Archive for December, 2018

  • Blog
  • December 28th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I don’t need Donald J Trump, that pus-filled boil on the body politic and his dimwitted acolytes to tell me there is no such thing as climate change. I’ve seen it happening for eight decades. Winters are getting warmer, no doubt about it—even though we still have the occasional blizzards to give the weather forecasters something to talk about.


When our first born daughter, Carrie, was one week old in the first days of January, 1960, one of the heaviest snowfall winters in modern recorded history, en route to a doctor’s checkup, we dropped her in a snowdrift. Cushioned by the deep snow, she was uninjured and we fished her out, horrified as new parents, but grateful that she was too young to be traumatized by the incident.


Although, you have to wonder. She chose to go to college at Bemidji State University, located in one of the coldest cities in the nation, and spent the first 35 years of her adult life in Minnesota, a state where ice anglers in the winter possibly outnumber normal wet water anglers in the summer. And when she finally moved with her husband, Ron, it was to the snowcapped Rocky Mountains of Colorado.


Along the way, Carrie and I both learned to cross country ski— negotiating snowy slopes on skinny skis. It’s known as Nordic skiing as opposed to downhill or Alpine skiing I was a pioneer cross-country skier in our home city and credit myself with bringing awareness of cross-country skiing to a town that previously had only known the occasional foray by the YMCA and a few others to Colorado to downhill ski at that state’s many resorts.


Before winter became as balmy in Missouri as it is in most of those states south of the Mason-Dixon line I had accumulated a cadre of skinny ski aficionados who haunted the local golf course with me on snowy days. I recall one such day, sunny and 13°, with a hefty covering of ski-able snow. After a couple of hours of the kind of exercise that everyone recommends and few practice, we retired to warm places and laced ourselves with hot chocolate. That was a quintessential good old day, not experienced since.


Some of us adventurous thirtysomething couples did make trips to Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, and Crested Butte in Colorado to downhill ski (once we got trapped by a Kansas blizzard on Interstate 70 and spent the night camped out in a Stuckey’s, sleeping under rock ashtrays and other detritus offered for sale by that defunct quick stop franchise) but none of our downhill ski group ever switched to skinny skis except for me. There didn’t seem to be any thrill in what , to them, amounted to a form of super jogging when compared to the excitement of “balls to the wall” downhill racing on black diamond slopes.


I was never comfortable on downhill skis which had a disconcerting habit of developing terrifying speed instantly that defied my ability to control it. It was like a 14-year-old boy sitting in the family car waiting for daddy and deciding that it would be delicious fun to shift into reverse and gingerly step on the gas to see what would happen. What happened (and I know because the 14-year-old was me) was that the car instantly lurched backward crunching into someone else’s vehicle. It only takes a moment of loss of control on downhill skis to turn me back into a 14-year-old, terrified of what daddy will find out when he returns to the family car and what he will do about it.


Only one time did I venture downhill on cross-country skis. I made it from top to bottom without breaking anything skeletal, but was not inspired to try it again. I did learn the mystery of the telemark turn and it came in handy when my skinny skis began to pick up far more speed than I was comfortable with. Until the summer before my venture downhill, I had no idea what a telemark turn was. My wife, Marty, and I were staying at a Colorado resort and met a young couple on their honeymoon. After we got back to Missouri, I read an article in Sports Illustrated magazine about a young man who had rediscovered something called the telemark turn. His name was Rick Borkovec and he was the young man who was honeymooning with his new wife. He had seen an old Norwegian using the telemark and he experimented until he mastered it in 1971 and introduced it as a member of the Crested Butte resort ski patrol in the 1980s.


Rediscovery of the telemark turn also is credited to a fellow named Dick Hall, a Killington, Vermont, skier who, back in the 1970s, read about the telemark in an old ski book which described it as a turn obsolete and not used anymore. Regardless of the credit for rediscovering the telemark, it is a useful if esoteric method of turning the skis from straight ahead to one side or the other, preferably before the skier hits an unforgiving tree head on (ask Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher about the results of that).


Anyone who has downhill skied knows that the ski boots are firmly fastened to the boards and turns are made by unweighting and leaning the body whichever way you want to turn. The telemark has to compensate for the fact that your heels are free from the skis which, of course, want to keep going straight when you want to turn. The answer is to thrust one ski forward of the other, arms akimbo, and crouch on the trailing ski leaning into the turn kind of like a plane banking for an approach to the runway. If it works as advertised, the skis obligingly will turn the way you want them to. If not, you will emulate the late Sonny Bono.


