Archive for July, 2018

  • Blog
  • July 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

For a quail hunter, a dog’s nose is the animal’s most important component. For the dog, his dick is paramount. Consider how much time a dog spends licking it. Which brings to mind the old joke about the two guys who see a dog self-laving and one says, “Gee, I wish I could do that,” and the other guy replies, “Don’t you think you should pet him a little first?”

Hollywood has Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, but only Missouri has a famous dog with a painted penis. The dog is Old Drum and the appendage in question actually is on an anatomically-correct statue of him in the courthouse square at Warrensburg. It probably would make more sense, historically, to have the statue with its fangs buried in a bleating lamb, but instead Old Drum stands in a noble pose as if he were Rin-Tin-Tin on a mission of mercy.

Mark Twain, Missouri’s most famous ironist, no doubt would have appreciated the incongruity of erecting a statue to a dog that almost certainly was guilty of sheep-killing and whose only notable accomplishment was that he got killed for it. And, to compound the irony, the fellow who shot Old Drum was nicknamed “Dick.”

And, with his notoriously bawdy sense of humor, Mr. Twain would have commented with unbridled zest on the repeated assaults on the dignity of Old Drum. Unfortunately for the world of pungent comment, Twain had been dead for many years before the bronze likeness of Old Drum came to rest on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn in 1958.

Warrensburg not only is the site of the courtroom trial that made Old Drum famous; it also is the home of Central Missouri State University and it is a well-known fact that any animal statue with paintable parts erected (pardon) in a college town is going to get enhanced by artistically-inclined students. No matter how many times the town fathers darken Drum’s dinger, it shortly regains its non-canine glow.

Twain did write this about dogs: “”If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” Think what he could have said about a dog with a decorated dick. I also have a T-shirt with a quote by Groucho Marx which says that “Outside of a dog a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it’s very dark.” Real wisdom is not limited to the insane tweets of our insane pretend president.

The living Old Drum went to the great Sheep Meadow in the Sky in 1870. He belonged to a fellow named Charles Burden, but strayed onto property owned by Leonidas Hornsby, whereupon Hornsby’s nephew shot him. Burden then sued Hornsby and set in motion the events that led to immortality for old Drum.

Burden ultimately won $50 in damages after the case went all the way to the state supreme court, but it was in the lower court that Drum made history. Burden’s lawyer was George Vest, later a U.S. Senator. Vest delivered what has come to be known as the Tribute to the Dog and everyone has heard parts of it: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world…is his dog.”

It went on from there, presumably bringing tears to the eyes of the sentimental and dog-loving jury. There was no direct transcription of the speech, but it was pieced together later on by the recollections of various onlookers and no doubt refined, the way a good story always is. Let’s face it, had Drum not been whacked, he would have been no more than a sheep-killing hound lost in history.

Wikepedia, the sprawling on-line encyclopedia of mostly useless facts, offers a list of famous dogs, including such luminaries as Sam, a Chinese Crested hairless dog which was a three time winner as the World’s Ugliest Dog.

But the list does not mention either Old Drum or Jim the Wonder Dog, Missouri’s most famous dog, perhaps the most famous dog ever. Both arguably are more deserving of lasting fame than, say, Millie, the springer spaniel owned by the George H.W. Bush family. Millie wrote a best-selling book with considerable help from the Bush family (kind of like what George W. would need were he to write a book). Jimmy Carter has written many fine books and Obama also is literate. Donald Trump, without ghostwriters, couldn’t write graffiti on a toilet wall, although he is eminently suited for it.

Well, Jim the Wonder Dog also wrote a book that did not become a best-seller through no fault of Jim’s. If ever a dog could write a best-seller, it would have been Jim, not that uppity Republican bitch. Jim was something else and theories abound from extraterrestrials to reincarnation.

Where Drum was notable for the words of his eulogist, Jim was an awesome presence in himself. There also is a statue honoring Jim, dedicated in 1999, in the Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Park in Marshall, site of Jim’s grave and much of his life. And there is a college in Marshall, but so revered is the Wonder Dog that the students leave Jim’s nether regions alone.

Jim was a Llewellen setter, owned by Sam Van Arsdale, a Missouri hotelier and quail hunter. Jim was a superb quail dog, but that’s like saying Monet also was a good cook. While Jim excelled in the field, it was in town that he dropped jaws with his decidedly un-canine talents.

Jim the Wonder Dog was from a kennel in Louisiana and came to Sam Van Arsdale as a free puppy, a gift from a traveling salesman who had stayed at Van Arsdale’s hotel. The puppy seemed uninterested in being trained, but a local trainer said he felt the dog had intelligence that seemed almost human.

But what he did transcended intelligence and skyrocketed into the realm of the supernatural. The list of his mental exploits is almost unending and if it was some sort of trickery or exceptional dog training, the evidence escaped thousands of witnesses over a number of years, including a joint session of the Missouri Legislature (normally politicians fool everyone else, not the other way around). Jim, in short, was the most spooky dog in history.

He obeyed commands given in foreign languages or Morse code, neither of which his master knew. And he predicted the future, although picking the 1936 Yankees to win the World Series wasn’t much of a trick, given a lineup featuring Ruth, Gehrig, et al–but how many dogs were making predictions of any kind? (Jim predicted seven Kentucky Derby winners in a row.)

