Archive for October, 2017

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  • October 29th, 2017

GONE HOME TONEW ORLEANS

By JoelM. Vance

A sprawling low ceiling room, filled with the stench of cigarette smoke (this was in the days when not only everyone smoked, but there were no prohibitions against it in public places), stale beer and sweating college students. The atmosphere was light years away from emulating the name of the place– the Paradise Club, part dance hall, part roadhouse, and all unique in Columbia, Missouri, where it introduced a generation of college students to seminal rock ‘n roll. There were three colleges to draw from–the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and Christian (now Columbia College).
It was for the last couple of years of my largely undistinguished college career, a Mecca of Music, a place where the aficionados of early rock ‘n roll could hear the giants of the genre in person. It sprawled four miles east of Columbia on old Highway 40, and there African-Americans and white college students mingled freely in an era when segregation still was in full flower and the three colleges were virtually lily white. The presence of several burly bouncers, who looked like the front four of any given NFL defensive line ensured that racial disharmony would be short-lived— but I never saw anything untoward just people enjoying the best of roots rock ‘n roll.
Outside in the crowded parking lot there was a Mount Everest of empty beer cans where once, while being introduced to the date of an acquaintance, I lost my balance and fell backward into that reeking monument to college degradation that, to give it its due, cushioned my fall. The guy went on to be the attorney for the University of Missouri, and I suspect he doesn’t remember the incident, and neither does his date, other than with disgust, but the moment is etched in my memory forever. That same attorney-to-be also had taught me to sift a salt shaker into a foaming glass of beer to temper the head on the beer, a useful trick for any lawyer. Apparently I had done considerable salt sifting that night, which is why I lost my tenuous grip on balance.
But I was not at the Paradise Club to fall into mountains of beer cans or to shake salt into my drink, despite my dive into the crumpled Budweiser talus. I was there to drink in the music of an entertainer who to this day, a sad one as it turns out, lingers in my memory like the sweet aftertaste of beer that didn’t go flat (thanks, no doubt to a deftly manipulated saltshaker). The evening news, now that my days of falling into mountains of beer cans, and seasoning my foaming beer glass, are regretfully over, carried the story that Fats Domino had died. If, in later years, there would be Deadheads who followed the fortunes of the Grateful Dead with the devotion of religious zealots, I was (and just skip the lame jokes) a Fatshead. Fats was the apotheosis of rock ‘n roll, nevermind the other giants who shared fame with him.
Yes, there was Little Richard, who attacked a piano as if he were afraid that if he didn’t it would attack back, Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage to the irrepressible lilt of “Sweet Little Sixteen’, and that amped up white kid from the Memphis area who would be crowned the King of rock ‘n roll —but not by those us who were Fatsheads. To give him credit the Memphis King is the only rock ‘n roll artist who sold more records than my king. But Fats racked up 68 million records sold and had more sales than Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly put together. Not bad, considering that Fats never had a record that hit number one on the best-selling chart. “Blueberry Hill” came closest topping out at number two.
The chunky baritone from New Orleans, with the fluid Cajun accent and a pounding boogie beat, was the real King of rock ‘n roll to me and always will be as long as I’m around to pay homage. Fats didn’t much like his lardy nickname when it was first applied to him but when he sold one million copies of his first recording titled “The Fat Man” he accepted the moniker with gratitude and a gold record.
The Paradise Club was respite from the drudgery and trauma of college classes. To be sure, there were classes that I enjoyed like French, with the idea in mind that I would someday travel to Paris, and live on the Left Bank and join the ranks of the literary lions of yesteryear— Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and those guys. Then there were classes like sociology, a so-called science that I equated with alchemy and the summoning of evil entities through devil worship. There were no devils at the Paradise Club, only the Angels of rock ‘n roll.