Or, you could be born and raised in Norway, and save me the trouble of trying to explain something that you either can Google, experiment on your own, a la Borkovec and Hall, or forget the whole thing because, with climate warming, you probably won’t have to worry about telemark turns anyway.


 One Christmas we visited Carrie and her husband, Ron, in Minnesota and cross-country skied at the Minnesota Zoo, gliding on groomed trails past timber wolves, moose, and incongruously a camel. The camel, which most of us associate with the searing heat of the Sahara Desert, seemed perfectly at home in subzero temperatures, which was more than we could say about ourselves and as dedicated as we were to cross-country skiing, it was a relief to shed them and head for a warm building and something hot to drink.


Visualize a cold winter night clear and shot with stars, the moon a pale fingernail amid the sparkle of the heavens. A snowstorm has passed, leaving 8 inches of fluffy white over Jefferson City. There is no traffic, the snowplows are not yet out, and the streets are silent—what few house lights show indicate that the inhabitants are holed up, watching television or probably asleep.


We lived halfway down a steep hill two blocks from a municipal golf course which was my personal cross country ski area. Given the new snow and the absence of traffic, I could ski up the hill negotiate the two blocks to the golf course and glide onto the top of a hill (Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, is built on a Missouri River bluff and is a series of ups and downs). I could spend as long as I wanted there in the night, skiing the hills and valleys of the golf course, sometimes with the family collie for company, mostly alone. It was peaceful there in the night, just me and the stars (and maybe the dog). The skis made little sound. My first set of cross-country skis required waxing to achieve grip on the snow, but later ones featured a herringbone bottom which grips the snow and allowed me to climb hills without sliding backward.


Thank God for this invention which obviates the necessity of waxing the ski bottoms so they will hold on upward inclines. Waxing involves coating the ski bottom with varying consistencies of wax, depending on the consistency of the snow.  It is done with the delicate artistry of a Renaissance painter creating a masterpiece for the ages. But as soon as you get this goo coated on your skis, the sun comes out, the snow softens, and the wax you applied so carefully does not apply anymore.


Waxing, in short, is a massive pain. I gave my wooden skis to a fellow who was a classic sociopath—the world revolved about him and he was a genius at absorption— he absorbed ideas and recycled them as his own,  anything that had the possibility of benefiting him, no matter whom he hurt in the process. I told him about waxing, enjoying the possibility that he would smear both the skis and his self proclaimed reputation for expertise in all things— but a day or two later he was pontificating about ski waxing to a credulous group and you would have thought he was born in Norway and had invented ski waxing all by himself. It was a happy day for me when we mutually decided never again to be associated with each other in any way.


I consigned my left over containers  of ski wax to the trash bin, bought a new set of waxless skis and headed for the golf course.


This is the way it used to be before we stopped having enough snow in winter to allow cross-country skiing in mid-Missouri. We still have the occasional snow and even more occasionally enough snow to call it a snowstorm— but we don’t have lasting snow anymore. It melts off in a day or two and we’re back to the rocks and red dirt that is the base of Cole County. A half-dozen sets of cross-country skis rest in a rack in our mud room, unused for years now.


They have seen their day and, I guess, I have too.  With my luck, if I ever have a chance to return to cross-country skiing on a star shot night with a fresh and trackless newfallen snow, and a deserted golf course calling to me, I probably will discover that Donald J Trump has bought the damn thing and is charging half a million bucks to use it .


That climate change is real is not in dispute, despite Donald Trump’s ignorant refusal to accept reality. Hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico and parts of the southern United States, the state of California is burning to the ground which Trump, with his typical massive ignorance, blames on poor forest management (apparently every citizen should be issued a leaf rake with his or her birth certificate so they can comb the forests clean of combustible material— a proposal that is so incredibly stupid as to make you wonder how Donald J Trump ever got past the fourth grade). Half of the 10 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred in the last year, the result of drought caused by climate change, not the result of poor leaf management.


But enough of the depressing news— better to remember those long ago snowy nights when the world seemed clean and glistened under starlight and there was no turmoil at least for a couple of hours when I could glide over the pristine hills and dales of the local golf course with nothing more portentous on my mind than whether we had enough hot chocolate mix at home when I racked up the skis at the front door and entered into the gentle welcome of home.


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  • Blog
  • December 21st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance


The machine itself has long since gone to the great dustbin of useless appliances that have outlived their life and practicality, along with coffeemakers, toasters, and other kitchen utensils with a built-in shelf life which give up the ghost, not with a bang or even a whimper but that simply quit working.


