Archive for January, 2018

  • Blog
  • January 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

My Uncle Al wasn’t imaginative enough to nickname the pike—calling it Scarface, for example. To him it was just “that goddam fish!” but he was obsessed by it.
It was a northern pike he had hooked and lost twice, a pike of a size not seen by him or any other Birch Lake angler in many years, certainly not in his considerable lifetime. It was an anomaly, a throwback to the pioneer days before Birch Lake was invaded by armies of modern anglers, armed with the fishing industry’s latest technological weapons.
Pike of that size in the early days had to worry about a few Ojibwas with rudimentary spears or, somewhat later, a few white anglers with Tru Temper steel rods, Pflueger Supreme reels and braided line that often was rotten enough to break with a sharp tug.
The big northern sulled in the weedbeds around Penny Island and had a whitish scar running across its forehead, perhaps from a gaff that missed or from who knows what. Maybe even a fish spear just missing through a hole chopped in the thick ice during the winter.
It had been there for a long time, gaining length and weight and the scars of battle. Al figured it would run upwards of 35 pounds and, while he made a fair sideline income from guiding tourist-anglers, he carefully avoided guiding them anywhere near the haunts of the big fish.
He didn’t want anyone catching that fish but him. Fortunately for Al the day had passed when the trophy anglers invaded the lake. Virtually all of today’s fisherpeople, including the ones Al guided, were after bluegills and lake perch, small fish in abundance. Rarely did anyone venture through the Narrows into the wide part of the lake where Penny Island crouched almost unnoticed.
The monster pike lurked around a weedbed on the far side of the tiny island. Al would approach the weedbed with the caution of an errant husband sneaking to an assignation—fearful that an alert fellow angler would ferret out his secret and beat him to the huge fish. Not that it would be easy, even if you knew where the mighty fish lay. Trophy fish don’t get that way by being dumb.
But in one of his rare generous moments Al took the Methodist minister fishing on a Saturday afternoon, figuring to earn some afterlife points which anyone who knew him would agree that he needed. In the spirit of Christian charity (and because he figured the minister was not much of an angler), he drifted near the Penny Island weedbeds. And, wouldn’t you know it, on the good reverend’s very first cast there was a brutal strike and the Holy Rod bowed as if in genuflection.
“Got a big one!” cried the minister, reeling furiously as the fish bore toward the boat, intent on sawing itself off on any sharp protrusion.
As the big fish circled the stern of the inelegantly-nicknamed Birch Lake Bitch, Al saw the telltale white scar on the big fish’s head and realized that his personal Holy Grail was about to come home to Jesus, not to him. Heaven can wait, he told himself grimly as he surreptitiously reached down with his filet knife and sliced the line just above the leader. “Ah, geez, reverend!” he exclaimed. “He cut the line on the motor! Hell…I mean, heck of a bum deal!”
The minister, to his credit, did not say any of the things Al would have said in similar circumstances, murmuring only, “Ah, well, the Lord moves in mysterious and sometimes painful ways. Perhaps I wanted it too much.”
His sermon the next day concerned the sin of coveting. Al, in the very back of the church more out of curiosity (and a niggling sense of shame) listened as the preacher cautioned against breaking the Tenth Commandment and Al substituted “catch” for “covet” and added “fish” to “neighbor’s wife, house, male servant and ass.” He glanced up as he left the church and murmured, “Sorry.”
It was a week later when retribution, whether divine or not, visited Al in the Bluegill Bar. He had gone fishing early in the afternoon and near sunset he hooked into a nice northern near Snake Island. It proved to be the biggest pike of the season, a 15-pounder—far from his scarfaced obsession, but a nice pike nonetheless and one worth showing off at the Bluegill Bar. Al figured bragging up his fish before he took it home and filleted it was worth a few free beers from his bar rag buddies.
The Bluegill was an old building faced with lake rocks that looked more like glacial till than a building front. The heavy wooden door bore the patina of a quarter century of winters and summers and the abrasions of a zillion thirsty patrons. The interior was dimly lit and so were most of the people inside.
When Al brought his pike inside the buzz stopped instantly, save for the oompah stomp of Frankie Yankovic on the jukebox. “Holy hammers, Al!” boomed one of his grizzly compadres. “Hell of a fish! That calls for a brew!” Of course virtually anything called for a brew at the Bluegill, but Al had been right that the northern was worth some free Bruenig’s Lager. Even Olaf Swenson, the bartender, bought him one on the house.
Some time later, warmed by the glow from four Bruenig’s, Al made the mistake of his life, not that he hadn’t made more than the average share of big mistakes to that point. But no previous error would prove as dream-shattering as what happened after he agreed to guide the beefy loudmouth tourist in the ridiculous shirt and baggy shorts.
“You the guy that caught that big fish!” The booming voice belonged to a large, fleshy man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts that looked big enough to hold a circus in. He was the antithesis of anybody Al normally would have wanted to socialize with. But Al was flush with good humor created by the fish and the beer. At that moment he was unusually benevolent and he smiled and nodded.
“Hell of a fish,” man said. He plopped down in a chair, uninvited, and said, “Name’s Brewster Mulligan. We got a bet over there,” he said, nodding toward a table with several other obvious tourist types. “They bet me I can’t catch a pike worth bragging about. You ever guide?”
Al began to nod yes, squinted at the sweating, florid foreigner, had second thoughts and was poised to say no when Mulligan added, “I’d pay you a gob to take me out. I just wanna rub them guys’ noses in it. Tell you what, we got a hundred bucks bet that I can’t catch a pike as big as that one you just brought in…and I’ll split it with you if you can put me on a big northern.”
The mention of fifty dollars tied Al’s tongue. He was congenitally short of funds. And his usual guiding rate was $25 a day. The fat guy was offering double pay. Al’s bar tab, always looming, was approaching the point where Olaf would demand payment or cut off his Bruenig’s pipeline, an event not to be contemplated. It was a no brainer.
