Archive for April, 2019

  • Blog
  • April 26th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

“I know wind,” he said and he spoke the truth because he is so full of hot air that he could power a wind generating electric grid all by himself. Unfortunately the wind he generates is like that which blows from the sewage collection system of an Iowa confined hog farm in mid July.


I speak, of course, of Donald J Trump, the politician who epitomizes what in olden times was referred to as a “big bag of wind.” He is the living representation of the cartoon figures editorial cartoonists used to draw of pompous, saggy gutted politicians who existed as a blight on the political landscape.


The Boss Tweeds, Tom Pendergasts, and other machine bosses in American history mercifully for the democratic process lumbered into whatever political hell awaits those who smear the grand dream that we like to think of as our unique and wondrous country. Unfortunately, Trump still is with us, still spouting noxious nonsense like that he recently babbled about wind energy.


“If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer.” He amplified his vast knowledge of wind energy by adding that wind turbines are “a graveyard for birds. If you love birds you never want to walk under a windmill because it’s a sad, sad sight,” he said. The Department of Energy says that bird deaths caused by collisions with wind turbines are relatively rare.


The first great journalistic scoop of my career occurred in journalism school at the University of Missouri when I knocked on a door and asked the man inside if he had any news (that’s what we did in reporting in those antediluvian days— you were assigned a block or two as a beat and you knocked on everyone’s door like a Hoover vacuum salesman and asked if there were any news items and you hoped they didn’t slam the door in your face). It turned out the man was a wildlife professor.  He told me that there had been a rash of bird deaths the night before at the KOMU-TV transmitter tower. Migrating birds had collided with the tower, blinded and without the radar that protects airplanes from similar mishap and had suffered fatal injuries. The ground beneath the tower was littered with avian corpses.


My story made the front page of the newspaper, but it did not result in calls for an abandonment of KOMU as a hazard to bird health, or for an end to television in general. Bird strikes have caused airplane crashes but I don’t hear anyone calling for an end to air travel as a result. In fact a Missouri conservation department pilot once was forced to make an emergency landing at Swan Lake national wildlife refuge during an aerial bird survey when a duck flew into the air intake of the plane, shutting down the engine.


There was no subsequent call for an end to national wildlife refuges, wildlife management, or to end the encouragement of duck numbers by such conservation organizations as Ducks Unlimited.


It’s estimated that feral cats kill 1 billion birds a year in the United States, far more than the total killed by all the nation’s wind towers. Bird death is a concern, both of conservationists and of the wind industry. Wind energy production will continue to grow and so will associated bird deaths. But more energy-efficient turbines may result in fewer turbines needed to provide the required energy and other solutions may ameliorate if not eliminate bird kills.


We have two beloved cats, both of which are spayed and kept indoors. They both would love to be among the bird killers, but we restrict them to the occasional house mouse and if everyone would similarly encourage feline birth control and sequestration the feral cat problem would become far less serious.


Every one of Fat Donnie’s claims about the perils of wind generation is so much hot air. Hot air is not the only thing that this clown president is full of—he would fit right in on one of those hog farms and it would be difficult to tell him from the other piggies except that he would be the one carrying a golf club.


Speaking of Iowa and its ever present summer aroma of pig sewage (driving through the state in summer time with the windows down in your car is not recommended), if you travel north on Interstate 35, nearing the northern border of the state with Minnesota, you will pass through an area on either side of the highway dominated by wind towers, many to the east, many to the West.


Once, en route to Minnesota I couldn’t resist detouring to the West to see one of these wind towers close up. You really can’t grasp the immensity of them until you’re up close. I drove a mile off the interstate before I was close enough to realize what I was seeing. They’re big, really big. Each one thrusts more than 200 feet up. The three blades are more than 100 feet long and each seemingly slow sweep spans nearly 1 acre.


