Archive for January, 2019

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  • January 31st, 2019

JERRY LEE HAD IT RIGHT

By Joel M. Vance

 

In 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis warned us that there was “A whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on!” Ominously, Jerry Lee described himself as The Killer. Now, many years later, he should be designated the spokessinger for natural disaster, the minstrel for volcanologists and seismologists everywhere.

 

Most of us don’t realize and those who do mostly don’t think about the fact that we all are sitting on a ticking time bomb which also is a target for random chunks of rock from space that have the potential for blowing out our little candle of life.

 

A recent news story revealed that a meteorite is due to pass close to earth which, if it were to hit the Earth’s surface, might well have the effect that an historic meteorite did when it impacted the Earth and apparently caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. A concurrent news story said that within the preceding week three chunks of space junk had whizzed by planet Earth uncomfortably close by cosmic standards.

 

A wave of panic washed over me— the feeling you might get when your car stalls on the railroad track with the Fireball Limited bearing down on it and the car won’t start! And then I read further into the story which explained that the meteorite isn’t due in Earth’s neighborhood for 800 years plus and probably will miss by considerable margin anyway.

 

Whew! Disaster averted.

 

On the other hand you don’t see that many dinosaurs around anymore outside of the latest movie version of Jurassic Park. And that’s all done with computers. However, those big sauropods went somewhere for some reason and the best theory is that a hurtling meteorite targeted Earth millennia ago and zap! Bye-bye, the plant-eating sauropods, Tyrannosaurus, and other flesh eating dinosaurs.

 

Meteorites are a rare occurrence and not much to worry about but on the other hand, much of the earth is sitting on that aforementioned ticking time bomb and we all go about our daily lives not realizing that a few feet beneath us is enough explosive energy to send us sailing into time on the trail of the sauropods. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand of how nasty Mother Earth can be when she gets ticked off about something.

 

Some years back I went fishing at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. The fishing wasn’t very good and the highlight of the trip was a visit to Carl Perkin’s birthplace, a decrepit cabin that didn’t look fit enough to raise hogs in, much less a place to nurture one of rock ‘n roll’s pioneer giants. If Perkins had invited his rockabilly contemporary Jerry Lee home for a whole lotta shakin’, the place would have collapsed. Carl Perkins has followed Tyrannosaurus rex into the history books but Reelfoot Lake still is there, concrete evidence catastrophe lurked nearby.

 

The 15,000 acre Lake came into being after the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquake which temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and caused a vast area of Tennessee to subside into what today is called a “sag pond.” This series of earthquakes remains the most powerful to hit the contiguous United States east of the Rocky Mountains in recorded history. The only thing that saved the area from massive casualties was the fact that few people lived in the area.

 

That’s not the case today when the New Madrid fault which could cause a modern-day earthquake just about any time Mother Earth decides to shake things up threatens such major urban centers as Memphis and St. Louis. The so-called New Madrid seismic zone has contributed to more than 4000 minor earthquakes in recent times and seismologists estimate there is a 7 to 10% chance in the next 50 years of a repeat of the 1811-12 quake.

 

Such an event would play havoc with the numerous famous barbecue restaurants of both St. Louis and Memphis not to mention putting a serious shakeup in the daily lives of many thousands of the area’s urban dwellers.

 

Chances are a new New Madrid quake would do little if any damage to my mid-Missouri home, but who’s to say? About halfway between the two places is the Decaturville Dome between Camdenton and Lebanon adjacent to Highway Five where an estimated 300 million years ago give or take a few hundred thousand, a meteorite six kilometers in diameter crashed into the earth. Maybe that meteorite 800 years from now won’t miss after all— sometimes they don’t.

 

The dome is one of a series of impact craters, roughly along the 38th parallel and theories are that it is one of several historic meteorite strikes stretching from Kansas through Missouri— but an alternate theory is that at least one of them is the result of a volcanic explosion rather than a meteorite strike.

 

If you happen to be standing on one of these explosive spots when the unthinkable happens, it doesn’t much matter what the reason is. Nor did the reason matter to the more than two dozen campers buried by a landslide in 1959 when the Yellowstone National Park area shrugged its shoulders. The earthquake rippled the landscape and actually created a lake, appropriately named Quake Lake. I couldn’t repress a shudder when our jon boat drifted past the area on the Madison River some years back. It was like tiptoeing under a huge leaning tree that you know is going to fall one of these days and you hope it’s not this day.

 

But the 1959 earthquake would be no more than a hiccup if the Yellowstone caldera decides to blow its top. The cataclysmic effect is almost unimaginable. It only takes a visit to Yellowstone to glimpse the potential. The entire park is pockmarked with geysers and bubbling reminders that just beneath your feet Mom Nature has an uneasy stomach that at any moment could result in a planetary vomit that would dwarf anything ever experienced.

 

Just more than 2 million years ago there was a Yellowstone eruption that produced 2500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption which happened within the memory of most people today. Ash from Mount Saint Helens settled on our deck in mid-Missouri and ash from a super volcanic eruption in Yellowstone would coat the entire United States with ash, not to mention probably obliterating any town or city for a considerable distance from the epicenter. The estimates are that such an eruption would blanket the states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado with three feet of volcanic ash and would cover the Midwest with far more than a mere coating on our deck. But take heart— the chances of such an eruption in the lifetime of anyone on the planet today are minimal. In fact there might never be another eruption on the magnitude of the three recorded in history, the last one 664,000 years ago.

