Archive for June, 2014

  • Blog
  • June 25th, 2014

The Utility Animal

Behold the most versatile animal on the planet.

The chicken.  No other creature offers so much, unless it is a ragingly-beautiful human with the mind of Einstein who is able to play point guard for the San Antonio Spurs.

People do not cherish the chicken for its intellect, however (one chicken lived for several months after its head was cut off).  Howard Kohn, in his wonderful book The Last Farmer, quotes a farm saying, “Scratch a chicken, and all you’ll find is chicken.”

But chickens put other domestic animals to shame when it comes to service to Man.  There are no cow eggs.  Cows do give milk, meat and hide, but they eat more, require more care and expense than a chicken which pretty well fends for itself.  And beyond a certain age, cows are limited.  Old cows aren’t prized for meat or milk, but an old chicken roasts up just fine for Sunday dinner.

You can’t tie exquisite trout flies from the body covering of a sheep.  Aside from wool and meat, the major contribution of a sheep is high-quality manure.

Pigs are pretty much a single talent animal.  They have to die and separate into component parts to serve…rather, to be served.  There are no fighting pigs, legal or otherwise.  Pig milk is not a premium item. Pork diffidently is shrouded by a disclaimer: it is “the other white meat” which implies a second place finish to “the first white meat.”

The turkey, however tasty, is largely a seasonal interloper while the chicken flavors evening meals year-round.  Ducks and geese are excellent on the table, but rare in the typical household.  None of the three lays eggs cherished by the multitude.

Ask any catfisherperson his or her favorite bait and chicken entrails, especially liver, will be high on the list.  Those same livers are beloved by country gourmands nationwide, nevermind that they are high in cholesterol—so is almost everything good.

The wild chicken was a belligerent animal and so are certain strains of present-day chickens–cockfighting, however reprehensible, occurs and you don’t hear about cow fights or sheep fights or even goose fights, though an aroused gander is a fearsome thing.

The chicken family is a delectable one on the table.  The chicken’s wild relatives (pheasants, quail, grouse and turkeys) are more numerous than ducks and geese, the only other domestic animals with widely-hunted wild counterparts.

Thus, the argument that the chicken is nature’s most valuable animal is hard to counteract.

Chickens, like most domestic creatures, evolved from wild animals.  An estimated 8,000 years ago a wild form of the chicken roamed in Southeast Asia (and still does).  Gradually it became domesticated to today’s barnyard fowl.

As domesticated animals, chickens are relative newcomers.  Most other farm animals succumbed to Man before the chicken—cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and even cats and dogs (the first to come in by the fire).  Chickens have been occupying our henhouses for about 4,000 years.  They were not native to North America and there are various theories as to how they got here, including a hitchhike with the Spanish conquistadors.

Today’s chicken is Arnold Swarzenegger compared to the Pee Wee Herman fowl of yesteryear.  In 1923 the average chicken weighed 2.2 pounds at 16 weeks. Today that chicken would weigh nearly twice as much…at six weeks.  Size isn’t the only improvement in today’s chicken over those of our parents or grandparents.  A hen today lays about three times as many eggs as a hen did in 1930.

Also, the color of the egg has nothing to do with its taste or nutritive value.  Some breeds lay brown eggs, some white.  And the color of the yolk depends on what food the chicken eats–the more yellow the yolk does not mean the richer the egg.  And most of the dreaded cholesterol in an egg is of the “good” variety.

So there!

A fine book on chicken ranching is Backyard Poultry Raising by John F. Adams (Doubleday, 1977), a delightful mixtures of practical knowledge with wry insight.  Adams knows chickens.

Some discoveries about chickens come only with hands-on experience, literally.  During a chicken-killing/dressing operation which involved 80 birds, I found that you do not suffer chapped hands from immersing them in cold water all day because there is so much chicken fat involved it keeps your skin as soft as does the finest lotion.

I also found that flies attracted by the chicken blood bite fiercely, but your hands will be covered with gore, making it repugnant to swat.

These and many other lessons are available to the chicken aficionado.  Go into the barnyard and scratch out an education…..




How to kill a chicken:  Do it on a cool to cold fall day. First cut off the head then stuff the bird neck down in the hole of a concrete block.  The birds can’t flop and will drain of blood.  Give it time to bleed and cool.  Extricate the chicken and dip it in near-boiling water.  This is a critical part of the process–if the water is too hot or the chicken is scalded too long the skin becomes tender and tears when you pluck the feathers.