“Ain’t no guarantees,” Al said.
“I don’t buy anything without a guarantee,” Mulligan said. “Bad business.” It sounded like a joke, but Mulligan didn’t laugh. He frowned, sweating in the thick beer and smoke atmosphere of the Bluegill Bar. Once again Al had second thoughts but the appearance of another bottle of Bruenig’s, sweating and cold, eased his concern.
They shook on it—the large man’s sweaty, soft palm, and Al’s horny old hand. Al wiped his hand on his overalls. They would meet in the morning at the town dock where Al moored his ancient wooden boat.
The beefy man said, “You can call me Mr. Mulligan, now that you’re working for me.” It sounded like a joke, but Al heard a hard note in the man’s voice that made him once again wish he’d turned the guy down. But a deal’s a deal and fifty bucks is roughly 3.5 cases of Bruenig’s Lager.
The next morning was overcast with enough breeze to stir the lake surface. Al was gassing his old Johnson outboard when Mulligan appeared, hauling a casting rod and a tacklebox the size of a boxcar. He threw both in the boat and said, “Let’s get this show on the road. I got a buffalo-sized hangover and I don’t need a bunch of crap.” He pulled a pint of Old Forester from his pocket, blew like a spavined horse and uncapped it. The glugging sound the booze made as he chugged from it was audible in the back of the Bitch where Al fiddled with the outboard.
Great way to start the day, Al thought. Nice guy. Al’s geriatric outboard coughed a few times, but then it had had a catarrhal condition for years. They set out and Al trolled along Birch Lake’s shoreline for a while, but knew that the shallows across the lake held more promise for a pike angler. And the money was more or less conditional on Mulligan catching a bragging size (and bet-winning size) northern.
The Bitch wallowed across the main body of the lake toward Snake Island. “This is where I caught that pike last week,” he said. Mulligan snarled his reel almost hopelessly on his first cast.
“Goddam it!” he yelled. “If you’d get the damn boat where it oughta be that wouldn’ta happened!” He picked fretfully at the mess and then threw the rod in disgust toward Al. “Here,” he snarled. “I’m payin’ you—you fix it!” Al, glowering but silent, mindful of his guide’s fee, pulled endless loops from the buggered reel.
Finally he managed to free the tangles and reel the line tight to the spool. He tightened the drag slightly and handed it back to Mulligan who was busy knocking back another slug from his pint. Al noticed that the formerly full pint was about half gone. Either he had taken a long time to free the reel or the guy was a speed drinker. Al wouldn’t have minded a belt himself, but he would rather give up drinking than beg for a bump from a human moose flop like this guy.
“Gotta keep your thumb on it or she’ll backlash every time,” Al said, as mildly as he could, although he wanted to jam the rod, reel and all, where the sun rarely if ever shined.
“Yeah, right,” Mulligan muttered. “You just keep the boat where it oughta be and I’ll take care of the fishing.” He took another hefty hit from his pint and wiped a meaty hand across his mouth. “Don’t need no hick tellin’ me how to fish,” Al heard Mulligan mutter and he took a deep breath and thought of a phrase he had heard on the “Law and Order” television show—“justifiable homicide.”
Al maneuvered the boat along the shore, nursing the five-horse Johnson like a conductor’s baton. Mulligan’s next cast overshot the shoreline by five yards and nailed an overhanging birch tree. Mulligan hauled on the rod like a man possessed. “Come loose you rotten son….!” he snarled. With a muted pop and hiss the line parted and the rod sprang to attention. Fifty feet away the red-and-white Dardevle swayed in the birch tree. “Well, if that isn’t the goddamndist….you got too damn close to the bank, dammit!”
Al was increasingly less mindful of his guide’s fee and more mindful of the penalty for premeditated murder. Still, he figured a jury of Birch Lakers, given the circumstances, would not only exonerate him, but set him up at the Bluegill Bar for ridding the world of a nuisance. He sighed and vowed to guide only women, mousy little men and kids from now on.
They were drifting across the narrows toward Penny Island, but Uncle Al figured this guy couldn’t even hit the water with a bad cast, much less a good one. Mulligan had opened his mammoth tacklebox, and slipped the trays wide out, exposing more lures than Al had seen in his lifetime.
Mulligan picked out a River Runt, bristling with treble hooks, and a new steel leader. He tied the leader on and snapped the Runt to it. Meanwhile, Al drifted with the current which would take him around the end of Penny Island and toward the lee shore where, perhaps Mulligan could cast into weedy shallows without hooking himself, Al or a passing airplane.
The antique Johnson outboard coughed, sputtered and died. Wavelets slapped against the boat. As Al bent over his tubercular old outboard, Mulligan resumed slopping awkward casts toward Penny Island.
“Holy Jesus!” Mulligan shouted. “I got one!” Al looked up from the defunct outboard and with the prescience born of a lifetime of fishing knew instantly that Mulligan had hooked his scarfaced fish. He instantly fumbled for his filet knife. If he couldn’t cut the line somehow, he was halfway prepared to use the knife on Mulligan. The idea that this obnoxious outlander could steal his trophy was unimaginable.
But there would be no surreptitious cutting of the line this time—Mulligan did the unthinkable.
As the huge fish made a dive to go under the boat, Mulligan countered with a mighty heave that brought the fish out of the water like a Polaris missile…and into the boat, filled with pike rage. The fish landed in Mulligan’s lap and thrashed demonically, teeth and treble hooks flashing.
Mulligan howled and fell over backward into his open tacklebox. Al watched horrified as his client screamed in pain, a 35-pound northern clubbing his vital parts in front and a confusion of sharp hooks assaulting his backside. “Get him off me!” Mulligan screamed. Al had subdued many an active northern, but not one this big and not one this active. He wanted no part of it.