 

Let’s face it— the Earth’s crust is an explosive device waiting to happen. I’ve never heard of it but in 1505 there was a magnitude 8.7 earthquake in the Himalayan Mountains, the highest on earth, and a 2018 study estimates that if a magnitude 8.7 earthquake struck the same area now it would kill nearly 600,000 people and injure more than one million. We think of the Himalayas as Mount Everest and K2 and other destinations for the world’s most intrepid mountain climbers. But apparently they are far more than great big knobs sticking out of the ground to give mountain climbers something to write books about— or get killed trying to get to the top.

 

And isn’t it time we quit referring to Mother Earth or Mother Nature as if the world we live in has a feminine aspect and natural disaster is the result of some cosmic female pique? That may be the ultimate expression of misogyny. This sexist attitude is even reflected in our advertising— remember the 1970s series of commercials for Chiffon margarine which warned you “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” after which there was a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder. Fortunately, the Chiffon folks didn’t feel it necessary to punctuate their stupid commercial with a volcanic eruption or a devastating earthquake. They just told you it was preferable to use margarine rather than real butter. So let’s just do away with the comparison of natural disaster to female pique. Nature is what it is and let’s leave the ladies out of it.

 

Our two newest states both have been victimized by nature’s hiccups. In 1964 on Good Friday (which didn’t seem that good to religious and nonreligious Alaskans alike) a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the state and caused a comparatively minor 139 deaths. Alaska is part of an earthquake prone rim around the Pacific Ocean and is never more than a few days or maybe hours from an earthquake. Seismologists registered more than 55,000 earthquakes in 2018. And there have been more than 3000 already in 2019.

 

In 1866,  Mark Twain visited the Hawaiian Islands and climbed Mount Kilauea and called it “a vision of hell and its angels.” And in 2018, the same volcano erupted and we saw firsthand rivers of lava, spilling down the side of the mountain into the sea, threatening life and causing $800 million in damages. Which proves that not much has changed in a century and a half, except the value of the dollar.

 

So what can you do to avoid being shaken, rattled, and rolled (to invoke another classic rock ‘n roll ballad) by an earthquake, or to be incinerated by a volcanic eruption? The answer probably is to book a berth on the first Martian settlement rocket.

 

While science has gotten far better at predicting the probability of both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the science still can’t do a whole lot more than to caution that trouble is brewing. There was no warning that we know of before historic eruptions of Italy’s Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius. One at Mount Etna may have killed as many as 20,000 people and an eruption in 79 A.D. by Vesuvius is well known for having incinerated more than 1000 people some of whom to this day are being discovered in charcoal form.

 

There was plenty of warning well ahead of time that Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique was going to explode in 1902 but most people ignored the ominous signs and 30,000 of them died as a result.

 

Natural disasters are a fact of life (or death). Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are not necessarily the worst of the potential catastrophes that nature periodically visits on the Earth’s citizens. In 1900 after a hurricane devastated Galveston, Texas, an estimated 8000 -12,000 people died. Storm forecasting was primitive in those days but even so southern coastal residents had about two weeks warning. It wasn’t nearly enough. Katrina in 2005 took 1200 lives. There have been many other disastrous hurricanes as well.

 

The 1871 Peshtigo forest fire swept across northern Wisconsin and wiped out as many as 2500 people— ironically it occurred the same day as the Chicago fire which made more news because it burned much of the city and killed about 300 people. Ten times as many died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And, as anyone in California, will tell you San Francisco and the rest of the state is overdue for one or more similar quakes that could make the Frisco tremor comparatively minor.

 

So, given the Earth’s propensity for upsetting humanity’s tentative grasp on life and property, the best alternative to wasting time worrying about being hit by a meteorite, is to plug in Jayree Lee, turn up the volume, and boogie on “Come on over, baby! Whole lot of shakin’ going on!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • January 24th, 2019

Y’ALL WANT FRIES WITH THAT?

By Joel M. Vance

Lately I have been having a pleasant daydream, a fantasy really, where I go into a decrepit greasy spoon fast food joint and a blubbery, sloppy, cook, with a three-day growth of beard and a grease spattered, dirty apron, takes my order for a hamburger and says, “y’all want fries with that?”

 

I do a double take because this this porky hash slinger looks remarkably like Donald J Trump the nation’s current Hamburgler in Chief. My fantasy was inspired when I read that Trump hosted a luncheon for the Clemson Tigers, the national collegiate football championship team, by serving them fast food burgers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, with a side order of Domino’s pizza, and French fries served in paper cups embossed with the presidential seal. But they were served on silver platters under elegant chandeliers so, hey, when you’re going first class, go all the way.

 

The fact that Donald Trump owns a high-rise hotel which, presumably, has an equally high class restaurant, has escaped the news media. The question arises in my admittedly prejudiced mind: if Donald Trump is the billionaire entrepreneur that he portrays himself, and is first class all the way, why is he so cheap that he can’t cater something other than burgers and fries for his invited guests?

 

Trump was quick to point out that, by golly, he paid for the whole thing himself! Kudos to the Hash Slinger in Chief for this magnanimous gesture. Dabo Swinney, the coach of the Tigers, is far too much of a gentleman to do what logic would indicate— tell the president to take his fast food luncheon and shove it. Better yet, load a U-Haul van and drive it to the border and distribute the food to the hungry asylum-seekers that Trump is attempting to send back to countries where they probably will be killed.