If there is a drawback to wind energy, it is that each tower occupies about 1.5 acres and that is one and a half acres that might have been wildlife habitat that no longer is wildlife habitat. No energy source comes without drawbacks. But wind energy, like solar energy is nonpolluting and, once the infrastructure is in place, basically is free. There is no toxic residue from a coal burning plant or concerns about how to store depleted nuclear plant residue. You don’t even have to worry about fish kills or flooding from hydroelectric generation, not to mention the destruction of rivers by dams.


According to the idiot Trump, if the wind isn’t blowing you won’t be able to watch television. Of course that would mean that Fox News would go off the air so, hey, there’s a little silver lining in every one of Donald Trump’s fictitious clouds. Of course he ignores the fact that when the wind doesn’t blow, or the sun doesn’t shine, wind and solar energy generation can call on storage batteries to kick in uninterrupted power.  But ignorance never stopped Trump before from making claims that, on the face of them, are ridiculous and easily disproved.


Iowa trails only Texas in the development of wind powered energy and by next year the percentage of wind generated electricity in the state is expected to reach 40%. Iowa passed a state law in 1983 that required electric utilities to buy a substantial amount of power from wind generated sources. Obviously, that encourages the development of more wind power generation. Iowa is ranked seventh in the country in potential for wind energy generation— meaning that at least six other states surpass Iowa as potential sources of wind generated energy.


While I am no fan of hydropower since dams often create more problems than they solve, at least water generated energy does not contribute to global warming, toxic residue, air pollution or the myriad other problems associated with fossil fuel extraction and use.


Wind farms are not all sunlight and breezes. Not only do the towers themselves occupy thousands of acres, but the transmission lines are even more damaging. Combined with the towers, especially in Wyoming, a hotspot for wind energy, they seriously threaten the greater sage grouse, a wildlife species that may well be poised on the brink of extinction— primarily because of habitat disruption from energy projects. My home, Missouri, currently is fighting a cross state right-of-way project which would transmit power from wind generation. Missouri has no sage grouse, but it certainly has plenty of angry landowners and legislators who would cheerfully tell the wind energy industry to blow it up its butt.


However, every time Donald Trump beats the funereal drum of fossil fuel extraction I have a vision of the devil gleefully rubbing his hands together as he contemplates coal stoking the fires of hell ever higher and hotter. Totally ignoring the overwhelming evidence of climate change—call it global warming if you want— and irritably denying there is such a thing, Trump continues to spearhead the call for evermore gas and oil exploration and evermore gouging the landscape for coal. John Prine’s evocative song “Paradise” should be the anti-anthem: “I’m sorry my son, you’re too late in asking/Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away” or maybe it could be Merle Travis’s “Dark As a Dungeon “Come all you young fellows, so young and so fine/and seek not your fortune in the dark dreary mine.”


As I write this, it is the Easter weekend, an event when God and mankind are supposed to be close. Donald J Trump is spending nearly 3 ½ million dollars of taxpayer money to play golf at Mar-a-Lago, and spend time with those who share his warped indecency. I wonder how he would feel if Mr. Peabody’s strip miners would come in and rip up his fairways, looking for soft coal to burn and further pollute the thin blanket of atmospheric protection between us and annihilation. But, hey, what’s important in life? Schmoozing with your rich butt buddies and playing golf, or protecting the planet?


Federal judge Brian Morris of the Montana District Court has ruled that Ryan Zinke, the resigned in disgrace Trump interior department secretary, acted illegally when he tried to lift an Obama era moratorium on coal mining on public lands. That is a first step in thwarting Trump’s rapacious war against the nation’s natural resources. Perhaps, if Congress fails in its duty to put an end to Trump’s dedication to a dirty planet the legal system will do it.  Let’s face it, Donald Trump is a bigot, a money-laundering crook for his Russian oligarch owners, a liar, and overall an ugly blot on the historic copybook of the presidency of the United States.


Amid the mountain of evidence collected by the Mueller investigative team, Trump’s love affair with fossil fuel and such idiotic claims as that wind power causes cancer, might seem as insignificant as plucking a bit of rotten fruit from the city garbage dump and calling it conclusive proof of both corruption and mental instability, but if nothing else it is yet another brick in a structure as tall as Trump Tower, pointing to the necessity that, if we want to protect our democracy, we need to rid it of this insidious idiot.