Mulligan managed to push the fish into the bow of the boat long enough to squirm around and reach in the tacklebox. Al noticed that his butt bristled with lures, all with one or more hooks imbedded in Mulligan’s ample flesh. Mulligan came out with a .45 caliber pistol and before Al could shout a warning, emptied the gun into the pike…and the Bitch, which began spouting water from a half-dozen holes in its bottom.
Quiet returned to Birch Lake. Mulligan sprawled across the bow seat groaning in pain, his multi-hooked butt in the air. The dead pike lay in the bow which gradually was filling with water. “Jesus!” Al breathed, wishing he could emulate the Savior and hike to town atop the waves, leaving the whole mess behind.
It took more than a half hour of improvising stoppers for the bullet holes and bailing before the Bitch once again was seaworthy. Mulligan spent the entire time cursing Al, the boat, the fish and his rotten luck. Somehow the entire episode had become Al’s fault. “If you’da done your job…shoulda known better than goin’ with some hick….get these goddam hooks outa me….what the hell’s the matter with you!” And so on.
Al began to regret that Mulligan had emptied the gun because it left no bullets for him to use on the loudmouth. He gave Mulligan a mirthless grin, looking remarkably like the toothy pike. “You got your big fish,” he said between clenched teeth. “What’s your complaint?”
“Damned if I’m gonna pay for this!” Mulligan yelled.
Al sat back in the stern and said, “Fine—you can walk home then.”
Mulligan pointed the empty pistol at Al, then realized he was out of ammo, made as if to lunge toward Al and howled in pain as the myriad Pikie Minnows, River Runts, Dardevles and Bass-Orenos reminded him of their presence. “Just get me to a doctor!” he snarled, turning to hug the seat in front of him.
Al snapped his grimy fingers. “Money,” he said. There was a long moment of standoff until Mulligan realized that he couldn’t win. “Here!” he snarled, painfully extracting his billfold. “Take your goddam money!”
Al tried to hit every wavelet en route to the Town Dock, each time jarring Mulligan who was folded frontward over the bow seat, his looming backside pointed toward Al. Al eased the boat to the dock and tied it off. “I’ll go get somebody to take you up to the doc,” he said.
“You better hurry or I’m gonna sue your ass!” Mulligan snarled. “Worthless old bastard!”
Al gimped up Main Street to the Bluegill Bar and pushed through the creaking door into the dim interior. There were only a couple of grizzled potato farmers, moodily nursing longneck Bruenig’s Lagers. Dust motes swirled in the hazy sunlight filtering through the dirty windows. The geriatric ceiling fan squeaked rhythmically as it stirred the stale, beer-flavored air in the bar.
“Gimme a draw and a shot,” Al said to Olaf Swenson. He plopped down on a barstool and rubbed at his stubbly jaw. “Jesus, what a day!” he growled.
He threw back the shot and followed it with a gulp of beer. He brooded over the empty shot glass. “How about can I use your phone?” he asked. Olaf set the bar phone in front of him and Al looked at it with sour distaste, as if he thought it might bite.
“You got a hot date, Al?” Olaf asked. “Or tryin’ to get one?”
Al thought of the lost pike, the slob who had stolen his fish, the man now sprawled over the bow seat of the Birch Lake Bitch with a covey of treble hooks buried in his ample butt, the trophy pike drying and dull in front of him. It was a mental picture that brought a momentary frisson of pleasure to Al’s otherwise glum mood.
But then Al realized he likely never would see a live fish as big and as desirable as the one the loudmouthed stranger had stolen from him and that blackened his mood once more. “You gonna use the phone, Al?” Olaf asked.
“No big hurry,” Al said, knocking back the rest of his beer. “Gimme another shot and a beer. I got all the time in the world.”

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  • Blog
  • January 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance
They call it acrophobia. And no, that’s not fear of acros. It’s fear of heights, of being up high. And more specifically of being up high and falling. If you have seen the Mel Brooks movie “High Anxiety” and laughed at the Mel Brooks character when he is petrified by being in an elevator with an exposed window overlooking the hotel far below, you’ll know how I felt on the elevator that lifted me to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Somehow they forgot to build an elevator with enclosed walls and also one where you have the option of not getting in the thing in the first place.
Or how I felt peering through the open door leading to a tiny cat walk around the very top of the dome on the Missouri state capitol. Or how I felt on top of a mule on a petrifyingly narrow trail leading out of the Grand Canyon, the only thing between me and what appeared to be a 2000 foot plunge into the abyss was the assurance of the mule wrangler that “They don’t want to fall off the edge either.”
Yeah, well I’d rather hear it directly from the mule. Putting your life in the hooves of a mule strains the idea of trust to the extreme. I happen to believe that most mules are smarter than most humans anyway, but that doesn’t mean that I want to trust my life to one in a moment of blind panic— leave the blind panic to me, not to the mule.
Fear of heights is an acquired phobia according to the psychologists. They say that babies only instinctively are afraid of falling and loud noises, not of snakes or high places or other common fears. Give a baby a diamondback rattlesnake and it will chew on it like a Binky. Certainly, that Grand Canyon mule, had no apparent fear of heights. Going by the name of Streak, an ominous sounding name if ever there was one for a large and legendarily independent four-legged creature, she persisted in walking on the outside edge of the trail which was only mule wide to begin with, occasionally kicking a rock over the edge.