This machine was obsolete before I got it uncomfortably more than half a century ago, but one artifact from its short and unremarkable life still exists somewhere in the clutter of my audio recordings which range from 78 RPM discs barely out of the Edison era to today’s compact disc which, they tell me, also is obsolete. Forgive me for feeling more than a little obsolete myself as we close in on yet another Christmas.


The artifact that still exists is a recording, made with a disc recording machine, which is the way that old Tom Edison did it, and the reason that we still today can hear the voice of Enrico Caruso and other long dead historic personages. On this particular disc recording, there are no Carusos— only the Joel Vance family, father mother and son, singing “ Silent Night”. The von Trapp family we are not.


If you have heard Johnny Cash and the Carter Family sing “Daddy Sang Bass” you can get some idea of what we were trying to achieve on that long ago Christmas recording. Not that we would ever be mistaken for the Carter/Cash clan. My daddy was singing bass, obviously self-consciously, and mama I think was trying to be as inaudible as possible in the background, while I contributed a warbley barely post-adolescent tenor.


The recording machine was my parents’ gift to me for Christmas, 1949, something I had lusted over so I could record myself, the first step toward country music stardom. That goofy dream, along with the recording machine, which already had been superseded in electronic invention by tape-recording, also has joined the toasters and coffee machines of yesteryear in the dustbin of memory.


On this recording, I am accompanying the family choir on a Sears Silvertone, orchestra model guitar, which had the action of a fence post strung with baling wire. After a session, wrestling with this so-called musical instrument my fingers felt as if I had been pounding on them with a meat mallet, and if the old Silvertone is any indication, it’s no wonder that Sears and Company has followed its infernal recording device and condemned musical instrument into history.


The process of recording was to position a blank recording disk on the turntable of the machine, needle resting on what would become the first groove in the wax of the disc, set the controls for volume, tone and whatever else was involved, position the microphone so it would capture the voices of Vances, pere, mere, and squeaky kid, caution everyone to be at their vocal best and launch into the unknown.


It has been a long time since I’ve resuscitated that recording of “Silent Night,“ but with Christmas upon us, I would like to unearth it from the audio vault and hear once again my father and mother—not so much me, but those voices of loved ones long gone.


I’ve had two Christmas traditions in my life, one the first 14 years of it when I was born and raised in Chicago and if you have seen the movie A Christmas Story (and who hasn’t) you see the story of those 14 years. I was the living Ralphie. Virtually the only thing different was that no aging aunt gave me a bunny costume. But the careful selection of a tree (which usually looked like the one that was left when all the good ones had been selected), careful stringing of lights, the trip downtown to see the window displays at Marshall Field’s department store, the snow!, Ah, the snow! White Christmas! We had snow. Lake Michigan hulked right at Chicago’s doorstep and howling northern winds sucked up lake water and created snow that blanketed the city. Snowmen, snowball fights, angel figures in newfallen snow, galoshes, “be sure to wear your gloves so your hands don’t get cold”


But they did get cold, blue and numb with the cold and we didn’t care. Christmas was coming! I didn’t want a Red Ryder BB gun more than anything (I actually did get one a year or two later)–I wanted a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone guitar so I could sing like Gene Autry and maybe, if there was such a thing as a Red Ryder Colt 45 BB gun, that too so I could shoot Black Bart and his gang of old West desperados. But I settled for snowballs which, if you kneaded them long enough, turned to ice balls that were every bit as lethal as 45 caliber slugs. In summer time, we played burnout catch with baseballs so I could throw with pretty good velocity and an ice ball accurately placed could have the neighbor kid howling for his mama.


Once I saved the pennies from my meager allowance and bought my mother tea kettle for Christmas. She didn’t drink tea and a kettle for heating water was about as useful to her as a calf roping lariat, but she hugged me and thanked me with moist eyes and I felt 10 feet tall and every bit as noble as Gene Autry. I just couldn’t sing and play the guitar like him. That damn Silvertone. And then we moved to Missouri and a whole new world of Christmases.


My father gave up a middle-class salesman’s job and a comfortable apartment in Chicago for a ramshackle former railroad hotel in Dalton Missouri with an income that was, to put it charitably, limited. All the money that came in from a large farm investment went right back into the debt on the farm and what was left over was what we lived on. Christmas presents were likely to be, for me anyway, a new shirt or two and a new pair of jeans.  And that would get me through the school year. We moved from that Chicago apartment to a wreck of a building that had been built largely from timbers salvaged from an 1800s Missouri River steamboat wreck.


