cried the minister, reeling furiously as the fish bore toward the boat, intent on sawing itself off on any sharp protrusion.

As the big fish circled the stern of the inelegantly-nicknamed Birch Lake Bitch, Al saw the telltale white scar on the big fish’s head and realized that his personal Holy Grail was about to come home to Jesus, not to him.  Heaven can wait, he told himself grimly as he surreptitiously reached down with his filet knife and sliced the line just above the leader.  “Ah, geez, reverend!” he exclaimed.  “He cut the line on the motor!  Hell…I mean, heck of a bum deal!”

The minister, to his credit, did not say any of the things Al would have said in similar circumstances, murmuring only, “Ah, well, the Lord moves in mysterious and sometimes painful ways.  Perhaps I wanted it too much.”

His sermon the next day concerned the sin of coveting.  Al, in the very back of the church more out of curiosity (and a niggling sense of shame) listened as the preacher cautioned against breaking the Tenth Commandment and Al substituted “catch” for “covet” and added “fish” to “neighbor’s wife, house, male servant and ass.”  He glanced up as he left the church and murmured, “Sorry.”

It was a week later when retribution, whether divine or not, visited Al in the Bluegill Bar.  He had gone fishing early in the afternoon and near sunset he hooked into a nice northern near Snake Island.  It proved to be the biggest pike of the season, a 15-pounder—far from his scarfaced obsession, but a nice pike nonetheless and one worth showing off at the Bluegill Bar.  Al figured bragging up his fish before he took it home and filleted it was worth a few free beers from his bar rag buddies.

The Bluegill was an old building faced with lake rocks that looked more like glacial till than a building front.  The heavy wooden door bore the patina of a quarter century of winters and summers and the abrasions of a zillion thirsty patrons.  The interior was dimly lit and so were most of the people inside.

When Al brought his pike inside the buzz stopped instantly, save for the oompah stomp of Frankie Yankovic on the jukebox.  “Holy hammers, Al!” boomed one of his grizzly compadres.  “Hell of a fish!  That calls for a brew!”  Of course virtually anything called for a brew at the Bluegill, but Al had been right that the northern was worth some free Bruenig’s Lager.  Even Olaf Swenson, the bartender, bought him one on the house.

Some time later, warmed by the glow from four Bruenig’s, Al made the mistake of his life, not that he hadn’t made more than the average share of big mistakes to that point.  But no previous error would prove as dream-shattering as what happened after he agreed to guide the beefy loudmouth tourist in the ridiculous shirt and baggy shorts.

“You the guy that caught that big fish!”  The booming voice belonged to a large, fleshy man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts that looked big enough to entertain a circus.  He was the antithesis of anybody Al normally would have wanted to socialize with.  But Al was flush with good humor created by the fish and the beer.  At that moment he was unusually benevolent and he smiled and nodded.

“Hell of a fish,” man said.  He plopped down in a chair, uninvited, and said, “Name’s Brewster Mulligan. We got a bet over there,” he said, nodding toward a table with several other obvious tourist types.  “They bet me I can’t catch a pike worth bragging about.  You ever guide?”

Al began to nod yes, squinted at the sweating, florid foreigner, had second thoughts and was poised to say no when Mulligan added, “I’d pay you a gob to take me out.  I just wanna rub them guys’ noses in it.   Tell you what, we got a hundred bucks bet that I can’t catch a pike as big as that one you just brought in…and I’ll split it with you if you can put me on a big northern.”

The mention of fifty dollars tied Al’s tongue.  He was congenitally short of funds.  And his usual guiding rate was $25 a day.  The fat guy was offering double pay.  Al’s bar tab, always looming, was approaching the point where Olaf would demand payment or cut off his Bruenig’s pipeline, an event not to be contemplated.  It was a no brainer.

“Ain’t no guarantees,” Al said.

“I don’t buy anything without a guarantee,” Mulligan said.  “Bad business.”  It sounded like a joke, but Mulligan didn’t laugh.  He frowned, sweating in the thick beer and smoke atmosphere of the Bluegill Bar.  Once again Al had second thoughts but the appearance of another bottle of Bruenig’s, sweating and cold, eased his concern.

They shook on it—the large man’s sweaty, soft palm, and Al’s horny old hand. Al wiped his hand on his overalls. They would meet in the morning at the town dock where Al moored his ancient wooden boat.