 

The Tigers, who eat nutritious meals in a state-of-the-art cafeteria on the Clemson campus, need fast food about as much as Swinney needs to be told how to coach football. But Trump says that he knows that greasy entrées from fast food restaurants are the favorite food of athletes in training. Which proves that he knows as much about athletic dietary needs as he does about running the government. Clemson would’ve been far better off staying at home and eating a healthy meal rather than dining with the Fatso in Chief in the White House.

 

The Golden State Warriors said thanks but no thanks when they were invited to the White House after winning the National Basketball Association championship last year. I can understand that any team would be reluctant to turn down an invitation to the White House because after all it is an honor first, to win a championship, and then to be invited to the nation’s home to meet the putative leader of the free world. If it were anyone other than Donald Trump the champion of bad taste and bad government, I wouldn’t quibble about it.  When some of the Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles declined Trump’s invitation to the White House, he disinvited the whole team. Really classy behavior on the part of the Junk Foodmaster in Chief.

 

It is an honor to be invited to the White House, to meet the president of the United States, and to be recognized for a singular achievement. After all, the White House belongs to every citizen of the country. It is not Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, an exclusive golfing resort for those who have bought access to the president. It’s only a temporary residence for the sitting president and then it will be occupied by a successor. No one gets to live in the White House forever and given that he spends little time in it, Trump apparently doesn’t want to.

 

Not only did Trump go to great pains to emphasize that he was paying for this sumptuous meal, but he said that he had ordered 300 burgers for the boys. The next day, that number had inflated to more than 1000, a typical lie to go with the thousands of others he has told about every aspect of his life. He tweeted proudly that he had bought “hamberders” for the Clemson players, proving that his grasp of spelling is every bit as comprehensive as his grasp of how to govern. (But at least he’s consistent— he also misspelled his wife’s name as Melanie when she returned from a hospital stay.)

 

The clear winner in the battle of the burgers was Burger King which tweeted the next day “Due to a large order placed yesterday, we’re all out of hamberders. Just serving hamburgers today.” And the best Twitter response to Trump’s losing effort in the National Spelling Bee was this: “Odd to see beef between Trump and Burger King given how many whoppers Trump tells each day.”

 

I admit to a fascination with Clemson and I am a fan since my beloved Missouri Tigers couldn’t beat your grandma’s garden club in a bowl game. Favored by nine points they managed to lose to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. The only good part about that defeat is that they did not have to respond to an invitation to the White House.

 

I have a friend, Drew Lanham, who is a professor of ornithology at Clemson and who looks as if he could have played for the Tigers if he hadn’t blown out a knee. Drew is a fine naturalist and writer with an equally fine book about his experiences growing up in a family of black landowners in South Carolina— an anomaly of dramatic proportions. “The Home Place” (Milkweed Publishers, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book) is a delightfully written story of, as it is described, “a bighearted, unforgettable memoir by ornithologist J. Drew Lanham.” And Drew, likewise, is bighearted and unforgettable.

 

So I already would’ve been a fan of the Tigers even if Donald Trump’s clumsy attempt at being one of the boys hadn’t failed so miserably. And, second, anybody that beats Alabama is my team. I lived in Alabama for a couple years back in the 1950s and it was like living under a high tension power line, sensing invisible vibrations that you instinctively felt were harmful.

 

Given Trump’s dumpster diving approach to food appreciation, I’m somewhat surprised that he didn’t call out the military to serve Clemson with the Army’s legendary and universally despised shit on a shingle. After all, if he can send nearly 6000 troops to our southern border on a whim, surely he can order up the military to serve bad food to one l’il old football team.

 

There are recipes on the Internet for SOS, which is described as “comfort food.” Although I doubt you would find many Army veterans who would agree with that definition. It basically is chipped beef, served creamed on toast. Other designations for SOS include, “same old stuff,” or “save our stomachs.”

 

It was designed as a military meal because it is cheap, easy to prepare, and adaptable to preparation under field conditions. All those preconditions would seem to fit the persona of Donald J Trump to a T. He’s cheap, ordering out to McDonald’s (or Berder King) is easy, and fast food for the football boys certainly is adaptable to preparation since he didn’t have to do any of it or be responsible for anything other than taking credit for having done it.

 

Mind you, this is a president of the United States commenting on his luncheon plans for the national champion football team: “I think we are going to serve McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings with some pizza. I really mean it. It will be interesting, I would think that’s their favorite food.” The most inappropriate word in that quote is “think.”

 

Does anyone remember when First Lady Michelle Obama led a campaign to get nutritionally better meals into school cafeterias? That was back when the White House represented something other than homage to the local fast food greasy spoon.  “I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition,” Mrs. Obama said.

 

Her husband, the now much missed president, created a task force on childhood obesity to develop a national plan to set concrete benchmarks toward Mrs. Obama’s goal. Among the objectives are providing healthy food in schools, improving access to healthy, affordable foods, and increasing physical activity among youngsters.  But why stop with kids? Why not start at the top with the Hamberder in Chief?

 

The president’s dietary habits, as unhealthy as they may be, are meaningless. Remember, Bill Clinton had a fondness for junk food every bit as deserving of criticism as is Trump’s addiction to heart attack on a bun. It’s not what they do it’s that they do it. I recently saw a photograph showing Jimmy Carter wielding a hammer, in his 90s, helping to build a home for the disadvantaged as part of his long dedication to Habitats for Humanity. The caption on the photo was “This is how you build a wall.” That’s how a president should set an example, not buying junk food for a championship football team in order to provide a photo op.

