Archive for July, 2017

  • Blog
  • July 30th, 2017

BYGONE DAYS

By Joel M. Vance

When I was 16 I began to write my autobiography on an antique Underwood typewriter that belonged to my parents. It had a worn-out ribbon that forced me to attack the keys as if I were killing noxious bugs. The period key punched tiny holes in the paper so that if you held it to the light it looked like a piano roll.
But had that code been played on an old player piano the tune would have been Bill Robinson’s famous song from the 1920s “Nobody.” (“I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no how….”) After a few pages of family background, gleaned from a Chariton County history written in the late 1800s, I discovered that I had nothing more to write.
I was living with my parents in a 17-room former railroad hotel, dating to the 1800s, that had no running water and an outhouse up the hill. The only water was from a cistern, located directly downhill from the outhouse. You could almost see the virulent microbes doing the Australian crawl, shouting, “Come on in. The water’s lethal!”
Consequently my father bummed drinking water from his sharecropper farmers who no doubt wondered about the business acumen of someone who needed to beg water from his tenants.
This would appear to be the underpinnings for an autobiography in the Horatio Alger mode, perhaps titled “Up From Poverty.” (or maybe “Up The Hill From Poverty” if I were to write about the outhouse). Since I was starved for writing material (and I was), you’d think I could bring a tear to the reader’s eye with an account of trudging up the hill in the dead of winter, the bitter wind biting through my thin hand-me-down, insufficient coat, my eyes stinging with tears, to relieve myself of a thin gruel of beans.
But I don’t recall ever eating bean gruel, thin or otherwise. We did have bean soup with home-made cornbread which, contrary to the description of gruel as it is known, is about as close to Heaven as you can get without dying. You chunk the beans full of chopped bacon and you slather the cornbread with butter and honey. Or we did, anyway.
We had plenty to eat and if our clothing looked as if it were direct ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog it’s because it was. My father was part owner of nearly 1,000 acres in Missouri and more than 600 in Kansas. The Kansas place, right out of an old Gunsmoke episode even had a couple of producing oil wells on it, creaking their endless metallic lullaby to the cruising coyotes and the prairie wind. So there was money coming in, occasionally a tad quicker than it went out.
The money mostly went into paying off the land debt, not into a modern toilet (although sometimes that amounts to the same thing). We were land poor in the classic sense. Our car was barely post-World War Two, bought when my parents were flush middle-class urbanites. But it gradually was rusting toward oblivion. Given that life in Dalton, Missouri, was as close to a rural backwater as you can get without becoming a hermit, I felt I was rusting toward oblivion, too.
My parents had uprooted themselves from a middle-class life in Chicago in 1947. My father, a perfume oils salesman, had been offered a promotion to the New York office of his firm which also had offices in France. My mother and I did not want to move even farther from our roots–hers in northern Wisconsin; mine on southside Chicago six blocks from a Lake Michigan beach and five blocks from a library. That covered every desire I had at age 12, not having discovered sex yet except in the academic sense
I don’t think my father was entirely happy about the promotion either, since he hailed from a hard rock farm in Missouri and since his major investment was in another Missouri farm. In New York he would be even farther from the nexus of his investment. Chicago was one thing—he’d been there since the 1920s–but New York was another planet and one that seemed, to Midwesterners, hostile and frightening.
So my father resigned the job he had held for more than 20 years and poured both himself and his accumulated resources into the farm he, his brother and a partner were struggling to buy. That partner, Larry Pillsbury, was a loose cannon who never met a bargain he could resist. He was held in check until he made a trip to Missouri to scope out their investment and couldn’t resist buying (1) a sawmill and; (2) a 17-room former railroad hotel in Dalton, Missouri, a town with an indifferent past and no obvious future.
Ultimately my father disposed of the sawmill, but no one in his right mind would have bought the Dalton Hotel. I’m sure my father looked for someone both insane and with money but failed to find one. So we moved into the hotel in 1947 and lived there through my high school years. I was 13 when we moved in and a college freshman when they moved outside of Macon, setting the stage for what would become the love of my life.
