Archive for March, 2016

  • Blog
  • March 29th, 2016

JUST KARL

Retired Marine Corps Colonel J. Karl Miller died on Easter Sunday. He was 80 years old. I didn’t know him as J. Karl – just Karl. Maybe that’s what the J stood for – Just Karl. (actually it was justus)
I knew him longer than any living person except his younger brother Jim.
Karl was a much decorated Marine – wounded in Vietnam, he rose through the ranks and retired as a lieutenant colonel. As is customary, they bumped him up a rank to full colonel in retirement.
Karl grew up on a farm outside Dalton, Missouri – a grease spot on the state map. He was out ranked among the town’s historic citizens only by General Sterling Price, a Confederate officer in the Civil War who had a plantation south of Dalton.
There is a photograph of Karl and me, two gawky teenagers, standing in front of the Dalton Hotel, a ramshack wreck of a onetime hostelry for traveling salesmen off the railroad trains that rumbled through Dalton day and night. I lived in the rambling wreck through high school and into college with no running water and exposure to the outside world through books and the sound from an old Zenith upright radio.
While I listened to St. Louis Cardinals games in the summer nights, Karl was doing the same a few miles away.
We thrilled simultaneously as Harry Carey bellowed “It might be! It could be! It IS! a home run” as Stan the Man Musial lashed a fastball out of the park.
The reason for the photo was that Karl and I were dressed to leave on the train to Chicago to find a summer job between college years. One magic afternoon in Chicago we skipped work for the dairy products company Meadow Gold to go to Wrigley Field where the Cubs were entertaining the Cards. We splurged on box seats directly behind third base, spending a whopping $3.50 to see the Man hit a line drive so hard that it reached the ivy-clad right field wall in about three seconds and rebounded all the way to second base before Musial reached first, robbing him of a double.
While Abner Doubleday allegedly invented baseball, Karl and I can claim credit for inventing “Ladies Home Journal” baseball.
It’s a fairly simple game and lots of fun.
Just be careful not to play it over the lobby of a residential hotel which is what we did. You roll a LHJ tightly as a bat and try to throw a ping pong ball past the batter. There are no bases but many ground rules – a hit against the outside wall is a double, over the couch a foul ball – you pretty much make up the rules as you go.
It got pretty loud with the crashing lunges of the fielder trying to snag a batted ball, loud arguments about “foul!” or “fair!” and shouts of “It might be! It could be! It IS! a home run”.
One night in the middle of a tight game, the phone rang. It was the manager in the lobby who said that if we didn’t shut the hell up, we’d shortly be looking for a new place to live.
Every evening after work we went to a local cafeteria for dinner. We always had a hot beef sandwich because it was cheap ($.90) and the copious portion of mashed potatoes would prevent scurvy.
Karl was my roommate for my sophomore year at the University of Missouri, his freshman year. We would have continued as roomies but Karl got acquainted with a bunch of Tiger football interior linemen and I made the mistake of bringing a Monopoly game to school. Karl invited his massive buddies in to play and I found my bed often occupied by a 250 pound pulling guard. So I spent much of the year studying and sleeping in the dorm lounge. Dislodging those behemoths was impossible.
One night we hiked to The Shack, a local beer joint, immortalized by Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey. We planned to have a glass of Griesedieck Beer ($.10) for each remaining half inning of the Cardinal game already in its late innings – two or three glasses, max. Only trouble was that the game went into extra innings – 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 – and by the time someone won – I have no idea who – we were blasted.
Karl graduated with a shavetail second lieutenant’s gold bar on one shoulder and a Marine Corps patch on the other. I opted for Army ROTC and got assigned to anti-aircraft artillery, learning to shoot at jet planes with 1930’s guns, at the dawn of the guided missile age. Not a useful skill for a would-be writer.
Karl became a career Marine, went to Vietnam and survived the horror of that (or any other) war.
We pretty much lost touch for those years. After he retired, we’d have an occasional lunch or exchange emails – but no more LHJ baseball. Once he went quail hunting with me and I realized he was hurting, a legacy of his war wounds, so I cut the hunt short.
Then he had a stroke which further limited his mobility. From what I know, Karl was an active civic citizen, giving generously of time and money to good causes.
He volunteered to write an op-ed column for The Columbia Missourian, the University’s student newspaper. Karl was an ardent right winger. I started out that way – but veered left into Bernie Sanders territory.
When we got together, we avoided talking politics and stuck to country music and baseball. Now, we’ll never have a chance to argue our differences.
Karl was a friend and one whom I admire. Facebook flooded with tributes to him from friends, family and former Marines. I can only say that if the Marines are looking for a few good men, they found one of the best in Just Karl.
I will miss him every day.