It had served in its heyday as a haven for traveling salesman on the railroad which ran through Dalton. The all too common trains still passed through the town less than 100 yards across the gravel street from where we lived. It took adjustment to deal with the midnight blare from the passing freight trains, but we got used to it.


We still decorated a Christmas tree. Hanging lights and tinsel and the same ornaments we had used in Chicago. Christmas tree lights were a tribulation which, had my father been a cussing type like Ralphie’s Old Man, would’ve had him fuming because when one light in a string of those ancient times went out, they all went out and you spent hours trying to isolate the offender and replace it with a working bulb.


We didn’t decorate the ramshackle Dalton hotel the way Ralphie’s Old Man did their suburban home because, given the condition of the old building, the weight of the kind of Christmas light decorations, common today, probably would have caused the place to collapse. And my Old Man didn’t get a wonderful leg lamp as a major award by having the winning ticket in a local movie theater giveaway, since there was no local movie theater giving away leg lamps.


The only movie theater in the area was the El Jon in Brunswick where I once saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys live on stage before what probably was a gene Autry Western. I didn’t appreciate that I was experiencing country music history, trapped as I was in my fantasy of becoming a future Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy.


  I should have realized that fantasy was only a fantasy, when I was tapped by my mother into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for our Methodist Church congregation, and a wasp fell on my neck mid song and stung me and I said a word inappropriate for a house of worship. Fortunately, most everyone was bored to insensibility and didn’t hear me or I would’ve had my mouth washed out with soap, like Ralphie when he said the forbidden word. I did however experience a Lifeboy mouthwash once when I called a little kid a son of a B. I didn’t even finish the phrase, but my mother overheard the beginning and introduced me to the concept of sucking on a bar of soap to cure me of inappropriate comment.


Three people in a ramshackle old building in the year just before mid century (and that is the last century, not this one) tentatively singing “All is calm/all is bright” into a cheap microphone which in turn fed into an already obsolete recording machine. Chaps, the family half springer, half cocker spaniel lounged nearby and was in her prime and had adapted to life in the country, far removed from her origin in a pet shop in Chicago Illinois, to become a consummate squirrel dog in front of my father, armed with a 22 caliber Winchester single shot rifle.


This was a new life for me, a city kid from birth, but a return to their roots for my mother and father. My mother was born to a pioneer family in northern Wisconsin, a land of lakes and forest. My father was raised on a hard rock Missouri farm where self-sufficiency was imperative—either that or perish .


So this was 69 years ago, barely past the end of World War II and not quite the beginning of the Korean War. Since then we have been in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—with no end of the latter war in sight. The world is in turmoil, the country is divided as never before, we’re saddled with a president who apparently was elected mostly by help from an enemy nation that was just becoming such when my parents and I sang “Silent Night” so long ago.


I remember…..


There is snow on the ground outside the old hotel and maybe the few Dalton kids will get together later on and sled down the hill a few feet east of the hotel, picking up speed, rocketing across the deserted street, angling left and across the railroad tracks and almost as far as the hardware store. This was when Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” meant just that. This was when Christmas was not just an occasion for a manic shopping spree, when people gathered in church whether they were churchy types or not, when everyone knew the words to familiar Christmas carols and when everyone believed in the concept of Santa Claus even when they knew better.


It takes the perspective of age to be able to remember that the years Immediately after the horror of World War II was an era of unbridled prosperity and that things were not just different but better. Climate change was there but we didn’t know it.  It snowed in wintertime and steamed in summer, but we had seasons and we made the best of them. We sledded and had snowball fights and built snowmen and made angels in the snow. Can’t we, as a world, take a day or two off from strife and anguish and live out the promise of the Christmas holiday of yesteryear, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background or any other consideration that muddies our lives in today’s world?


And we sang “Silent Night” as a family and Christmas came upon a midnight clear and we were happy and we huddled close to a microphone and sang for the ages. “Sleep in heavenly peace…..”  And that’s why I get a lump in my throat every time I hear “Silent Night” that has nothing to do sinus drainage.

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  • Blog
  • December 14th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Here’s the difference. When a Norwegian dies and goes to Heaven he is delighted to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner. When the rest of us die and go to Hell we are horrified to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner.


That is, of course, assuming that the rest of us have ever eaten lutefisk. I have— once. It was a traumatic culinary experience that, this side of the Fiery Furnace, I don’t want to repeat. Lutefisk is an ethnic dish, peculiar to those of Scandinavian extraction, and is not likely to be found in mainstream eateries. There is no such thing as a McLutifisk and, God willing, there never will be— although it really doesn’t matter to me since I never scuttle under the Golden Arches for an instant heart attack anyway.