For his greatness, Fats only had an eight year career in the upper reaches of the charts before the Beatles came along and blew everyone out of the water. Still he didn’t quit even though early rock ‘n roll morphed into music that bore little relation to the boogie, rhythm and blues, and jazz roots that had nurtured it. He was still touring and filling small clubs with aficionados with long memories when he vanished amid the chaos of Hurricane Katrina and was feared dead. Several days later he was rescued along with his wife of 50 years from the roof of their destroyed home. Gone was the legacy of his musical career including his gold records, but his indomitable amiability remained as did he until time caught up with him.
Once I took a date to the Paradise, a freshman (or are they now in this era of gender equality, called freshwomen?) from Stephens College (they were and probably still are called Stephens Susies). Normally, our outings to the Paradise were guys-only where we could be unfettered and ill mannered without the animus of a date. My little Susie turned out to be a loose cannon who, feeling the effects of a drink or two which she acquired from God knows where (not me—I didn’t have enough money to buy a half pint of Jim Beam) she ran through the parking lot opening cars and jumping in while I vainly tried to corral her. It was like trying to put a halter on an unbroken filly and I vowed to myself that if I ever succeeded in getting this girl back to her dorm, I would, first of all, never date again and secondly I would never take another date to the Paradise Club.
Fortunately, I did date again and 61 years later, I am married to a subsequent date— but I never took Marty to the Paradise Club.
The parade of rock ‘n roll superstars who appeared at the Paradise Club is astonishing. Ike and Tina Turner owned a piece of the place, and appeared there many times. I saw BB King plucking blue notes out of Lucille, his fabled electric guitar as if he were back in the cotton fields of Arkansas pulling cotton bolls before the world realized his genius. Chuck Berry traveled over from his home in St. Louis to astonish with often copied guitar licks (hail, hail rock ‘n roll!).
Of them all there was one, only one, who approached Fats in my affection. He actually predated Fats in grabbing my musical mind by its metaphorical throat. Ray Charles sang “Come Back, Baby” on a distant radio station from somewhere in Arkansas and I picked it up on our old Zenith upright radio in Macon, Missouri, where I spent lonely weekends, because I had no baby to come back. Macon was the new town to which we had moved from Dalton where music appreciation ended about the time of the Edison phonograph. Charles had begun as a Nat King Cole clone, but had switched to black gospel-inflected blues and ”Come Back, Baby” was so raw with emotion that it made me shiver all over.
There he was, one night at the Paradise Club, not yet one of the towering musical geniuses of the 20th century, but to those of us who had delved into black rock ‘n roll before that insipid Pat Boone began to rip off black artists with his pallid and uninspired cover records, he was the real deal.
At the break I went to the stage, hoping to get an autograph but was intercepted by one of the Raylettes, and when I told her what I wanted she said I’ll sign it,” and did so.
Ray Charles was to the back of the stage slumped on his piano bench and although I didn’t know it, he was floating on a heroin high, a drug which ultimately he would kick en route to immortality
Our drug of choice was dime a glass beer or the cheapest whiskey possible—Early Times was a raw favorite, barely out of the still. If you want to experience the full flavor of Ray Charles musical genius look up the YouTube video of him and Willie Nelson singing “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Still, as much as I love Ray Charles, and the other legends of early rock ‘n roll, it was Fats Domino who dominated my affection. There is an indelible memory of the one night I saw him at the Paradise Club, in the full flower of his fame. He sat at the front of the stage, pounding out hit after hit, and leaning slightly toward the audience as if to inhale them. He sweated mightily with the effort of his entertainment, his ever genial smile warming the audience like a ray of sunshine.
Directly in front of him, perhaps six or eight feet back into the room was a support pillar against which leaned an enormous African-American lady who jiggled with the beat like a great bowl of Jell-O. It was hard to tell whether she was supporting the post or vice versa but to her it was a dance partner. She rotated around the pillar 360°, never losing contact with it. Each time she came face-to-face with Fats, she would jerk an enormous handkerchief from somewhere, the size of a bedsheet, and step forward to mop his streaming brow, after which she would step backward against her pillar and Fats would illuminate her with his capacious grin.
The Paradise Club is a long gone and now so is Fats Domino. It’s the fate of old men to mourn the golden moments of yesteryear, those pinpricks of sheer joy that will not come again.