Aside from the dubious romance of living in a ramshackle hotel with two adults and a small dog, my life lacked Dickensian hardship. Instead of Angela’s ashes, I hauled clinkers from the rusty furnace in the hotel basement that most resembled something out of Friday the 13th. Freddie Kruger would have felt right at home in the dank catacomb that housed the furnace. The hotel, built from the timbers of a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River several miles south of Dalton in the 1800s, creaked and moaned day and night, perhaps reliving the moment when the boat it had been blew up and sank. The dog occasionally would stare at a corner of a room and growl.
My secret life was no more interesting than that of the most naive farm boy, of which there were many, and a whole lot less interesting than those few who dated ewes on the sly. Dalton, as a hotbed of vice, was on a par with a Sunday school picnic chaperoned by two dozen grim-faced members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. There were no bars and only a few girls past puberty, none of whom exhibited the loose morals of the Thorne Smith novels I was fond of reading. Not that I would have known a loose girl if I saw one.
Once I invited the only girl in Dalton my age to come by and pick up some books my parents had finished.
I had stashed a copy of Mickey Spillane’s My Gun Is Quick which had, for the time, an erotic scene and the cover alone, showing a buxom blonde shedding her dress in front of Mike Hammer, was enough to make me break out with facial blemishes. I could have recited the smoking passages verbatim, so many times had I read them. I suspected my gun would be quicker than Hammer’s.
I planned to invite her in for a Coke and somehow work the conversation around to Spillane’s steamy prose and when she evinced an interest in reading it, open the book to a telling page, then lean over her shoulder, breathing hotly into her shell-like ear as she became increasingly aroused.
Then we would engage in…whatever it was Mike Hammer engaged in after that blonde finished disrobing (although as I remember he shot her in the stomach and she died with a look of disbelief on her face).
The time for my assignation came and went. The object of my lust didn’t show up, then or at any other time. I disgustedly threw my robe over a chair, hid the Spillane book again, put on a pair of cutoff blue jeans, and went down the street to shoot some basketball goals at the town’s one-room school. It was the equivalent of what the Boy Scout manual once recommended for runaway libido—taking a cold hip bath, advice which may account for a decline in interest among teenagers for the Boy Scout movement.
While my peers were consorting with loose girls (or so I imagined, although I suspect most of them were slopping hogs and shoveling soybeans), I crouched over the venerable Underwood in my loft atelier (which was the former lobby of the former railroad hotel) and adopted what I hoped was the look of a Left Bank expatriate from the Jazz Age, lacking only a trim mustache and Brilliantined hair (my whiskers were embarrassingly sparse and my hair stuck up oddly, cowlicked like that of a mixed parentage dog and was immune to Brilliantine or anything short of Super Glue which hadn’t yet been invented). I listened to scratchy 78 r.p.m. recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and imagined myself to be Thorne Smith.
Smith was an alcoholic novelist of the Roaring Twenties whose heroes and heroines alternated between getting drunk and getting laid–two situations which, as a hormonally-supercharged teenager in Dalton, Missouri, I not only craved, but aspired to as Moses aspired to Heaven. Moses and I had differing views of what Heaven would be. I was equipped with a surfeit of pheromones. I wafted them on the Chariton County breezes like a barnstorming pilot scattering propaganda leaflets–but somehow they never settled upon the nubile objects of my thwarted lust or if they did they were dismissed as just more Chariton County bottomland dust.
Lack of success never seemed to blunt my lofty ambitions. I just knew that someday I would become the boulevardier of my daydreams, seducing voluptuous beauties, lionized in the literary salons. Meanwhile I detasseled seed corn for fifty cents an hour, 10 hours a day in searing summer heat, and wrote ripoffs of Robert Benchley’s humor and J.D. Salinger’s short stories.
I knew I would go to the University of Missouri Journalism School, one of the nation’s best and most respected. I would become a tough newspaperman like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and, even more pertinently, Hildy Johnson, the hero of their play “Front Page.” I would cover executions and maybe snap forbidden photos of the moment of death with a hidden camera, the way a New York Post photographer had done in the ribald Roaring Twenties.
The dream and the reality were quite different. A few years later, working as a reporter on the Montgomery Alabama Journal, the managing editor asked me if I wanted to cover an execution. By then I had realized that violent death, even that sanctioned by the state, wasn’t something I wanted to experience.