For the uninitiated (and the initiation is akin to what fraternities in the past deemed Hell Week) is a dish of jellied fish that shimmers on the plate much as did alien blobs of matter in 1950s science fiction horror films. Those blobs often morphed into substances that enveloped people, houses and even whole cities. One look at a plate glistening with lutefisk is enough to make one fear for the safety of the old home place.


There is an ill logic in lutefisk from the get-go. The concept is to desiccate fish after they emerge sensibly damp from the water in which they live, then rehydrate them through the use of toilet bowl cleanser (lye) and then eat them. I grew up believing that when you catch a fish in its moist condition, you eat it then not after you parch it and resurrect it. Perhaps there is some sort of Biblical parallel here that I missed.


I know someone is going to tell me that drying fish is a way to preserve them especially on long ocean voyages to discover new worlds. Thus, the Vikings were able to load up their ships with dried fish and head out for Manhattan so they could inflict Native Americans with lutefisk.


Pres. Trump with his usual erratic grasp of reality recently said that this country needs fewer immigrants from places he deemed as “shithole countries” and import more immigrants from Norway. I would suggest that Trump be weaned from big Macs and be forced to eat a heaping plate of lutefisk, every bite, which, I would be willing to bet, would temper his enthusiasm for immigrants from Scandinavia and possibly even engender an affection for shredded chicken quesadillas, to which I am addicted.  I have to say that if I were an immigrant stopped at the southern border of the United States and ordered to eat lutefisk before being deported, I would say, “Please take me to the nearest Taco Bell and give me a bus ticket heading south.”


In the fairytale, a princess kissed a frog and it turned into the vintage Brad Pitt. The process by which a fish especially a dead one, is turned into lutefisk sounds like a research chemist’s worst nightmare.  At least the frog wasn’t dead, a circumstance of great relief for the princess. In the case of the dead fish, all it took was a hungry Scandinavian, origin lost to history, who wasn’t fussy about what he ate and the process by which it arrived on his dinner plate.


Children, even babies, when plagued by an inability to fill their nappies, often are dosed with cod liver oil, a ghastly remedy for all that ails toddlers who usually bring kicking and screaming to new levels when confronted with a spoonful of the puréed residue of a dead codfish.  Cod liver oil is portrayed as a miracle cure for all that ails the little ones and there are even are capsules of it flavored like bubblegum. You try convincing a five-year-old that the pill you’re holding actually is Double Bubble and you are well on the way as a parent to creating an adult who not only no longer believes in Santa Claus, but also does not believe that Donald J Trump is God’s representative for the Second Coming.


It is the codfish, liver and all, in dried form which constitutes the bulk of lutefisk— but not without first undergoing a chemical transformation last seen when Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. Or think of poor Lawrence Talbot as the Wolf Man howling at a full moon and sprouting facial hair all the way down to his toenails.


Here is how you too can create lutefisk: acquire a dead codfish (you can use ling or turbot, according to Wikipedia) and dry it by hanging it in the sun until it looks like the tongue of an old boot.  You can dry fish in your oven, but anything baked you serve guests for decades to come is likely to have the faint aroma of something that you scraped off the deck of your rowboat.  In my Missouri home waters we have fish such as largemouth bass, bluegills, and even trout— not cod, ling or turbot.  And while our native fish often make it to the dinner table, it is as beloved entrées not jellied lab experiments.


Anyway, you dry your dead fish and you’re well on the way to lutefisk. Now you soak the dehydrated fish in cold water for five or six days, changing the water each day. Now comes the part that should daunt you, if you already are not so bemused that you have dismissed the theory that the Vikings discovered America rather than Columbus because they must have all died of ptomaine poisoning somewhere near Greenland.


Enter the part of the process involving toilet bowl cleanser. Plunk your soaked fish into a solution of cold water and lye for two more days. Wikipedia says that at the end of the two days the fish is caustic. The definition of caustic is “a corrosive substance which will damage or destroy other substances with which it comes into contact by means of a chemical reaction.” How does that tingle the old taste buds? You have now reached the stage of meal preparation where your dinner theoretically can eat you rather than the other way around.


One thing to remember— if, as a non-Scandinavian, you are revolted by lutefisk and can manage to sneak off to the restroom with your plate full of it, you can flush it down the toilet, confident in the knowledge that not only are you ridding yourself of a noxious substance, you also are sanitizing the potty.