 

The upshot of this culinary debacle is that Donald Trump, who already has disgraced and debased the presidency, has further placed in the nation’s nutritional values into the dumpster. A Washington Post reporter, ever vigilant for further Trump gaffes, overheard one Clemson player mumble “I thought it was a joke.” Another player reportedly said, “Our nutritionist must be having a fit.”

 

A couple more really funny Twitter responses to the picture of Trump in front of the fast food laden table: “Alabama losing by 28 points makes a lot more sense when you realize that this would’ve been their reward.” And this one: “White House says that Trump is personally paying for all this food, and in about an hour everyone else will be personally paying for it too.”

 

Clemson’s phenomenal freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence supposedly posted a tweet saying “President Trump got all our favorite foods. It was the best meal we ever had.” Within hours Lawrence responded that he never said any such thing although he did enjoy the visit to the White House. Given Trump’s penchant for claiming that everyone loves him, including those 800,000 federal workers who aren’t getting paid (and those who aren’t happy about it are Democrats anyway, so who cares?), I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump himself hadn’t posted that phony quote from Lawrence.

 

There was one truth in the tweet–it is an honor to be invited to the White House. Or at least, it used to be when the occupant wasn’t a tinhorn shyster who daily debases the office. So perhaps someday in the not too distant future, I will walk into a greasy spoon fast food joint, order a greaseburger, and have the grungy fry cook with a dirty name tag reading I’m Donnie ask “y’all want fries with that?”

 

Probably not— but one can only hope.

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  • January 16th, 2019

WORDS MATTER

By Joel M. Vance

Words matter. That’s the lesson for today’s lecture, kiddies so pay attention. You there in the back! Put up your cell phone. You can Twitter off into obscurity later on but for now listen up.

 

Words have led us down the perilous path of history from the first glimmerings of democracy through two and one half centuries to where we are today. And where we are today is not all that great because we have forgotten the meaning and the lessons of the words that got us here.

 

Without the fiery words of Thomas Paine, we might not have gotten to the stage of open rebellion. Without the words of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and the others who, today, we call our Founding Fathers, we would not have a powerful framework on which our democracy is based.

 

The cretinous followers of the bloated oaf in the White House today almost certainly do not know who Thomas Paine was, nor have they absorbed the lessons of those other old guys from colonial times. But even the dimmest of them must be dimly aware that there was a Gettysburg Address (although they probably think it was a street number somewhere).

 

And an uncomfortable number of them are only dimly aware that a black guy named Martin Luther King had a dream, although to them he was nothing more than a troublemaker. They don’t know, nor do they care, that he spoke to a multitude of a quarter million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. His words, which echo today, illuminated the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, for that matter, of efforts to gain freedom and equality d for black people dating back hundreds of years. It has been called the top American speech of the 20th century.

 

Words not only matter— they have consequences and they sometimes change history. Said by the right person at the right time, they change history for the better. At a moment in our nation’s history when we have a sociopathic president whose only policy aim seems to be building a wall to separate us from a third of the continent, it’s instructive to remember the last time there was a noteworthy wall in place.

 

The words “ich bin ein Berliner” may not mean anything to non German-speaking Americans but they meant a whole lot to the citizens of East and West Berlin when John F. Kennedy said them in June,1963, to give hope to Germans trapped inside Berlin by the looming Soviet presence at the height of the Cold War. The United States president gave hope, not just to the citizens of Berlin, but to the world when he added “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words….” And then he finished with the German phrase which translates as “I am a Berliner.”

 

Instead of relaxing its iron grip on the city of Berlin, the Soviet Union built a wall between its portion of the city and the western half administered by the free West.  That, of course, was the Berlin Wall.  Memory is short, apparently so short that the advocates of the wall between the United States and Mexico don’t remember the divisive and hated wall that split Berlin in two. The Berlin Wall has become until now, the symbol of autocratic oppression.    

 

Words as so often, as has happened in our history, played a vital part in ending the Berlin Wall. I am not a Reaganite, but have to give credit where credit is due. In June 1987, Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, in West Berlin, spoke to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The words couldn’t tear the wall down, but they had the force of the sledgehammers that ultimately did dismantle the wall.

 

Reagan’s words will stand for all time as the ultimate statement against the effectiveness of walls between peoples. The Berlin wall did come down and today remnants of it stand 20 miles from my home, in Fulton, Missouri, as a reminder of what walls do when they threaten freedom. Anyone with half a brain (which I’m afraid represents the most we can hope for among the wall nuts who blindly follow anything Donald Trump tweets or bleats) can examine the evidence against building a wall between us and Mexico and see that it is not only a stupid idea, but one that threatens the very fabric of the country.

 

Trump’s rationale (if you can use the word in conjunction with the most irrational human being ever to desecrate the Oval Office) for building a wall is to keep out people who will, as he has variously threatened, rape our defenseless women, flood the country with drugs, kill us all with pestilence, and seek to outlaw the nonsense ravings of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter (well, maybe not that last, but one can only hope).

 

All these hysterical fantasies are disproven by fact—and not the alternative facts that Kellyanne Conway and other administration screwballs conjure up— but actual truths. Illegal immigration is down, most drugs come in through closely monitored entry ports or by mail, the most notable incident of disease entering the country by way of immigrants has been the death of two small children when they got sick while in the custody of border control authorities.