Do your job, Congress. Ignore the 40% of mindless drones, echoing every mindless tweet spewing from Trump’s addled brain and, if you want to restore what our country is supposed to be, send this evil twit south to Mar-a-Lago for good. It’s tee time for Donnie.


At the dawn of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst was among the most powerful men in the United States, if not the world. He was the prototype for Donald J Trump— ruthless, power-hungry, and the builder of the West Coast equivalent of Trump Tower, San Simeon, a monument for a ruthless autocrat. He was feared and narcissistic— a strikingly parallel personality to Trump, even if he did represent a newspaper empire, therefore in Trump’s words “the enemy of the people.”


And yet, this historic role model for Trump, said this more than 100 years ago, about the future of the United States, “The powers of the wind, the rivers, and the sun will no longer be fouled with smoke for which men have worn out their lives in coal mines. The deserts will be seats of vast manufacturing enterprises, carried on by electric power developed directly from solar heat.”


Given that prediction, perhaps there is hope for Trump yet.










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  • Blog
  • April 19th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

When I was 10 years old, growing up in Chicago, on a sunny Saturday morning my mother would see me out the door of our Southside apartment, knowing that she would not see me again until late afternoon. I was headed for the Field Museum, a wonderland whose echoing halls held mysteries that were, to my adolescent mind as magic as anything ever conjured up by today’s artificial Disney World.


I rode the Illinois Central commuter train from a stop near our home to Loop in the heart of the big city, where the museum crouched on the shore of Lake Michigan like a magic castle, the entryway to a world never imagined by the Great Oz. For a kid with a mind filled with imagination and curiosity, it was almost too much to take in. My mother never worried about me alone in the city, but any mother turning her 10-year-old loose in a big city today would be lucky ever to see the kid again.


My favorite hall was dedicated to natural history and I sneaked glances at the bare bosomed manikins of Neanderthal families, trying not to gawp too much at the forbidden mystery of the female form. But it was farther along the row of dioramas where I always stopped to spend long moments looking at my favorite recreation of a scene I would never see in real life— a snow leopard creeping silently across a frozen landscape high in the Himalayas.


Years later, I would write a short story based on that recurring experience. It was during the Vietnam War, although it could have been written during the Korean War or any of the useless wars subsequent to Vietnam. It was intended not only as an antiwar story, but also as a tribute to the magic that the snow leopard created for me.


Recently, I watched a National Geographic special about how global warming is affecting the world’s wildlife. Among the sequences, was one involving a snow leopard creeping across a bare, brown rocky landscape, absent snow, trying to sneak up on an unwary mountain goat. The leopard was starving, its habitat ravaged by warm temperatures never encountered before in the world’s highest mountains. It was a sad moment, especially when the leopard, overcome by hunger, made its charge too soon and lost a chance for a life-saving meal. Will climate change doom the rare snow leopard, symbol of my childhood enchantment? Will the only thing remaining of that long ago exposure to wildlife, a world away, be a dusty diorama in a museum— or a short story written by a young man still enraptured by dreams of lands where mountains were snowcapped and inaccessible except to the lithe and beautiful creature who lived there?




             I spent my childhood Saturdays at the Field Museum of Natural History.  My friends were numbing their minds at the Southtown Theater, watching Zorro defy El Lobo, but I was prowling the echoing halls of the museum.  The museum fed a spark of wildness in me.  I was a city kid in reality, insulated from nature by miles of concrete, but I was a 10-year-old mountain man in my imagination.

                I loved the old museum with its clacking marble halls, its musty mummies!  I knew them all.  There was a mummy that you could X-ray.  Push a button and, magically, the funereal windings vanished and ancient bones glowed starkly in a black crypt.  It was an era of atomic innocence.  God knows how many roentgens I soaked up watching that Middle Eastern corpse reveal its skeletal secrets.