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  • Blog
  • March 24th, 2016

MY LITTLE WALDEN

It’s doubtful Whiskey Jack and Yukon Pete called their cabin “Honeymoon Cottage” before they assaulted each other with hand axes, victims of cabin fever during the Klondike gold rush. Winters get long and tempers short up there on the targa.
We don’t live north of the Arctic Circle, but our winter also had been long, snowy and dreary and while Marty and I were not surreptitiously pawing among the sharp instruments in the kitchen utensils, we did need some sort of project, a break not only in the weather but in our seasonal affective disorder.
“Let’s build a cabin on the glade,” I proposed. “A place where we can sit on the deck in the evening, listen to Frankie sing “My Way” and sip at a glass of that healthy red wine.” We live on 40 acres in mid-Missouri, an acreage shrouded in oaks and hickories and overlooking a small lake. The glade is a rocky opening at the far northwest corner of the property, accessible only by a dirt trail that circumscribes the property. I envisioned a cabin facing the woods and a procession of deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife parading past what I’d come to call the Honeymoon Cottage (our honeymoon was 59 years ago, but who’s counting?).
Other than Marty’s immediate response, “Have you lost your mind?” the idea languished until I broached it to Eddie, our master builder son who never saw a chunk of wood he couldn’t turn into art. “I’d love to!” he cried and Marty sighed heavily, knowing the battle was lost.
Gradually the snow and ice melted and the thermometer rose first above the zero mark to more normal temperatures. The clouds rolled away and, as Eddie ordered materials, so rolled away my bank account. He stacked building materials on the glade; I ordered the “Best of the Ink Spots” compact disc in anticipation and laid up another couple bottles of Apothic Red. All we needed was a cabin and a soft summer night.
Within three days Eddie had the foundation in place. The ground was too rocky to allow digging for piers except with a jackhammer. “It won’t be anchored so if a really big wind comes along there’s a problem,” Eddie said. I had a vision of Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse spinning into Oz and said, “If a wind that big comes up we’re all in trouble.” Nonetheless I kept my eye out for flying monkeys during the construction phase. One can’t be too careful.
Gradually the cabin took shape as Eddie did arcane things with a square and level. I would have helped but my carpentry skills are limited to hitting my thumb with a hammer and swearing. The scraped out hole became a foundation. Walls and a roof loomed in the future, depending on weather and Eddie’s schedule—real work took precedence over unpaid family commitment. Aside from adding seductive photos to his portfolio, my cabin was low priority.
If you’re thinking of a similar project, be sure to father three sons, all of whom are proficient in carpentry. J.B. the oldest is an experienced electrician, Eddie is the master builder and foreman and the youngest, Andy does siding for a living. Come to think of it not that many families are blessed with such professional expertise, coupled with family duty (free labor). Perhaps families with children who are accountants, lawyers or brain surgeons should rethink their retreat whims.