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  • Blog
  • October 25th, 2017

LOST RIVER

By Joel M. Vance

Long before President Eisenhower became the father of the interstate highway system, the country was traversed by rivers. The earliest explorers probed up the upper Mississippi River in the 1600s and were frightened by the tumultuous rush of the Missouri River at its mouth. Then Lewis and Clark braved the Missouri River en route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5. Later explorers included the naturalist John James Audubon, and George Catlin a painter who documented Indian tribes that the white man callously exterminated by infecting them with smallpox against which they had no immunity.
Most settlers and pioneers who invaded what now is the United States relied on rivers to get from here to there. The Chariton River once threaded its way halfway through Missouri from Iowa to the Missouri River, a serpentine waterway that even as it quarters the top half of the state, also bisects the history of the Vance family. Almost all pioneers in Missouri and elsewhere owe some of their heritage to a river of some size, but the Chariton River is woven inextricably through the fabric of the Vance family’s history.
The Chariton belongs almost equally to Iowa and Missouri— with 106 miles of its length in Iowa and the remaining hundred and 12 miles in Missouri, before it is swallowed by the Missouri, South of Keytesville where I went to high school. That 218 mile length is misleading. Once the river coursed hundreds of miles until man got his grubby fingers involved, aided by the play toys of development gone mad.
The Chariton has been the victim of river rape that encapsulates all the bad things that can happen to once pristine watercourses. It’s dammed (read that damned) in Iowa and channelized in Missouri. It has been contaminated over the years by every agricultural chemical yet devised by man, muddied by erosive run off from the rich agricultural lands of southern Iowa and northern Missouri. The trade-off is that what once was a wooded and pristine small river became drainpipe for the evils of agriculture— erosion and chemical contamination.
In 1969, the Corps of Engineers, ever vigilant for a chance to alter the landscape, usually with disastrous results for the environment, began construction of 11,000 acre Rathbun reservoir in southern Iowa which drowned a considerable mileage of the upper Chariton River. According to Corps self praise the lake which spans 21,000 acres at flood stage, provides a virtual paradise for recreationists, alleviates floods, and does all kinds of good for the bureaucratic universe. This miracle Lake was dedicated in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon. Nixon and his tarnished legacy are gone, but the lake lingers on.
About 30 miles downstream from Rathbun dam, the Chariton slips into Missouri and heads downstream toward my territory, Chariton County, named for the river, or vice versa, where I lived for a decade in the late 1940s and most of the 1950s. The Chariton River threaded its way through my history, mostly in a good way.
The Chariton gained its name about 1804 when John Charaton established a trading post near the mouth of the then-unnamed tributary of the Missouri River and named the watercourse after himself. The little river was a godsend to Missouri, Sac, and Iowa Indians, who depended on it for fish and wild game. It was so insignificant to the early explorers that Lewis and Clark passed it by without comment. Then a fellow named James Loe explored upstream almost to Callao, where my parents would live in the 1960s.
The river continued to be a river for a century after John Charaton established his little settlement, but in 1904, a farmer named Peter Vitt started talking up the idea of pulling the kinks out of the Chariton and turning it into a straight ditch the faster to shepherd floodwaters downstream to the Missouri. In Chariton County, where my grandfather built and tended fish traps and where my father would own a farm, the Chariton River wound through an estimated 300 miles of streambed. From the Iowa line to the Missouri the historic length was about 900 miles. After the Corps of Engineers finished its lethal assault on the twisting stream, less than 100 miles remained, a straight ditch, as inviting to outdoor enthusiasts as a sewage lagoon. Gone were the bordering trees, the wildlife, and most of the fish that once provided bounty to settlers, replaced by bordering corn and bean fields.
My father was not immune to the pressure and so-called progress either. He was a partner in a 640 acre farm near Bynumville, through which once ran the original Chariton River. By the time we moved to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton had been straightened and the new ditch ran by it outside the property line. The old channel remained within the farm as a twisting watercourse, slowly growing stagnant.
In the 1840s, probably on our farm and a century before the river was straightened, there was a fish trap in the Chariton, that for many years provided a bounty of fish for individual and community fish fries. The ruins of this old fish trap are documented today in yellow photographs, although the trap itself is long gone.