Werner Nagel, longtime writer for the Missouri Conservation Department, once met Jim and said, “He had strange eyes.” A photo of Jim, glancing sideways at the camera, would agree—Jim has the expression of a creature that knows more than you do.

Van Arsdale’s niece played with the puppy and said the little dog seemed to understand what she was saying. By November of 1925 Jim was eight months old and Van Arsdale took him to the field. Jim walked into a field and went on point—no fooling around looking for birds. He seemed to know exactly where they were and he did this for the next 11 years.

Van Arsdale said he had shot more than 5,000 quail over Jim, a figure hard to believe—Jim lived a dozen years and that would have required Van Arsdale to shoot more than 500 quail a year. Judging by the accomplishments of our bird dogs, I sometimes feel there aren’t 500 quail and the whole damn state.

Jim’s other incredible talents became apparent when it appeared he would respond to anything Van Arsdale asked him to do: “Show me a black oak tree, Jim,” and Jim would amble over to a black oak and sit down. Van Arsdale would write down a license number and instructions to find that car and tell Jim to do what the paper said…and Jim would find the car. Tap out a Morse code message and Jim would do what it asked. Or ask him a question in French and Jim would respond.

The dog appeared before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature and pointed out people who were described to him. A friend of Van Arsdale’s said, “Let’s see if he can show me the car in which I came from Jefferson City.” Of course Jim did by walking to the car and putting his paw on it.

Van Arsdale ran a hotel in Marshall, and also in Sedalia. It didn’t take long for Jim to become a canine phenomenon. His puppies, three males, two females, showed none of his talents. Van Arsdale kept all the puppies and turned down a thousand dollar offer for one—big money today, much less in the pit of the Depression.

Van Arsdale could tell the dog to find a DeSoto (tougher to do today than it was then) and Jim would find the car that matched. Could be a trick, said doubters. Some said Van Arsdale was giving Jim body language hints but if he was he didn’t know it and no one ever caught him at it. “I don’t know the explanation,” Van Arsdale said. “Some say it’s mental telepathy. Maybe it is. It’s certain Jim won’t make a move unless I know what he is being asked to do.”

You’d be more suspicious if Van Arsdale had been collecting admissions or peddling Jim’s hairy body in the movies, but he never made a dime from his uncanny best friend. The New York Times offered to bring Jim and Van Arsdale to Washington to meet President Franklin Roosevelt, but Van Arsdale declined (apparently no one asked Jim). Van Arsdale also turned down an offer of $365,000 in Depression dollars (today, millions) to take Jim on tour for a year. “Some people said I had a trick with the dog,” Van Arsdale once said. “Was there ever a man who wouldn’t sell a trick for $365,000?”

All things, good and great, come to an end and they did for Jim and this world when he quietly died on March 18, 1937. (Will Rogers said, “If dogs don’t go to Heaven when they die, I want to go where they go.”) Van Arsdale was devastated by the loss of his longtime friend who meant more to him than anything in the world.

The story goes that Van Arsdale wanted Jim buried in the family plot in Marshall’s Park Ridge cemetery, but the cemetery authorities turned him down. So Van Arsdale buried Jim just outside the cemetery boundary in a specially-built casket…and the cemetery has expanded since Jim died in 1937 and the grave now is inside the cemetery, with a headstone reading “Jim the Wonder Dog.” There often still are flowers, left by fans of the remarkable dog.

And no sleazy desecrations on Jim’s private parts. Drum, however, is a dog of a different color…..

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  • Blog
  • July 25th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

And then there was one.

In the late 1950s two brothers from Salem Missouri and a buddy formed a bluegrass band and enlisted a local disc jockey as their bass player, acquired an aging 1950s Cadillac, loaded it with their instruments and with virtually no money, headed to Los Angeles to make their fortune.

After scrounging up traveling money along the way by stopping off to play music in the kind of places where there was chicken wire between the band and the audience to shortstop thrown beer bottles, the Dillards landed in Los Angeles, got a gig at one of the city’s renowned folk music venues, and within two weeks had been discovered by a talent scout for the Andy Griffith television show— probably the most popular show on television, then and still an enduring favorite in reruns now.

As the Darling family they were in a half-dozen episodes over the next three years and if nothing else their appearances were notable for exposing the nation to the finest bluegrass possible. The Darling family supposedly consisted of patriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle), sister Charlene (Maggie Peterson) and the boys— the Dillards who never spoke (and it must’ve been crippling for Mitch Jayne not to be able to talk– if there was any attribute Mitch had other than his musical talents, it was storytelling, both written and spoken).

The real life brothers were Rodney and Doug Dillard, the third Dillard and third Darling brother was their buddy Dean Webb, and their elder statesman fourth Darling brother and band spokesperson and bass player was Mitch Jayne. When Dean Webb, the mandolin player, died on June 30, it left only Rodney Dillard, the original guitar player as the sole remaining member of a legendary and much loved bluegrass quartet.

Over the years, the band not only splintered, but one by one except for Rodney they have died. Mitch was the first to go in 2010, and Doug, the banjo player, followed him in 2012. Now Dean Webb, victim of a heart attack, has joined them. In his final days in the hospital, someone asked Mitch Jayne how he was doing. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never died before.”

In Mitch’s obituary Doug and Rodney Dillard’s Aunt Dollie is quoted as saying about their impetuous emigration to California, “You boys sure are going a long way to flop!” But they didn’t flop and have endured in one incarnation or another for 60 years.