You can hand pluck or use a commercial plucker which is a revolving drum studded with rubber “fingers” that drub the feathers off the bird.  It works amazingly well, leaving only a few long wing feathers and stubs here and there.
Finish-pluck by hand. There are several ways to dress a bird, but the objective is to separate the innards–organs and viscera–from the body.  First the feet come off (unless you want to dance the chicken for the kids).  Cut them at the knee joint, leaving the familiar drumstick attached to the body.
Then slice around the rump (some leave the rump attached, but I never knew anyone who ate chicken rumps and, frankly, never want to).  Insert the knife point on either side of the anus and slice up to the tip of the sternum.  Pull the rump away, exposing the intestines.  Take off your watch–it gets messy from here on out.
Reach inside and grip the gizzard, a large, hard organ that equates to the stomach in a person, and pull.  All the intestines come out with it.  Separate the gizzard (if you’re saving it) and toss it in cold water for finish work later).  Reach back into the body as far forward as possible and gently strip the liver and heart away from the body and withdraw them.

Put the heart aside.  The gallbladder is a small elliptical green-colored sac attached to the liver.  It must be carefully cut from the liver without puncturing the bile sac.  Bile is a lovely green color, but a bitter contaminant.  Excise the gallbladder and pitch it.

The liver is useful in two ways.  It is tasty as food, but quite high in cholesterol.  It also is the best possible channel catfish bait.  Fresh white intestines (as opposed to any other color) and stripped of their contents also are outstanding catfish bait.  Chicken liver is difficult to keep on a hook, so use a treble baitholder-type hook or tie the liver in a cheesecloth bag and run the hook through it.

After you finish with the rear end of the chicken, move to the front, cut excess skin from around the neck and strip out the crop and windpipe.  An alternative method is to cut on either side of the backbone with poultry shears, neck to rump, peel the backbone out and drag all the guts with it.  It’s easy to strip the lungs out, leaving a clean body cavity ready for cooking.  This method is ideal for frying- size chickens.

You can use neck and any other bones (if, for example, you bone the chicken) for the stock pot.  Some chicken gourmands nibble on the tip section of the wing, equivalent to eating a hand. I once knew a woman who fried the heads of chickens and ate the brains.  She also was fond of the soft pads of the feet.  She was not part of our dinner circle.






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  • Blog
  • June 17th, 2014

River of the Presidents

By Joel M. Vance

Dark as the inside of a Labrador retriever.  Soft July breeze soughing through spruce and fir trees in the north country.  No traffic, only sounds the suck and gurgle of the unseen Bois Brule, the pop of a cook fire.   A burble of greasy, indigestible, delectable pan fries first perfumed the night, then lay like a heaving monster in my stomach.  No problem.  I can survive digestive Mt. St. Helens if a nine-pound brown trout is the reward.

The Brule gathers in miles of peat bogs, running narrow and still, with only  faint swirls in the tannin-dark water to show it is moving.  It picks up speed as the river senses distant Lake Superior and, like a beautiful woman rushing to her lover, begins to pick up speed and character.   I’ve canoed it over the years from a rill the width of a canoe to its mouth.  Once I followed the canoeing guide book which told me to look out for a brown cabin so I wouldn’t stray into May’s Ledges, a Class Four rapids just around a bend.  I rounded a bend and was bounding down the series of roaring, frightening drops before I could react, panicked and whimpering.

They’d painted the cabin!

Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette and others sampled the Brule’s fishing. Calvin Coolidge, another comic actor,  vacationed here while he was President and there’s a local legend that one of the guides was diddling the President’s wife while he was ineffectively flailing the water.   Dwight Eisenhower relaxed here after World War Two, fly fishing and patiently saying over and over that he had no interest in politics and would not run for office.

The Brule has been called the River of Presidents because five of them fished it, although Ike did it before he was elected.  Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower all wet a line in the Brule and I concluded my book “Billy Barnstorm” with a fictional meeting between my kid character and Eisenhower.  Mr. Eisenhower wrote a friend, “I have told a few people about the trout I caught the last night, but it has not as yet increased much in size.”

Notice the “as yet.”