“Jesus H. Christ, no!” I exclaimed, shuddering. I was doing business reporting and the most exciting stories I wrote were about new washing machines on sale at the local appliance store. It wasn’t exciting, but I didn’t have to watch someone writhing as they shot seven amps of electricity through his head. I had lost my enthusiasm for witnessing the final spasms of anyone, convicted killer or not. The childhood romance of blood and thunder had given way to the bloody realization of life and death.
When I was a 10-year-old in World War Two falling dead dramatically during our neighborhood war games was pure fun. You could gain peer admiration by sprawling recklessly under a hail of make-believe lead. We vaguely knew that older boys were dying around the globe from real bullets, but death was a fuzzy concept that meant nothing in our sunny Chicago neighborhood.
In memory the sun shines and the neighborhood gathered at the Victory Gardens adjacent to our apartment buildings on Prairie Avenue, and we had a picnic. Once, at one of those get-togethers, a teenage girl bent over for something and I looked down the gape of her blouse and saw my first female breasts, unfettered by a brassiere. It’s the kind of memory that sticks with you. War was pretty much fun.
By the time I graduated from high school, war play had been replaced by the reality of Korea and an almost certain 1-A draft status. Since visiting Korea never had been part of my career plan, even when the country was not at war, my choice was easy. I either went to college or Korea. College was scary, but Korea was even moreso. Korea was a long way from Dalton and, as far as I could tell, no North Koreans or Chinese Communists were creeping up the Dalton Bottoms, intent on capturing Steiman’s Orchard.
I had drunk less than a case of beer and enjoyed it only because it was forbidden, not because I liked the taste. I was a virgin and the only titillating secret I could have revealed in a tell-all memoir was that I smoked–probably not much of a secret, since I was hopeless at evasion, along with most everything else. In fact I set fire to the family car with a cigarette and lied about it so unconvincingly that my parents merely shook their heads and hoped for the best.
I was sipping a Coke at a roadhouse in Keytesville (one of the few places in central Missouri where an underage kid couldn’t buy a beer) when a fellow came in and said, “Did you know your car is on fire?” It was said casually, as if he had accepted that I’d probably intentionally set the car on fire so it could smolder while I had a Coke with my buddies.
It took a moment to register that the car my father had, no doubt with serious misgivings, entrusted to me for the evening was at that moment being consumed by flames. Horror paralyzed me for a moment and then I sprinted out the door and beheld the family Ford filled with smoke. Someone, probably me, had flipped a cigarette out the window and it had blown back in and burned a baseball-sized hole in the rear seat.
I had a seven-mile drive to think of a believable lie. Unfortunately there were none. This was well before the days of international terrorism and, even had there been Middle Eastern arsonists, they wouldn’t have been at Bon’s Place in Keytesville, Missouri, looking to set fire to an automobile already well on its way to the salvage yard . The family dog, the usual passenger in the car, for all her faults, could not be blamed for incendiary indiscretion.
So I went home, reeking of cigarette smoke, to tell my parents that there was an inexplicable problem with the upholstery in the Ford. I explained that somehow the rear seat had caught on fire. I hoped vaguely that they would conclude that spontaneous combustion was more common in 1947 Fords than they had any reason to believe.
“Were you smoking?” my mother asked.
“No!” I quavered, lying as unconvincingly as a war criminal. They knew better, but my parents did not like confrontation and let me get away with it. The Ford was pretty well shot by then anyway. They covered the hole with an old blanket and the family dog snuggled in, as content as she had been when the seat was whole.
Given my paucity of imagination regarding the smoldering Ford, it’s a wonder I even considered being a writer, especially one of fiction, where imagination is a prerequisite.
I had it in mind that I either would go to New York and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table, nevermind that it had been dropkicked into history a couple of decades earlier, or I would emigrate to Paris to become part of the Left Bank counterculture, nevermind that it also had fragmented about the time I was born.
Yes, these were the ambitions of a Dalton, Missouri, youngster with a stockpile of imagination and nowhere to spend it. Reality was corn and beans endlessly roaring down the spouts of the Dalton Elevator across the street from the rickety hotel and dust swirling in the eddy of grain trucks going to and from the elevator and my father trying to be the seigneur of a thousand acres of Chariton County bottomland, while begging water from his tenant farmers.