                Halls of pure magic gloomed in every direction.  I marveled at the monstrous knucklebones of Tyrannosaurus rex, an 18-foot-tall horror peering down at me with a bony grin.  Neanderthal man glowered from a diorama.  I glanced furtively at his bare-bosomed mate.  She was not exactly Miss America, but pre-pubescent kids take their cheap thrills where they can get them.

                But it was the animals that tugged me to them.  I took art lessons and wanted to capture them on paper.  I felt the onetime wildness in those musty creatures that triggered deep sympathetic vibrations in me.  I pestered my parents for sketch pads, water colors, oils, anything.  And I camped in the darkened halls sitting cross- legged to sketch elands on the African veldt, a cougar frozen in mid-swipe at a pesky Arizona hound, a mighty Alaskan brown bear at awesome attention.


                One animal pulled me to it again and again, a Himalayan snow leopard.  The mount had begun to go yellow and gray with time, but the taxidermist somehow had caught a remote fire in the glass eyes.  “High in the Himalayas,” the placard read, “the snow leopard prowls with regal grace.  He owns this lofty domain and bows to no other animal, including man, of whom he has little knowledge and no fear.”


                There certainly was no fear evident in the sleek cat who stared at me through the rippled glass.  He was posed walking away, three-quarter view, his head turned to look back along the line of his pawprints, which began at the glass.  Distant mountains mourned under veils of falling snow.  Snow crystals glittered under the leopard’s paws.  If there was anything to reincarnation, I wanted to return as a snow leopard.  But I couldn’t capture the essence of the creature in my drawings.  They looked like a cartoon cat, Tom of the Himalayas.


                Every Saturday I stuck my drawing pad under my arm, bought my ticket downtown, and rode the rattling train to the museum stop.  Each time I tried to draw the leopard and each time I tore the sketch up in disgust.   One day I was in deep concentration, trying to catch the line of the jaw as the animal looked back at me.  This is my country, the smoldering eyes said.  I live here in the lofty snowfields and you are an intruder.


                “That’s pretty good, kid.”  I jumped, startled.  I hadn’t been aware anyone but me was in the hall.  There was a soldier standing near me, nearly obscured by the gloom.  His face and uniform were sidelighted by the diorama.  He leaned on a crutch with an empty trouser leg pinned up.


                “No, it isn’t,” I said.  “I can’t make him look right.  There’s something I can’t catch.”


                “He’s special, isn’t he,” the soldier said.  “He owns that cold place, you know.”


                I looked at him, startled.  It was exactly the way I thought of the leopard and I nodded, eager because someone else shared my perception.  “It’s like he’s trying to say something,” I said, then was embarrassed.


                “That’s what I used to think when I was your age,” he said.  “I’d come down here every Saturday and dream away the day and I used to think this old cat was talking to me.”


                “Me too!” I exclaimed.  “I’ve been trying to draw him for a long time.”


                “I just liked to look at him and dream about the future,” the soldier said.  “I always wound up here with that cat.”   We were silent for a long time.  It was not an uneasy silence.  He understood the lure of the leopard.


                “What do you think he’s trying to say?” the soldier asked. 


                “Gee, I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe that it’s his secret place and we ought to go away and let him have it.”  I thought about it.  “Or maybe that he wants us to follow him to his secret place–that’s why he’s looking back, like he’s waiting for us to catch up.”


                I stopped.  It was more than I ever said to adults and I was confused.  The soldier barked a short laugh, without humor.  I was hurt.  I thought he was laughing at me.  He saw it and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Hey, no!  I’m not making fun of you.  It’s just that I used to think he was asking me to come with him, too, just like you.  The way he’s looking over his shoulder like he wants us to follow him.”


                He made a clicking noise with his mouth.  “Kind of nuts, huh?”


                He took a deep breath.  “When I was your age, I knew I was gonna grow up and go to the mountains and climb up where that leopard lives and see him.  It was more than just a kid dream.  I really believed it.  Just like you believe you can draw him.”