I’ve had a long love affair with the Dillards and was fortunate enough to be a close friend of Mitch’s. I heard about him long before I knew him. My boss at the conservation department, Jim Keefe, told me that he had been driving through the Ozarks one day when he tuned into the Salem radio station and heard the announcer giving the snake and tick market report. That was a signature tall tale of Mitch’s where he would emulate the stock market reports often given on local radio stations of the time and substitute the latest market report for “Who Boy White Dot Crush Proof Dry Valley Wonder ticks as well as futures for black, copperhead, coachwhip, garter and rattle snakes.”

When the group dispersed after their stand on the Andy Griffith show Mitch retired to Missouri, first to Columbia, then back to the old home country, settling in Eminence, just down the road from Salem. He made occasional forays to other towns, giving talks to various groups and telling his stories and keeping alive the legend of one room schools (his first job was teaching in one), of horseback rides just to get to school, and children speaking what amounted to Elizabethan English, a heritage from the Scots Irish immigrants who settled much of the Ozarks.

And he wrote—he had always written. In 1970 his novel Old Fish Hawk was published and subsequently became a 1979 movie starring Will Sampson as a remnant Osage Indian, an alcoholic, who hunts down the bear that killed his favorite hunting dog and subsequently saves a young boy from a wild Russian boar that has terrorized the town.

Oddly, the movie was made by a Canadian director and has very little resemblance to the Ozarks or to the spirit of the novel itself which, thanks to Mitch Jayne’s Ozark roots, is filled with the local color and flavor of his old home place. The novel is light years from the methamphetamine suffused plot of the recent novel Winters Bone and you won’t leave the theater feeling as if you need a period of detoxification.

Between trips to the post office, and stopping to talk to probably half the people in Eminence, every day, Mitch wrote a column for the local newspaper, the Current Wave which, collected, would be worth a book by itself. He also wrote another novel and an account of the Dillards time on the Andy Griffith show— all entertaining all written with verve and humor. Shortly before he died he dictated the last chapter of another novel, knowing that he would not live to see it published but unwilling to die before he finished it.

Doug Dillard is considered one of the godfathers of the five string banjo, along with Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. He’s credited with being a major influence on John McEuen who became the Godfather and backbone of the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band and who in turn was a mentor to Steve Martin, all around Renaissance man— writer, actor, and now almost a full time banjo man.

In 1991 McEuen was inspired to produce a documentary on the Dillards titled A Night In the Ozarks which featured the original gang reunited in Salem for, first, a concert in town and then a gathering at a rural farmhouse where people wandered in and out, playing music, and re-creating the sight and sound of an old time front porch picking. Homer Dillard, father of Doug and Rodney, fiddled, and Rodney’s wife, Beverly Cotten, clog danced with Homer.

The DVD has become a collector’s item, still available here and there if you have deep pockets. I was lucky enough to attend the first half of the filming in town, but stupidly passed on a chance to go to the farmhouse for the finale, something I will regret forever. I remember Rodney before the concert started snarling in rage at faults he found in the sound system, but whatever they were, they were sorted out by the start and on a hot summer night in Salem, Missouri, where it all started many of the same people who were there when that legend formed were in the audience to cheer for their hometown heroes.

With what I suspect was usual , Dean Webb said little and stood unobtrusively until it came time for him to pick. He doesn’t get the press that, for example, Bill Monroe, the father of the bluegrass mandolin, has always gotten—but if you listen to him you realize that he was like Doug Dillard on the banjo one of the giants of his chosen instrument.

He and Mitch were roommates on the road and the two brothers took a second room. Dean Webb was in charge of approving where they would stay and once rejected a motel, explaining to the puzzled band that he had found bullet holes in the door between the adjoining rooms and considered that “not a good sign.”

Over the years the band morphed into something considerably different than the music that formed its musical roots. Doug Dillard left in 1968 to form the band Dillard and Clark. Rodney became the de facto leader of the Dillards and over the next decades formed and reformed the band many times with many musicians.

And the Dillards as a band are credited with being the leaders in the 1970s folk rock movement involving such legendary outfits as the Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. As an example of how tangled the web can become, Samuel (Buddy) Brayfield was a founding member of the Daredevils and our family doctor for several months before he moved his practice back to Lake of the Ozarks.

The Dillards are considered pioneers in folk rock and are credited with influencing some of the biggest names in music history–they toured with Elton John and had a major influence on the Eagles, the Byrds, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin who said Dean Webb influenced his decision to play the mandolin.

Even as the Dillards except for Mitch roamed far from their musical roots, they never got traditional bluegrass out of their system. They reunited for an Andy Griffith show special in 1988. A few days after Mitch died, Rodney and Maggie Peterson appeared on stage together to talk about Mitch and sing There Is a Time, the song that Mitch and Rodney wrote together. The Dillards toured together in the 1990s and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002 and in 2009, the band was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame with all four members in attendance.

Fittingly, in 2010 Mitch’s friends and neighbors gathered at Alley Spring State Park to honor his memory. It was there that Mitch and his wife Diana were married. It also was the last time I saw Dean Webb who was present with his band Missouri Boatride.

It could have been no other way— Webb and the band gathered on the front porch of a restored one room schoolhouse (could it have been anything else for Mitch?) filled with memorabilia about Mitch and the Dillards/Darlings and played and sang songs from the good old days including The Old Home Place, the song that he and Mitch wrote together.