Once we negotiated a hairpin turn in the trail where she performed a three-quarter back and fill move, like a long distance trucker negotiating a difficult turn. For a brief and dizzying moment I opened my eyes only to see an abyss the likes of which I never hope to see again. Worse, there was a wind blowing and I had the panicky feeling that I was Dorothy in that Kansas farmhouse about to be swept by a tornado into God knows where. My late friend, Norm Strung, was on the mule directly behind me and said, “ I know you’re apprehensive, but you really should see this wonderful view.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, clutching the pommel of the saddle with one hand and the mule’s mane with the other. You couldn’t have pulled me loose with another team of mules.
According to one definition of acrophobia, it is an irrational fear of heights. I’ll quibble with that— standing on a precipice with your feet hanging over the edge teetering precariously and being utterly terrified strikes me as the absolute epitome of rationality. The word itself derives from Greek meaning summit and phobia. I take that to mean a fear of being on top. Donald Trump should acquire a whole lot of acrophobia and get down to the bottom where he belongs, preferably under the rock from which he crawled. Acrophobia also is called vertigo but apparently there is a semantic difference between the two. Supposedly, vertigo is that feeling of imbalance and even an irrational feeling that you want to jump, while acrophobia is infinitely preferring to be down low rather than up high.
I don’t know how or when I acquired my fear of heights but perhaps it was the sight of my uncle Roy Finnell scampering about in the lofty rafters of his rickety tobacco barn arranging sticks of newly cut tobacco for drying. I do recall that my father was unnerved by the sight of his brother-in-law acting like a member of the Wallenda family on the high wire and perhaps his poorly hidden panic transferred itself to me like flu germs. However, our daughter Carrie, shares some of my phobia— she and I both scooted on our rear ends down the rickety stairs from the top of the Missouri state capitol to firmer ground, but she also skis fearlessly and hikes precipitous mountain trails where mountain goats get the whim-whams.
I also have what I guess I could call political acrophobia—a fear of politicians in high places. For example, I am terrified of Donald J Trump. I have a feeling that’s a phobia that I share with most of the voting population of the United States and, I also feel, that if he continues in office much longer it will be a universal terror. I think Trump has what you could call acrophobial backspin, a fear of being exposed in high places, something that his many accomplices in high crimes and misdemeanors could make reality. One can only hope.
There is a 2015 movie titled “The Wire” about a tight rope walker named Phillipe Pettit who, on the afternoon of August 6, 1974, walked 130 feet on a galvanized steel wire between the then unfinished World Trade Centers in New York City. Pettit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth 1350 feet above the ground, while hundreds if not thousands of awed New Yorkers waited far below, probably holding their breath, for the moment he would lose his balance and fall.
He never did, but watching the movie even while sitting comfortably on a couch (holding tightly to the armrest) I got super whim-whams, something that never did bother Pettit, who walked back and forth from one side to the other while New York City police pleaded with him to come back to safety, probably wishing they could just shoot him off the wire and get it over with. Pettit even laid down on the wire at one point, and told the world later “I was not scared because it was a precise thing. I was dying of happiness”. Meanwhile, watching the movie, I was dying of terror.
His feat was analogous to my uncle treading the rafters in the tobacco barn, only more than 1200 feet higher up. I’m not saying Uncle Finney might not have been able to walk the cable balanced by a tobacco stick instead of a long pole, but I think maybe even that would have daunted him—and not much did.
So afraid of heights am I that I cannot look up at the St. Louis Gateway Arch from its base without feeling faint and losing my balance, a clear case of vertigo. I tried it once and everything turned to water inside my body and I thought I was going to fall over on my back. So far I have resisted the urge to travel to the top of the Arch and look out–far stronger is the urge not to do it.
Is there a cure for acrophobia, other than leaping off a cliff 2000 feet to jagged rocks below, which falls into the category of “a permanent solution”? Behavioral psychologists claim that you can cure a phobia by gradual exposure to it, conditioning yourself as it were to accept the fear and overcome it. Sounds good in theory, but when your fear of heights extends to a feeling of despair two rungs up on a ladder it’s going to take more than minimal exposure to heights to induce me to scale the side of the Empire State building like King Kong, never mind batting down airplanes that are shooting at me.
This is a Pavlovian approach to solving problems. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who conditioned dogs to salivate at a certain sound. You probably could condition me to salivate at the sight of a ribeye steak but I doubt that even playing early Elvis Presley would incline me to teeter at the edge of a precipice.
Recently, a friend emailed me about her time skiing at a nearby Idaho ski mountain and instantly my mind filled with acrophobic angst, remembering back to my time skiing in Colorado. Many years ago Marty and I were chaperones of a YMCA ski trip and I found myself trapped on a lift for the first time with a teenage twerpette who seemed not to realize that we were suspended, apparently thousands of feet above solid ground, perched on a flimsy lawn chair seemingly fastened only by a length of 20 pound test monofilament fishing line. “Isn’t this fun!” She chortled rocking the chair, which sent me into spasms of terror. “I’ll take your word for it,” I muttered through clenched teeth, once again transported to the saddle of that suicidal mule on the Kaibab trail.
“We’ll be at the top soon,” she trilled. I didn’t want to be at the top—I wanted to be at the bottom where there were lots of alcoholic drinks. But we did reach the top, and I spilled off the chairlift and sprawled in a tangle of skis and poles in front of a crowd of skiers who regarded me with amused contempt. The twerpette helped me up and I shakily followed her to the edge of what seemed to be a precipice on the order of the North face of the Eiger. Many vertical miles below me I could see Steamboat Village.
The twerpette, all of 15 years old, looked pityingly at me and said “do you need help getting down, Mr. Vance?”
“No, you go on ahead,” I said in a squeaky voice that sounded much like that of Barney Fife, “I’ll just check my bindings or something.” And she sailed over the edge like Lindsey Vonn and vanished in a spray of snow while I stood there petrified wondering if somehow I could spend the rest of my life there, supplied occasionally with food and, especially, strong drink.