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  • Blog
  • July 24th, 2017

MISSOURI–QUICK DRAW CAPITAL OF THE COUNTRY

By Joel M. Vance

In school, I l learned that my home, Missouri, became a state in 1820, along with many other facts of history that in no way have changed or illuminated my life. But what they didn’t teach me was that Missouri through the years, has produced or been host to a legion of legendary bad boys and girls.
Maybe it’s appropriate to take a look back through history, this being the hundredth anniversary of the end of the James and Younger brothers gang. Cole Younger last of the surviving brothers of that infamous clan cashed in his chips in 1916, after a long life of brigandry. Allegedly, he was perforated some 17 times during the during the gang’s ill-fated assault on Northfield, Minnesota.
Proving that Missouri’s production of bad people was not limited to guys, a trio of Missouri bred women broke the glass barrier in outlawry. Martha Jane Canary was not a songbird unless you count a soiled dove as a songbird. A native of Princeton in north central Missouri, she wound up as a hooker in Deadwood, South Dakota, enamored of Wild Bill Hickok, who got his start as a shootist by gunning down a guy on the Springfield square in Southwest Missouri. He also wound up planted in Deadwood after an equally unsavory character put a bullet in the back of his head, during a poker game. Wild Bill was holding pairs of aces and eights, forever after to be known as dead man’s hand.
One biographical note about Martha Jane known as Calamity Jane, described her as comely. But photographs pretty much portray her as being as ugly as 40 miles of bad road. She wore men’s clothing and it would have been hard to tell her from the rowdies she hung around with. She was a part-time whore and it doesn’t say much for the sensibilities of her clientele that she even had a clientele. She swore she was married to wild Bill, who in his wildest days probably never considered marrying a worn out whore, considering that he already was married.
Calamity was one of several Missouri bred bad ladies, and of the group probably the most innocuous. Far worse was Belle Starr, native of Carthage in southwest Missouri who was a gun totin’, rootin’ tootin’ authentic outlaw. There is a studio portrait of Ms. Starr, which presumably is the way she wanted to be remembered. She’s holding a pistol in one hand and another tucked into a shoulder holster . Not a woman to be trifled with. Although, according to rumor, she and Cole Younger did trifle to the point where she bore him a child, although Younger denied that.
She wasn’t without love, however. She married an uncle of Cole Younger’s for three weeks and finally married a Cherokee Indian, Sam Starr, who ultimately was killed in a gunfight. Belle did nine months for stealing horses and wound up the last several years of her life having affairs with various men, including the infamous Cherokee Indian, Blue Duck., who is most famous as the baddest of the bad men in Larry McMurtry’s Western saga, Lonesome Dove.
The old saying is that, “those who live by the gun, died by the gun.” It’s true in Belle Starr’s case, although no one knows who was on the other end of the gun that killed her. She was in Oklahoma at the time and would have been 41 years old two days after a person unknown nailed her with a shotgun. Typically she had been fooling around with a couple of guys and the story is that one of them took umbrage at her flirtation and shot her when she stopped to give her a horse a drink. (Of water, not booze).
Speaking of bad ladies who enjoyed being photographed wearing guns, there was Bonnie Parker, not a Missourian but a tourist, who celebrated her visits to Missouri by engaging in shootouts with the police, first in Joplin, later in Platte City. At the end in company with her boyfriend Clyde Barrow, she would be shot to doll rags on a Louisiana rural road. She and Clyde and their gang had a hide out in Joplin and after they escaped the Joplin hideout, following a violent gun battle where they killed a couple of cops, police found a roll of undeveloped film which included a photograph of Bonnie smoking a cigar and carrying a pistol. However, both were born in Texas and were only in Missouri to hide out from the law and practice shooting Missourians.
After the Joplin shoot out they migrated north to Platte City where they once again attracted the attention of police and engaged in another violent shootout. Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, received what proved to be a mortal head wound. It was the beginning of the end for the Parker/Barrow gang, and on May 3 23rd, 1934, a posse of lawmen shot Bonnie and Clyde at least 25 times each.
Compared to Bonnie Parker and Belle Starr, Calamity Jane was nothing more than a outlaw groupie, whose main desire was to be not only married to, but buried with Wild Bill Hickok, at least one of which ambitions she realized. Today, their graves are side-by-side in Deadwood, although it is questionable whether either one of them actually is buried there. Tourists love this seedy love story, however.
As disreputable as Jane, Belle, and Bonnie were perhaps the most fearsome of the Missouri connected ladies was Zerelda James, the mother of Jesse and Frank. She comes across as a grouchy old dragon with the disposition of a dyspeptic badger.
Actually James was the name of her first of three husbands, ironically an evangelical minister who, after the birth of their fourth child together (Frank was the first, the second died as an infant, Jesse was the third, and a daughter Susan was the final child) took off for California to preach to gold miners. He died there and his grave site is unknown.
Meanwhile, Zerelda married a second man who didn’t like Frank and Jesse, not hard to understand, given their subsequent homicidal history, and she left him when he was thrown by a horse and broke his neck.
The third marriage was to Dr. Reuben Samuel with whom she had four more children. After Jesse was murdered by “that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard” Zerelda had him buried in her front yard near Kearney, Missouri, and made money by selling pebbles from the grave to tourists, along with rusty guns that she bought here and there and which she claimed had belonged to Jesse.
Now to the distaff side. It seems like every time parents in 19th century Missouri had more than one male child the brothers became outlaws. Think of the Jameses. The Youngers. The Daltons. The Fords.
Take them in order. We all know what happened to Jesse after a lifetime of psychopathic murder, starting with his involvement in the Civil War as a bushwhacker, belonging to the William Clarke Quantrill gang which seemed to specialize in killing residents of Kansas. Quantrill tutored both the James boys and the Youngers in the art of murder which they carried on into their postwar careers.