Obviously, you need to defuse the entrée and this is done by soaking the lye infused fish in cold water for an additional two days to remove the caustic lye. Note that the application of cold water is essential in preparing lutefisk. If you watch any of the various Alaskan television shows where dried fish is common, you might deduce that cold is an essential part of Arctic food preparation. Cold air combined with cold water is common in Alaska, but not so much in, say, Florida  which may explain why you rarely if ever will be invited to a lutefisk dinner in Key West. There, ask not for lutefisk and lefse but settle for a grouper sandwich.


Note also on the Alaska television shows that dried fish rather than becoming lutefisk is fed to the sled dogs. So far, Purina does not offer Lutefisk Kibble as trail food for teams entered in the Iditarod.


It’s not that I have an aversion to ethnic food. Actually I have embraced exotic dishes from other cultures many times. I once ate rattlesnake which was like chewing a piece of garden hose—it seemed to grow larger the more I chewed. I also once sampled escargot, a French delicacy, but could not escape the feeling that I was dining on garden slugs. Having once stepped on a garden slug barefoot, eating one was not a pleasant experience. Some foods are meant to be sampled once and only once. As one fellow said about lutefisk, “I tried lutefisk twice—once going down and once coming up.”


There are two traditional side dishes, designed to make lutefisk palatable to the hitherto uninitiated— Swedish meatballs (delectable) and lefse which eaten by itself, is kind of like pizza dough left uncooked and untopped by anything (i.e. tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms, or cheese). Lefse can be made palatable by generous applications of butter, jelly, jam or preserves. The meatballs are good enough that perhaps the Vikings made it to Nova Scotia on them alone, the lutefisk having given out before they all died of gastric agony.



Once, on a ruffed grouse hunt in northern Minnesota I attended a lutefisk dinner at the local Lutheran Church.  The church basement was crowded, tinged with the delicate aroma of Scandinavian cuisine simmering on the kitchen stove. We gathered around a bench which I shared with a beefy Norwegian who stared at a plate glistening with a heaping serving of lutefisk as if he were staring through the gates of Paradise. I am willing to bet that his surname no matter how it began ended in “son”. This, being a house of worship, it was obvious to me what he was worshiping at the moment. Also in a house of prayer, I was silently praying for deliverance from what he was eating.


He plowed through the heap of fish Jell-O making occasional sounds of orgasmic pleasure. He slathered butter both on the lutefisk and lefse and they vanished as if by magic. There was no sound of chewing— just gurgles of gratification.  Almost before he had begun, he was finished. I toyed with my lefse, ignoring the lutefisk, half afraid it might come to life.


My Scandinavian friend (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Finnish—they all eat lutefisk) stifled a satisfied belch, rose and said, “by dang, dot’s gude lutefisk. Tink I’ll git some more before dey run out. You vant some?” He looked suspiciously at my untouched lutefisk as if suspecting I might be a foreigner from someplace south of The Cities. I certainly had zero desire to fight him for any lutefisk leftovers— after all, it was a church basement, and you don’t want to fight a Minnesotan anyway for fear a hockey game might break out.


I resisted saying, “Yah sure, you betcha!” And settled for a simple murmured “no thanks.” And he lumbered away toward the serving counter.  And thus ended my one and only lutefisk dinner, not with a bang but a belch, the soothing aftertaste of Swedish meatballs in my mouth, and a lingering hint of fish Jell-O in my nasal passages.


Uff Da!



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  • Blog
  • December 7th, 2018


Joel M. Vance

Well, it’s official, the United States Senate welcomes into its ranks the state of Mississippi’s most prominent aficionado of public lynching, reaffirming Mississippi’s status as the nation’s most prominent bastion of racial intolerance.


Anyone who read the news over the last several weeks before the runoff election in Mississippi, knows that Cindy Hyde-Smith commented that if a supporter “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” This was taken by many as a reference to Mississippi’s leading role as a hotspot for African-American lynchings over the last century and, although Ms. Hyde-Smith apologized, sort of, the mud clung to her, along with several other racially insensitive episodes— wearing Confederate paraphernalia in the Jefferson Davis Museum, attending a whites only school, and sending her daughter to another one.


All these clues pointing to the possibility that Ms. Hyde-Smith is not exactly a paragon of racial equality made no difference to the majority of voters who upheld Mississippi’s reputation as the capital of racial intolerance in the Western world.  Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose resemblance to Margaret Hamilton made up as the Wicked Witch of the West, save for the fact that she is not green (and, for God’s sake, don’t color her black) is remarkable, defeated Mike Espy, an African-American, for the interim Senate seat vacated by retired Thad Cochran.