                He was silent and I didn’t say anything. 


                “I wanted it more than anything,” he said.  “It’s still a dream, I guess.  But that’s all it is now.”  He shifted a bit on his crutches.  I didn’t know what to say.  We looked at the diorama and the snow leopard looked back at us.  The unbroken snowfield shimmered into the distance.  The leopard’s coat was frosted with the fresh-fallen ice particles and glittered in the diffused light.


                I looked into its golden eyes and delicious terror startled me.  I felt the chill fire of the high mountains and the hot predatory glow of the lithe cat.  For an instant, I was the cat, content with my sleek power, the urge to kill always present, but always controlled. 


                Then the fire faded from the cat’s eyes and it once again was only a moldy stuffed animal in a museum display.  I took a shuddery breath and licked my dry lips.  I remembered the soldier and looked at him.  There were tears on his face, glistening streaks highlighted by the light from the diorama.  The tears webbed the lines on his face with silver.


                He sighed and rubbed at his face.  “I hope you find your leopard, kid,” he said.  He turned and I heard the rubber tips of his crutches squeaking against the floor as he moved away, finally becoming only a dim shape in the shadows.  Then he was gone.


                A gaggle of girls broke the thick silence of the hall as they raced into it, giggling and shrieking.  They were about my age, a school class on a field trip.  “Oooooh!  Look at the pussycat!” one squealed.  “Isn’t it cute!   Wouldn’t you just like to hug it!”


                “It’s adorable!” exclaimed another.


                “Are you drawing it?” cried the first girl.  Several of them jostled each other, trying to look over my shoulder at the sketch of the leopard.  I turned the pad over.


                “I’m not doing anything!” I snarled.  “It’s none of your business!” 


                “Old grouch!” one girl whispered, and another shushed her and they all giggled and raced off to gawk at a polar bear, rearing to regard onlookers with haughty disdain.  I turned the pad back over and looked at my sketch, then at the leopard in the diorama.  The leopard was just another long-dead animal in a museum case, and my drawing was just another crabbed sketch without meaning.  I gathered my materials together, stuck the sketch pad under my arm, and started down the long hall, cramped from sitting for too long.


                Perhaps some day I would take out the sketch pad and open it to the drawing of the leopard and, with a sure hand, I would alter the stiff lines and bring to life the wild invitation.


                This was one drawing I would not destroy as I had the previous ones.  It was no better, no worse than the others, but it was different. 


                Perhaps when I had more knowledge, more experience, I could claim the spirit of the mountain cat and show it in my drawing.


                Perhaps some day I would find our snow leopard.


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  • Blog
  • April 12th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

Back when I was still a kid (I had just become eligible for Medicare which, I thought I was going to need after that girl beat me half to death in a one-on-one basketball game—but more about that later), we poured a concrete basketball court and I carefully inscribed a high school distance three point arc, using a long string and a piece of chalk to mark the distance.


Then I carefully painted a black semi circle, a free-throw circle and free-throw line, and lanes. We were ready for homegrown basketball. Now, about that girl— it was a one-on-one challenge between me, and Charlotte Overby, a dear friend who as it turned out not only was athletic (and with the enviable and unusual guitar ability to play and sing a wonderful version of “Rocky Raccoon”) but who also was over infused with competitive fire and physicality that would’ve done credit to Charles Barkley in his prime.


The occasion was a party at our place in the country featuring beer, barbecue, and basketball. A crowd of friends gathered in lawn chairs along the sideline of our homegrown court to watch a show down challenge between the two of us. I figured I had all the advantage, first of home court, and second of using my basketball. Not to mention what would prove to be misplaced confidence in my round ball ability.