The barbarity of the Quantrill band and that of his subsequent understudy Bloody Bill Anderson is almost beyond belief. It was Quantrill who led the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, where his outlaw band slaughtered an estimated 180 men and boys and left the town in ruins.
Later on, Quantrill’s acolyte, Bloody Bill Anderson and his merry band shot and killed 22 Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri, leaving one man alive to tell the tale. The story is that Arch Clement, a complete psychopath, lined up several Union soldiers and fired a bullet into the first one to see how many he could kill with one shot. Little Arch as he was known, prone to scalp the Union soldiers he killed. Fortunately he only lived to be 20 years old before he was gunned down in Lexington, Missouri.
Regardless, slaughters was typical of the senseless brutality of the guerrillas and if anyone is upset today about the removal of Confederate monuments around the country, consider that Quantrill is buried at the Confederate Soldiers Memorial in Higginsville, Missouri, a state historic site.
Neither Quantrill or Anderson survived the Civil War. Both died by bullet, Quantrill by a bullet in the back at Louisville, Kentucky, and Anderson by a bullet behind the ear at Albany, Missouri. Both men were in their 20s when they bought the farm. Not so most of the James and Younger brothers, who survived the war and took their finely honed skills for mayhem into the wonderful world of crime.
There were 14 Younger children, a considerable pool from which to choose criminals. But it was John, one of the youngest, who was the first to die. Too young for the Civil War, he stayed home with Bob, to take care of their mother. After the war when his older brothers had formed the James and Younger gang, he eagerly joined up. In 1874, only 23 years old, he and brother Jim engaged in a shoot out with a deputy and a couple of Pinkerton private eyes and John lost.
That left Cole, Bob, and Jim to ride north with Frank and Jesse James to seek fame and fortune in Northfield, Minnesota, a lovely town which, today, is far more hospitable to tourists than it was September 7, 1876, when the gang tried to rob the local bank. They managed to kill the bank teller and an innocent bystander before the townspeople rallied and started shooting back. All three Youngers were wounded and later captured, but the James boys managed to escape and make it back to Missouri.
Bob died of tuberculosis in prison, Jim survived to 1901 when he was paroled and committed suicide a year later. Cole soldiered on. With his three other brothers shot up and shut up and shot dead only Cole was left. While the Younger brothers were decimated the family connections continued. Their aunt was the mother of what became the infamous Dalton Brothers gang.
The Dalton brothers hailed from Jackson County, Missouri, and had an outlaw career that was short-lived, as were they. Ambitious types, they decided to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas, not far from the Missouri border. The oldest brother Frank actually was a deputy US marshal, a law man. Younger brothers, Grat, Bob, and Emmett started out as law officers, but decided that crime paid better, a fatal mistake as it turned out.
They robbed several trains in Indian territory and then, inspired by the exploits of the James gang, decided to relieve Coffeyville of its bank assets. They wore fake beards, like something out of a silent movie comedy, but still were recognized by somebody in town and by the time they hit the two banks the townspeople, like those in Northfield , were armed and angry. Grat and Bob Dalton and another gang member all wound up dead and Emmett somehow survived 23 bullet wounds. After being pardoned he wound up in California as a real estate agent and movie actor.
Proving that experience is not necessarily the best teacher, another brother, Bill Dalton continued on a life of crime and wound up being killed by a posse near Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1894 two years after his brothers bit the dust.
The last of the so-called outlaw moms was Arizona Barker, mother of Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. Known as Ma Barker, she has gone down in history as the matriarch and brains of an outlaw band, but apparently she was more of a confused and incompetent old lady whose major misstep was that she gave aid and comfort to her nefarious kids. The boys started as early as 1910 when Herman not only committed highway robbery, but ran over a kid while trying to make a getaway.
Herman committed suicide in 1927 the only one of the Barker boys who offered a public service. It’s astonishing and certainly no tribute to law enforcement that the other brothers repeatedly were arrested for violent crimes and subsequently released from prison to rob and kill again. Fred and Ma were gunned down by the FBI Florida in 1935. Arthur made it to 1939 when he was killed trying to escape from Alcatraz prison. Lloyd served in World War II and actually got a good conduct medal, but didn’t do so well on the home front— his wife killed him.
Thus ended the era of the family hangs. But Missouri was not done with bad guys and girls.
There was Vivienne Chase, who was associated with several robbers and also involved in a famous kidnapping and who was found dead in a car in 1935, of course in Kansas City, one of Missouri’s murder capitals. Then there was Stella Dixon wife of Benny who helped him rob a bank in South Dakota. Benny was killed by the FBI in St. Louis and Stella made out better than most of the molls of the era— she only got 10 years in the pen.
Esther Farmer was married to Herbert Allen “Deafy” Farmer. Both were involved in an infamous plot to free Frank “Jelly” Nash in January, 1935. The result was a wild shootout at Kansas City’s Union Station allegedly involving one of the greats of the era’s gangsters, Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd was in Missouri at the time but there is much doubt as to whether he actually was involved in the shoot out which resulted in the murder of four law enforcement officers and Jelly himself.
Innocent or not, Floyd was living on borrowed time as were all of these gangster guys and gals. After a long life of crime involving murder and bank robbery and prison time, Pretty Boy was tracked to Wellsville, Ohio, where local police and the FBI gunned him down. Although there have been many criminals and crimes since the wild 1930s, none has approached the wild West atmosphere of Missouri for that three quarters-plus of a century between about 1860 and 1940.
Popular literature, movies and television have attempted to glamorize many of these historic outlaws, but the fact is they all were sociopathic criminals, not worthy of praise or remembrance. None were modern Robin Hoods— they were just hoods and almost to a man or woman they got exactly what they deserved which was a fatal bullet.