It took several eons of unremitting terror but I finally got to the end of the run in a series of panicky fits and starts, looking like someone fighting off a swarm of African bees. Charitable memory has mercifully erased the details of that perilous descent down the mountain, but there were no scouts for the US Olympic downhill racing team waiting to sign me up. There was, however, a bistro with calming libations where I spent much of the remaining time on the trip.
So I trundle on down life’s highway, preferably one with no hills, and without friends in high places to smooth out the bumps in the road. As far as I’m concerned any friends I might have had in high places can just stay there.

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  • Blog
  • January 21st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It’s called “beggar’s tick,” among the more charitable names. What you call it when your long-haired setter comes back covered with the sticky little seeds can’t be reproduced in anything remotely approaching a family magazine.
Others group the seeds with anything that clings to fur and chaps as “sticktights.”
Desmodium is a legume and one of its species, tick trefoil, has few parallels as a quail food. There are 19 species of desmodium in the Midwest. The kidney-shaped seeds are prized by bobwhites in the fall when they’re getting ready for a long winter.
Each seedpod is covered with fine hairs that, like Velcro, stick to almost everything—the plant’s mechanism for spreading its seeds. Fortunately, unlike cockleburs, desmodium is easy to comb out or scrape off.
So prevalent is it that a quail-hunting friend once complained that he’d broken open a brand-new package of underwear shorts…and found sticktights on them. Another friend sprung for a set of hunting chaps although he doesn’t hunt just because their slick surface retained fewer beggar ticks when he was birdwatching.
Desmodium is but one of the vegetative pests that upland hunters are plagued by, a bird hunter’s version of the Book of Job. Spanish needle is an invasive critter, no doubt one that the Spaniards are glad to get rid of. The most familiar seed is a two-pronged affair that attacks your clothing in clusters and, if the clothing happens to be a T-shirt, the little prongs go right through to the skin beneath.
They aren’t as painful as cactus or other stiletto-imitating plants, but they’re irritating and usually manage to lodge somewhere you can’t reach, like between your shoulder blades or, if you happen to be in the supermarket chatting with the local minister, your crotch.
Spanish needle also is grouped with the “sticktight” crowd and I grew up calling it beggar’s lice (as opposed to the desmodium “ticks).
While briars don’t seem to be much of a problem for dogs, they certainly are for dog owners. A friend once chased an errant dog through a multiflora rose hedge, intent on administering a religious experience to the dog, forgetting that he was wearing a down vest. “Looked like a snowstorm,” he said of the resulting cloud of feathers.
Of all the sticky pests in the field, the cocklebur is the arch villain. It’s said that the cocklebur was the inspiration for Velcro—its hooked spikes grab anything soft and won’t let go. While Velcro is ubiquitous today as a fastener and is beloved by all sportsmen, the cocklebur tangled in a setter’s belly fur teaches new variations on old swear words.
Some dogs submit to de-burring with minimum complaint, but many will run through brick walls, bound over broken glass and burning coals and never whimper while they’re hunting. A bird dog’s mind, once locked on hunt, knows no other stimulus. Flop that same dog on his side and begin untangling cockleburs and you’d think you were performing open heart surgery with a can opener.
The screams of anguish alert the neighbors to Vance mistreating his dogs again….and the nearest neighbors live a half-mile away. I figure the ASPCA will be camped in my driveway any day now and I’m prepared. I’ll hand the guy in the uniform my metal-toothed comb and show him my bleeding fingers and say, “You think you can do it better? Have at it!”
Meanwhile, the smirking dog will be trying to sneak away and hide.
No matter how many bur patches Streak has encountered before, he never learns to avoid them. I think all game birds slip into cocklebur patches when they sense bird dogs in the neighborhood. Avian revenge. And then there is the well-known bird dog obsession with intolerable juxtapositions: juicy cowpies, irate bovines who take out their ire on the dog’s owner, porcupines and skunks.
Compared to those fond memories, cockleburs are a minor irritation, but a persistent one. It’s said that you can remove cockleburs by coating the dog with Vaseline and then combing it and I have no doubt this works because who would do such a thing if it didn’t? Which is worse—the dog with burs or an oiled dog?
One authority says to hold the bur in one hand and separate hairs four or five at a time with a steel toothed comb until the bur comes free. That’s fine if you happen to have a few years to spare. I’ve deburred mostly white dogs that were completely brown with burs. A few hairs at a time would have taken me well into the next millennium. Some opt to cut the burs out with scissors and that works if you’re careful and don’t mind the dog looking like a badly-maintained punk rocker. I once sliced my cherished Chubby trying to cut a bur out and my hunting buddy, a Viet Nam medic, sewed him back together. Better to stick with pulling the offending burs.
I’ve had to stop in mid-hunt to relieve the dogs of the worst of the cockleburs, especially those in their armpits and crotch—no fun for dog or hunter alike. Once Pepper went through a cocklebur patch at full tilt and her ears flapped up and stuck together over her head. She came out of the burs looking like a Russian peasant lady with her babushka on.
Cockleburs are so endemic where I hunt that it’s rare when a hunt doesn’t result in a post-hunt bur-picking session. The hunt is fun; the next hour or so involves a squirming, complaining dog and a fuming hunter, frostbitten fingers throbbing, a growing pile of hairy burs nearby.
Dog vests keep the majority of burs off, but some dogs have zero tolerance for clothing. Meg, our Lab, has a nice Neoprene vest to keep her bosom warm in icy water, but she hates the thing—maybe it isn’t her fashion. She goes on sulk-strike, glaring moodily into the distance and ignoring ducks falling like snowflakes all around her.
Likewise, some dogs will pout when you strap boots on them. In many parts of the far Midwest the sandbur creates a vicious obstacle course, along with another bad vegetative citizen, the goat head bur. Either one can turn a dog’s feet into chopped beef. I’ve kenneled the dogs in Nebraska and the Dakotas when the hunting terrain was littered with those nasty little burs. The dogs literally could not take a step without picking one up.