How could, I foolishly asked myself, I possibly lose to a mere slip of a girl? Charlotte had been active in college sports (soccer or volleyball or something other than, as I remembered, basketball). I had, on the other hand, been an avid basketball wannabe since the 1950s, when I gained a reputation as one of the most outstanding benchwarmers on one of the best teams Keytesville High School ever fielded. Or do you court, instead of field, a basketball team?  Ever since those halcyon days when I spent countless hours gathering splinters, I have lusted after that magic moment when I would be in the spotlight, the star of the game.


I fantasized about that moment when the coach would insert me into a seemingly lost cause game only to see me catch fire with a flurry of quicksilver drives to the basket, reverse layups, even an improbable tip in (at 5 foot eight I did well to touch the bottom of the net with the tips of my fingers).


I played on a town team when I was the sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger. The team mostly was composed of local high school coaches, including Gary Filbert, who had played at the University of Missouri, and until he died at the age of 81 in 2011, still competing in senior basketball games.  Gary  had more athletic ability in his crib than I ever did, but his ability to keep sinking three pointers as an octogenarian gave me hope.


Once I did get into a game, drove for a layup, and was undercut by some yahoo from whatever team we were playing. Today it would be a technical foul, two shots, and the ball out. All I got was two shots along with a sprained right wrist where I landed. Nothing daunted, I shot both free throws with my left hand and made both of them. It was a glowing moment.


 I played endless one-on-one games against son, Andy, and always won, perfecting my crossover drive, my behind the back dribble and layup with the left hand, my pull-up jumper—I had it all until the moment came, as it must to every over the hill jock, that humiliating instant when he goes up with the unstoppable jumper and the kid, grown improbably tall, smashes it right back in his face.


Andy developed a fall away jumpshot, much like the vintage Karl Malone who still is the second all-time NBA scoring leader, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Andy’s shot was unstoppable, and along with his Bill Russell timing on blocking my shots threatened to put an end to my competitive basketball career. No, let’s be honest— it pretty much did put an end to my competitive basketball career. And if that weren’t enough humiliation, I joined the YMCA and played shirts/skins games, mostly with flabby, out of shape middle-aged men, sprinkled with a handful of teenagers. And then one evening I faked a drive, stepped back and shot a three pointer which traveled about 6 inches before some agile young punk slapped it back at me hard enough that, if my mouth had been wide open, I would’ve needed surgery to remove it from my tonsils.


Back in prehistoric days when I was playing what we called boys basketball in high school, there was a rumor that girls played what they called “girls basketball” but that was only a rumor around Keytesville High School. We didn’t have a girls team— we had girls who were cheerleaders for us heroic boys—well, for  the starters anyway. Little did I know that my wife to be, Martha Lou, was actually playing girls basketball at Macon High School nearly 100 miles distant from me. They had uniforms and everything!


Girls basketball at KHS was confined to school hours . Julia Gaw, a year behind me in high school, says “ I think we played in Phys Ed and know we never played an outside game. Just during Phys Ed. I loved it and wish we could have had a real team.” So the Keytesville girls never got to experience a packed gym on Friday night, crammed with ardent Tiger fans, the entire gym enveloped in a fog of sweaty farmers, a day short of their weekly bath.


But Julia’s classmate, Norma Bowen remembers more—that there actually was a girls’ basketball team at KHS.  “The class of ’53 was first after years of not having a team,” Norma says.  “After reviewing the pictures I have, the girls’ basketball team was made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors, totaling 13 in all.  Mary Pat, Becky Jo and yours truly were the seniors.  All I remember is that center line and that actual play was not fun.  We wanted to play like the boys!  With their game we knew the rules.  I do remember we played one or two home games but do not recall playing away from home. I don’t think too many came to see us and definitely not “standing room only.’  Also,  the games were at night.”


And Mary Pat said this, “When we started we played in white shorts and T-shirts.  We finally got our uniforms before the Year Book pictures came out.  We played before the boys’ game so we could get the crowd warmed up.” And I won’t touch that comment with the proverbial 10 foot pole.