Wisconsin’s Bois Brule River flows north from a bed of springs to Lake Superior, often tumbling over rapids.  Huge trout lie in its tannin-dark waters. For much of its length it’s a state park.  For all of its length it is incomparably beautiful.  I once saw the ultimate in mate selection by an angler on the Brule.  It was a dark, though not stormy night, when I met a fellow who was auditioning mates.  He was night fishing for big trout.  He was in a widened section of the river, almost a lake, and our canoe drifted by him.  His brother was my guide and the siblings exchanged small talk.  A lovely girl was manning the stern of the other canoe, a look of sullen resignation on her face.  She did not speak during our brief encounter and as we continued on, their canoe faded into the gloom.

“She’s not gonna make the cut,” John said.  “My brother always brings his girl friends up here to fish and makes them paddle the canoe while he fishes.  If they put up with it and don’t dump him, he figures they have possibilities.”   Some 20 years later when women’s rights have flowered, I wonder if that brother is married.  If he pulled that stuff today, he’d wind up not with a wife, but with knuckle bumps on his punkin head.  On the other hand, today’s potential life mate quite possibly could outfish any guy who tries dragging her to a river for a nuptial audition.

Women routinely outshoot, outfish and generally outmaneuver us poor slumps who’ve demanded it our way for about five million years.  Our payback is ‘way overdue, but it’s here, guys, so live with it.

Actually, feminine one-upwomanship is not new—in the 1930s Ben Ames Williams wrote a short story called “Ways That Are Dark” about a guy named Bob Caswell and his fiancée, a pretty young woman named Alice May.  She knew nothing about Atlantic salmon fishing and to him it was a grim religion.  She pesters him to let her try fly casting and he curtly tells her to get lost.  But she grabs his favorite fly rod, hooks a tree on the back cast and tries to jerk it free.  “You idiot!  Don’t do that!” he shouts.  The fly comes loose, lands in the water, and an eight pound salmon grabs it (Bob hadn’t had a strike all morning and hers is the only fish caught by any of the fishing club members all day).

Well, of course, from then on every time she fumbles a cast into the water she hooks a salmon and finally she ties into the biggest fish of the season.  “She never wet a line from that day on till she went home,” says the narrator.  “And she’s never been back.”

I have decided that I have the perfect setup.  My wife does not compete with me; she never will catch a bigger Atlantic salmon that me (if she ever caught one it would be bigger), but if I somehow stumble into one she will turn it into something that would cause Julia Child to give up cooking.  It is the perfect example of perfect teamwork.  I catch, she cooks, we eat.  Today our youngest son came home from a fishing trip.  “Well?” my wife demanded.  “Where are they?”

“I gave them all to Billy Dee,” he said.  Andy is a confirmed bachelor and if he’s looking for the girl just like the girl that married dear old dad, he’s in for a rude awakening as long as he keeps giving fish away.

But back to the Brule: I didn’t have any interest in politics or potential mates that hot July night, having been accepted by the world’s finest mate some decades earlier.   But I did have an interest in the mammoth brown trout said to inhabit the Brule.   Guide John and I waited for the pit of night to start fishing, sipping a bit of bourbon mixed with spring water from the river.  The spring which rose from ancient peat deposits gave the crystalline icy water an incomparable flavor..  Night fishing with John didn’t mean late evening fishing.  It meant what it said.   John soaked a large deer hair mouse in the stream, his secret weapon.  The mouse was, I found later, tied on a Herter’s hook and if there was one single incident which typifies why Herter’s is no longer in business, that hook was it.

No subtlety about night fishing for browns on the Brule.  You pick the darkest night God created, tie on three feet of 20- pound monofiliment with the hair mouse on one end and you on the other, and start blind casting.  If you hear something that sounds as if someone punted a yearling heifer into the river, you set the hook.   John knew his river.  We came into the first pool.  I had to take John’s word for it.  “There’s a race coming in here,” he said.  “Cast out at 4 o’clock and give the mouse a swimming action.  Follow it around to the bow of the canoe with the tip of your rod.  You can’t tell, but it’s swinging with the current.”

I twitched the rod tip and tried to imagine how the mouse must be angling across the face of the feeder mouth.  There was a gurgling splash, and John shouted, “Hit ‘im!”  I set the hook hard and felt the fish surge.  There were three or four powerful surges, then the mouse came free and swished back through the air and bounced off me.  I recited an old Anglo-Saxon benediction.

“That’s all right.  There’ll be more,” John said.  The next hit came at the head of a little rapids where the V of the smooth water broke on the rocks.  The fish took the mouse the instant it hit the water, like a big sow largemouth bass in the springtime. The trout went down the rapids so quickly that all I could do was hang on.  It was like hooking a freight train.  Then the line went dead again.