It was a runoff election that was closer than it was supposed to be in Mississippi where the world redneck population routinely elects racist candidates, and has done so since Republicans were Democrats. I know this is true because from 1956 to 1959 I lived and worked in Montgomery Alabama, a similarly racist state, and was surrounded by the racial turbulence of the time— it was kind of like swimming in a cesspool.


When I worked in Montgomery, the South was solidly Democrat and solidly segregated and solidly represented by such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and, especially, the White Citizen’s Councils, which really were no different than the Klan except they didn’t cover themselves with bedclothes. The poster child for Alabama was Bull Connors the police chief of Birmingham, who turned police dogs and fire hoses loose on civil rights workers who were there to get black voters registered.  Elected representatives of the South as I experienced it were universally white andwere an All-Star team of historic racists, including Mississippi’s own Senator James Eastland.


Eastland was a Mississippi senator twice—once in 1941, and then from 1947 to 1978. He teamed with John Stennis who also was a Democrat for 36 years. Eastland was the son of a cotton planter and, as an ironic twist of history, began his Senate career as an interim appointee in 1941, serving out the term of Pat Harrison who died in office— and Ms. Hyde-Smith likewise is serving as an interim appointee.


The fact that Eastland was a Democrat, Hyde-Smith a Republican is meaningless. Between the 1950s and now the South underwent a convulsive party shift during which Democrats became more progressive and racially tolerant and the reverse was true for the Republican Party. Sure, Mike Espy is a Democrat but that doesn’t mean that the South is reverting to its Democrat heritage. Mike Espy is an African-American and served in the Obama administration. He is black and I can’t help but feel the historic racial animosity is why Hyde-Smith edged him out. Perhaps it is consoling in the fact that the race was closer than anyone expected but that still is small consolation when a white person with a history of racial intolerance goes to the Senate and the far more qualified candidate is defeated.


There is much that I admire about the state of Mississippi. Some of the greatest blues musicians in history hailed from the Delta region of the state, especially Mississippi John Hurt, a gentle innovator who developed a fingerpicking blues style unlike that of any of his contemporaries. And that same Delta region produced and continues to produce some of the finest duck hunting in North America. And let’s not forget some pretty good writers— William Faulkner for starters, Eudora Welty, whose short stories are as good as short stories get, and, despite his nickname, renowned playwright Tennessee Williams. How about Richard Wright whose landmark book Native Son is among the best novels ever written by an African-American….or anyone else


In 1890 Mississippi passed a state constitution which included  poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries to exclude African-American voters. There have been enough reforms over the years to allow African-American voters a muted voice in Mississippi politics—enough that Mike Espy became a serious challenger to a white candidate, but the state still retains enough of its racist identity to deny black people a voice in the United States government. For Espy to have won the Senate seat, he needed the majority of African-American votes plus a percentage of white voters, maybe as many as a quarter of those who went to the polls. He didn’t get it. Thus, the American system of “People’s choice” operated, but you have to question whether the way it worked is to the benefit of everyone in the country. The Republican ruled Senate continues to be a good old white boys club. There are 42 white male Republican senators and, although there are several woman Republican senators, only one is African-American.


The South, during my interminable three years living there was a stewpot of social injustice. Alabama featured such political lowlifes as George Wallace and James Patterson. There was Orville Faubus in Arkansas, Strom Thurmond in South Carolina (who fathered a child with a black family maid) and, of course, Eastland in Mississippi—all paragons of white supremacy, trading their hooded robes for the conservative garb of political leadership. Occasionally, a shaft of racial reform pierced the storm clouds of racism like a ray of welcome sunshine—but those moments were rare.


Alabama’s goofy governor, Big Jim Folsom, ignited a firestorm of criticism when he invited black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stay in the Governor’s mansion. But everybody knew that Big Jim was a nutty drunk and forgave him his trespass. And in the next door state, Louisiana’s governor, Earl Long, was a free thinker (with emphasis on the “thinker”) who crusaded for improved teacher pay, minority voting rights, and expanding school lunch programs.  Folsom said this, “As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them.”  Unfortunately, big Jim died long ago and his legacy is more as an eccentric oddity, rather than a progressive.