 

The people clustered at the border are not seeking to enter the country illegally , but instead are seeking asylum and a chance at a life better than the one they left. There has been and is not any plan to deal with these weary pilgrims. Instead of pouring billions of dollars into a wall that is both impractical and probably impossible to maintain or even build in the first place, how about increasing funding for logical border security— more electronic surveillance, more security personnel. History has proved that walls do not work and this one in particular is nothing more than a monument to Donald Trump’s massive ego. Long-ago despots built pyramids to glorify their existence. Saddam Hussein ordered a massive statue of himself in Baghdad. We all know how that played out. The statue came tumbling down and so did Saddam, rooted out of a spidey hole and executed.

 

If Trump truly wanted to make America great again rather than providing it with baseball caps, he could divert the billions of dollars currently wasted on tax cuts for the richest 1% of the country into providing services, such as medical care, food and shelter, for the other 99% of the population that doesn’t live in a golden tower or on a private golf course.

 

Whether the president is an active agent for the Russians still has to be proved but there is little doubt that he is as one columnist termed it “a useful fool.” As I write the country is in the 27th  day of shut down and no end in sight. Even with an end the ripple effect will take a long time to dissipate. Donald Trump has much to answer for and let’s hope that it is in a court of law if not in public opinion.

 

The American public, right and left, is beginning to blame Donald Trump for the whole mess. “I’ll be proud to do it,” Trump said about a government shutdown and, sure enough, he followed his words with action. Words matter— but so do the actions they inspire and Donald Trump is ripping apart the fabric of our democracy piece by piece and we either get him out of office or become another failed government in the world’s history.

 

We can start the process by dismantling the hypothetical wall before it ever begins.

 

Wall building goes back a long way. 800 years before the birth of Christ the Chinese were building a 13,000 mile wall to keep out the “undesirables” from up north— the area that later, much later, became the Soviet Union. A good bit of that wall exists today as a tourist attraction but its original purpose has long since ceased to be viable.

 

And, about 800 years before Donald Trump suffered the mind fart that he calls “the wall” the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, ordered up a wall across what now is England to separate the Roman Empire’s northern border from those uncouth Picts. That wall also has become a tourist attraction—at least the few remaining remnants of it. Both the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall were intended to keep alleged undesirable northern folks away from the more desirable Southerners. Trump, as he does with most things, proposes an ass backward wall to keep southern folks away from the Northerners.

 

Perhaps the religious far right has endorsed Trump’s wall because of the Biblical precedent set by the story of the wall of Jericho which dates to about 8000 years before Christ. It was up to 17 feet high and supposedly was to prevent flooding of the city. One archaeologist theorizes that the purpose of the wall was to create awe and inspiration in people. If so, that antedates  Donald Trump by a good many years. According to the book of Joshua, the Israelites destroyed the wall by blowing trumpets of rams’ horns and shouting, whereupon the wall fell down.

 

Chances are anyone interested in breaching Trump’s proposed wall will use more sophisticated methods— every proposed wall type so far has been breached in tests conducted by the Customs and Border Protection authorities. Apparently, the testing did not include ram horn trumpets or shouting.

 

In an ironic historical twist, the 16th century Dutch built a wall on Manhattan Island to keep out those pesky Native Americans. It ran across the island from shoreline to shoreline and today we know it as Wall Street, home of the nation’s financial heartbeat.

 

The entertainment news magazine Variety reports that in 1958 a con man named Walter Trump in a television Western series tried to con the citizens of a Texas town into building a magic wall to repel what he said were incoming meteors for 50 bucks apiece. It was a con and the series hero, Robert Culp, playing a Texas Ranger, exposed the scam and made things right. As Variety says, “The country maybe is hoping for a Ranger Gilman of its own to bring an end to it.” “It”, of course, being the present situation in Texas where a con man named Trump is doing his level best to bamboozle the entire country.

 

Let’s put it in terms that the grade school mentality of the Trump followers can understand:

 

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” We have our own version of Humpty, a bloated empty shell, and cracked to boot.

 

Even if, in some inconceivable way, Trump manages to survive his entire presidency, he is doomed for a great fall in tomorrow’s history books. His legacy will be no more memorable than that of Humpty Dumpty. Then all of his men many of whom have already deserted him and those who have not will not be able to put him together again.

 

 

 

 

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  • January 11th, 2019

BUG OUT!

By Joel M. Vance

I never thought I would write about it because the memory is so traumatic. It’s like the memory of the worst night you ever spent when projectile elimination was so profound it eclipsed the will to live and you wished only for an end to it. I’ve been reading a history of World War II, a section dealing with jungle warfare where dysentery and other debilitating afflictions got so bad that soldiers cut the seat out of their tattered uniforms, not to provide air-conditioning, but to provide an immediate exit strategy. I can identify.

 

We’ve all had it—the dreaded and so-called 24 hour bug which, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, will last only 24 hours but which more often lingers on into a second third and even fourth day. If you are a family man (and you devoutly will wish to be a hermit in a cave, preferably one equipped with half a dozen toilets, none more than 5 feet from where you are) you will have company of a sort during your travail.

 

The company will be the other members of the family at least one of whom will have been the source of your present misery. The old saying is that misery loves company and it is never more true than when the bug strikes, because when one gets it everyone gets it.

 

My wife was the first (I will not use names to spare the rest of the family from remembered misery) okay, one name— Eddie, our middle son who escaped through some miracle and had the good sense to isolate himself from everyone else until the contagion flapped off into the distance like a wake of buzzards that, having picked a carrion carcass clean, flies off looking for new culinary victims.