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  • Blog
  • July 16th, 2017

PRESIDENTIAL DOGS

By Joel M. Vance

I suppose there is some interest in what the President intends to do about the Mideast, education, Social Security and health, but what I want to know is where’s the news about Dog One, the Presidential Dog?
Although why would Donald Trump need a dog when he already has a pit bull named Steve Bannon and a yappy little rat terrier named Sean Spicer. Every time I see KellyAnne Conway, a line from the television show Hill Street Blues pops into my mind. One of the cops, Andy Renko, when told that he was being assigned a police dog, grumbled “probably stick me with some ugly old bitch.” Don’t know why that bit of dialogue stuck in my mind–possibly for use many years later.
Presidential dogs have been traditional and a subject of interest for a long, long time, although I have a pleasant daydream of a large and incontinent Great Dane continuously watering the furniture in Trump’s private apartment in Trump Tower. In my daydream the dog also has persistent diarrhea. Did you hear squat (speaking of doggie diarrhea) during the campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton about the necessity for a first dog? Just didn’t happen. Instead, the two candidates were occupied taking pot shots at each other and ignoring one of life’s most important questions that that of the love and unquestioned loyalty of the dog to its master. Of course you can get that from Bannon and Spicer but who the hell would want to? Give me a dog any time.
The Obama family followed in the tradition of installing a first dog by adding a Portuguese water dog in 2009, named Bo. In 2013 they added Sunny, Bo’s little sister. There are no rumors of a Trump dog, but a Rottweiler with an attitude would seem appropriate.
George W. Bush had two dogs, a Scotty (shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Fala) and Spot, son of Millie, the White House dog when the first George Bush was President but you almost never heard anything about them.
Where was the news about the George W. Bush First Dog(s) during two campaigns or about the dogs belonging to the next president? In all the months of campaign rhetoric not one of the many contenders mentioned his dog. This is a nation of dog lovers and, as one who is owned by several Brittanies, I wanted to know everything about the candidates’ canine companions.
Few White Houses have been without a First Dog. Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks which got entirely too much publicity until the press tired of writing about a cat, but his dog, Buddy, a Labrador retriever, rarely was mentioned. Buddy, a tremendously handsome chocolate Lab, was killed by a car in 2000
The first First Dog belonged to Maria Monroe, daughter of President James (1817-1825) who also was the first child in the White House and the first to be married there (at 17). The dog was a spaniel of some sort, but she probably did not hunt behind it, presidential daughters not being noted for upland hunting enthusiasm.
Not all presidents have had dogs. Benjamin Harrison had a goat named His Whiskers, which tells you quite a bit about Benjamin Harrison. Once the goat ran away, down Pennsylvania Avenue, pulling a cart containing the President’s grandson, Benny. Mr. Harrison chased the cart and the press had fun with it.
Obviously something is missing from politics today, at least at the presidential level. When was the last time you saw the president chasing a goat cart down Pennsylvania Avenue?
Another example of how things have changed is the story, possibly true, of a small boy who sneaked onto the White House grounds and was fishing for goldfish in a pond when King Tut, a German shepherd belonging to Herbert Hoover, grabbed the kid by the seat of his pants and held him until the gardener showed up.
Today you’d have a dozen Secret Service agents, a hovering gunship, a SWAT team and a detachment of Green Berets all over any little kid who even looked through the fence at the goldfish pond.
As you might expect, Theodore Roosevelt, the first and greatest of the conservation-minded, outdoor-loving presidents, had a virtual zoo in the White House, including six children. All the kids, by accounts as wild as Mr. Roosevelt’s legendary charge up San Juan Hill, had ponies and lizards and rats and squirrels and even bears (a garter snake was named Emily Spinach because it was green and they had a friend named Emily).
For all Mr. Roosevelt’s hunting proclivities, apparently none of his menagerie was a hunting dog. He probably had so many that they weren’t worth mentioning. He did have a bull terrier, Pete, who was banished from the White House after he ripped the britches of the French ambassador.
Barbara Bush, wife of the first Bush president, actually ghost-wrote Millie’s Book, their springer spaniel’s autobiography, which earned more than one million dollars in royalties which Mrs. Bush donated to a foundation to endorse literacy (in people, not dogs). Mr. Bush Sr., in a moment of election year pique, was reported to have said of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.”