I once sequestered my dog in a stranger’s pickup which lacked a portable kennel. The dog could see us hunting and before we returned it had ripped the pickup topper screens to shreds. A confined dog is a ticking time bomb (as was the owner of the truck).
Perhaps the most dangerous vegetative ambush is a stiff awn from foxtail. One of our dogs came up lame and it took an intuitive vet to realize a shard of foxtail had penetrated between the dog’s toes and was working its way under the skin, up his leg. It took surgery to remove the nasty thing.
The vegetative world truly is a minefield for the working bird dog, but there are side benefits. As I relieve the dog of his burs I fling them disgustedly into the yard and the next spring my lawn is tastefully decorated with jaunty cocklebur plants to go with the crabgrass, knotweed and chickweed that warms the heart of this old green thumb landscaper.

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  • Blog
  • January 15th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

A while back I spit in a test tube and dutifully sent my slobber off to 23 and me with a modest check so the chromosome folks could tell me who my ancestors were, where they came from and what their genetic makeup was.
23 and me is one of several DNA-oriented companies that check your spit for your roots, without benefit of Alex Haley to record the results. I pretty well knew anyway where I came from thanks to a shirt tail relative who did a genealogy search of my branch of the Vance family years ago and tracked my forebears back to the early 1700s. According to the lady, who wasn’t even named Vance, our clan derives from a bunch of Frenchman who crossed the channel during the Norman conquest, more than 1000 years ago, who then were named Vaux which, over the centuries, morphed into Vans and finally into Vance. Somewhere along the line some of them crossed the ocean and settled in this country, ultimately migrating to Missouri where they have been ever since.
Like every human being in the United States of America including so-called Native Americans who migrated to this continent either from Siberia or up from Central America, I derive from immigrants— and so does Donald Trump, that awful human being, who pretends to be our president.
So, are the Vances, one time citizens of France, a country of fine food and fine wine, entitled to brag about our pure heritage, immigrants worthy of praise from the likes of the Trump? A History Channel story on attitudes toward a certain class of immigrants in the 1840s said this, summing up the prejudiced attitudes of many Americans at the time: “The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. And worst of all, these undesirables were….Irish.
Do I hear loud echoes of Pres. Trump and his toxic rhetoric more than 150 years later castigating immigrants from Africa from Central America, from Middle Eastern countries, from Mexico, and from anywhere else except, apparently, Norway. Nothing it seems ever changes, especially in the mind of Donald Trump where vile opinions are set in concrete. (Reaction from Norway has been universally, “Thanks, but no thanks to Trump’s suggestion we need more Norwegian immigrants).
Yes, Ireland in 1848, was, in the minds of the worst of the United States, a shit hole country. Never mind, that the Irish were fleeing from a multi-year famine that killed hundreds if not thousands of the country’s citizens, mostly because of a repressive regime imposed on them by England.
My mother’s maiden name was Soper which means one who makes soap. Soper is an English name so I have in me the genetic make up of the oppressors and the oppressed. Mom once washed my mouth out with soap for having called a disagreeable playmate a son of a b. I was basically innocent, apparently having heard the term without the “itch” attached and didn’t realize its profane significance. But that cut no ice with my mother who decided, somewhat reluctantly, to use the moment as an object lesson. Like Ralphie in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” after Ralphie had used the F word, and got to taste a cake of Lifeboy soap, which had as he described it “a certain piquancy” I can testify that soap does have a distinct piquancy, but not one that you’re likely to find in fine wine.
Anyway, where is a mother, when one needs one to wash out the mouth of the president of the United States for having acted like a five-year-old, using words that he heard his old man use. Only Trump is not a five-year-old—he just acts like one most of the time. The Soper clan is a large one worldwide and I’m sure that I among them are a number of mothers of a liberal bent who would volunteer to stuff the mouth of Donald Trump with a cake of Lifeboy soap, if not to cure him of vile language, at least to shut him up.
Some psychiatrists are pretty sure that Donald Trump is several gold bricks shy of a full load,while others maintain it is wrong to psychoanalyze without examination. Maybe so. Not to draw conclusions but it seems that every time he applies his stubby fingers to the cell phone and vomits forth another erratic tweet right out of the Looney Tunes playbook he reinforces the belief of those of us who think he is off the rails crazy.
It’s discouraging that his base does not realize that this 70-year-old spoiled brat is no more advanced as a human being than a five-year-old who is upset about something. Does this mean that his base is composed of adult children acting like unruly grade schoolers during recess? I suspect so. We don’t see condemnation nor regret among those who voted for this despicable excuse for a world leader. And what’s more discouraging is that we don’t see a wholesale repudiation of the man by his own party leaders. Some have offered halfhearted pats on the wrist after one of the Donald’s outrageous tweets, but most have either murmured obfuscations or been AWOL when asked what they now think of the Screwball in Chief.
Some sub-Saharan African nations that Donald Trump denigrates as shit holes where people live in huts, have a GDP equivalent to or greater than that of the United States. Yes, some of them have their problems, but look around you— so does the United States, the major of which is that it continues to be a racist society unable to come to grips with its intolerant past and increasingly intolerant of those of everywhere else. And everywhere else is where our ancestors migrated from. Spit in a test tube and find out you aren’t as pure as you think you are.
We have so much in our history to apologize for, us white people. Start with people of color shanghaied to a life as slaves and add to that the shameful way we have treated what we now call native Americans. We deny that anyone who is not derived from northern Europeans (think Norwegians who already have many of the things that Trump wants to take away from us, like universal healthcare) can be a true American and is one who deserves to be barred from entry into our country. We propose to emulate the Soviet Union and East Germany by building a wall to bar immigrants from Mexico. How stupid and regressive is that? As long as we continue to deny our repressed racism, we WILL continue to practice it— and, I’m afraid, continue to elect sub humans like Trump and those who wallow in the toxic mud of racism.