 

It begins with that feeling of unease, as if the meal so lovingly prepared, contained strange tastes not intended by the chef. There is a tiny but growing coal of heat somewhere deep in the digestive system and a feeling that something is not right. Various over-the-counter remedies— Tums, Pepto-Bismol, you name it— all might as well be like waving at a raging conflagration in the hope that you can blow out the flames.

 

Then comes the moment when you resort as quickly as possible to the restroom (where no rest is possible) and in the euphemistic terms “pay homage to Ralph” or “worship at the porcelain throne.” My wife was spared this aspect of the ordeal but as we all know the 24 hour bug is a double ended marathon.

 

Youngest son was the second to succumb, and if there is any way to minimize the agony, it is that he only suffered from what (again euphemistically) we call “tossing his cookies.” He quickly was bed ridden, unable to help me cope with the growing family disaster. “I guess I’m next,” I said prophetically, but I was wrong. Our youngest daughter, an angel of mercy, came by with cans of chicken noodle soup to deliver to her brother and her mother. Shortly after she left to go home (apparently about 100 feet down the driveway) she was stricken by the looming disaster and barely made it home before she emulated a digestive Mount Vesuvius. My turn came two hours later, as I knew it would. Now everyone was in bed moaning and muttering vile epithets except for me. I made it to the throne and Ralph and I communicated. I have no need to clip my toenails ever again because I vomited them along with, as best I could tell, everything I had eaten for the previous six weeks.

 

Euphemisms for the other ugly manifestation of “the bug” range from incredibly disgusting to the delicately phrased. No matter how you say it, it is the human equivalent of what happens to a volcano after weeks of ominous rumbling. Those poor souls in the shadow of Krakatoa perhaps didn’t know what was to come, violently and copiously, but I did and those first internal tremblings signaled the onset of perhaps the worst of the indignities heaped on victims of “the bug.”

 

It was to be in the immortal words of really bad writing “a dark and stormy night.” Not only was it the dark of the moon, but it was the dark of the soul, not to mention the digestive tract. Not a glimmer of light penetrated the inky blackness when I opened my eyes at 8 PM. It took a while for the truth to penetrate— the power had gone out.

 

Much later, when it didn’t matter, I found that a drunk 23-year-old girl had run off the road a quarter-mile from our home into a deep roadside gully, knocked over a power pole, and somehow, even though she was stupidly not wearing a seatbelt (but then she also stupidly was drunk) managed to avoid killing herself and her young daughter, who also was not wearing a seatbelt.

 

The only good news in the whole scenario was that she and the little girl survived. The bad news was that at the moment of digestive crisis for me I couldn’t see anything including the route to the bathroom. My cell phone was beside the bed and I knew it has a flashlight application but entrusting me with a cell phone is like entrusting a toddler with the nuclear football. I managed to fumble the phone into my hand, find the button that activated the screen, and pressed what I thought was the flashlight symbol. Instead it was for the camera function and I immediately began taking photographs of nothing.

 

At that critical moment my wife experienced a similar imperative and began to get out of bed growling that she couldn’t see anything and why wouldn’t the lights turn on? At the best of times her hearing is minimal and she was not wearing her hearing aids so I was reduced to shouting “Don’t get out of bed! Stay in bed! You’ll fall and hurt yourself!” And similar exhortations, all the while realizing that if I didn’t get to the bathroom quickly it was going to be a moot point.

 

But first I had to corral her there in the pitch black and get her back to bed. I fumbled through the dark, banging shins against furniture, door jambs and other impedimenta, and saying words from Chaucerian English. Cell phone in hand, resolutely clicking away at nothing, I fumbled toward the bathroom, losing more chunks of myself to sharp objects, cursing the idiot who said “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Since I had no candle and even if I had, no matches with which to light it, I settled for cursing the darkness.

 

Finally I reached the bathroom and at the moment when relief would have been in sight if I’d had any, I dropped the phone and, well, let’s just draw a veil over the next awful interval in this whole depressing drama.  We can sum it up by quoting my favorite euphemism “I’m about to attend a short-term weight loss program.”

 

We resume the narrative to when I remembered there is a flashlight in the mud room. That required another fumbling journey through several rooms and doorways, all invisible in the blackness. I managed to get the mud room door open and reflexively flipped the light switch. A big joke on me. I found the flashlight and turned it on and blessed light filled the room— for about 15 seconds. The flashlight is solar powered and apparently Mr. Sun had not shone brightly enough to keep the damn thing charged. The light dimmed and went out taking with it my only hope for salvation.

 

Back to bed. All we could do was lie there in our misery waiting for the power company to work its magic somewhere in the night and restore visibility. Time dragged on, putting it mildly, although there was nothing remotely mild about the whole situation. My cell phone might as well have been lying on the floor in a trapper’s cabin in Nome, Alaska, for all the good it was. I could’ve fumbled my way to the landline phone, but it wouldn’t have worked. My wife summed it up, at the top of her lungs, shouting “this is horrible! This is awful! Help!” People shout at hurricanes but it doesn’t stop them from blowing.

 

Among the family, only Eddie peacefully slumbered, unaware of the catastrophe unfolding around his loved ones.  One son writhed in misery up the hill from our house in the cabin where he lives, while a daughter a dozen miles away, similarly was occupied with hopes that perhaps a falling meteorite would obliterate her misery. Meanwhile the parental unit lay in the marital bed and I did not recall this mutual sharing of our lives together being part of the nuptial vows.