Two memories stick out, concerning that old channel. One is of what we called the Bend, a crook in the river that isolated a five-acre patch of woods, that frequently was flooded. In the fall when mallards sailed down from the North country, this woods of water-tolerant old oaks was a magnet for them, and we would hunt there sloshing through the shallow water where my father had distributed a dozen decoys. The Bend was a microcosm of the flooded oak marshes of the Southland, legendary for duck hunting. It was, for us, a sometime thing where, when conditions were just right, our shabby decoys would trick a small band of migrating mallards into helicoptering down to where we would shoot, and more often than not miss, since neither of us was a particularly good shot. The excitement, for a teenage kid, and for that matter, his middle-aged father, was almost unbearable.
One morning we got to the Bend to discover that a neighbor had sneaked into the flooded marsh and, mistaking our decoys for living ducks, potshot them full of holes so that about half of them had a list, reminiscent of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. My father, caught up in the postwar mania for bigger and better farms, arranged to have the Bend cleared and drained and it became five acres of corn and beans, no longer our duck hunting spot, only a fond memory, tinged with sadness.
Another morning on another crook in the old channel my father and I walked up pair of ducks that flushed ahead of us in the early morning sunlight. I was carrying a model 12 Winchester pump with a 32 inch barrel, the quintessential old timers duck gun, which my father had gotten in a trade of some sort, and I shouldered it as if I knew what I was doing, and dropped one of the two ducks at 40 yards splashing it into the muddy water. My father’s pride in my shooting knew no bounds, and neither did mine. It was a rare moment, not shared nearly often enough.
In the 1940s we could travel a rough gravel road from the Finnell farm to our home in Dalton, crossing the Chariton at what was called Rockford, a grouping of houses which also included a hardware store where I got my first gun, an authentic Red Ryder BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”). The river was spanned by a rickety wooden bridge which vanished when the new channel cut through and the shortcut route from the Finnell farm to Dalton vanished along with it. Once, I had seen a brief flash of feminine flesh when a Guilford girl ran across the yard in her underwear, just up the hill from Rockford. That was every bit as exciting as getting my first BB gun.
Grandpa Joseph Oliver Vance was born just after the Civil War ended,in 1866, a son of a Union militiaman whose military career had lasted all of a couple hours before he was captured by General Sterling Price’s army and sent home to quit pestering the Confederates. My grandfather lived for 87 years, taking up carpentering as a trade, which helped him immeasurably in building fish traps. He also built a two room addition to the Finnell farm house where he lived with his daughter and her husband from 1937 until his death in 1953.
I would spend several summers on the Finnell farm, not learning to be a farm boy, but learning that I didn’t want to be a farm boy. I would watch my grandfather head across the hill in the morning to tend to his fish trap, often carrying a single shot 22 caliber rifle with which he would shoot squirrels for the family pot
As far as I know, the old man walked cross country from the family farm to the Chariton River, through the woods and across gullies, of which there were many in the pitted hills of southern Chariton County. At the river he tended his fish trap, a device cleverly constructed to capture catfish and other denizens of the murky river, which became his contribution to the family’s larder. It was about a mile hike to the old Chariton and it wouldn’t have been easy because in those days there was no cropland other than the occasional tobacco patch and the countryside was creased with gullies and ravines, the legacy of a century or more of trying to scratch a farm living from unfriendly and infertile dirt.
Little did the old man know, but when he was laid low by a stroke at 87, his day was over as was that of the lower Chariton River. By the time my folks and I moved from Chicago to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton River had been ousted from its original channel into a carefully engineered drainage ditch and the point of tending a fish trap was pointless.
My fellow worker at the Conservation Department, Kenny Hicks, once wrote a history of the Chariton, titled “The River That Went Straight” where he said this, “Where are the old fishing holes, the tree-lined banks, and the valuable otter? They helped feed, house, and clothe our last century kin, only to be swallowed up in the iron jaws of mammoth shovels or washed into oblivion by a modern method devised to rid ourselves of unmanaged water.”
Kenny closed his piece with this observation, “When will the conflict end? Will it be only when there are no more rivers or no more men?” Those are both questions that have yet to be answered, but I can answer them partially— gone is the Chariton, at least as my grandfather knew it, and so is my grandfather. Gone also is the Bend and the father with whom I shared misty mornings and shot-holed decoys. They say, “progress brings change.”
Please, define “progress” for me. I’m confused.