The theme of one of Mitch’s books is “everybody back on the truck, a reference to the way the Darlings came to town to pester Andy Griffith. Now, many years later, virtually all the cast of that iconic television show have gotten on the truck and gone down a dusty country road to who knows where?

Now there is but one.

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  • Blog
  • July 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1922 John Flaherty documented the life of an Inuit family in Alaska on film. He called the documentary Nanook of the North. In one memorable scene (Flaherty cheated—he faked the scene for dramatic emphasis) Nanook and four of his family and a sled dog all exit a kayak. About 60 years later kayak mania seized me like a virulent disease and I bought a kayak.

My sensible family of five children and any of our several dogs absolutely refused to share the kayak with me, with good reason as it turned out since I spent much of the time in the inverted position, also known as “in danger of drowning”. I did, however, become an expert at what we veteran kayakers call “wet exiting”.

While Nanook almost certainly did not share his kayak, a flimsy vehicle at best, with his family or even the dog, he probably did learn to do what is called “an Eskimo roll” this is a tricky maneuver by which the capsized kayak can be brought back upright. Considering that an upset in Alaskan waters which, at the best of times, is not like boating in a hot tub, the Eskimo roll is a good trick to know.

Nanook was no fool and, in real life, rather than in a documentary made for theater audiences who didn’t know any better, he probably used something closer to a regular boat to transfer his family from place to place, saving the kayak as a one-man vehicle for him alone. Still, even today, the sight in grainy black and white of Nanook, the four family members, and the dog popping out of the flimsy kayak makes good theater— something like seeing a long extinct Tyrannosaurus lolloping through the jungle in one of the many Jurassic Park variations. You know that logically it can’t happen but it sure is fun to see as long as you don’t have to participate.

Boating enthusiasts with half a brain have seen kayaks in action –in the Olympics, for example, when there is competition on turbulent whitewater or in documentaries about intrepid explorers challenging river rapids never before successfully run. Those enthusiasts then quickly run to their nearest Bass Pro dealer and plop down many thousands of dollars for a bass boat equipped with an 80 horsepower engine and forget they ever saw a kayak, not to mention someone rolling the craft upright after upsetting in it. You don’t upset in a bass boat unless you try to cross the Atlantic in it during a category five hurricane.

But some few of us, deranged by reading too much adventure fiction and crippled by an inability to utilize common sense, succumb to the lure of a white water craft. Two friends and I eased into the world of raging river running by building our first boat, a whitewater canoe. Since none of us had any idea what the finished product should look like our approach could best be appreciated by watching any given episode of the Three Stooges.

I don’t recall many of the details of the shaping and finish of the canoe since much of the time we were working in a small enclosed building amid the billowing fumes of fiberglass resin. I have a feeling that brain damage is the byproduct of long-term exposure to such an atmosphere.

The resulting watercraft looked like something that had been put together by the Marx Brothers under the influence of an especially fearful hallucinogenic chemical and I’m not sure we ever put it in the water possibly because we were afraid the thing would sink like a lead balloon. Eventually it got stored in the woods behind the cabin where we built it and the two friends returned home more than 100 miles from their creation, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the birth place of his monstrous creation before the guys with the torches and pitchforks showed up.

The whitewater canoe moldered there in the weeds until Dacques, a burly French Brittany discovered it had become the home place of an opossum which he engaged in combat and eventually reduced to his trophy list. Dacques, in addition to seeking out game birds, bagged an impressive list of wild creatures— a half grown raccoon, a half-grown wild turkey, more than a few rabbits, some squirrels and, for all I know, grizzly bears and mountain lions that were too much trouble to bring home.

Briefly, the difference between a whitewater canoe and a kayak is that the canoe has a larger cockpit and you kneel in it whereas you basically wear a kayak. Putting it on a Laurel and Hardy basis, big Oliver Hardy would fit in a whitewater canoe and Stan Laurel would be suited for a kayak—although both probably would turn over within 50 feet of the launch.

You slide into a kayak, feet extended and sit. You are wearing what’s called a spray skirt a sort of tutu. The first time I tottered down to the water’s edge as a chaperone on a Girl Scout canoeing trip, wearing my spray skirt, I noticed that the girls were seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling and realized they probably thought I was auditioning for Swan Lake. It did not enhance my macho image, although I did manage to avoid flipping the kayak and having to ignominiously wet exit. I also managed to get locked in the bathroom of the bus when I was chaperoning a YMCA ski trip for teenagers but that’s another story for another dismal day in the life of Joel M Vance, Klutz in Chief of any given outdoor adventure.

I practiced executing the Eskimo roll as assiduously as if I were Nanook himself capsized in the Bering Sea in near zero water temperatures, seconds away from perishing. But no matter how many times I struggled with what is supposed to be a relatively simple maneuver I simply could not pop back upright. I would get three fourths of the way back, my head out of the water glimpsing the amused faces of those on shore and then I would slowly sink back into the depths. I have to admit it was sort of peaceful suspended beneath the kayak, glimpsing curious bluegills swimming around me. But inevitably, I would begin to run out of air and would frantically tug the spray skirt free of the kayak cockpit rim and porpoise to the surface blowing and whooping like a grampus.