The cabin is 16 x 24 feet and here’s a beware. The plywood panels that covered the joists—in other words the floor, are not 4 x 8 as you would expect so they coincide with a joist….but 4 x 7 7/8. Which means that sooner or later you must insert an apprentice joist to screw the flooring to. But then a 2 x 4 isn’t two inches by four either but only 3 and ¾ inches, one of those packaging practices that means you only get 3/ 4 of a package of Milk Duds at the movie instead of a full, brimming package as God intended it.
Despite the vagaries of lumber, the cabin escalated from a hole in the ground to a structure. It is rustic and primitive in almost every sense of the word. There is no water, no electricity and no bathroom facility. Running a power line would be obtrusive and difficult as well as expensive, drilling a well would cost the equivalent of the famed Spindletop oil well with no guarantee of a gusher and digging a pit for an outhouse would require jackhammers and the know-how of a sandhog working on a subway tunnel. I investigated composting toilets and the price made me feel that I had to go to a bathroom I would never have without a legacy from a rich uncle, whom I also don’t have. We hand visitors a shovel and directions to where bears go.
I grew up in a home without running water or an indoor toilet, so our cabin was almost a step up. My father had to get water from his tenant farmers which must have been a source of embarrassment to him—the boss is supposed to furnish amenities to the tenants, not the other way round. We bathed in a galvanized wash tub which brings new meaning to the word “contortion.” And the facility, as we delicately referred to it, was a haven for various stinging insects, only dormant in the dead of winter when a midnight trip was less fun than fighting off yellowjackets.
We bought a small generator with four hours of juice and I declaimed “Let there be light and there was light. The pioneers made do with smoky, dim oil lanterns powered by whales, bears and assorted oil-bearing critters and except for Abe Lincoln, poring over his books by candlelight, went to bed with the chickens (although one would hope in separate houses). If we wanted to pore over our law books we would have four hours of Mr. Edison’s legacy or resort to a Coleman lantern (whales being in short supply in mid-Missouri).
The roof is metal which should last longer than we do. Likewise the cedar siding we opted for in place of metal siding which, though a third of the cost, would have made our woodland cabin look like a storage shed. The back wall, however, is metal since it fronts a fence and I don’t care what the neighbor’s cows think of the place.
Check your local wildlife regulations, but we saturated a bed-sized spot at the edge of the woods with salt, creating a place for deer to come and munch the salt-rich dirt (bagged salt is better than a salt block. And we also heaped shelled corn nearby for wild turkeys. Baiting for hunting may be illegal some places, but we just wanted to see the wildlife, not reduce it to dinner. We installed a motion-activated camera on a tree facing the cabin and so far we have reduced to pixels deer, turkeys, squirrels, crows, a bobcat and the family dog.
One of the deer regulars is a massive 12-point buck whose head would be impressive on an inner wall of the cabin, but whose head looks better to me on his burly shoulders at the feeder.
Since we live on a dead end gravel road, our house is pretty much a retreat, so Eddie’s boss came up with the ideal description of what has come to be known as Vance’s Folly—a retreat from a retreat. If we retreat any farther we’ll be living in a hole in the ground.
Finally the cabin was done. Final cost is yet to be determined but double that for the labor had we paid for it (the boys got burgers and fries}. It’s not over. It’s not over till it’s over. In the miasma that is my imagination we will have a spiral staircase to the loft, solar panels outside for power and a fire pit for campfires and watching sparks eddy into the night sky.
The last several trail cam photo assortments, post deer season, have been notable for the absence of the big buck. I suspect he’s residing in someone’s freezer That’ll teach him to stray from the Vance sanctuary—not that I wouldn’t reduce one of his chunky doe girl friends to backstraps and succulent roasts, but not the king buck. Besides I wouldn’t shoot a deer over bait anyway.
I think I’ll stroll up to Vance’s Folly, retrieve the card from the trail cam and see who has been visiting….
-30
– Joel Vance is the author of The Exploding Elephant {$14.95}, Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15)); Tails I Lose (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition $45). Available from joelvance.com or Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $3,50/book for S/H.

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  • Blog
  • March 15th, 2016