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  • October 15th, 2017

I CAN’T DANCE, DON’T ASK ME….

By Joel M. Vance

“I can’t dance, don’t ask me!” Famously sang Fred Astaire in 1935, the year after I was born. Dance he did, of course, and more gracefully and admirably than anyone before or since. He did dance in 10 musical movies with his longtime partner Ginger Rogers who, it was said, did everything he did, only backward and on high heels.
I can only marvel when Astaire danced up the wall and across the ceiling in one of the many movies he made with Rogers. In contrast, I have trouble negotiating simple dance steps on level floor. My history with dance is so personally depressing as to call for intensive therapy, but I think that having reached octogenarian status, my time to emulate, even faintly, Fred Astaire has come and gone.
Klutz like stumbling on the dance floor, is doubly depressing because Marty, my wife, is a mid-Missouri Ginger Rogers, and always has been. I have no doubt that she boogied in her crib and that her first steps were as flashy as those of the vintage Cyd Charisse. 
She is a veteran of an ice cream parlor right out of Happy Days, called Louie’s, which in her high school days was the gathering place for teenagers in Macon Missouri, her hometown. The jukebox rocked and so did the kids. Ask her today her favorite memories from high school and she will instantly reply, “Louie’s, where we went to dance.”
By contrast, in Dalton, Missouri, where I lived, or in Keytesville, where I went to high school, dancing for all boys save a few precocious and scorned showoffs, was something you watched Fred Astaire do in a movie, while waiting for John Wayne to show up in the second half of a double feature and shoot someone. 
I do recall one time in high school, possibly in a physical education class, where we attempted to learn how to square dance, stumbling around as fiddles played on a scratchy phonograph. The girls had no problem with the intricate steps of square dancing but us guys looked more like hogs loose on a skating rink.  Girls frequently danced together, while we wall flower boys sat on the bleachers steps and talked about baseball.
It occurred to me, probably because my mother told me, that if I wanted to be the most popular boy in school, I would have to learn to dance. Becoming most popular was probably about as likely as my becoming president, although given the one we have now, maybe I could’ve made it. Although, if being elected to the highest office in the land depended on my ability to dance, I couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher.
So, my mother attempted to teach me a simple two-step, which I think she called a foxtrot, although I did it more like a foxhound with sore feet. There are few things more embarrassing than dancing with your mother. We fox trotted around one of the many rooms in the Dalton Hotel, where we lived in semi-squalor, probably to a big band recording from the 1940s.
My mother, who had danced in Chicago nightclubs with my father, during the Roaring Twenties when they were dating and before I came along to complicate their lives, was incapable of teaching me the fast dance steps of 1950s teenagers. Even by the 1940s, she had passed through impetuous teenage dancing. So I learned a sedate two-step (two to the left and one to the right), a mechanical march that was about as rhythmic as if the Creature From Another Planet (a favorite 1950s sci-fi movie) had broken into a frantic shake and bake before destroying a major American city.
Now at least I was armed (or legged) to participate in what we called buckle polishing dancing, but anything faster than Glenn Miller, playing “Moonlight Serenade” was beyond me. Even when my cherished and deeply beloved wife of 61 years, Marty, offers to show me the steps that made her the Ginger Rogers of Louie’s Sweet Shop, I turn to jelly and step on my lower lip in a surly pout and quit, like a frightened dog being dragged to the veterinarian.
A couple of incidents in my formative years go a long way toward explaining my reluctance, inability or whatever it is to trip the light fantastic–which for me is so fantastic as to be beyond the realm of imagination. Let me explain:
For one thing, dance opportunities at my high school, Keytesville, were limited to school dances a couple of times a year. There was no Louie’s in Keytesville or anywhere close by where teenagers could gather and juke to the jukebox. Marty tells me that Louie’s was a gathering spot, not just for Macon teens, but for kids from neighboring towns as well. “After a football game,” she says, “we’d get kids from whatever team Macon was playing that night and we’d all dance.”
There was no football at Keytesville high school, not to mention no equivalent of a Louie’s, and none of the prom nonsense that was the highlight of the social scene at Macon high school. I had exactly one date to a dance in high school and came down with a case of impetigo on my face that made me look like a character from a horror movie. There was a grotesque scab running from just below my nose to below my chin. I looked like a pestilent survivor of a chemical warfare attack. Not only did I not dance, but my date was taken home by a senior who happened to have a car, which I didn’t, and who did not have impetigo.  That horrifying incident obviously did not increase my ambition to acquire terpsichorean facility.
I can date my aversion to fast dancing to one dreadful moment in the summer of 1955, at ROTC summer camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill historically was where Indians would drive buffalo over a cliff to their death and if I had been a buffalo I think I would’ve been happy to be driven over a cliff– anything to get away from Fort Sill. On weekends we callow would-be soldiers could escape to nearby towns where we could buy technically illegal beer (Oklahoma at the time was dry). Some warriors went to Wichita Falls, Texas, known as Whiskey Falls, a wet oasis just over the border, but some of us chose to go to Anadarko, where there were alleged to be real live girls in the roadhouses.
        There was a girl’s college in Anadarko and little knots of coeds would gather at a local dance hall and whisper girl secrets to each other and occasionally when approached by an especially daring male child would take to the dance floor and, miracle of miracles, engage in buckle polishing.  But all too many of the rock ‘n roll records of the 1950s rocked  ‘n rolled, requiring the  dreaded fast dance, which pinned me to my seat as if I were stuck there with super glue
It was in one of these beer joints, with Fats Domino rocking on the jukebox, that I summoned up my courage and asked a girl to dance with me. I had absolutely no concept of dancing outside the two-step box, but figured that natural rhythm would carry the day. I thought I was doing a credible imitation of somebody who knew what he was doing, when the girl suddenly stopped in the middle of “Ain’t That a Shame” and snarled, “what the hell are you doing?”
      “I don’t know,” I mumbled and slunk back to our booth, humbled, shamed and irrevocably traumatized forevermore.  Ever since that moment so long ago, I have been crippled by the deep and unhealing wound of that humiliating encounter.  I can stand alone in front of a thumping recording of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by the vintage Jerry Lee Lewis and manufacture a creative modern dance, on the beat, and as imaginative as something by Sammy Davis Junior in his prime— but there, in my solitude, is no girl looking at me as if I were a repulsive insect, sneering, “what the hell are you doing?”
I grew up, first on radio and later on television, listening to the inane jingle, “Arthur Murray taught me dance’n/in a hurry.” Murray packed it in long ago, but if his spirit were confronted with me at one of his dance studios he’d whirl in his grave like a centrifuge.  There is a local group where we live that offers what they call swing dance lessons but the thought of exposing my ineptitude to strangers makes me quiver. I can just see the instructor, after fruitless hours trying to teach me twirling and whirling to fast music, growling “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
So as I approach the age where, if I did know how to fast dance, I’d have to use a walker, I am doomed to be among the wallflowers.  I think I hear the Four Freshmen singing “Memories Are Made of This” on an oldies station.  Buckle polishing music.
Anyone care to dance?
 