The beefy man said, “You can call me Mr. Mulligan, now that you’re working for me.”  It sounded like a joke, but Al heard a hard note in the man’s voice that made him once again wish he’d turned the guy down.  But a deal’s a deal and fifty bucks is roughly 3.5 cases of Bruenig’s Lager.

The next morning was overcast with enough breeze to stir the lake surface.  Al was gassing his old Johnson outboard when Mulligan appeared, hauling a casting rod and a tacklebox the size of a boxcar.  He threw both in the boat and said, “Let’s get this show on the road.  I got a buffalo-sized hangover and I don’t need a bunch of crap.”  He pulled a pint of Old Forester from his pocket, blew like a spavined horse and uncapped it.  The glugging sound the booze made as he chugged from it was audible in the back of the Bitch where Al fiddled with the outboard.

Great way to start the day, Al thought.  Nice guy. Al’s geriatric outboard coughed a few times, but then it had had a catarrhal condition for years.  They set out and Al trolled along Birch Lake’s shoreline for a while, but knew that the shallows across the lake held more promise for a pike angler.  And the money was more or less conditional on Mulligan catching a bragging size (and bet-winning size) northern.

The Bitch wallowed across the main body of the lake toward Snake Island.  “This is where I caught that pike last week,” he said. Mulligan snarled his reel almost hopelessly on his first cast.

“Goddam it!” he yelled.  “If you’d get the damn boat where it oughta be that wouldn’ta happened!”  He picked fretfully at the mess and then threw the rod in disgust toward Al.  “Here,” he snarled.  “I’m payin’ you—you fix it!”  Al, glowering but silent, mindful of his guide’s fee, pulled endless loops from the buggered reel.

Finally he managed to free the tangles and reel the line tight to the spool.  He tightened the drag slightly and handed it back to Mulligan who was busy knocking back another slug from his pint.  Al noticed that the formerly full pint was about half gone.  Either he had taken a long time to free the reel or the guy was a speed drinker.  Al wouldn’t have minded a belt himself, but he would rather give up drinking than beg for a bump from a human moose flop like this guy.

“Gotta keep your thumb on it or she’ll backlash every time,” Al said, as mildly as he could, although he wanted to jam the rod, reel and all, where the sun rarely if ever shined.

“Yeah, right,” Mulligan muttered.  “You just keep the boat where it oughta be and I’ll take care of the fishing.”  He took another hefty hit from his pint and wiped a meaty hand across his mouth.  “Don’t need no hick tellin’ me how to fish,” Al heard Mulligan and he took a deep breath and thought of a phrase he had heard on the “Law and Order” television show—“justifiable homicide.”

Al maneuvered the boat along the shore, nursing the five-horse Johnson like a conductor’s baton.  Mulligan’s next cast overshot the shoreline by five yards and nailed an overhanging birch tree.  Mulligan hauled on the rod like a man possessed.  “Come loose you rotten son….!” he snarled.  With a muted pop and hiss the line parted and the rod sprang to attention.  Fifty feet away the red-and-white Dardevle swayed in the birch tree.  “Well, if that isn’t the goddamndist….you got too damn close to the bank, dammit!”

Al was increasingly less mindful of his guide’s fee and more mindful of the penalty for premeditated murder.  Still, he figured a jury of Birch Lakers, given the circumstances, would not only exonerate him, but set him up at the Bluegill Bar for ridding the world of a nuisance.  He sighed and vowed to guide only women, mousy little men and kids from now on.

They were drifting across the narrows toward Penny Island, but Uncle Al figured this guy couldn’t even hit the water with a bad cast, much less a good one.  Mulligan had opened his mammoth tackle box, and slipped the trays wide out, exposing more lures than Al had seen in his lifetime.

Mulligan picked out a River Runt, bristling with treble hooks, and a new steel leader.  He tied the leader on and snapped the Runt to it.  Meanwhile, Al drifted with the current which would take him around the end of Penny Island and toward the lee shore where, perhaps Mulligan could cast into weedy shallows without hooking himself, Al or a passing airplane.

The antique Johnson outboard coughed, sputtered and died.  Wavelets slapped against the boat.  As Al bent over his tubercular old outboard, Mulligan resumed slopping awkward casts toward Penny Island.