I reeled in and felt to make sure the mouse was there.   By now it was past midnight and cold.  My fingers were slow, but still the fish hit, always with that awesome splash in the black night.  And still I couldn’t keep them hooked.

Mist rose in ghostly twirls about us.  I could barely see the tips of the conifers lining the dark river.  The canoe paddles splashed softly behind me, the mouse whispered through the air on each cast, shedding droplets of icy water on me.  Strike, powerful throb, then slack line.  Finally, I closed my hand over the mouse after perhaps eight or nine hard strikes…and felt that the hook had broken off just behind the barb.   “Aw, that’s a shame!” John exclaimed.  “That’s really a shame!  This is the best night we’ve had on the river this year.  We were getting two and three fish to rise in each pool and usually we get only one.”

I was heartsick.  I could only stare at the crippled mouse in the yellow light of a flash and wish we could start over.  But it was too late…and it was the only hair mouse we had.

John was coming down with a bug, shaken with chills, weak and achy.  The temperature continued to drop.  We called it a night.  It was 3 a.m. before I slid under the covers, cold, fishless, exhausted.  I dreamed fitfully about noisy strikes and leaping deer and a leering hair mouse as big as a science fiction monster.

I have no photos of the big fish on the Brule, nothing really to show for the long night.  Nothing except a deer hair mouse that hangs over my desk on the bend of a broken hook.



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  • Blog
  • June 6th, 2014

Summer and Opera

         A PBS tribute to Luciano Pavarotti the other night reminded me how much I love opera and how I developed that love.  I may have posted this before, but it’s personal.  Enjoy and if you like my writing buy my books from the web site.

By Joel M. Vance

           It’s always a long, hot summer in Alabama and I was living in the only upstairs room, a bleak one, in a rooming house, run by a no-nonsense woman who seemed convinced I was up to nonsense.

            I was working for the Montgomery, Alabama Journal for a summer before getting married and going into the Army, in that quick order.  I was 800 miles from home and my fiancée.  We wrote each other achingly lonesome letters.  If no letter came I was as blue as the whistle of a midnight train at a rural crossing.

A co-worker, Archie McKay, red-haired, freckle-faced and as jittery as a squirrel in the oak woods, befriended me when it would have been just as easy to categorize me as a dumb kid with the savoir faire of a feedlot shoat and a Yankee to boot.

Maybe Archie considered me a work in progress even if I had the sophistication of Li’l Abner.  He and Ed Mohr, the copy desk editor, were ardent opera fans.  I knew nothing of opera—the only tenor I knew anything about was Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry.

Ed was saturnine, impeccably dressed in pastel brushed cotton and silk clothing, cool even on the hottest days.  He looked more like a cross between an Esquire Magazine men’s fashion ad and a benign Beelzebub.  Ed presided over the copy desk for exactly eight hours. “Presided” is the right word—Ed treated the slot as a judge treats his bench.  It was a seat of power from which he shaped the day’s newspaper.  God could not have deterred him from this schedule, for Ed was God when he ruled the slot (the “slot” is the inside of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk and the “rim” is the outside, where the copy readers sit).

Ed lived with an elderly doctor named McCongaghy in a lovely home that evoked images of the Old South.  The lighting was dim; everything was muted, dark, quiet and cool.  You talked in hushed tones because anything else would have been shouting in a cathedral.  Dr. McConaghhy had delivered Nell Rankin, later a reigning diva at the Metropolitan Opera.  He had heard Enrico Caruso sing…in person.

Conversely, Archie bubbled with irreverence.  Unintentionally funny headlines were entertainment for newspapermen…unless they were responsible for them.   “142 Boys and Girls Enter Fat Stock Show,” was one we savored because we didn’t write it.

Archie involved me in translating opera names and arias.  “Das Rhinegold” was “Good Beer.”  From La Boheme came the aria “Ci lascieremo alla stagion fiorita” which Archie translated as “The lascivious stallion is on a fling.”  It was sophomoric humor, but it helped pass slow days when Montgomery’s oppressive heat stifled the newsroom and there was no news to deal with.

“Why don’t you come over Friday and we’ll listen to some opera?” Archie asked, after I’d been at the paper for several weeks.  “Have some dinner and a beer.”  That sounded not only good but like Salvation.  I had a tinny radio in my room, no money for beer and barely enough for dinner.  Local radio stations offered a surfeit of country music and more gospel than I cared to endure.  I figured I could put up with opera if it meant a free meal and a couple of bottles of beer.