 
 
 
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  • October 8th, 2017

SASSE’S HOLE

By Joel M. Vance

It shimmers in memory, a half acre of clear water inelegantly named Sasse’s Hole. It was where we swam in the halcion days of teenagerhood. Hormones mixed with sunshine in a heady brew that only comes once in a lifetime, and all too soon vanishes amid the confusing infirmities of maturity.
Climate scientists doubtless believe they can prove that global warming began decades if not centuries ago, but for me it has happened in my lifetime. I was born in 1934, in the depths of the driest and hottest decade, possibly in the nation’s history. It was not only the Great Depression, but also a time of intense heat and massive dust storms that not only stirred up the dirt of the Midwest but also spawned me. And again, in the early and mid-1950s came another time of intense heat— all of these formative years with no air conditioning and virtually no way to find the relief from the smothering heat.
There was no incentive to be concerned about global warming at a time when immediate warming was a fact. National Geographic magazine may have provided titillating photos of bare breasted African natives, but no such photography existed for natives of mid-Missouri, and we had to live with what we had, amid demurely bra-clad female classmates.
That’s why Sasse’s Hole always will be for me a cool spot in the hell of memory. It was a blue hole, a rare phenomenon where crystalline water appears, apparently from nowhere to create a pond or lake where none existed before. They also call it a blowout as if it were somehow dynamited from nonexistence to existence by some cosmic explosives maven.
Whether or not Sasse’s Hole was a true blue hole or not is almost a matter of semantics. It could’ve been a cenote, another type of aquatic phenomenon, common in some parts of the world. Blue holes apparently are mostly associated with salt water while cenotes are more common in freshwater areas. Either way a normally circular body of water appears, caused by some geologic trick that I don’t understand and don’t really want to. More important is that Sasse’s Hole existed on hot days when teenagers suffused with summertime ennui needed cooling off—teenagers almost always need cooling off.
Sasse’s Hole was a bastard child of the Dalton Cutoff, itself a bastard child of the Missouri River. Once the capricious Missouri ran just south of Dalton, where I lived and then in 1875, the river that baffled and frightened Pere Marquette during his explorations into the heart of North America, decided, as it was wont to do periodically, to go in new directions.
So, in 1875, the Missouri decided to cut a new channel in the middle of the night (contemporary accounts describe a terrifying roar). When the river finally settled down it had left behind a sizable Lake which became the Cutoff. Later the Cutoff, mostly a muddy body of water, like its parent, the Missouri River, would become our playground winter and summer.
In the summertime it was a fishing hole, in the fall it became one of the best duck hunting spots in North America, and in winter time some of us played ice hockey on its frozen surface. I have a 1 inch scar on my chin from having taken a header onto the ice during a heated hockey game which required several stitches to repair. We didn’t have regulation pucks so used beer cans, which might have had something to do with the reason I went sprawling.
We drove to Salisbury about 16 miles away and found a doctor with some surgical thread who stitched up my chin and bandaged it so I looked like Amenhotep or some other pharoah from an Egyptian pyramid tomb. I was quite the object of admiration and revulsion at school for several days until the stitches healed enough that I could peel off the bandage.
I think the explanation for Sasse’s Hole is that it was the result of a conduit between the Dalton Cutoff, which decided to burrow like a mole, under a fairly narrow screen of dry land and trees, perhaps into a subterranean sinkhole, and then surface as a blue hole, perhaps reinforced by possibly sizable springs–the water always was cool no matter how hot the summer temperatures got.
Visualize a basin perhaps a half acre in size with the deep end at the east tailing off to the west. The banks all are clean sand with the northern half almost a beach. The sand is heaped on the east and dune-like. Someone, perhaps Chris Sasse, built and floated a platform a few yards out in the middle of the deep end, to which you could swim, haul yourself out and soak in the sun. Today no landowner in his right mind would risk financial ruin from a lawsuit alleging criminal indifference by letting kids swim without supervision on his land. But those were far different times, not that the kids were more responsible or less prone to get in trouble than they are today.
Sasse’s Hole was a godsend (or, perhaps, a Sassesend) to kids stuck in the hinterland with no access to a public swimming area. The nearest public swimming pool was in Marshall, 50 miles away and across the Missouri River via a bridge at Glasgow. We went there exactly one time in my teenage years, and the water was crowded with other kids, saturated with chlorine, and altogether unsatisfactory, compared to the unsullied water at Sasse’s Hole.