“Holy Jesus!” Mulligan shouted.  “I got one!”  Al looked up from the defunct outboard and with the prescience born of a lifetime of fishing knew instantly that Mulligan had hooked his scarfaced fish.  He instantly fumbled for his filet knife.  If he couldn’t cut the line somehow, he was halfway prepared to use the knife on Mulligan.  The idea that this obnoxious outlander could steal his trophy was unimaginable.

But there would be no surreptitious cutting of the line this time—Mulligan did the unthinkable.

As the huge fish made a dive to go under the boat, Mulligan countered with a mighty heave that brought the fish out of the water like a Polaris missile…and into the boat, filled with pike rage.  The fish landed in Mulligan’s lap and thrashed demonically, teeth and treble hooks flashing.

Mulligan howled and fell over backward into his open tackle box.  Al watched horrified as his client screamed in pain, a 35-pound northern clubbing his vital parts in front and a confusion of sharp hooks assaulting his backside.  “Get him off me!” Mulligan screamed.  Al had subdued many an active northern, but not one this big and not one this active.  He wanted no part of it.

Mulligan managed to push the fish into the bow of the boat long enough to squirm around and reach in the tackle box.  Al noticed that his butt bristled with lures, all with one or more hooks imbedded in Mulligan’s ample flesh.  Mulligan came out with a .45 caliber pistol and before Al could shout a warning, emptied the gun into the pike…and the Bitch, which began spouting water from a half-dozen holes in its bottom.

Quiet returned to Birch Lake.  Mulligan sprawled across the bow seat groaning in pain, his multi-hooked butt in the air.  The dead pike lay in the bow which gradually was filling with water.  “Jesus!” Al breathed, wishing he could emulate the Savior and hike to town atop the waves, leaving the whole mess behind.

It took more than a half hour of improvising stoppers for the bullet holes and bailing before the Bitch once again was seaworthy.  Mulligan spent the entire time cursing Al, the boat, the fish and his rotten luck.  Somehow the entire episode had become Al’s fault.  “If you’da done your job…shoulda known better than goin’ with some hick….get these goddam hooks outa me….what the hell’s the matter with you!”   And so on.

Al began to regret that Mulligan had emptied the gun because it left no bullets for him to use on the loudmouth.  He gave Mulligan a mirthless grin, looking remarkably like the toothy pike.  “You got your big fish,” he said between clenched teeth.  “What’s your complaint?”

“Damned if I’m gonna pay for this!” Mulligan yelled.

Al sat back in the stern and said, “Fine—you can walk home then.”

Mulligan pointed the empty pistol at Al, then realized he was out of ammo, made as if to lunge toward Al and howled in pain as the myriad Pikie Minnows, River Runts, Dardevles and Bass-Orenos reminded him of their presence.  “Just get me to a doctor!” he snarled, turning to hug the seat in front of him.

Al snapped his grimy fingers.  “Money,” he said.  There was a long moment of standoff until Mulligan realized that he couldn’t win.  “Here!” he snarled, painfully extracting his billfold.  “Take your goddam money!”

Al tried to hit every wavelet en route to the Town Dock, each time jarring Mulligan who was folded frontward over the bow seat, his looming backside pointed toward Al.  Al eased the boat to the dock and tied it off.  “I’ll go get somebody to take you up to the doc,” he said.

“You better hurry or I’m gonna sue your ass!” Mulligan snarled.  “Worthless old bastard!”

Al gimped up Main Street to the Bluegill Bar and pushed through the creaking door into the dim interior.  There were only a couple of grizzled potato farmers, moodily nursing longneck Bruenig’s Lagers.  Dust motes swirled in the hazy sunlight filtering through the dirty windows.  The geriatric ceiling fan squeaked rhythmically as it stirred the stale, beer-flavored air in the bar.

“Gimme a draw and a shot,” Al said to Olaf Swenson.  He plopped down on a barstool and rubbed at his stubbly jaw.  “Jesus, what a day!” he growled.

He threw back the shot and followed it with a gulp of beer. He brooded over the empty shot glass. “How about can I use your phone?” he asked.  Olaf set the bar phone in front of him and Al looked at it with sour distaste, as if he thought it might bite.

“You got a hot date, Al?” Olaf asked.  “Or tryin’ to get one?”

Al thought of the lost pike, the slob who had stolen his fish, the man now sprawled over the bow seat of the Birch Lake Bitch with a covey of treble hooks buried in his ample butt, the trophy pike drying and dull in front of him.  It was a mental picture that brought a momentary frisson of pleasure to Al’s otherwise glum mood.