THE DREAD WEED

I may have posted this before, but it’s still poison and our beloved Congress still is subsidizing it.
By Joel M. Vance
Finney was born in 1884, nine years before his wife. He joined the Navy in 1906 and was on the crew of the battleship USS Virginia when Teddy Roosevelt sent the fleet around the world to demonstrate American might. “Walk softly, but carry a big stick,” said Teddy.
Finny and Sis raised six of their seven children, including Roy Joe who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and twins Doris and Dorothy, the youngest of the brood. The first born, William Don, born in 1911, died at four months.
Finney’s chin was stubbly; his jaw usually collapsed because he had neglected to install ill-fitting false teeth. His battered hat was cocked rakishly–he never lost the insouciance of the World War one sailor who had rolled into foreign ports, intent on exotic pleasure (almost any pleasure would be more exotic than that available on a hard rock Chariton County farm). Finney was rarely out of overalls, even on trips to town in his Model A Ford. But those trips earned a freshly-laundered set.
His only dress suit was reserved for funerals and an annual trip to sell his tobacco at auction in Weston, Missouri, or, more rarely, all the way to Lexington, Kentucky. Finney was a tobacco farmer. It was his cash crop. Everything else on his few acres went to the family good—the milk cow provided cream for wild blackberries, plus suck for her occasional calf. The chicken scavenging for food Saturday in the dust of the farmyard was Sunday’s dinner. The pig, rooting happily among the slops in its trough, would hang in pieces from a rusty hook in the smokehouse come cold weather, its hams slowly tanning from smoke and salt rub.
Baths were rare (the water had to be heated on the Warm Morning wood stove and dumped into a galvanized wash tub). Soap came from fat rendered from the slaughtered hogs, mixed with lye, leached from stove ashes, with salt added to harden the soap into cakes.
There was no lack of wood ashes, even in the hot months. All summer the kitchen was stifling with heat from the stove as Sis canned bounty from the garden and from fruit trees in the back yard. The land produced what the family needed, from squirrels deftly harvested by my grandfather, to poke greens, collected along the gravel road that ran by the farm.
This was a subsistence farm and were it not for the fleshy green leaves that Finney so carefully shepherded to brown, dried hanks of tobacco, Sis and Finney would have had virtually no spending money. Tobacco was labor-intensive, more, perhaps, than any other agricultural commodity, but it was all Finney knew to do.
Missouri is in the so-called “burley belt” of eight states, including Kentucky (which produces 80 percent of all the burley grown). The others are Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Burley is a cigarette tobacco, but Finney opted to chew his, stripping a leaf and crumbling the dried product in his seamed and callused hand before stuffing it in his mouth. His toothless jaw would work as he munched the pungent tobacco, an amber trickle runneling down a seam at the side of his mouth.
Early in the spring Finney planted tobacco seeds in flats, under cheesecloth to keep late frost at bay. The spindly seedlings, nurtured with barnyard manure, straightened and strengthened. Finally they were big enough (and the weather was warm enough) that they could be transplanted to a small field just north of Sis and Finney’s tiny farmhouse.
Finney had a quarter-acre tobacco allotment. The federal government established acreage allotments on tobacco in the 1930s, guaranteeing farmers a minimum price for their crop, but also limiting the amount they could grow. Even had Finney wanted, he couldn’t have raised much more tobacco than his small allotment permitted. It simply was too much work and there wasn’t enough help.
My aunt Sis, a large woman, was not physically able to do the bending and sheer effort involved in planting the seedlings. And I was barely helpful, scrawny and city-stupid, spending my summers on the farm so my Chicago parents could have a respite from parenting. I could help plant the seedlings–it doesn’t take much know-how to punch a hole in the ground and that was as advanced as my tobacco husbandry got.
I punched the hole with a sharpened stick (maybe a chunk of old hoe handle, called a dibble) and then stuck the plant in the hole, pressed it firmly in place with the side of the dibble and moved on to the next plant. It was backbreaking work, swinging from one plant like Quasimodo atop Notre Dame cathedral or maybe Cheetah in the jungle with Tarzan.
Planting was only the beginning of the long trip from seedling to dried leaf. At 60 days the plant produced a flower head which Finney clipped off. Then he suckered the plant. Suckers are shoots that sprout between the stalk and a major leaf and sap energy from the plant (tomato growers sucker their plants for the same reason). Suckering and topping let the plant concentrate its energy toward leaf growth.
After the little plants got over the shock of transplant they began to grow and to encounter a host of natural enemies, especially the tobacco worm, a large green caterpillar also called a tomato worm. The caterpillar, larva of a hawk moth, is large and voracious enough to do much damage to plants.
Finney’s solution, and that of other tobacco farmers of the time, was to spray his crop with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide (copper arsenate and copper acetate). At the time it also was used as a base for bright green paint. It’s a wonder any child, living with lead-based and arsenic-based paints, ever grew up normally or at all.
Tobacco has been a controversial crop for decades, but the federal government still subsidizes tobacco growers (to the tune of $209 million in 2009) despite other government agency efforts to limit or eliminate tobacco use. Fifty years ago or more smokers joked about “coffin nails” and “smoker’s cough.” And Luckies said there was “not a cough in a carload.”