Caroline Kennedy’s dog, Pushinka, was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev and no doubt had the most thorough vet exam in history to make sure the dog was not implanted with listening devices. I can imagine the dog whispering into a paw-implanted transmitter, “Boss, the guy really does mean get those missiles out of Cuba!”
George Washington started the tradition of presidential pooches. He raised and hunted foxhounds. Mr. Washington kept his dogs in a kennel, not in the presidential home. Not so the Reagans who invited Lucky, an 85-pound sheepdog, given to Mr. Reagan by a March of Dimes poster child, into the White House. But Lucky, belying his name, used to drag Mrs. Reagan around as if she were a chew toy and he also misbehaved on the White House carpets.
Mrs. Reagan was less tolerant of such misbehavior than Mrs. Bush would be with Millie, so Lucky soon found himself far from the hustle and bustle of Washington, banished to the Reagan ranch in California. His successor was a King Charles spaniel who, presumably, scratched at the door when necessary, and heeled properly on leash.
Franklin Roosevelt’s black Scottie Fala was photographed almost as much as was the president. Fala was a shameless camera hound and once tried to crash an inaugural parade by jumping in the car seat that Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House, was supposed to occupy.
Mr. Roosevelt, who loved his little dog (he once sent a destroyer back for Fala after the pup had been left behind on the Aleutian Islands), no doubt would have preferred Fala to the dour Speaker, but politics is politics and Mr. Rayburn got his seat back.
Another Scottie was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s shared gift to his alleged mistress, Kay Sommersby, during World War Two. The dog’s name was Telek, a combination of Telegraph Cottage, an English retreat for the future president, and the name Kay.
The most scandalous event involving a presidential dog was when Lyndon Johnson picked one of his two beagles up by the ears, igniting the outrage of dog lovers everywhere (his choice of names was somewhat less than inspirational: he called them Him and Her). Presidents, being politicians, know the value of being considered dog lovers and Mr. Johnson was a consummate politician, but he stumbled badly with the ear-pulling incident. “Those Republicans are really bashing me about picking those darned dogs up by the ears,” he grumbled to his vice-president Hubert Humphrey.
There possibly were other issues involved in Mr. Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, but Beaglegate certainly didn’t gain him any swing votes.
Mr. Johnson also had a mutt, found at a Texas gas station, who would howl duets with the President in the Oval Office. There are photos of the two of them with their mouths open, heads lifted in song. That must have been almost as inspiring as watching Benjamin Harrison chase his goat.
Harry Truman defended his fellow Democrat over the ear-lift incident: “What the hell are the critics complaining about. That’s how you handle hounds.”
Mr. Truman also said, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.” But Mr. Truman did not follow his own advice (or maybe did not want a friend in politics). He didn’t have a dog (he was given a cocker spaniel as First Dog, but decided not to keep it). Calvin Coolidge said, “Any man who doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want them around shouldn’t be in the White House.”
Only once has a dog become intimately involved in presidential politics, other than as an attractive accessory and that was when vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, hounded (sorry for the dog pun) by allegations that rich backers were supporting him a luxurious lifestyle, made what became known as the Checkers speech in which he cried poor, using as an example his wife’s plain Republican cloth coat and emotionally defended accepting the gift of a cocker spaniel, which his daughter Tricia named Checkers.
“Regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Mr. Nixon declared. And Mr. Nixon remained on the ticket and Checkers became a presidential dog.
Jimmy Carter is a longtime quail hunter, but his presidential dog was only part bird dog–a springer spaniel, mixed with genuine alley mutt. Gerald Ford, a golfer, not a hunter, did own a hunting dog, a golden retriever named Liberty, who whelped in the White House (one puppy later became a Guide Dog for the blind).
So, presidential dogs have abounded (and bounded) and Trump unfortunately might realize there is great publicity value in fondling the soft ears of a loving dog while evading pointed questions from nosy reporters (just don’t use the dog’s ears as a handle).
The other hand, I fear that Trump actually will get a dog and as the old saying goes” that’s a fate that I wouldn’t wish upon a dog.” If Congress, the courts, and public opinion don’t bring justice to the political nightmare of the Addams family we are now enduring, perhaps the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can bring some justice to the junkyard dog’s life that Trump and his dysfunctional unreality show has inflicted on the country.

