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  • May 15th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, more confused and frightened ball.

And then, Wham! Whale sushi.

I’ve seen it–humpback whales doing what they call “bubble net feeding.” Several whales start circling a school of herring, singing (the guide lowered a microphone and it sounded more like timber wolves howling than Willie Nelson), creating a curtain of bubbles through their blow holes, and gently guiding the by-now baffled herring with gigantic flippers into an ever tighter bunch.

The bubble curtain keeps the herring inside, a sonic corral. The singing confuses them–is this a lullaby or a threat. The flippers indicate which way to go (“right this way to the lunch counter, folks” although the whales don’t add that lunch is not FOR the herring; the herring ARE lunch.)

Then comes the moment when the whales surge through the bunched herring and…well, it got me to thinking, something always dangerous. I had a brilliant idea, an even more perilous situation.

What if I could train my Brittanies to swim in an ever-tightening circle, barking as they do so? Would this confuse fish, like maybe a school of bluegills, and bunch them whereupon I would cast into the middle of the circle and catch fish when no one else can?

Could I train Brittanies to do this? I once had a fishing Brittany who would spend hours swimming in circles, occasionally plunging his head and snapping at the bluegills swimming around him. Once he caught one and surfaced with an astonished look, the fish flapping in his mouth. He spit it out and his lust for fishing diminished after that.

My Brittany bubble net idea evaporated as quickly as it had come when I remembered the most embarrassing incident of my life, one that also involved fish and dogs. I was invited to hear Chuck Yeager speak at a meeting of steelhead anglers. Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.

We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager. My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts. If only it were possible to get Gen. Yeager to inscribe will a book which I could give to my friend.

I was at a meeting where general Yeager was to be the featured speaker and I thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity, not only to meet a great American hero, but also to get him to autograph a book for my friend— who also happened to be a magazine editor and thus would be forever obligated to buy anything I wrote and pay me voluminous amounts of money.

I visited a local used bookstore and found a tattered copy of a book which seemed totally appropriate. What a serendipity moment! I would have him inscribe the book “from one Yeager to another” and we would share a comradely laugh.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled “Yeager.” No–I was thinking dogs (or like one, more accurately). I bought a copy of a dog training book (which looked as if perhaps the dog it was intended for had been using it as a chew toy) and took it to the meeting where I spied the good general chatting with a few fans. Presently they drifted away and there he was alone for the moment, his back to me.

I walked up and said “Excuse me, general….” and he began to turn and instantly I was aware of the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan. I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book?

The enormous idiocy of my idea finally sank through my thick skull into the tiny part where common sense lurks and even before this famed American military hero turned toward me, one uncomfortable memory from the past flooded my mind like the fabled life-flashing-before-your-eyes an instant before you are hit by the incoming missile.

I was back in the National Guard arriving after a 900 mile 2 ½ day ride in a Jeep at the head of our artillery battalion convoy to camp Ripley Minnesota. I was tired, hot, and in no mood for the flipparies of military courtesy. Oh sure, I would return the halfhearted salutes of my equally weary troopers as they hosed down their dusty vehicles, as eager as I was to see the duty day come to an end.

A Jeep pulled to a stop some yards away from me and I assumed it was yet another stray from the incoming summer campers (this was not Camp Bidawee for adolescents–this was a chance for us to spend a lot of government money shooting howitzer rounds, costing $100 each, at distant targets like empty barrels, isolated pine trees, and the occasional suicidal white tailed deer that had wandered into the impact area).

From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of guys approaching, but I ignored them, concentrating on the militarily vital task of washing our travel weary vehicles. “Captain!” I turned to behold, like someone standing in the path of the lava flow from a devastating volcanic eruption, a bird colonel and, standing beside him, the diminutive form of a one star general. Even before the colonel, who apparently was the bad cop, spoke in the tone of the judge rendering a death sentence to a serial killer, I realized that I had effed up big time. “Don’t you know you are supposed to report to a commanding officer?” It was not a rhetorical question, politely asking for information. It was the prelude to damnation by hellfire which the colonel proceeded to deal to me like a stoker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.

The general, who looked remarkably like portraits of Napoleon, stood idly by slapping his thigh with a riding crop while the colonel flayed me as if preparing to tan my hide, possibly for use as a chamois for drying the general’s Jeep after I finished washing it. Finally the two high-ranking officers were done with their sadistic fun and left me lying gravely wounded on the battlefield.

So, General Yeager turned to me and I knew exactly the way the pilot of a Messerschmitt ME 109 felt when skewered by twin 40 caliber machine guns manned by a P 38 Lightning pilot, possibly manned by a fellow named Yeager. My idea had been asked him to inscribe the dog training book “from one Yeager to another” and now even years later the enormous foolishness of that idea gives me cold chills.

Instead, looking remarkably like Mortimer Snerd, the half witted Edgar Bergen dummy, I stammered something or other and thrust the book at him and he looked at it as if I were offering him dog droppings, instead of a book about dogs. Brusquely, he signed the book, and turned back toward someone with at least half a brain and instantly dismissed me to the dustbin of history.

That was the worst instance of my inconveniencing celebrities with my oafishness. At a meeting of outdoor writers which included several guest celebrities I went to breakfast with a tall, handsome gentleman and thinking to involve him in my hamfisted version of small talk, I said, “And what do you do?” thinking that he was another outdoor writer– he did look familiar, possibly someone I had hobnobbed with in outdoor writer circles, although he obviously was more successful at it than me–for one thing he wasn’t dressed in tattered blue jeans. To his eternal credit and the fact that he was an authentic gentleman, he did not look at me as one looks at an unusual insect, and merely said, “I’m an actor.”

Not only was Richard Anderson an actor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Six Million Dollar Man television series, and a veteran of countless movies, but he reportedly also was Debbie Reynolds’ first boyfriend. All this I discovered far too late to apologize. Although I probably would’ve blurted something idiotic like “too bad you have such a forgettable face.”

Another time, at a meeting, I was crossing a room when I encountered a fellow whom I was sure I knew but whose name I could not remember. In the way that us feebleminded folks do, I faked it and said heartily, “Hey, good to see you! How’s it goin’?” He looked at me, obviously trying to place me among his many friends and embarrassed that he could not do it. “Fine!” He said. “And it’s good to see you too!”

Ten feet farther on, I realized that not only did I not know him, but he didn’t know me either. He was Mason Adams, one of the stars of the Lou Grant television show. Now, many years later, he probably still is wondering who the hell that old friend was— although probably not. Only once have I not managed to put my 9 ½ D’s firmly amid my molars. That was when I was at dinner where a fellow chatted amiably with our fellow diners and I gathered from the conversation that he was some sort of hockey player. I know every bit as much about hockey as I know about quantum physics. The only thing I know about hockey is the Rodney Dangerfield joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So I managed for once to keep my mouth shut.

Later at home, when I mentioned his name to my son, Andy, an ardent hockey fan, I found out that Denis Potvin not only was a hockey player, but happens to be in the NHL Hall of Fame, one of the all-time greats– the most prolific scoring defense man of all time. At least I didn’t ask him, “And what is it you do?” only to have him high stick me across my big mouth.

So,on the other hand, I think I’ll just let the Brittanies be dogs and forget whatever fantasies they might have had about being humpback whales. And that goes for me, too.

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