But then Al realized he likely never would see a live fish as big and as desirable as the one the loudmouthed stranger had stolen from him and that blackened his mood once more.  “You gonna use the phone, Al?” Olaf asked.

“No big hurry,” Al said, knocking back the rest of his beer.  “Gimme another shot and a beer.  I got all the time in the world.”


Read More
  • Blog
  • April 6th, 2014

Play a Little Song

By Joel M. Vance

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

It was enough to cause war with Sweden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” Rusty asked, standing over me.  I moaned.

“You’ll be okay,” he said.  “It hurts like hell, but nobody ever broke the family jewels with a knuckleball.”  Now at least I knew what the lethal weapon was called.  The overwhelming ache eased enough that I felt measurably less like vomiting my socks.

“Want to learn how to throw it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I groaned, mopping cold sweat off my brow.  “There’s a lot of people I’d like to castrate.”

I found that the knuckleball is a phenomenon that mocks the laws of physics.  Some drop, some fade, some do both.  Some actually rise.  Wind and probably atmospheric conditions influence the diversity and magnitude of the action.

With only five trains a day, Rusty had plenty of spare time to teach me how to throw a knuckleball.  Every so often there was some mysterious signal that meant Rusty would have to tap an assortment of clicks on the telegrapher’s key.  Somehow this meant something to someone and prevented the Soo Line trains from running into each other or off the rails into the remote swamps of the Blue Hills.

But I found that throwing a knuckler was not Rusty’s only accomplishment.  One day he commented that my fast ball was stinging his hand enough that it would swell and he couldn’t finger a G-chord on his guitar.

He was kidding about the fast ball which had all the zip of a baby’s patty-cake pat, but I begged him to play something for me.  He showed me some simple chords and picking patterns and I was enthralled.  He had an old Martin 00-17 guitar, a mahogany-topped little instrument with a voice as mellow as hickory woodsmoke.

The strings cut into my fingertips and the frets buzzed when I tried to hold the chords down.  The heel of my hand ached unbearably.  “You’ll get it.  It takes a while to develop calluses,” Rusty said.  He took the guitar and picked out a bawdy song called “Candyman Blues,” and I had him write out the words.  I figured that if I couldn’t sing “There Stands the Glass” just like Webb Pierce without being laughed out of town, maybe lyrics like “His good sweet candy don’t melt away/Just keeps getting’ better, so the ladies say…” would hold the audience.  Among my crowd it didn’t matter how well you sang, it was how dirty the song was.

After I heard Rusty’s blues I decided I should have been born a Negro.  I bought a guitar for $25 at the Rice Lake hock shop and Rusty said I’d made a good buy. It was an old, simple and worn Gibson flat top, but it had a warm, rich tone and the action was good—low and easy on my fingers.

I was cautious about being seen with a guitar, even by Debbie Miller, my longtime best friend and girl friend.  Partly it was because I wanted to surprise her one night with a serenade.  Since our dustup over horses and Becky Ann Garner, I was leery of throwing pebbles at the windows of my beloved(s) and figured a guitar might have more impact than a rock, at least emotionally.

“Can you teach me that ‘Candyman’ thing?” I asked Rusty. Debbie would think I was a man of the world if I sang that beneath her window some night.  It never occurred to me what her father might think.  He considered me the world’s Number One Daughter Molester.  He didn’t realize I had Debbie so far up on a pedestal that I couldn’t have pawed her with my grubby hands if I’d wanted to.

So Rusty showed me a long A-chord and up-the-neck slides and I struggled with it as if I were wrestling a bull calf to earth for castration.  Maybe Gene Autry had de-nutted some bull calves after all.

Gradually the guitar submitted and I sounded halfway decent.  I practiced behind our cow shed, singing to the heifers, which seemed to enjoy it.  My father came home early one day and heard the faint sound of signing and tracked it down.  He rounded the corner of the cow shed to behold his only child, his gift to history, his legacy for the future of the world, singing “True Love” to a moon-eyed young female Guernsey cow.

“Jesus H. Christ!” he exclaimed.  “What’s going on!”  And then he hastily added, “Nevermind—I don’t want to know.”

My mother was more appreciative.  “You have a good voice,” she said.  “It would be nice if you’d sing in church some Sunday.”

In front of a crowd!  I thought in alarm.  Sooner strip buck naked!  “They’d laugh!” I said.

