Archive for November, 2016

  • Blog
  • November 28th, 2016


By Joel M. Vance
Every school kid knows that on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone message by ringing his assistant in another room, saying, “”Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Which no doubt scared the hell out of poor Mr. Watson who probably thought the boss had fried himself with that electrical paraphernalia he was fooling with.
But 60 years later, Bell’s invention had progressed to the point we could hear Mr. Fibber McGee say into his telephone, “Hello operator? Give me Wistful Vista 2-0-3-Oh is that you, Mert?” For those whose beards haven’t even sprouted, much less begun to drag the ground, Fibber and his long-suffering wife Molly enlivened the AM airwaves from 1935 to 1959 and a feature of the program was when Fibber started to make a phone call and wound up in a conversation with the never heard Central switchboard operator. It was necessary to speak to an actual human being who would perform unseen hand maneuvers with wires and plugs on a great pegboard of mysterious holes to connect the caller with the callee.
Now that we are mired in a cell phone bog, those halcyon days of crank telephones, even the rotary dial and the revolutionary push button phone are as dead as both Fibber and Molly. Too bad—it was a time when the phone was a communal affair (although today when some oaf shares his side of an inconsequential conversation with everyone within earshot you have to long for the chance to wrest his phone away and throw it under the wheels of a passing semi).
I’ve seen the evolution of the telephone from that early wall phone activated by vigorously cranking the little handle on the side, to the smart phone—an invention which has leaped far ahead of my ability to figure the damn thing out. Surely the last of the Merts on the planet was a voice who said, “La Donia!” when I as sports editor of the Mexico, Missouri, Ledger, called the high school at Laddonia to get ball scores. I still hear that voice in my acoustic memory album. “La….” And a long pause and then coming down hard on the last syllable: “DONIA!”
The crank phone served two masters. The first was the person who wished to communicate; the second was the fish poacher who used the powerful generator hidden inside the phone case to illegally stun fish. You could drop leads from the generator into promising water, twist the crank as if you were signaling Mert at Central and presently comatose fish would float up to be collected. Beats the heck out of worms. Fish biologists also use electrical generation to shock fish so they can be weighed, measured and perhaps tagged for scientific purpose, but those are released to swim again (no doubt wondering what the hell just happened).
I spent several summers during World War Two on my aunt and uncle’s Missouri farm. The Rural Electric system had not yet penetrated that far into the Chariton River hills (they still lit coal oil lamps for illumination, although usually by night the family was asleep). But they had a crank telephone on a party line and a son in the 82nd Airborne “somewhere in Europe” in the deliberately vague reportage of the war. They listened to a battery-powered radio for any news and if there was some snippet, they’d crank up the phone and broadcast it to the others on the line (everyone was as soon as anyone rang because one phone rang all). You could hear the volume drop as each eavesdropper picked up the phone and sometimes hear the breathing of the more asthmatic of the listeners.
The next step in the evolution of the telephone was the rotary dial. Theodore Gary, an Ohio native, was born in 1854 but moved to Macon,Missouri, in 1878. He made his fortune dealing in coal mining ground (that area of the state is pitted with old strip mine workings). Then he bought a local telephone company in the old wall crank phone days, and acquired a patent for a dial telephone which had been invented by Almon Brown Strowger in 1891. By the mid 1950s, when my wife Marty was fresh out of Macon high school, Gary’s company (which became GTE) controlled 80 percent of the world’s dial telephone equipment.
As an aside, Gary also founded the Macon Golf Course where once I launched a sensational slice off the ninth tee that arced into the bright blue sky and caromed off Highway 36 in front of a no-doubt startled driver. The white pellet fortunately bounded high over the car and into limbo and I hustled to the parking lot and also vanished before any irate motorists came looking for me. Among his many philanthropic gestures, Gary was the sugar daddy for the local swimming pool where Marty worked, the hospital where my father died, and the Macon City Lake which I lived alongsidefor two years.
Gary’s rotary kingdom gave way to push button phones, an idea that even predated his rotary dominance. A form of touch tone phoning surfaced in 1887 but it wasn’t until the 1950s that AT&T decided that push-button dialing was better than rotary dialing. In November, 1963, Bell Telephone offered the first electronic push-button system in Pennsylvania.
The era of Mert at a switchboard, frantically jabbing plugs from one hole to another was pretty much gone by the 1950s, save for that anachronistic La…..Donia! lady. Judy Holiday, a fine actress too soon gone from cancer, was a switchboard operator in her last role, a 1960 movie, “The Bells Are Ringing.”