Now, Alabama features such political senatorial wannabes as Roy Moore, a pedophile who was so odious as a candidate that even the endorsement of the racist President, Donald J Trump, couldn’t save him. It’s worth noting that Trump, whose father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, also traveled to Mississippi to stump for Hyde-Smith. I admit that it’s not fair to saddle the son with the sins of the father, but in this case the father set up his arrogant kid in business and together they forged a history of corruption in both business and politics which should permeate every voting booth in the country with an unbearable stink. But in places like Mississippi, too many voters just hold their noses and checkmark the box marked GOP. Does that stand for Grand Old Party or Grungy Old Putrid?


Earl Long once joked that “One day the people of Louisiana will elect good government and they won’t like it!” Long was rewarded for his progressive mindset by, among others, his wife who tried to have him removed from office on the grounds of mental instability. For a while he was confined to a mental institution. His legacy as a reformer is largely forgotten, but movie aficionados remember actor Paul Newman portraying him in the 1989 film Blaze about an alleged affair burlesque Queen Blaze Starr had with Long.  So, the southern political scene during the tumultuous days of civil-rights awakening, was enlivened by the notoriety of a couple of screwballs. By contrast, Cindy Hyde-Smith coughs up a pale imitation.


Lest you think that Mississippi has narrowed its racial divide in the years between James Eastland and Cindy Hyde-Smith, it was not that many years ago that Mississippian Trent Lott, once a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in 1972 and who ultimately became the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and later the Republican Senate majority leader said at a function honoring Strom Thurmond, “We’re proud of voting for Strom Thurmond for president in 1948. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either”


That remark earned him a rebuke from his Republican president George W. Bush and ultimately forced his resignation as Majority Leader. He quit the Senate in 2007 and today is a lobbyist. Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen conned Lott into filming a television promo supporting a fictional program calling for arming gifted children, ages four through 12, called “Kinder Guardians”.  Lott actually said “It’s something that we should think about America, about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens—good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.  Lott obviously shares a tendency with the President of the United States, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and other prominent Republicans to let his mouth run away with common sense.


At the same time there was a glimmering of hope with Folsom and Long, other politicians around the South were taking more traditional racial stands— literally. George Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in 1956 to prevent Autherine Lucy, an African-American, from entering. James Meredith was just as adamantly barred from entering the University of Mississippi in 1962. And Orville Faubus in Arkansas was doing his best to keep nine black children from attending school at the all white Little Rock Central high school in 1957. The southern tradition of “separate but decidedly unequal” was in full flower.  As a side note, when George Wallace ran for president in 1968, he got nearly 207,000 votes in Missouri, mostly from rural areas.  To this day, my home state, Missouri, has an uncomfortable cadre of racists.


My high school, from which I graduated in 1952 , still was segregated eight years after the Supreme Court decision and would be for some time thereafter. In fact, the local school board, withdrew the school’s basketball team from a tournament because it featured a team from a black school. So, Mississippi had no monopoly on racial inequality. And, in fact, there are fewer de facto segregated schools in today’s South than there are in the nation as a whole.


School segregation largely is no longer an issue in the South—but the fact that Hyde-Smith chose to attend (and send her daughter to) a segregated school is an issue. Segregation in public schools legally ended in 1954 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. The yearbook at Hyde-Smith’s segregated school was titled The Rebel.


Once, en route to a meeting in Florida, my wife, Marty, and I spent a night in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is a pleasant town of pleasant people, but there is a dark cloud over it which never will dissipate, the legacy of an incident in 1964 when a black church was firebombed and burned to the ground, one of 37 churches and 30 businesses that were burned in Mississippi by white supremacists. Three young civil-rights volunteers including one from Mississippi, were in Neshoba County trying to register African-Americans so they could vote.


A sheriff’s deputy pulled the three over and they vanished and 44 days later their bodies were discovered in roadside dirt pile. They were killed by the self-styled “white knights” of the Ku Klux Klan. If you think the Klan types have vanished , think back a year or so to Charlottesville Virginia where, according to Donald Trump there were some “very good people” among the white supremacists who organized what they called a “unite the right” rally during which one of these “white knights” rammed a car into a group of counter protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.


It’s unfair to blame a town for what happened more than half a century ago, but I was relieved to get out of that sunlit Mississippi town just as I was relieved to get out of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. Today, my old high school has long been integrated and Missouri, Arkansas, even Alabama are far more racially balanced than they were so many years ago.


Mississippi has given us great literature, great blues, and a history of oppression of black people by white people. Pick any two of three and decide how the state shakes out today. Mississippi? Ask Cindy Hyde-Smith or Trent Lott.




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