“No, they wouldn’t,” she replied.  “They’d love it.”  I told her I didn’t know any hymns and she said that didn’t matter.  “Just any nice song.”  “Candyman” clearly was out.  As broadminded as the Presbyterians were I suspected that would be a clearcut Sabbath violation.  I said I’d think about it.  The more I did the more the lure of the greasepaint increased.  A captive crowd filled with Christian forgiveness!   How could I go wrong even if I went wrong?

One evening Debbie invited me for supper.  I was reluctant to beak bread with Mr. Miller who always seemed more interested in perhaps breaking some of my more important limbs than he was in breaking bread with me.  Mr. Miller was sorry that the practice of castrating males as harem guards and opera singers had gone out of vogue.  He considered anyone who looked at his daughter as a candidate for fixing.

He waited until I shoved a fresh baby beet in my mouth, and then asked, “You working this summer?”  I gnawed frantically at the beet, which slipped around in my mouth like a ball bearing.  Beet juice dribbled out of my mouth, giving me the appearance of someone hemorrhaging.  Finally I swallowed some of the sharp little vegetable pieces and croaked, “Don’t have a job.  Playing baseball.”

“Humph!” he snorted.  “Didn’t have time for games when I was your age.”

“Oh, Daddy, leave him alone,” Debbie said and Mr. Miller retreated into his cave growling, like a bear with a painful fecal plug.  Mrs. Miller smiled and flustered at me, a mama robin.

“More beets?” she asked.  She passed me plates one-by-one, giving me another as fast as I shuffled the first one along.  I had little time to eat—too busy refusing further helpings.  She seemed worried that I would not like her cooking or perhaps that I was not getting enough to eat at home.

“You’d better have some more meat,” she said, passing another plate.  “You barely took any.  Is it all right?”  I tried to nod yes and no at the same time—yes, the meat was all right and, no, I didn’t want any more.  My head bobbled like one of those obnoxious rear car window animals.  Mr. Miller glowered at me.  Mrs. Miller fluttered.  Debbie ate steadily, like a longshoreman, great heaps of food.  I was awed at her capacity for food.  Where did she put it and why didn’t it add an ounce to her trim figure?

She was intent on her eating, studying the array of food on her plate as if it were a scientific experiment, fork poised.  I’d never seen anyone eat with such fierce concentration.

We went to one of the rare movies at the Rialto that didn’t feature John Wayne and afterwards Debbie ate a cheeseburger and fries at Bamburger’s and topped it off with a chocolate sundae.  I was awestruck and wondered about my ability to feed her if we got married, which was the unspoken likelihood of our relationship.

I continued to visit Rusty at the railroad station and when we weren’t working on my knuckle ball we were working on guitar chords, especially the seventh of the F-position, a great, sprawling thing like a spider on the fretboard.  I finally managed to grab a few of the six possible notes.  “Let the rest go,” Rusty said.  “What the hell, you don’t need all those notes anyway.”

He hired me as his assistant (I now could tell Mr. Miller that I did have a job, although I doubted it would change his opinion of me as a slavering pervert).  It was an arrangement that I don’t think the Soo Line knew anything about.  Rusty paid me fifty cents an hour and my major duty was top run up the street to Bamburger’s to get him Cokes—either that or playing catch or listening to him play guitar.

When Rusty and I weren’t maiming each other with knuckleballs we were wrestling with chords.  I didn’t know which one hurt more. But I had a couple of songs pretty well worked out, including Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” which seemed appropriate for Debbie.

One night, after I’d gotten the key of C pretty well subdued I decided to serenade Debbie.  The song involved yodeling which, in the ebb tide of adolescence, sometimes surfaced without warning.

The night was soft and sweet, a hint of the lake in the air.  The clunk and clatter of the veneer mill was barely audible, almost a rhythm section.  A screen door creaked and banged somewhere down the street and a dog barked a couple of times.  The moon had been bitten into, but still gave enough light for me to see without a flashlight.  I hauled my guitar case into Debbie’s yard and quietly unsnapped it, removed the old Gibson and took a deep breath.

I cleared my throat.  It sounded like a dump truck unloading in the silent night and I figured Mr. Miller was even at that moment calling the town constable.  My romantic balladeering seemed less and less like a good idea.  But I was there, I had the guitar in hand, and I figured in for a penny, in for a pound.