The dawn of the smart phone was looming. The first cell phones were clunky affairs that looked like relics of World War Two walkie talkies. Cell phones have their genesis in electrical transmission, an idea which goes back 150 years, but it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the cops started using mobile radios. Old time radio fans recall one show that featured a grim voice saying, “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!”) It wasn’t until the 1940s that radio communication became more common, both with police and in the private sector.
It still was not a mobile phone. That sometimes fatal distraction to the driving public didn’t become widespread until 1964. I remember a friend ringing up one night just to brag that he was calling from his car somewhere west of St. Louis on Interstate 70. It was exciting, as if I were listening to a ship at sea. Today the National Safety Council estimates that at least 1.6 million crashes each year result from drivers using cell phones, including texting. That’s almost a third of all accidents. Yet I doubt anyone can drive a day without following someone with a cell phone glued to his or her ear.
My home, Missouri, is one of the few states with virtually no regulation of cell phone or texting restrictions which probably is why I see so many fools driving with the damn things stuck in their ears. Thirteen states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Washington D.C. all prohibit hand held cell phone use while driving. And 37 states ban use by “novice” drivers, whatever that means. Only 20 states and D.C. prohibit use in motion by school bus drivers, a frightening thought. Most states (44, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands) ban texting for all drivers.
Cell phones are essential today. They have been used in the wilderness to call for help in an emergency, but an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is more reliable—does not need a convenient cell tower to make a connection. A friend dislocated his shoulder in the Canadian wilderness and, since they were without a signaling device, his petite wife was forced to do all the portaging until they reached help. On their next trip, with another couple, they included an EPIRB and, wouldn’t you know it, the other fellow dislocated a shoulder. Their signal for help drew two helicopters and an airplane. When my wife dislocated her hip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness we also were without any signaling device—but our son-in-law kayaked out at warp speed and summoned a U.S. Forest Service float plane to ferry Marty to a hospital. We now include an EPIRB and leave the cell phones at home.
Actually, the cell phone as such now is as outdated as a wall phone that rings Mert in Central. The cell has morphed into a smart phone that has more functions than the Space Command Center for a 1960s moon shot. Multi-function phones date to1993 and first were called smart phones in 1997. Combining a computer with a telephone, the smart phone allows you to play games, watch television, see the night sky constellations, listen to music, take photographs, navigate by global positioning satellites and possibly (although I’m not sure about this) make telephone calls.
When I blew out two tires on a curb that leaped in front of the car, I reached for my cell phone to call for a tow truck. The phone was on the dresser at home with a dead battery. I walked to a service station to use their pay phone. There was none. Pay phones have joined the dodo and Mert among extinct creatures. The attendant, with the look of pity you would give a spavined old horse in a pasture, obviously on its last legs, loaned me his smart phone. He had to dial it for me.
Recently, in the interests of historical research, Marty and I went to Macon to glimpse the mansion of Theodore Gary. We parked in the dark on the shore of Gary’s lake, and saw the lights of the mansion across the lake from us. It was on that shore, late one night that Marty and I ended our first date by, in the euphemistic terminology of the day “parking.” So, 60 years later (the parking effect having led to the altar) Marty and I decided to do an historic reenactment. We parked, shut off the headlights and kissed. We could see lights across the lake gleaming on the Gary property. Presently a Macon city cop drove up and told us the park was closed and we needed to move along. He was gracious enough not to make comments about the farcical nature of two senior citizens sparking in the moonlight.
If there is a message in that, it is that Marty and I are as obsolete as the rotary phone.

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  • Blog
  • November 17th, 2016


By Joel M. Vance
The family farm is an American legend, like the imaginary Paul Bunyan or the sanitized Babe Ruth. It exists in memory and in those few eddies of life’s mainstream where Wal-Mart hasn’t taken root.
Aside from the fact that families anywhere all too often are a fiction, the family farm is dying from a combination of ills: rising costs (and no commensurate rise of income), competition from sleek modern farmers and, most important, migration of farm kids to the cities.
This is no sociology treatise. I saw it happen. They sold a piece of me at public auction on a bitterly cold October day. The northwest wind nipped leaves off the old maples in the front yard and threw them on the ground for winter to digest.
They sold the old home place. My father and his brother bought the farm in 1933 to give their father and mother a piece of land on which to anchor the rest of their lives.
I spent summers on the gullied hill farm when I was a little kid. It’s where I first fell in love, learned about fleas and how horses mate, learned to ride a bicycle and play a guitar. I shot my first quail there and listened to Aunt Sade’s screeching voice as she told of hearing the guns during the war.
She was more than 90, deaf and loudly boring and the war she remembered was the Civil War.