The East sandbank offered a refuge behind which the tender of sensibility could change clothes without embarrassment . Norman Rockwell and other artists of Americana were fond of paintings depicting the old swimming hole with bare butt kids cavorting, but unfortunately for us would be lascivious types there was no skinny-dipping at Sasse’s Hole, especially and regrettably not co-ed. I came close to it only because the only swimming suit I had was inherited from my father, possibly because we were too poor even to afford a Sears and Roebuck special, or because I was so war orphan skinny that anything on my meager shanks was likely to wind up around my ankles.
Only rarely was there a mixed crowd, boys and girls. Usually it was a group of guys swimming, mostly talking about girls. Only once I remember a group of boys and girls gathered and I swam out to the platform with a cute girl who had come with a friend and apparently had borrowed a bathing suit from her larger friend because it up hung on her much like my baggy trunks sagged on me. There were gaps in her one-piece suit that offered tantalizing glimpses of the flesh within and I was smitten with lust for this stranger. I searched for conversational gambits which would indicate to her that I was a potential lover of such amatory ability as to be enshrined in the annals of romance— a Don Juan of the Dalton bottoms.
I asked her name which I immediately forgot and searched for inflammatory phrases, none of which came to mind. She seemed preoccupied, possibly wondering what she was doing with this hapless nerd, while we hung suspended in the water in our baggy swimming gear like a couple of mosquito larvae. Presently she mumbled, “well, I gotta go,” and dog paddled back to shore where she rejoined her friend and they vanished amid the fog of memory.
Possibly the best thing about Sasse’s Hole was that you had to know it was there in the first place, and then how to get there, which was not easy unless you were local. That kept out foreigners perhaps from Chariton County’s metropolitan areas such as Keytesville, Brunswick, or Salisbury. Those of us in the know kept the location of the Hole close to our scrawny chests.
If it were 1952, you couldn’t pry the location of Sasse’s Hole out of me with thumbscrews, but that paradisiacal swimming hole is no more so here is how you would’ve gotten there in those long ago days: you drove south out of Dalton, first past the one-room school, now a community center, where I was threatened with attendance in the eighth grade after we moved to Dalton from Chicago but after I howled like a gut shot coyote at the prospect of having to attend school with a bunch of hillbillies (cosmopolite snob that I was), my parents paid the tuition so I could go to Keytesville elementary school six miles away, but a place with at least more than one teacher and presumably more than one or two books.
Across the street from the one-room school was the Methodist Church where once, at the urging of my mother, I sang “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” to a massively disinterested congregation, a performance enlivened mostly because a wasp fell on my neck and stung me midway through the song. I said a word not often heard in church, one that I had learned in the alleys of Chicago, and an old lady fell asleep and snored in harmony to my adolescent warble.
Continue on South on a gravel road until it’s time to turn west on yet another gravel road toward the Dalton Cutoff. Drive between the Sasse brothers homes, on either side of the road— they owned most of the land east of the Cutoff–and ahead you will see the levee, an earthen barrier designed to keep the Missouri River at bay, something it has failed to do many times over the years. In fact, in 1951 and again in 1993, the Big Muddy overwhelmed not only its banks but the many levees along it, flooding farms and towns to the point where some, like Dalton and Cedar City, became historic footnotes.
Turn on to the farm lane at the base of the levee and park. Get out of your car scramble up the levee and across the top and there, for your bemused eyes, is Sasse’s Hole. From then on it’s up to you. I give you the directions because they no longer are operable or have any meaning. They would’ve worked 65 years ago, but assuming that today there even is a body of water it will be as I discovered it some years later when I made a pilgrimage to the site— a sort of homage revisitation to the bright and sunny days when I was a teenager and all the world lay ahead of me.
I parked and scrambled up that same levee somewhat less agilely than I had done years before and what I beheld was a mudhole, suitable for mud turtles, water snakes, and possibly a gar or carp. Time and floodwater had eroded the barrier between the Dalton Cutoff and Sasse’s Hole and they had become one.
A fragment of my youth had washed away with that barrier and drowned in the passage of time. Somewhere someone’s grandmother may remember an afternoon when she wore an ill fitting bathing suit and dangled in the water like a mosquito larva with a skinny kid.
What was that kid’s name again?

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