I consulted an expert kayaker in a swimming pool in Arkansas, watching him flip the kayak upright with more no more effort than if he were scratching his ear. And then I would try to do what he had done and it was the same old story. “I don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he said. “There must be something wrong with you.” Yes, there was— I didn’t have enough brainpower to realize when I was whipped. I was like a little boy who refuses to cry “uncle!” in a schoolyard fight until the bully who is beating him to a bloody pulp finally quits in disgust. The kayak was my bully and I figured that sooner or later it would have to give up. But it never did.

And so it came to pass that Joel donned his tutu and tucked his kayak under his arm like a businessman going to his office with his briefcase and traveled to where the fast water flows, namely the Spring River of Arkansas. Icy water, gushing from Mammoth Spring, feeds the river across the border from Missouri into Arkansas and supports trout as it winds its way south often over small rapids and many rocky ledges. It was here that I skirted the edge of disaster when I sailed over one of these ledges, somehow turned sideways in the current, and wedged under a submerged limb which stuck up stream like one of the water obstacles planted by the Germans to deter the allies from landing on the Normandy beaches in World War II.

Fortunately, I was canoeing with several guys who were infinitely more rational than I and who realized that not only the kayak but I would be pinned beneath the water by the limb and they splashed into the river and dragged me and the kayak free. The narrow escape called for a beer so I had several.

Proving that experience, even bad experience, is no cure for a lack of common sense, I launched my kayak into the Flambeau River in Wisconsin after perching my daughter ,Carrie, on a rock outcrop high above a 90 degree turn in the river where there was a daunting rapids. My idea was that Carrie would photograph me as I negotiated the rapids and then I would write an article with dramatic photography and become wealthy. The idea that I could also become drowned did not occur to me.

I negotiated the first set of rocks with all the aplomb of an Olympic contestant and then the river inconsiderately changed course 90 degrees with the water piling up at the bend, a tsunami of conflicting currents that grabbed the kayak in a giant hydraulic claw and flipped it over neatly with me underneath. I didn’t hesitate one second to see if somehow I had subconsciously learned the Eskimo roll, but frantically clawed at the tutu, ripped it free and squirted out in an explosive wet exit leaving the kayak which, as far as I was concerned, could careen on downstream to hell. At least, I knew that Carrie would have gotten several dramatic photos of me courting aquatic disaster. After I gathered my errant kayak and my wits I shouted up to Carrie, “Did you get that?” I had risked my life for a memorable series of dramatic photographs and had survived.

“I didn’t take any,” Carrie said. “I didn’t think you wanted me to take any photographs if you did it wrong.” I’m afraid I said some things and it is a tribute to her forbearance and forgiveness that she still claims to be my daughter.

My love affair with the kayak, much like an operatic libretto where the hero winds up with a dagger in his heart, came to an end on a searingly hot day in the mountains of Colorado. As if I hadn’t already tickled disaster in Arkansas and Wisconsin, I thought to pit my dubious kayak expertise against a real whitewater stream—namely, the Roaring Fork, the name of which alone should have given me pause.

I called a local floating shop and said “I’m a semi-experience kayaker and would like a short trip on local stream of several hours.” The helpful fellow directed me to a quick and what was supposed to be an easy 3 ½ mile float and said “This is a good stretch for an intermediate kayaker” and so it was for perhaps the first 200 yards. After which for the next 3 plus miles, if you have seen the movie Deliverance, you can understand what suddenly confronted me.

It was nonstop rapids and the only thing lacking was some inbred halfwit playing the banjo and a guy high on the banks above me (too high incidentally for me to climb out of the damn river and hike the rest of the way) with a rifle and a grudge against city fellers. The water was numbingly cold, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, although the day time temperature was in the 90s. But I wasn’t in the daytime—I was in the water and I quickly realized that if I ever flipped the kayak I would be upside down in the coldest water this side of one of those charity polar plunges where people raise money for hopeless causes. In this case of course I was the hopeless cause but I didn’t need money–I needed a warm bed under about four feather comforters where I could curl in the fetal position and forget Nanook and his damn kayak and especially my damn kayak.

I felt like a Chihuahua would feel balanced on a 2 x 4 rocketing down the Niagara River, nearing the lip of the Falls. To capsize would be the end of Joel M Vance as I knew him. Finally, a half hour after I optimistically entered the water on what was to be a several hour fun float, I rocketed at warp speed the last few yards to where my car was parked. I was so cold I couldn’t get my hands free from the paddle (possibly because my fingers were panic-welded into the aluminum shaft). Somehow I finally struggled out of the canoe, a cartoon caricature of hypothermia, staggered to the car, somehow got it started and turned the heater to full wintertime power and began to defrost.

It was the end of my obsession with kayaking and I loaded the thing on top of the car, tied it down and have never used it again except as a potential home for possums.

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  • Blog
  • July 8th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

North Korea and Russia are playing our mentally damaged buffoon president like a badly tuned banjo and the Middle East as usual is rife with seemingly unsolvable strife, and, for all we know, an undetected comet is bearing down on the planet and who knows what other catastrophes await the commander-in-chief’s urgent attention.

So how does the citrus tinged clown Prince of anti-democracy solve these looming situations?
Why, he goes golfing.

Golf is not considered a life-threatening sport on the order, say, of bull riding or NASCAR racing. But that’s discounting the way I played it for a couple of dissociative years.

I was manic about the game which was enough of a mental health risk without the physical trauma. “Mania” is not too strong a word to describe my obsession. If I were Catholic I would go to the confessional and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have golfed.”