Debbie’s window was on the second floor, a dozen feet above me.  It was open and as I began to sing I saw the curtain pulled aside by a dark shape.  My love was listening.

“I gotta feelin’ called the blue-hoo-hoos, ah Lawdy!” I quavered, trying to emulate the Hank Williams sound, that of a sawmill blade cutting through a license plate that was embedded in a log.  As I sang I gained confidence and even tried a single string run or two on the guitar.  Why, the Grand Old Opry was just down the road from Birch Lake—next stop on my journey through life.

I finished and there was a faint patter of applause from unseen hands above.  Then  Mrs. Miller’s voice floated down, like the contents of a chamber pot emptied over a passer-by on a cobbled Elizabethan street.  “That was very nice,” she said.  “But Debbie’s sleeping over at Melody’s house.  You’d better leave before Mr. Miller wakes up.  He doesn’t like to be disturbed in the middle of the night.”

“I’m sorry!” I squeaked, sounding exactly like Mickey Mouse.

“No one every serenaded me before,” Mrs. Miller whispered.  “Mr. Miller doesn’t believe in things like that.”

“Good bye!” I croaked, stumbling toward the street as if my pants were down around my ankles, clutching my guitar case with a sweaty hand.  I wondered if Juliet’s mom ever shouted down to Romeo, “Hey, kid, nice song but my husband’s gonna rip your throat out.”

A couple of weeks later my mother told my grandmother about the possibility I would sing in church and my grandmother ordered me to do it.  She asked, actually, but an ask from my grandmother was equivalent to a direct order from Gen. George Patton.

I had the sheet music for “Dear Hearts and Gentle People, a Meredith Willson tune.  I figured I could fumble through most of the chords and keep the congregation from charging the pulpit like a Mongol horde.  After all how tough could it be to entertain a bunch of bored Presbyterians, some of whom had Bruenig’s Lager hangovers from Saturday night at the Bluegill Bar.  Some also were marking time until they could go fishing.  But their wives would keep them in line long enough for me to stagger through “Dear Hearts,” satisfy my mother and grandmother, and get back to the heifers who always appreciated my balladry.

My confidence lasted only until I sat down in church and the reality of being there and the looming fact that I would have to face an audience turned me to tapioca.  The church was hot.  A few somnolent wasps bumbled drunkenly into the windows and clung to the walls.

I sat in the front row, clutching my guitar by the neck as if it were a dead turkey.  My palms were cold with sweat and I wiped them on my pants.  I couldn’t imagine how I had let myself get into this.

The minister introduced me as if I were Frank Sinatra.  “…will sing for you now.”  He looked expectantly at me and I realized that my time had come.  I knew how Death Row inmates felt when the guards open the cell door and say, “It’s time, Lefty.”

I stumbled up the two steps to the cancel and looked out at the congregation.  Was it my imagination or were they all snarling and frothing at the mouth?  Every eye was fixed on me.  There is nothing more frightening than the first time in front of a crowd, the awful hush of anticipation and the terrible certainty that no matter how low their expectations you won’t come within howitzer range of them.

Rusty had told me, “Just imagine they’re all buck-naked.”  But when I tried that I was horrified.  Mrs. Windmiller was a wrinkled bag of skin, a 200-pound woman who had shrunk over the years to half that.  She looked like she should be tracking escaped convicts with her nose to the ground.

I strummed an introductory chord and then couldn’t remember the first words to the song until I realized there were the same as the title and I croaked into it.  I was off-key, my voice quavering.  The guitar buzzed and thunked because I couldn’t hit the strings accurately.  I rushed the lyrics, hoping to end this horror as quickly as possible.  My legs were weak.  I felt I might just topple over.  I couldn’t get enough breath and teetered on the brink of hyperventilation.

Old Ms. DeHaven fell asleep in the front pew and began to snore.  Her neighbor poked her with an elbow and the old lady started awake and shouted, “Praise God!” and then looked around in confusion.  I sang grimly on, this never-ending song that no one wanted to hear.

Then, in the middle of “….who live and love in my home town….” spit leaked down my throat and I swallowed involuntarily and my throat painfully locked.  At that instant a wasp lost its grip and tumbled off the wall behind me, did a lazy somersault and landed on the back of my neck.  Apparently it blamed me for its clumsiness because it instantly stung me.

Those dear hearts and gentle people then were shocked to hear me shout, “Ow!  Shit fuck!   God damn!”