While athletic coaches grimly told their players, “cigarettes’ll cut your wind!” Camels bragged that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” although “more scientists and educators smoke Kent.”
Perhaps the most eerie cigarette ad featured a baby and the infantile quote, “Gee, Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro.” The pervasive image of the Marlboro Man was that of a rugged smoking outdoor type, by implication the healthiest guy in the Old West. With bitter irony the original Marlboro Man died of lung cancer.
His fellow Westerner, a real person, singer Tex Williams laid it out in a popular song: “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette/Until you smoke yourself to death.”
While Madison Avenue was encouraging the world to enjoy cigarettes, Finney was busy on the Missouri farm producing the raw materials. Mid-September was time to cut the plants at their base, another long session of bending over. Finney then spiked the stalks onto tobacco sticks, poles about the diameter of hoe handles, sharpened on one end, a half-dozen or so plants to each stick. The sticked tobacco ripened in the field for several days, then Finney hauled it to his unpainted old barn to air dry.
This was the part of the tobacco farmer’s job that was no place for an acrophobic. Finney racked the sticks starting at the top of the barn. Usually neighbors or whoever Finney could corral into helping would hand the sticks up to him, at the topmost level, where he perched on the rafters like a monkey. He’d rest a stick across adjacent rafters, each far enough from the preceding stick to allow air circulation. When a row filled, he’d move down a level and start again. When the crop was in the barn Finney could turn to the rest of his farm while the leaves dried for about two months.
Missouri tobacco is air cured and the barns are specialized, with louvers to control air flow (Finney’s barn was so old and filled with cracks that it didn’t need louvers). By contrast some tobacco, called latakia is “fire-cured” by drying it in closed barns with heat from fires that gives it a smoky flavor.
By the time the tobacco was cured the weather was cold, often bitterly so, and Finney would move the tobacco stick by stick to his stripping shed, a small building where he worked under the light of, in the early days, a coal oil (kerosene) lantern, later a dim electric bulb. The dust was thick enough to chew by itself. Finney would strip the leaves into hanks ranked by their position on the stalk. He’d wrap a final leaf as a tie to hold the gathered stems of each hank. When the tobacco crop was in hanks it was ready to go to an auction warehouse for sale.
There was drama in the annual tobacco auction, held just before Thanksgiving each year. Growers took their leaf to one of several cities where buyers bid on it, depending on the quality. Finney almost always took his tobacco to Weston. It was make-or-break time for his annual income, but never was there a bonanza, no matter how good the crop or how high the quality. The auction was a buyer’s game and the farmer, his back still aching from the long summer and fall of incessant labor, generally got the short end of the tobacco stick.
Weston is a backwater town on the Missouri River, historically a launching pad for wagon trains to the West. In addition to tobacco, it is the home of the McCormick Distillery, the oldest whisky factory west of the Mississippi River, which made it a place of respect among thirsty Plainsmen.
Its two tobacco warehouses today are the only ones west of the Mississippi River. Nearly all Missouri’s tobacco today is grown in Platte County, where Weston is located (at its peak, tobacco was grown in all but one of Missouri’s 114 counties). But Weston now is more of a tourist town than it is a tobacco center. McCormick’s now is owned by a foreign corporation and no longer allows tours. One tobacco warehouse doubles as a flea market auction center.
Change has come to the old home place as well. Sis and Finney are buried in the Asbury Cemetery, joining a century’s-worth of relatives. The cemetery is adjacent to a small white Methodist Church, almost visible from the former tobacco patch and less than half a mile from their abandoned home.
Finney’s tobacco patch today is in corn or, more often, weeds and the barn is a shambles, barely standing on one end. Sis and Finney’s house is vacant and almost collapsed and the floor under my grandfather’s small addition to the main house has fallen into what once was the cistern. The bedroom where my grandfather died is inaccessible across the hole where the floor caved in. When I was eight or nine years old I sat on that floor and read adventure stories in True and Argosy and Bluebook magazines while he rocked and read a book—his taste ran to Jack London.
Finney chewed his home-grown for half a century, no doubt accumulating a dose of arsenic, increasingly hazardous as time passed. He developed stomach cancer and died in the 1970s. Sis lived on for 15 years but there was no more tobacco grown on the home place and none of the children came home to live.
In 1990 the six surviving children, now grown old and stooped, gathered to watch an auctioneer knock the place down to a stranger. The fellow wanted it for deer hunting with his buddies and today there is a trailer permanently parked near where the outhouse once stood, just about on the site of the smokehouse. The once-lush garden is a weed jungle and what once was open now is a tangle of rank vegetation.
Only memories remain and they are as ephemeral as mayflies. Nothing I knew seems the same, save the huge pair of maple trees on the front lawn that once shaded the Finnells as they cooled of a summer evening and ate fresh-picked watermelon and listened to the drone of grasshoppers while the tobacco leaves wilted just up the road.
-30-
Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Tails I Lose (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition $65). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H. Other titles are available for the Nook and Kindle e-readers at www.joelvance.com.

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