 

Finally, after several eons it occurred to me that the Kindle, on which I had been reading a book, before disaster struck, emits a screen light when turned on. Was this a possible pathway if not to salvation at least to the bathroom? I fumbled for the Kindle and managed to turn it on and for a brief few moments the room was dimly lit— the path to Paradise (the bathroom) lay before us. The problem was that the Kindle light lasted only seconds before fading out and then I had to fumble for the switch to turn it on again.

 

A note to Amazon: “How about equipping your Kindles with a powerful searchlight that stays on for more than 10 seconds, a service to those customers afflicted by what has colorfully been termed’  bubble guts’” and drunken girl power outages. Probably not a common occurrence, but one never knows.

 

So we made our way toward the bathroom, much as did Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in McDougall’s Cave, trying to find their way out. Tom discovered a hole in the wall of the cave through which he spied the Mississippi River. There was no visible hole in the wall of our house through which I even could spy our pond. But there also was no dreadful killer Injun Joe lurking in the dark, possibly the only small blessing in the entire episode.

 

Mark Twain I am not when writing about remembered trauma. So, Kindle led us haltingly through the house and I spied the cell phone in the middle of the bathroom floor. Sick or not, I called our ailing son who answered after a half-dozen rings. I don’t think he would’ve been happy if it had been the Publishers Clearing House representative, but he said, “I’ll be down” and shortly he appeared with the holy flashlight.

 

He somehow knew (I didn’t) that we had candles and, more importantly, where they were. Shortly he had one lit in the kitchen. He lit a second in the bedroom and an instant later the power came back on.

 

We all are well again, the drunk girl has lost her license, and Eddie once again is able to visit the houses that once were pestilent. So beware all thou who read this. The bug is out there.  On the CD player Patsy Cline exuberantly sings “Come on in and make yourself at home.”

 

You might want to bring a flashlight, though.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • January 7th, 2019

THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

By Joel M. Vance

I was watching, fascinated, as I always do as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clambered across George Washington’s face in the climactic scene of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Grant and Saint are trying to escape the bad guys who are, themselves, trying to flee the country in an airplane which had landed atop Mount Rushmore where the faces of four of our most prominent presidents are carved— George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

 

The Rushmore Monument was the creation of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants, born in Idaho territory. He also, uncomfortably, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and carved a bust of Robert E Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which should endear him to the fans of Donald Trump, currently the nation’s Bigot In Chief. His vision for the mountain was a relief of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

 

But he got in a fuss with the KKK and left the granite version of the Confederacy to others in favor of the Rushmore project (which does, however, contain a couple of Virginia boys—and who knows what side they would have taken, had they lived long enough to be involved in the Civil War).  The carving of Rushmore began in 1927 and was not finished until 1941. Borglum died before it was done but his son, Lincoln, oversaw the completion.

 

By the way, there is no such compass direction as North by Northwest but it makes a hell of a good movie title.  And there is no landing strip nor rustic mansion atop this mountain. I know, because once I parked along a highway that skirts the monument, and, probably violating all sorts of federal law, skulked through the woods and emerged at a point where I was looking directly up George Washington’s nose. I can testify that our first president’s nostril was free of nasal boogers.

 

Also in the family photo archives is a picture of our two oldest sons, JB and Eddie, as little kids (they both now have cracked past the half century mark) sitting on a rock in South Dakota with the images of the four presidents in the background. The occasion was a backpacking trip into the French Creek Wilderness, long ago, and the memory of that experience looms large in my mind. It was a trip to remember, daddy with his sons on an Odyssey of experience. Just as pioneer daddies took their sons via covered wagon and headed west, we did the same with a secondhand Pontiac station wagon and our secondhand camping gear and, as long as the fast food restaurants littering the landscape did not vanish, we did not face the dangers our forefathers did, including starvation and attacks by hostile natives.

 

We stopped briefly to gawk at the Nebraska National Forest, that state’s Mount Rushmore, a tribute to the obsession of one man with the idea of bringing forested land to sand dunes never meant to entertain trees. It is 142,000 acres established in 1907 after lobbying by J Sterling Morton, a newspaper publisher (who also founded Arbor Day and whose son founded the Morton salt company). At one time the Nebraska National Forest was the world’s largest artificial woodland. Almost prophetically Morton died in Lake Forest, Illinois.

 

We also took a driving tour through South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, a depressing revelation for anyone who has not seen the often degraded living conditions for modern Native Americans. For every tribe which has profited from casino gambling, there is one or more Pine Ridges wallowing in poverty and misery. The Indian, in smarmy and corny early Western literature termed “a noble Savage” all too often today is more likely a downtrodden relic of society.

 

Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation is where, in 1890, United States soldiers murdered more than 150 women, men and children in a massacre, one of many committed by the United States government against native tribes.  Perhaps it was revenge for what happened in June, 1876, In the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains in neighboring Wyoming where Gen. George Armstrong Custer led 268 troopers into an ambush by thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe people. Custer, the arrogant Donald Trump of his day, ignored all the warning signs of disaster and marched over the hill into the history books and barroom posters depicting  “Custer’s last stand.”

 

We also made a stop in Wind Cave National Park where the boys romped through a prairie dog village. There is a photo of Eddie crouching in front of a prairie dog burrow, probably waiting for a prairie dog to pop up so he could surprise it. It wasn’t until later that I found that rattlesnakes often appropriate prairie dog holes. Thank goodness we didn’t find out the hard way whose surprise it would’ve been.