There are no golf courses in Heaven. It is a cruel promise of the Devil that when a golfer dies he goes to Innesbruck. Instead there are numerous tees in Hell where, for eternity, sinning golfers are fated to hit drives that alternately shank into a rough inhabited by water moccasins and spiders, or into mephitic water hazards. There are putts that hang on the rim of the cup and tee shots that you barely tick and the demons and imps howl and point at you as the ball dribbles 20 yards down the fairway and the girl of your dreams looks at you as if you had vomited on her shoes.

W.C. Fields’ famous golf lesson skit where he growls, “Stand clear and keep your head down,” would be good advice for anyone contemplating committing golf. Golf courses are as omnipresent as political corruption and potentially just as destructive. I was consumed by the sport for several years before I came to my senses and underwent a curing process that reminded me of Frank Sinatra withdrawing from heroin addiction in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

My father had been a golfer in Chicago, but we moved to a town of 250 non-golfers and area golf courses were as rare as Isod shirts among the soybean farmers, so he gave his clubs to a nephew by marriage. Then I became a sports editor and was exposed to golf, an event like being exposed to plague.

“You mean you don’t play golf!” exclaimed Gary Filbert, the basketball coach at Mexico High School. Gary doubled as golf coach. How could I possibly cover his team if I didn’t understand the sport? He didn’t understand, nor did I, that golf, like most sports, requires athletic ability. Coaches had it or they wouldn’t be coaches. There was no such prerequisite for a sports editor–working cheap was far more important.

The various coaches played together at the local public course and it would be a chance for me to hang out with my sports page contacts, be one of the guys. But I needed clubs and buying a new set was out of the question. With two young children, a young wife and a fledgling bank account, golf clubs were far down on my list of Things We Really Need.

I pleaded with my father to reclaim his clubs and he asked for them from the nephew who returned them with ill grace. The clubs were an assortment from the Bobby Jones era, not exactly state-of-the-art. A couple were wood-shafted.

But it didn’t matter. They were golf clubs. I haunted weekend estate sales for months, filling the gaps in my golf bag with second hand clubs. It never occurred to me that there seemed to be an unconscionable number of beat-up old clubs for sale. If golf was indispensable to a complete life, why were so many golfers getting rid of their clubs? Some clubs showed evidence of having been pounded against hard objects–not golf balls, but perhaps a nearby tree. That this indicated a violent dissatisfaction with the game also never occurred to me.

I practiced putting into tipped-over water glasses on the living room rug while Marty occasionally paused to watch with a bemused look. She had seen me go through agony trying to tie fishing flies (and the family dog, a multi-colored collie, suffered too from being a repository of raw materials).

Now I was stuck in another obsession and she sighed and decided, with endless patience, to ride it out. Golf would come to be a source of marital friction that in some testier folks would have led directly to the divorce court. Only Marty’s uncanny forbearance got us through the several years when golf consumed me.

The public course in Mexico was that aberration, a sand green course. The greens, instead of being meticulously-maintained grass were sand. There was no roll. You pitched onto the “green” and the ball instantly stopped, as it would in a sand trap. There were no traps–what was the point when the greens were traps? Once on the green, you measured distance to the pin with a string attached to the flag pole and swung your ball around to a putting lane filled with oily sand (the oil allowed the sand to pack hard enough to allow a rolling putt).

It was a goofy way to end a given hole, but far less expensive than grass greens. Since I was playing on the cheap, might as well carry penuriousness to its conclusion. There was a local grass green country club, but given my meager newspaper salary we were as far from membership there as we were from membership in the French Foreign Legion.

Once I played the grass green course in Marty’s home town, Macon. By then I had developed my trademark drive, known as The Mystery Ball. I didn’t know if it would be a straight shot down the fairway (rare), a hook or a slice (common). Most golfers have a given fault that they can work on, but when you never know from shot to shot where the ball will decide to go it’s tough to develop control.

The ninth tee on the Macon course parallels U.S. Highway 36, a busy route. I was far above the highway (the course is hilly and the ninth tee was perhaps the highest point on the course). I teed up, took my stance which much resembled a person getting ready to projectile vomit, and whacked my shot. The ball rose higher and higher, began to curve ever more to the right, off the fairway, over the low trees and down to the highway.

It hit just in front of a speeding car, which fishtailed slightly as the driver slammed on his brakes. The ball ricocheted off the pavement and was gone before the driver had a chance to identify the unidentified flying object. And I was gone before he had a chance to sort it out, storm into the clubhouse to look for the author of his near miss.

A few months later I hit a line drive while trying to blast out of a sand trap and nearly crippled a lawyer. He did not sue, recognizing you can’t squeeze blood out of a golf ball, but he limped off the course and would not play with me again.

So far I had threatened the life of a couple of fellow humans. It only remained for me to put myself in jeopardy. That was not long in coming. Tagalong was a developing course near my mother’s home town, Birchwood, Wisconsin. Frank Stout, a lumber baron, built Tagalong between 1916-1919 as a playground for him and his guests. It was supposed to duplicate St. Andrews in Scotland.

After Stout’s death the place fell into disrepair and the nine-hole golf course had become an extended pasture for dairy cows. The bent grass greens, supposedly imported as sod from Scotland, had given way to clover and pasture grasses.