Archie and Lu lived in a small rancher.  I took a cab to their place—in those days you could ride across town for a half-dollar.  I knocked on the screen door (the inside door was open) and jumped back in fright as a large, menacing dog appeared and rumbled a snarl that promised mayhem.  “It’s okay, Lady,” said Archie, appearing behind the dog, and she relaxed and her stubby tail wagged.

Lady, a boxer, was a Seeing Eye dog.  Lu was her universe and everything was a threat to that universe until proved otherwise.  You didn’t cross the McKay threshold without permission unless you were willing to lose vital body parts.

But once Archie or Lu gave the password, Lady was a big, happy puppy, a vortex of boundless affection.

Archie was an opera fan the way Milanese peasants are, those who buy peanuts and sit in the balcony and hoot at the villain, cheer for the hero and boo the bad singer.  He and Lu loved opera the way that Appalachian hill folk love the Grand Ole’ Opry.  It was fun.

For Ed Mohr, opera was a refined passion.  Where Ed would listen to Lucia di Lammermoor with a martini at hand in the muted elegance of his home, Archie would suck on a Jax beer and hum with the music, occasionally breaking into fractured Italian.  But Ed’s and Archie’s shared enthusiasm for opera brought them together.

It’s a long haul from where I grew up, Dalton, Missouri, to grand opera.  There were 250 Daltonians, no paved streets, nor street lights.  Dalton was six miles from the nearest real town and at least that many light years from the Metropolitan Opera or any other opera house.

I don’t remember ever hearing opera before I graduated from college.  I never knew anyone who confessed to listening to opera.  It was as alien as music from a flying saucer, a popular fantasy of the 1950s.  I surreptitiously listened to the Grand Ole Opry because my high school farmer classmates sneered at country music and thought anyone who enjoyed it was hick stupid.  They revered Frank Sinatra.

Ed and Archie had three months to convert me to opera, just as term missionaries have but a short time to score points with ignorant savages before rotating home.  It was impossible to avoid the lessons.  Opera always was there.  Ed and Archie discussed and debated opera during lulls on the copy desk.  Deskmen on other Alabama newspapers worshipped Bear Bryant the exalted coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.  Archie and Ed worshipped Giuseppe Verdi (or “Joe Green” as Archie persisted in calling him).

Archie and Lu’s home was small where Ed’s was grand.  Their hi-fi was the heart of it.  It was in a tiny second bedroom they called the “music room.”  The furnishings were Spartan, a couple of chairs and a rickety couch.  The record player rested on a crate.

I listened to scratchy 78 r.p.m. recordings by Caruso and John McCormack and Tito Schipa and Amelita Galli-Curci.  Their voices, thinly recorded by primitive equipment, only suggested their talent.  The first time I heard “Va, pensiero,” the incomparable chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco I found tears running down my face and was glad that Lu couldn’t see them.  Archie had his eyes closed and I surreptitiously wiped my face dry, but understood those captive expatriates.  I was a long way from my loved ones, too.

Archie and Lu recognized how lonesome I was and our dinners became regular, maybe once a week, and the music began to draw me into it.   I looked forward to the simple food and a couple of beers while Jussi Bjoerling practiced vocal magic with his keen tenor.  Bjoerling quickly became my favorite singer.  His voice was tempered Swedish steel, the blade of it hissing on Victor Red Label “New Orthophonic” recordings.

Archie was partial to John McCormack and played “The Last Rose of Summer” and “M’appari” which always brought a lump to my throat because the opera heroine, Martha, had the same name as my fiancée.

I heard them all on Archie and Lou’s rickety hi-fi.  Once I let the tone arm get away from me and it ripped across a brand new long-playing record with a horrible sound and Lu snapped at me and I still feel guilty, more than 50 years later.

Lady drowsed, but raised her head if anyone moved.  Just checking.  Always on guard.  Lady would have given her life to prevent anything happening to Lu.  As much as Lady loved Lu it was no more than Archie did.  He openly adored his blind wife and doted on her, not because she was blind, but because she was his life.

Lu once, after a concert, had felt the medals on the massive chest of the famed heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.  No telling what Melchior thought of this lovely blind Alabaman caressing his beefy bosom, but he probably preened like a huge bull.