 

South Dakota currently is the repository of sculpted mountains. Not only is there Mount Rushmore showing the snouts of four of our most illustrious presidents, but 17 miles away is Mount Thunderhead with the unfinished visage of Crazy Horse, among the most famous Native American warrior chiefs (he was prominent among those who did in Custer).  Work on the tribute to the Lakota warrior began in 1948 and is far from completed. It is funded by contributions and is privately owned. Although it was originated by Native Americans, it is controversial with quite a few leading Native American leaders opposed to the idea. Russell Means, a Lakota activist said “It’s an insult to our higher being. It’s bad enough getting four white faces carved in up there, the shrine of hypocrisy.” The four white faces, of course, being the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

 

Given Donald Trump’s propensity for shoving his face in front of his faithful mob of semi literate devotees it’s a wonder he hasn’t co-opted Crazy Horse in favor of altering the face of the Indian luminary to his own. Instead of Crazy Horse, we would have Crazy Horse’s Ass.

 

Or perhaps he could appropriate Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, given his propensity for interfering with national parks to serve his own selfish purposes. He could have his pet sculptors chisel his fat mug on the mountain, a curiosity to educate future generations as to the excesses to which a combination of sociopathy and narcissism can lead a powerful nutcase.

 

I dislike the descriptions “Indian” and “native Americans.” Early white explorers thought they had reached India. They were wrong by half a planet. And native Americans likely are an amalgamation of immigrants from northern Asia who reached what now is the United States by crossing a land bridge between Asia and North America that no longer exists and immigrants from Africa who reached what now is the United States by way of South and Central America. Why not call them what these long ago immigrants call themselves: “first nation peoples”?  That’s more accurate— they were the first nation in North America until northern European invaders immigrated (make that “invaded”) and took it away from them.

 

We met Foster Sadler, my best friend, in Custer State Park and an old bull bison ambled through the campground looking powerful enough to head butt Winnebagos but instead of targeting RVs it wandered off to do what bison do when not titillating tourists.  Foster was en route to Alaska during his summer vacation from high school teaching and hoped to make it there and back in time for the start of school–but it seemed like a good idea to stop off at scenic layovers along the route. Especially when I told him that French Creek, while not likely to result in a new gold strike, was supposed to be a blue ribbon trout stream.

 

We came at last to the trail leading into the French Creek natural area, a 12 mile one-way passage along the tiny creek which in 1874 was the site of a gold discovery during an expedition led by none other than George Armstrong Custer, who has a lot to answer for. The resultant gold rush into what the first nation peoples considered sacred land was one of the more egregious outrages against the folks who were there first.

 

The boys sported identical kid-sized backpacks. I had a two-piece ultralight fly rod made for me by a local craftsman which I was anxious to try in French Creek. And somehow I snagged it on a trailside bush that leaped out of the shadows and neatly snapped my fairy wand in two. What would George Armstrong Custer do in similar dire circumstances aside from getting himself killed? I was woefully short on Superglue but abundantly supplied with ponderosa pine pitch. I cobbled together a lumpy Band-Aid and proceeded to catch a couple of beautiful rainbow trout. Foster added another one or two and we eagerly anticipated a breakfast of fresh caught trout. What could be better? During the night, while we peacefully slept beneath the carpet of wilderness stars, the local raccoons dragged our stringer of trout from the stream and enjoyed a midnight snack.

 

While we were examining the carcasses of what was to be our breakfast, Eddie exclaimed “What are those?” There on a bald spot atop a hill, at least a mile away, was a herd of elk. They heard us talking and slowly ambled into the woods. It wasn’t such a bad morning after all.

 

En route home to Missouri we drove across Nebraska’s Western reaches on Highway Two, among the most scenic but also among the most lonely roads in the nation. At that time the speed limit was 55 mph, the result of a shortage of oil because Donald Trump’s current best friend nation, Saudi Arabia, and its OPEC neighbors had cut production and created a gasoline shortage of historic proportions. There aren’t many gas stations in the Nebraska Sandhills, but a squeezed off gasoline supply didn’t stop the Nebraska Highway Patrol from lurking.  God only knows where the trooper was hiding in that empty wasteland, but JB said “Dad, there’s a police car behind us.” Sure enough, in the rearview mirror I spied flashing lights. It was the only car I’d seen for many miles but it was an official one and equally surely I was exceeding the 55 mile an hour speed limit.

 

The trooper showed true Western hospitality and assured me that I could follow him into the nearest town (which, way out there, isn’t all that near) and pay my fine and be on my way. He found out how much money I had left and told me that was just enough to pay the fine with a bit left over for cheeseburgers and fries to get me and the boys back to the Show Me state.  They tell you not to leave home without your American Express card, but unfortunately I didn’t have one— although I did have American Express travelers checks and it turned out those were perfectly acceptable to the local magistrate who looked remarkably like Edgar Buchanan the old-time actor often featured in Western movies as a disreputable old reprobate.

 

So, I paid my fine, and the three of us continued on toward Missouri at 55 mph and the state trooper resumed his hidey-hole behind a convenient sand dune, awaiting the next unwary traveler. It’s uncharitable to gripe about a deserved speeding ticket, because Nebraska is a fine state, but I hope he’s still waiting, 45 years later.

 

Since that long ago road trip Foster has gone down a darker trail, destination unknown, with no return route. The boys have passed the half century mark and I have put a checkmark beside many another trail. But the memory of French Creek is as golden in my mind as was the gravel of that little waterway to those who tried the trail so long ago, bringing the white man’s grief to the citizens of the first nation.

 

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