My first girl friend lived a quarter mile south, down a bumpy gravel road. My late cousin Maurice Young lived where he did all his life, a quarter mile north.
Maurice, his bristly mustache gone gray, tried to buy the place on that cold day, bidding against a stranger in a cowboy hat. Maurice wanted the farm for his son. Maurice was related to me somehow. There are Youngs ‘way back in the Vance family and almost everyone in those old hills is related somehow.
“Your folks used to come up to my place and borrow my cradle when you was a baby,” said an elderly man, one of the Meyers, as we wiped at our drizzling noses. “You’d sleep there when you was visitin’.” I didn’t remember.
We watched like spectators at a tennis match as Maurice and the cowboy lobbed bids back and forth. At the end, even though Maurice had deeper roots in the thin hill soil, the stranger had deeper pockets.
Maurice was family. The guy in the cowboy hat? Who the hell knows. Just a cowboy with mean eyes and enough money to buy someone else’s life.
Couldn’t be helped. “We’re all getting old, Joel!” said one cousin. She was 80. Most noe are gone. The youngest was nearly 70. None of their kids wanted the place, at least not enough to plunk down $104,000 for sentiment. But no one in the family really wanted it sold either. They were raised there. They saw each other get courted, get married, go off to war. The cousins were bent not so much by the years as by the weight of what they were doing. It didn’t take long to erase 60 years of family history. A few minutes and the place went to the stranger in the cowboy hat. The L-shaped house was ramshackle, fated for destruction. People I loved lived and died there.
My grandfather was a carpenter named Joseph, but when I knew him, his woodworking was limited to making exquisite and illegal fish traps. In his seventies and eighties he was a fulltime hunter and angler. He often left for the distant Chariton River early in the morning, always by himself, to tend his traps. He wasn’t fishing for commerce, just helping feed the family. He was a deadly shot with a .22 and any squirrel incautious enough to give him a target was stew meat.
“One time some men came to the farm to quail hunt,” Maurice said. “They asked your Grandpa Joe to go with them. He got out an old long-barreled single-shot shotgun. Probably had to knock the mud daubers out of it. They felt sorry for him. He only had one eye and that ratty old gun. So they told him he’d get the first shot when the quail got up.
“Well, he not only got the first shot; he got the last one, too.” Maurice said. “Covey got up and, boom! he powdered one, reloaded and shot another one before they got out of range. They’d never seen anyone shoot quail like that.”
When he wasn’t hunting or fishing, my grandfather read books and magazines (by the yellow light of a kerosene lantern for years, then by low-wattage electricity after the Rural Electrification Association discovered southern Chariton County.
Grandpa Joe had only one eye after a billet of firewood he was splitting jumped up and hit him in the face, but he worked his remaining eye overtime. That eye was as strong as the rest of him. It never failed until he failed, victim of a stroke in his eighties.
I remember my grandfather as a tall, spare man with a frieze of white hair (he went bald, then in his old age began to grow his hair back) and a full, white mustache. He looked, in retrospect, like a long-retired Western sheriff.
My uncle Roy Finnell added a chunk of land to the home place and moved his big family there. His children are the cousins who were selling the home place. Uncle Finney bought my dad and uncle out back in the 1950s. Otherwise, I would be huddled in the doorway with them, watching my life be juggled by strangers.
My father once took me to Guilford’s Ford, which wasn’t a ford at all, but the location of a spindly bridge across the old Chariton River. The river was channelized in the 1950s and the old channel doesn’t exist anymore.
There was a hardware store where my father bought me a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun which became my constant companion. Once, I pinned Maurice in the family outhouse. I rattled BBs off the boards while he yelled for help. Sometimes, I’d shoot through the knotholes.
“Lord, I heard those pellets ricocheting around in there and I was hollering for Mom,” Maurice recalls. “Finally she came out and took the gun away from you.”
I’d conveniently forgotten the incident. “You always were an ornery one,” said my cousin Doris Sue. Memories of orneriness resurface and I had to agree. I did have a talent for creating disorder where none had existed. Once I brought fleas from the barn to the house and woke my Aunt Sis in the middle of the night to complain that I was itching and didn’t know why. She lit a lamp and saw the black specks jumping on the bed. She’d raised a covey of kids without raising her voice, but she lost it with her dumb city nephew that night. My butt glows in retrospect.
The auctioneer prattled the terms of the sale, trying to generate interest in people who mostly were cold. The wind chill was below 20 degrees. I scuffled through the swirling leaves beneath two huge old maples. They’d been huge and old when I was a kid; they still were.
My Aunt Sis’s garden had gone to spouts and weeds. One of the cousins had dug some peonies from the yard. With any luck they’d grow for another 60 years, patiently sprouting and hanging in there.