I visited the Montgomery library and asked if they had any way to listen to opera records.  “I think we got some up in the attic,” the librarian said.  “There’s an old Victrola you can play them on.”  I found some old 78 rpm albums in the dusty, deserted attic.  There were creaking folding chairs and a portable record player and nothing else.  I sat in the bare room, dust motes dancing in the sunlight that came through the murky windows, and listened to the few opera recordings.

No one came up there, not even a cleaning lady.  The selection was skimpy, but there was a complete recording of Rigoletto with Lina Pagliughi.  I think the tenor was the slight-voiced Ferruccio Tagliavini.  But Ms. Pagliughi shook dust from the rafters with her clear coloratura.  It was stiflingly hot under the eaves of the library and sweat dripped off me as I tried to follow the libretto, but often the flow of the music seduced me and I lost my place.  The words didn’t matter.  It’s a smarmy plot anyway “Days of Our Lives” is more complex.

I’m no opera buff.  I don’t often follow librettos and seldom listen to a complete opera.  Wagner still weighs on me like too much Weiner schnitzel.  I lack the sophistication to appreciate Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff as more sophisticated than Traviata or Pagliacci.  Maybe I’m still not that removed from Roy Acuff.  I have a weird videotape of Placido Domingo in one of his fat phases, singing Cavalleria Rusticana with an all-Japanese cast and it’s more like Gulliver’s Travels than a Sicilian brawl.  The little Orientals circle around the massive tenor like chickens following the farmer with a bucket of grain.  Archie would have appreciated the slapstick aspect of it.

We listened through the sultry summer nights to Bjoerling as Turrido sobbing goodbye to his mother as he faced death from Alfio’s knife, or Gigli as poor Mario Cavaradossi looking at the stars through the bars of Baron Scarpia’s jail cell the night before his execution.

Lu ran her hands over her cherished records with the tactile delicacy of the blind, but mostly with love for what they contained.  Archie bounced from records to playing machine with the giddy zest of a kid at his first movie.  And the hot nights ended too soon.

We moved on.  I returned to Missouri, married Marty, and Archie and Lou moved to Mobile where Archie became the Sunday Lifestyles editor of the Mobile Register.  And then 14 years later I read in a media magazine that Arch McKay had been murdered on Oct. 2, 1973 in his car in the parking lot across the street from the Register.  I called Lu and this blind lady said in her soft Southern voice, “The light has gone out of my life.”

Death haunted the operas and we appreciated the stark beauty of it.  Death was an operatic device, passionately rendered by Gigli and Milanov and Bori and Tucker and Bjoerling.  Death was life to them.  But opera is theater, and no matter how many characters die onstage it is not real.

There is nobility in opera.  There is no nobility in everyday murder.  Archie was no Turrido.  Opera doesn’t step off the dusty stage to the other side of the footlights where real people live.

And die.


            A postscript: After 41 years, Archie’s murder remains unsolved, although a comprehensive research story by Kevin Lee, a Mobile investigative reporter, ties it to a mob hit and a likely suspect.

Lee’s story unravels an almost incredible tangle of people and events reaching into just about every Mobile power base—political and business.  It sounds as if my carefree friend became an insider wannabe and got sucked into a sleazy vortex at the end of which was his slaughter.

The Archie McKay I knew almost certainly became a darker figure after he left Montgomery.  He ballooned to 287 pounds and became a man-about-town, who bragged about his contacts (which apparently included mobsters) and inside knowledge (which also apparently included embarrassing facts about the mobsters), and who owned a big boat and memberships in two yacht clubs and a country club—something not credible on the $16,000 salary the paper paid him.

Archie told people that he had gotten into something that frightened him and that he couldn’t get out of.  Lee’s story paints a convoluted and dark picture of the southern crime scene, the so-called Dixie Mafia, including a mob family from New Orleans and even ties to Jack Ruby, the Dallas killer of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Was this a classic case of a good man slowly corrupted by temptation?  It sounds operatic and from that standpoint, given Archie’s love of opera, you have to appreciate the irony if not the tragic result.

The Archie McKay I knew was light years from the Arch McKay who intercepted a close-range charge of Double-Ought buckshot in a Mobile parking lot.  It may make opera seria sense to go with the dark side, but I prefer to remember the effervescent freckle-faced opera comedia kid with the orange crate stereo and the beautiful blind wife.

Lu died more than 30 years after she lost the light of her life.


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