Then a resort development outfit began to resurrect the old golf course. The fairways still contained cows, but aside from the occasional fecal time bomb, they were in good shape. The greens were mostly clover, but had flags and were reasonably level. The place wasn’t open for business and I probably was trespassing, but there was no caretaker security or workers, nobody but me and my anachronistic golf bag.

Red Cedar Lake is adjacent to the first fairway. I know because the first drive I hit began its long journey straight down the fairway, then like a lefthander’s curve ball began to slice, over the bankside trees and far out into the lake, where it splashed down like a misdirected space capsule.

I invited Marty to walk around with me and perhaps she envisioned it as a pleasant walk in a sylvan setting, but she soon found that it was like being an unwilling member of the Manson Gang. Golf taught me to swear with the inventiveness of a mule handler. It wasn’t so much the individual words, which everyone knows, but the creative verb and adjectival constructions which would have awed a Parris Island drill instructor.

Golf as it was developing in my life did not serve as a release from job stress or a challenge to my athletic ambitions. Rather, it had released a latent nasty temper. The inconsistencies of my game gnawed at me like intestinal wharf rats. Between gobbling Rolaids and swearing I threw my battered clubs after each drive that went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to. The Holsteins mooed apprehensively and trotted awkwardly in front of us, their pendulous bags swinging side to side. I laced another drive into the trees and snarled at Marty as if it were her fault. I knew I was being unreasonable and downright nasty, but couldn’t seem to help myself.

Marty stuck it out for a couple more holes but my near constant stream of verbal abuse finally exhausted her patience. “Maybe the cows can put up with it, but I can’t,” she said. She hiked toward the car to wait and perhaps contemplate a life in which I did not play a part. Fuming, I teed up and tried to unleash my fury on the little white ball.

It was a solid hit that screamed off the tee, low and slicing, the kind of shot that normally rises as it curves and becomes a 200-yard plus drive into the deep rough. But this one centered a tree trunk about 20 yards to one side of the tee and rebounded with the velocity of a rifle bullet. I both felt and heard it whisper past my ear. If it had hit me between the eyes where my brain allegedly resided it would have killed me.

The ball skipped up the hill behind me and came to rest about where the present day Tagalong Clubhouse is. There were a dozen or so cowpies where the dairy herd had been sheltering from the sun. The ball gleamed amid their dank presence. It seemed prophetic.

I sat heavily, my legs weak, and took a shuddery breath. It was time to hang up the battered old clubs and find some other obsession–like defusing old land mines.

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  • Blog
  • July 2nd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It’s been many years since suffocating summer nights in Montgomery Alabama, sitting on a rickety couch in a small room in Archie and Lou McKay’s house listening to opera over their treasured record player, drinking Jax Beer and learning about the world of opera.

Now it is a suffocating night in mid-Missouri more than 60 years later, and I am on an aisle seat in a restored old theater in Columbia Missouri, listening to live opera, La Boheme, performed by the University of Missouri music department and the Missouri Symphony Orchestra. Not Bjoerling and Roberta Peters but pretty damn good. In fact, outstanding, because live performance always trumps recorded.

I have a treasure trove of recorded opera. Some are highlights from favorite operas, others are complete boxed sets of favorite operas, some are on compact discs others on videotape, most on 33 RPM long playing records. Years ago on a grouse hunting trip in Minnesota I took a lunch break in town and stopped by a knickknack store where I stumbled on a stash of boxed complete operas for about two bucks each. No doubt they still would be there if I hadn’t pounced on them like a house cat on a mouse, Pine River not exactly being a hotbed of operatic fanatics, and I scarfed up the entire collection.

The magic still is there— opera became for me in that stifling hot summer in Montgomery an escape into a magic world of music that never has quite left me, despite sidetracks into folk, bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, early rock ‘n roll, and even an exploratory toe dipping into some of the more advanced wailing of drugged out rockers. But opera over the decades has retained a tenacious grip on my musical sensibilities. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart, and apprentice member of the peanut gallery whose appreciation is for the romance language composers. I’ve never developed an interest or affection for the German composers. Somehow even the name Brunhilda lacks the lyrical sound of a someone named Violeta, not to mention the music she sings.

Opera has a been around for centuries, since the first musician got the idea of turning spoken theater into music and adding song and dance to staged presentations even to the dramatic world of Shakespeare. No composers since have completely abandoned the idea of musical drama— there even is an opera about Richard M Nixon, which seems like some sort of cosmic musical joke. For me, I’ll stick to Giuseppe Verdi and, as it was on that wonderful night in Columbia, Giacomo Puccini and his tragic tale of the doomed seamstress and her heartbroken poet lover Rodolfo, a couple of Parisian proto-hippies living hand to mouth in the closing days of the 19th century.

When Rodolfo clutched Mimi’s hand and sang (in Italian, but thanks to supertitles, translated into English) “your tiny hand is cold” I got tears in my eyes, not because the soap opera plot is so moving, but because the memories of nights listening to Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters, and so many others now gone legendary opera stars made Jax beer taste like champagne. It overwhelmed me.

Arch McKay is dead, shotgunned in a parking lot in Mobile, Alabama in an apparent Dixie Mafia mob hit, and his grieving widow, Lou, died several years ago. Puccini, likewise, also died many years ago—possibly the first and maybe only opera composer ever to die of lung cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. But, unlike Archie and Lou, his music will live forever—as long as there is such a thing as music, and as long as there are people like me who cherish the idea and the performance of opera.