The father of our granddaughter in law, a successful Kenyan businessman, emailed our daughter Carrie after Carrie had apologized on behalf of decent Americans for the hateful words of Donald Trump, “Dear Carrie, Thank you for your kind remarks. First I would like to say that it is not your fault, and we as members of your family know very well how you feel. It is disappointing to hear the president of the US talk the way he has just done about immigrants. I am currently in Kenya, and I would like to take this opportunity to give you salaams from here…my mother especially has asked me to give you and your family her very kind regards. We love you all as well, just as much.”
Tony’s mother owns a large plantation in Kenya and our granddaughter in law now has dual citizenship with Kenya and the United States. She was born in Kenya, educated in England, emigrated to the United States and joined the U.S, Army for four years as a path to her citizenship in this country. She has been a teacher and best of all has become a treasured member of our extended family.
As I said, her father Tony is a successful businessman in Africa. Compare him to Donald Trump who has declared bankruptcy at least seven times, and who is without doubt financed today by Russian money, tied to Vladimir Putin and his oligarch allies. Trump is a money laundering machine for the Russians— there is no doubt in my mind the man is an, as yet, unindicted criminal who somehow has managed to con his way into the most powerful office in the world and who brags that he has a larger nuclear button than his equally insane North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un.
Is it somehow unpatriotic to call the president of the United States an insane criminal? As an imperturbable major league baseball umpire once told an irate Yankee manager Casey Stengel, who was objecting vehemently, to a called third strike, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” New Yorker Casey Stengel was a credit to the city where he managed; his counterpart New Yorker Donald Trump is merely a disgrace, not just to New York City, but to the entire world. No, make that a disgrace to all humanity, and to the idea of man having evolved into a superior animal. Give me the simple fealty of a Labrador retriever any day.
Meanwhile, where is a Soper, armed with a large bar of Lifeboy and access to the Oval Office and to the man who squats behind the desk there like our own Jabba the Hutt, with the intent of laundering, not Russian money, but the dirty mouth Donald Trump.

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  • Blog
  • January 10th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance
Our son Andy was in mourning, tears welling, a feeling of hopeless abandonment, an overwhelming sense of loss. His 10-year old pickup was headed for the crusher. It was not a choice—the truck became afflicted with terminal frame rust and was recalled by Toyota which planned to euthanize it into a cube the size of a portable dog kennel.
Andy spent 10 years and 100,000 miles turning that pickup into a bird hunting vehicle and now it was destined for Automotive Heaven. It joined my late hunting buddy Spence Turner’s ancient Volvo and my 1967 Ford Fairlane station wagon on the Celestial Compost Heap. There must be a special place in the Jalopy Junkyard for defunct bird vehicles because they have transcended the normal wear and tear of vehicular life and become something else—sort of automotive Rambos.
Oh, sure, Andy got a hefty settlement from Toyota which was suffering corporate embarrassment because of other recalls, and he acquired a new pickup, shiny, smelling not of wet bird dogs and the gaseous effusions from hunters who have lunched on stale baloney and rat cheese, but of Essence du Pick-Up Nouveau.
It wasn’t a hunting vehicle, not at first. Not until it has had its muffler battered by rocky high centers, its floor mats defiled by muddy boots, its seat covers stained by game bird blood and the vomit of carsick puppies. That takes time and careful attention. Calling a hunting vehicle names and kicking it is preferred as a repair procedure to using a set of wrenches.
The Fairlane became so rusty in its nether parts that you could watch the passing pavement (or more often a gravel or dirt surface) passing beneath your feet. Spence’s Volvo had so much detritus in it from countless bird hunting ventures that I suspect empty McDonald’s wrappers, blood-matted feathers, green-colored dog food residue and other impedimenta of the bird hunter’s life were all that was holding the thing together. But, like all vintage hunting vehicles, it had an engine that could have competed in NASCAR. A great heart transcends the weaknesses of everything else.
Spence’s Volvo was a work-in-deprogress, if there is such a word. The Volvo company began in 1927 in Gothensburg, Sweden, not exactly a capital of bird hunting and there’s no doubt that Gustaf Larsson and Assar Gabrielsson, who founded the company, both spun in their graves like roulette wheels when Spence’s station wagon reached its nadir of neglect.
There is no way they could have foreseen what would happen to the descendant of their first proud quality car. Spence’s hatchback had broken so it needed to be propped up to stay open, and a viscous assortment of unidentifiable items had accumulated throughout the interior, like driftwood in the wake of a hurricane. Then came the final insult.
Spence loaded two setters in a portable kennel which, like the rear hatch, was defective—the gate would not latch. No problem. He positioned the kennel against the Volvo hatchback and went hunting. Spence was fond of snack food and he brought a two-pound sack of chocolate-covered raisins to keep his metabolism at bay on the long road to the bird fields.
He was to work at a deer check station the next day, so he had a duffel bag with clean clothing on the passenger seat and, being Spence Turner who lifted untidiness to an art form, the bag was unzipped. Spence decided one dog was enough, so set out with the chosen one, leaving the reject howling in frustration. An abandoned bird dog, having glimpsed its master and kennel mate armed and headed for likely-looking cover, is a canine time bomb.
The spurned setter managed to scoot the kennel back far enough to push the gate open, wriggle out and over the kennel toward the front seat, venting its frustration en route by rending the headliner and seat padding. And then it discovered almost two pounds, less Spence’s intake, of chocolate-covered raisins. If Daddy wouldn’t take the dog hunting, at least he left a generous supply of snacks. The dog gulped the raisins as only a bird dog can.