The minister, who had seen what happened, reacted as only a true Christian would.  He applauded my song, encouraged the congregation to do likewise, and thanked me profusely for sharing my talent with everyone.  So quickly did he react that most folks thought they hadn’t heard right and forgot about it.  As I slunk back to my pew he caught my eye and winked.  Bless his heart, it was enough to make a churchgoer out of me.

My mother invented the laser beam right on the spot, years before anyone else.  Her glare would have bored holes in sheet metal.  I managed to slip out of the church the instant the service ended and before she could corral me.

Rusty whooped when I told him what had happened and said, “Must be some pretty good ol’ boys ministerin’ up here.  You do something like that down home and them ol’ Baptist preacher boys’d lock your soul up in Hell before you got the last bad word out.”

“I was so damn scared to sing in front of everyone,” I said.

“Everybody is the first time,” he said.  “It’s like sex—you get better at it.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  We picked up our ball gloves and threw knuckle balls for an hour.  My mother weakened some when she saw the big red knot on the back of my neck, but did mutter, “That’s nothing to what Jesus suffered on the cross and you didn’t hear him cursing the Lord,” as she applied baking soda to sooth the pain.  Wisely I kept my mouth shut.

Rusty got his draft notice two days later.  He had 30 days to report.  “Probably wind up in Korea,” he said.  “I ain’t lookin’ forward to that.”

Nor would I—North Koreans never had bothered me and I’d never bothered them.  It seemed like a good arrangement.  But I still had most of two years of high school to worry about the draft.  Rusty wasn’t that lucky.

I saw him later on the day he got his notice, up near the Village Hall.  He was staring at the memorial to Birch Lake’s war dead, going back all the way to the Civil War.  It was an obelisk with the names of those who had died in the various wars but had not been updated to Korea…yet.  He didn’t see me and when I realized what he was looking at I turned and went the other way.

Rusty wrote me a couple of times from basic training.  He’d found another Mississippi boy who played harmonica and they were making music together.  He sounded happy, but said he didn’t care for the rigorous training and the structured hours.  “I’m used to being my own boss,” he wrote.  “Kind of tough to get ordered around by everyone.  Maybe they’ll make me an officer and I can do the ordering.  Watch out for flying pigs—if you see any you’ll know that happened.”

The second letter was just before he shipped out for Korea.  His harmonica-playing buddy had gone on ahead and he’d put the little Martin away for safekeeping.  “Don’t think there’ll be much time or place to pick any music over there,” he said.  “I’ll store my little sweetheart until I get home and then you and me will make some good sounds together.”

I got one letter from Korea which said it was quiet most of the time but you never knew.  He didn’t talk about music or baseball, just about the uncertainty.

Months went by with no word.

Then the new station agent, a florid, middle-aged man with a sour disposition, called to say I had a box at the depot and would I come get it—this said in a tone that implied he had notified me a dozen times already and had been ignored.  I doubted I would learn any new pitches or chords from him, just how to be unpleasant.

I hurried down to the station and signed for the box.  Rusty’s name was atop the return address.  I didn’t want to open the package in the presence of the glowering station agent and awkwardly tucked it under my arm and raced home.

I ripped the top off the big cardboard box.  There was a guitar case inside with a letter taped to the top.  I slid the case out and opened it.  It as Rusty’s little Martin guitar.  I looked at it confused and then remembered the letter and tore it open.

“I guess you’re wondering why I’m sending you my guitar,” the letter began.  “Well, I had a little accident over in Korea.  Stuck my left hand in front of a mortar shell and got it blowed off.  Kind of hard to finger a D-chord with a stump.

“The docs say I can get one of those artificial hands with a hook and be pretty normal, but none of them play guitar.  Guess I’ll have to take up the mouth harp.

“Anyway, I wanted you to have my little girl because I know you appreciate her.  Write me sometimes and let me know how you and my sweetheart are getting along.  Hope you have a good life and keep throwing that knuckler.

“Your friend, Rusty.”

My father came in from work just as I finished the letter.  He took in the packing case and the guitar in my lap and frowned as he started to say something.  I held the letter out to him and he took it and read it.

When he finished we looked at each other and then he did something he hadn’t done for a long time.  He put his arm around me and I bawled into his shoulder.

Some time later I went out behind the cow shed with the little Martin and I sang “Candyman Blues” to the heifers.





Read More