I still get all misty when I hear the slave chorus from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, always remembering the possibly apocryphal story of how grieving Italians spontaneously burst into singing it as his funeral procession wound through the streets of Milan Italy.

The legend is that, at the time, northern Italy was occupied by Austria and needless to say the Italians weren’t happy about it. Austrians, being a Germanic and irksome occupying type, suppressed any sort of subversive commentary by the Italians, but the Italians adopted Verdi’s slave chorus from Nabucco as an unofficial national anthem. The opera tells about the enslavement of Hebrews by Babylon, singing of their longing to be free and to return to their homeland — it’s in the Bible and you can read about it there (Nabucco in the Bible is Nebuchadnezzar king of the Babylonians).

Verdi was the most revered Italian of his time, which was long, and when he died at 87, some 41 years after the debut of Nabucco, his funeral cortege wound through the streets of Milan which were lined by an estimated 10,000 people who spontaneously began to sing the chorus from Nabucco. The Austrians, more attuned to the Hitlerian arias of Richard Wagner, no doubt missed the nationalistic symbolism of the Italian tribute to their revered composer.

Or, so the story goes— whether it’s true or not it’s a story worthy of inclusion as a dramatic act in a Verdi opera. Too bad the old man wasn’t alive to compose yet another timeless musical drama. The truth is that Verdi was buried in Milan and a chorus of more than 800, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, sang the Nabucco chorus for what was reported to be an audience of more than 300,000–possibly that included those thousands reported to have been lining the streets as the funeral procession passed by.

My infatuation with opera actually predates those hot nights in Montgomery cradling a bottle of Jax Beer and listening to Jussi Bjoerling (sometimes we drank Dixie Beer, this being the first capital of the Confederacy). Anyway, when I was incarcerated for six months at Fort Bliss, Texas, as a shavetail lieutenant, I went to see the film version of Don Giovanni with a beer drinking buddy who outranked me— he was a first lieutenant and therefore I felt a certain military obligation to go with him when he suggested seeing an opera movie.

Clyde loved beer as much as I did and once turned away a pair of Mormon missionaries when they knocked on his door early on a Sunday morning when he had a hangover. Clyde was a Jack Mormon so that transgression probably meant that he would suffer eternal damnation, chewed on by a swarm of locusts, but for whatever reason he wanted to see Mozart and so we went to the movie. At that time of life I was more in tune with Howling Wolf than with Wolfgang, but there was something compelling in the timeless story of the damned degenerate cursed and dragged to hell by the ghost statue of an outraged father.

And to go back even further in my love affair with opera, I was desperately in love at the age of seven with both Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, two movie stars who were not only lovely to look at but could sing like the angels with their Metropolitan Opera quality voices. But I forsook Jane and Kathryn later on in life in favor of the bluegrass tenor of Bill Monroe and the country bass of Tex Ritter—until I got that fateful job at the Montgomery Alabama Journal and hooked up with Archie McKay and his lovely blind wife Lou.

The popular perception of opera by most people these days is summed up in a phrase attributed to Texas Red Raiders sports information director Ralph Carpenter who said when Texas A and M rallied for a tie late in a tournament game “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While it’s true that historically many leading opera performers were less then lean, today many if not most of the stars of opera look the parts they are singing— sopranos who not only can soar above the clouds with their voices but also can melt your toenails with their looks. And many of the guys are, in the words of female audience members “hunks.” Even given the beefiness of some legendary opera singers, what would the history of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific have been without the rendition of “some enchanted evening” by chunky opera basso Ezio Pinza? A song title which, by the way, pretty well sums up the effect of a well performed opera.

And if there seems to be incongruence in the sight of two candidates for Jenny Craig singing a love duet, I can counter with the memory of a performance of Rigoletto by the traveling company of the New York City Opera which featured a sexual encounter between the ever horny Duke of Mantua and the equally seductive sister of the evil villain Sparafucile, the beautiful Maddelena. I well recall the two of them rolling around on a bed in near X-rated ecstasy. Made for a memorable evening and the singing was gorgeous.

Recently I watched a video of a lovely coloratura singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in a low cut gown that threatened to add a couple of dimensions to her performance possibly not intended by Donizetti. Eat your heart out, Janet Jackson.

If any one incident sums up the impact that opera has had on me over the many years, it happened some years back when Leontyne Price gave her final performance for the Metropolitan Opera. It was recorded on PBS and I watched as she, in the role of Aida, sang oh Patria Mia (my dear country). The role is that of an Ethiopian slave to the Egyptians, loved by the Egyptian military commander. Aida is consumed with longing for her homeland, but also torn because of her love for an enemy. But the conflict in her heart on that night of sorrow for Aida went far beyond the intent of Verdi when he wrote the part— he didn’t know it but he was writing it more than a century earlier specifically for Leontyne Price on her farewell night.

Ms. Price will go down in operatic history as among the finest sopranos ever to sing anywhere and not only, with her moving song of longing for her homeland, did she illuminate the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, she illuminated the tragedy of African slaves in our own terrible history— Ms. Price is an African-American. No one else could have sung that role so heartrendingly and with such conviction. There surely must have been in her mind as she sang not just the words or the feeling that Giuseppe Verdi had put into the aria, but also the emotion of centuries of oppression and heartbreak suffered by her race.

The tears running down my face were not only in appreciation for her peerless singing, but also in shame for my race.

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