Might as well have swallowed an armed hand grenade. When Spence returned he opened the door to a tattered interior and the awful smell of what the dog had deposited in his duffel bag. Spence was appalled. He considered the wreckage of his vehicle and cried in anguish, “He ate my chocolate-covered raisins!”
My very first bird dog puppy became carsick and demonstrated on our trip home from his birthplace that a five-pound animal can vomit seven pounds of awfulness. He never again was sick, but he didn’t need to be. He had forever marked the Fairlane with the faint ambience of dog whoops.
Andy baptized his Toyota long ago, learning the hard way that bird dogs need to be drained thoroughly, fore and aft, before you load them. No matter how eager they are to kennel up, until they have hunkered and leg-lifted they are not ready. And a bird dog, having misbehaved in the back of a pickup, will then do a fecal fandango that spreads the malaise like fallout from a nuclear explosion.
After such an event it’s a grand thing to have a hard fiber bed liner and a power washer, not to mention a deep head cold and a strong stomach.
A friend created a bird vehicle in one afternoon in a duck marsh. He left his Lab shut in a Blazer, along with an unopened case of shotgun shells. He returned to find the frustrated dog had destroyed the headliner and the seat cushions and had ripped open the case of shells and every box within. “Do you know how many shells there are in a case?” he asked rhetorically. The answer is 300, assuming a dozen boxes of 25 each.
It would make a good question on Jeopardy, but only if the contestants were sporting dog owners.
Another friend, Mark VanPatten, had perhaps the ultimate outdoorsman’s vehicle when he was a teenager. He was too young to drive legally, but given the state of the car that was a minor inconvenience. He and a younger friend lived in the deep Ozarks and made Huck and Tom look like housebound sissies.
They somehow acquired a decrepit 1962 Plymouth Belvedere which they used to prowl the backwoods roads (or sometimes off-road), hunting, fishing and camping, often for days. Then they decided to go to Woodstock, yes, that Woodstock. That the famed concert was a thousand miles from their Ozark home was a minor inconvenience.
That they were unlicensed also was immaterial. That there were no seats in the Belvedere and they had to use orange crates to sit on was a matter of adaptation. When they got back from the long trip (“Remember the scene in the Woodstock movie with the kids skinny-dipping?” Mark says. “That was my bare butt showing.”) they resumed their forays into the Ozark woodlands, fishing, hunting and camping out.
Ultimately the tires gave way and there was no money to buy new ones. But that was no barrier to backwoods travel as long as there were rims. But rims on cherty Ozark backroads is like scrubbing your face with sandpaper and it wasn’t long until the wheels were nearly down to the hubs.
Regretfully they pushed the plucky Plymouth into a shallow grave beside the road and here it squats to this day, a monument to Ozark ingenuity and tenacity.
We come now to my truck. Let me describe it (you might want to send the kids out of the room). It is 28 years old which in truck years, like dog years, is nearly a century and a half. It has interesting rusted out portholes in the bed which were not factory installed. That’s so the dogs can see what the road improvements are—except there are no road improvements where we go. So far the holes are not so big that the dogs risk falling through, but give it another hundred thousand miles or so.
The tailgate has a crease in it from where our daughter practiced her destructive backing technique, and the driver’s door is sprung because the mechanic who was fixing a minor ailment forgot to put the truck in gear when he parked it, left the door open, and it tried to escape and ran into a light pole.
The door panels are splotched with rust blossoms. There is no Clearasil to cure automotive acne, so I leave it alone. It gives the truck individuality and I could pick it out instantly from among a hundred Nissans.
The seat leans forward to give access to the space behind it, but I am half afraid to open that Pandora’s Box of surprises. A tangle of jumper cables is about the only identifiable object and, oddly, the only time I’ve ever used them was to start someone else’s vehicle.
This is a truck that defines a good ol’ vehicle. It starts instantly on the coldest day and I believe I could run it to the North Pole and back without an engine misfire. It does have four-wheel drive of the old style where you have to get out in subzero temperatures and lock the hubs with numb hands. I do have to confess that the good old truck has been retired and now is unlicensed, uninsured, and used only on our own place to haul firewood.
Four wheel drive, a friend once told me, is so you can go farther before you get stuck. Next to the engine, the most important equipment is a come-along. I was in four-wheel drive in a good ol’ Suburban one night when I hit snow-covered ice on a bridge, did a complete 180 and plunged into a 10-foot deep ditch.
Four bird dogs in two kennels and I stared at each other and took a simultaneous deep breath. “You don’t want to drive in four-wheel on ice,” a nice patrolman unnecessarily told me. But the Suburban, except for a fractured front axle, landed upright, the dog kennels scarcely moved and we all survived for many more miles.
As my truck aged so have the dogs. Several need help to mount the tailgate. In their early years they began their leap about six feet from the truck, cleared the tailgate and crashed into the kennel. Now they look imploringly at us for help.
These days my back hurts to the point that lifting a 40-pound Brittany is like taking a fungo shot in the sacroiliac from Albert Pujols. I may have to build a handicap ramp for the dogs and use a walker for myself when we hunt. There is little hope for remedy aside from a team of knife-wielding orthopedic surgeons shouting “Book the Club Med vacation!” to their receptionists. You can buy a new truck, but replacement bodies are tougher to come by unless you have a helper named Igor and your name is Victor Frankenstein.
The thought of buying a new truck is like thinking about the end of life. Not fun. We will stick with our shabby veteran until it coughs its last or until Mr. Nissan does what the Grim Reaper of Toyota did to Andy and condemns it to the crusher.
Meanwhile Andy is enjoying his sparkling new truck. If he’s lucky Millie or Mattie or Libby or Meg or Cap or will vomit copiously en route home from some obscure hunting destination the canine version of breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow at the launch of a battle wagon.

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