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  • July 8th, 2017

THE CIRCUS IS IN TOWN

By Joel M. Vance

Bill Clark has been my cherished friend for nearly 60 years. I’ve told many people that he is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met. Bill lives in Columbia, Missouri, and has done more for Columbia and Boone County and, for that matter, central Missouri, than anyone I can think of.
Bill recently was driving along in his ancient Toyota Camry festooned with liberal bumper stickers, and several hundred thousand miles on the odometer, when he stopped fully at a stop sign then turned right. Next thing he knew there was a police car behind him lights flashing. Bill obediently pulled over, and then, thinking that the cop was after someone behind him, continued on through a green light.
Next thing he knew the siren went on behind him and once again he pulled over. This time the stop was for real. A pair of Boone County deputies accused him of making an illegal turn by not having signaled his right turn after a stop. Now all of you raise your hands if you ever have done the same thing.
I spent 21 years with the Missouri conservation department and often worked with the conservation agents who are, at the bottom line, Cops. They are law enforcement officers authorized to do the same job as deputies, highway patrolmen or other law enforcement types. I saw them engaged in encounters with civilians many times and always was impressed with how professional and empathetic they were with those they dealt with. They all possessed that most necessary attribute of a good law enforcement officer— common sense. Once again, raise your hands if you’ve ever been pulled over by a patrolman for a minor infraction and, instead of getting a ticket, you got a warning and were sent on your way.
Not so in this case Bill got a ticket. Then he made the mistake of writing a column for the Columbia Tribune which has been his forum since the 1950s. He has written thousands of columns for insufficient pay and probably is the best-known person in the city and County. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. Bill supports the arts more than any single human in the city. There are few concerts plays or other art endeavors that he misses. He also organizes and emcees a series of musical events at the Boone County Historical Society and fills the auditorium every time. He has a fitness gym that rarely if ever has broken even but is open to those who want to improve their physical health. He has organized speed walking races and for many years ran a nationwide weightlifting competition among prisons (obviously, by mail).
For the record, Bill Clark is active in the Unitarian church, a Korean War veteran, an ardent conservationist who has with his small band of fellow birdwatchers visited more than 1000 conservation areas on weekly birding trips, has, with his wife of more than a half-century, Dolores, raised five children all of whom are praiseworthy— one a former Peace Corps worker, another a network television scriptwriter, another a software developer and on and on. Bill has never smoked nor has he ever had a drink of alcohol. He was a champion for minority civil rights long before there was any nationwide push for such reforms— before Martin Luther King, before marches on Selma, Alabama, before southern colleges ever thought of having black players or, heaven forbid, black coaches.
Also for the record the comments on his situation posted on the Internet are frightening. Overwhelmingly, they support what the deputies did which is okay—apparently the deputies played it by the book and were professional although why they didn’t simply issue a warning and let the situation deflate is debatable. But most of the comments are downright horrifying. One suggested the police simply should have shot Bill. Many were profanely abusive and many seem to equate that what Bill did was because he’s a liberal and therefore an un-American whiner who doesn’t deserve to drive and should’ve been jailed. The lynch mob reaction was a microcosm of what’s wrong with the country and why we have a president elected by the very type of proto-Nazis who would suggest shooting a man for a minor traffic violation.
What Bill did was a minor transgression blown out of proportion. My question for the Columbia Tribune is don’t they have an editor who vets Bill’s column? His inappropriate comments on the Sheriff’s Department should’ve been stopped before they ever got in print. And my question for the Sheriff’s Department is why turn this into a major brouhaha instead of just sitting down with Bill and the editorial staff of the Columbia Tribune and settling the whole thing quietly without turning it into a media circus and a forum for all the nutcases to vent their odious spleen?
Bill will apologize in print as he should and, one would hope, be reinstated to his voice in the newspaper. He is not a crusading, muckraking newsman, nor is he Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, exposing corruption and perfidy in high places. He’s a guy who for decades has been cataloguing the humanity of his home town with humor, compassion, and a great love for the place where he lives.
This incident is symptomatic of the malady infecting the whole country. We have a president decrying “fake news” and “the lying press” nearly every day in an attempt to distract the world from realizing that he is a lousy president with nothing to brag about and much to hide. The good people of Columbia should rally in defense of this good man who has given so much to the community for so little in return, but who also has not asked for any return.
Who to blame here? Bill for committing a minor traffic violation and then mouthing off to the cops? The cops for not de-escalating the incident? Bill for writing an inflammatory column? The newspaper for not defusing the column before it ran? The Sheriff for throwing gasoline on the fire by responding to the column? But most of the blame should accrue to the segment of the population that seized on the incident to heap abuse on Bill. And also some to me for not allowing the entire thing to sink into the mud where it belongs.
On the other hand we have a constitutional guarantee of a free press in the United States and without that guarantee we are no better than Russia or any other totalitarian regime. Remember, when the press is muzzled, whether you agree with what the press says or not, freedom likewise is muzzled.

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  • July 6th, 2017

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL….SOMETIMES

I was intending to post this blog on July 4 but wound up taking a sick day instead. I’ve posted it before and realize it is specific to Veteran’s Day, but somehow it seems more appropriate now on another national holiday, a celebration of the nation’s heritage. Especially when our lying, deadbeat, crotch grabbing president is holding the prestige and heritage of 241 years of the United States of America in his grubby little hands as he faces the world’s leaders.

By Joel M. Vance

It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”
Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.
I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.
The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.
And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.
Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.
We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.
We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.
But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.
It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.
Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.
We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last native acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.
While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.
So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.
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