The big old tobacco barn didn’t seem as big now. It showed its age with sagging doors and missing boards. Maurice, sharecropping the place, had hung sticks of tobacco in the center section. The broad leaves still were damp and green in spots.
Tobacco was the farm crop when I was a kid. Lucky Strike Green had gone to war, so we raised tobacco for the Boys Over There. It was downright patriotic. What was a soldier without his smoke? Uncle Finney sprayed his home grown with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide long since superseded by supposedly safer chemicals, chewed the cured leaves…and died of stomach cancer.
Anything else grown on that farm was environmentally sound. No additives to the chicken or pig food. The pigs ate slops from the kitchen and the chickens ate what they could find in the yard.
It was a quintessential family farm.
We mourn the loss of the family farm as if it were a bucolic Camelot. Politicians with country constituencies do it routinely, meanwhile getting elected with agribusiness support. There is no room in today’s world for a subsistence farm where pigs feed on slop and you make your soap from their rendered lard. No one wants to live that way anyway. Only poor people use home-made soap and raw milk is dangerous.
We, in our comfortable ignorance, sigh for what was often was a thin, mean life. People, especially kids, died of diseases that are only historical curiosities today: diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever.
The Finnells and Vances were poor people. They didn’t think of themselves that way, but they lived ‘way below the poverty line as we define it today. They worked from, as a friend says, “can’t see to can’t see.” That’s all they did–work. They raised pigs to eat and there was no freezer for storage. They smoked the hams and bacon. The smell from the smokehouse on a cold winter day was mouth-watering. Chickens were free to roam until my aunt’s culinary eye settled on a luckless victim and then she planted a substantial foot on its neck and jerked upward on its feet and it was history.
Food was plentiful. No one ever went hungry, but they made-do with old clothing. New shoes were as rare as an eclipse. A night out was a pie supper at the nearby Asbury Church once or twice a year.
The romance of the family farm? There was nothing romantic in a midnight trek to the outhouse in December because something had caused a digestive Mt. St. Helens. In summer, they shared the outhouse with ill-tempered stinging insects: wasps, yellowjackets and the occasional sociopathic bumblebee.
My kinfolk spent much of the summer cutting firewood by hand–there were no chain saws then–and the house, insulated about one-fourth as well as today’s houses, lost heat as soon as the fire in the stove burned low. It wouldn’t get warm until someone got up well before dawn and built a fire.
Stereo-in-cab tractors may be overkill, but they beat a team of indifferent horses and a walking plow. Even a riding mower was no picnic. The iron wheels felt as if they were square. No one had a sunshade. You endured heat and bugs and dust and sweat. There were no balers for hay. You pitched it with a fork atop a horse drawn wagon. It smelled good, but stuck to your sweaty body.
Some opted to leave for the city, as my father and his brother did in the 1920s. They didn’t know if Chicago would be easier than Chariton County, but they figured it couldn’t be tougher.
My Uncle Sam once was asleep in his Chicago apartment when a bullet came through the window and lodged in the wall just above his head. Bullets often flew in Chicago’s streets, but they did back on the farm, too. Uncle Sam accidentally shot my father in the lip with a .22 caliber rifle when they were kids. My father carried the bullet all his life. Sis and Finney’s kids also chose different paths. None farmed or ever wanted to. Roy Joe, the only son and heir apparent, parachuted into Normandy on June 6, 1944, broke his back on landing and fought for five days behind enemy lines. He married an English war bride and became an urbanite.
Fifty years later, he was stooped and gray-haired, more than 70, a kindly person, bitten by the harsh wind. He had become an Episcopal priest, remarried after his war bride died, and would die himself at 85. In one of life’s tiny ironies, Roy Joe’s war bride is buried at Asbury Church, a half-mile from his home, but he’s buried 200 miles away.
The guy in the green athletic jacket and the cowboy hat wanted the place. He topped Maurice’s bids without hesitation. Maurice chewed on his bids like tough meat, being coerced into yet another $500 raise by the impatient auctioneer (who had another farm to sell as soon as he settled this one).
Finally the auctioneer knocked the place down to the cowboy and Maurice shrugged his shoulders philosophically in the cold wind and said, “I gotta spend this afternoon on a tractor and I’m not looking forward to it.”
I looked at the cowboy who glowered at the crowd as if afraid they’d deny him his hard-won prize.
“Come see us,” said the cousins. “If you’re ever in town, come see us.”
And I promised I would but I only knew one thing for certain. I never again will stand beneath the maples, knowing that my tap roots grow deep on this old ridge.

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