It was true—girls did play basketball in the 1950s, but it bore as much relationship to today’s girls basketball as fifth grade red rag football does to Alabama’s Crimson Tide versus almost anyone. I vaguely knew that North of us in a foreign land called Iowa, girls played basketball according to rules that made no sense. There were six girls on each team, separated by the court’s centerline, three on defense and, on the other side of the line, three on offense.


Defensive players were forbidden from crossing the center line and God and the rules forbade that a player could dribble the length of the court as is done today both by those of the male and the female persuasion. Apparently the girls’ rules were formulated by antediluvian men who thought they were protecting womanhood from the ravages of physical activity. Maybe the theory was that full-court basketball would result in some sort of reproductive cataclysm, causing damage to a woman’s ability to do what she was supposed to in the 1950s which was to have babies, stay barefoot (minus Converse sneakers, and spend her days in the kitchen preparing meals for her man.


Iowa was the beating heart of girls’ basketball and was, along with Oklahoma, the last state to abandon those 1950s girls’ basketball rules in favor of full-court, five players per side, basketball, just like the guys. Ironically enough, the University of Iowa’s women’s basketball team, recently eliminated my University of Missouri women’s basketball team from the NCAA tournament.


The end of girls’ basketball as girls’ basketball began in 1958 when the Office of Civil Rights considered banning six on six round ball but it wasn’t for 37 years that the last game under those rules went into the record books. Texas abandoned six on six in 1978, Iowa in 1993 and Oklahoma in 1995. For the record also the last shot ever taken in a six on six game was by the Pucola, Iowa Indians in the AA state championship game. They beat previously unbeaten Indianola before a crowd of 6500 at the state fair arena in Des Moines. That is 6500 more screaming fans that ever turned out to see a Keytesville High School girls game.


Bring on those full-court five on five headbanging, boys rules, cutthroat games! The girls have been liberated. It’s women’s basketball from here on out, and don’t you forget it. That center court line (think glass ceiling) had been shattered and never again, except for the 10 second rule, would be a barrier for women.


I watched the 2019 game when Iowa eliminated Missouri on television (something not available when I was decorating the Keytesville High  bench) and saw players (when do girl basketball players become woman basketball players?) do things with the ball that I never dreamed of being able to do— sink three pointers like Larry Bird, drive to the basket like Steph Curry, rebound ferociously and overall play like…. Briefly harking back to that challenge game between me and Charlotte Overby….like Charlotte Overby. There were collisions, floor burns, players limping off court with tendons snapping like bubblegum—all the mayhem associated with big time men’s basketball. Women basketball players had not only been liberated, but had been turned into frightening adversaries, not shy about inflicting serious damage.  Clearly, Charlotte was well before her time, as I was soon to find out.


So now we were met on the field of battle, Charlotte and me. We flipped a coin to see who would get first possession and I won. There was no strategy to my game plan. I would do what I had done hundreds of times before when Andy was a wee lad and I could beat him with ease. Surely, if I could put the moves on a seven-year-old boy, I could go easy on a mature woman, beat her with a flurry of enviable roundball ballet, with baffling moves and delicate shots and retire, undefeated amid the adulation of the courtside audience.


I dribbled the ball a couple of times, faked right, crossed over to my left and intended to drive in for a left-handed layup, a move that I tried one time in high school, only to have our coach quickly pull me from the game, demanding, “What the hell do you think you’re doing— you can’t even make them right-handed. What makes you think you can make them shooting left-handed?”


This time surely would be better (“don’t call me Shirley”), given the weight of my years of experience and countless hours of practice on my own basketball court. Unaccountably I found myself without the basketball. Charlotte not only had stolen the ball, but had planted an elbow in my rib cage that felt as if someone had fungoed me with a Louisville Slugger, Willie Mays model. She also had whirled to the basket, laid in a soft shot off the backboard, and led me two-zip.


I had always thought that girls were equipped with two elbows, much like me and the other boys. But apparently, beneath that feminine framework, was a bone structure constructed of reinforcing rod. I very much wanted to rub what I suspected was a blossoming bruise, but male pride reared its ugly head and I took the ball for my turn and cravenly faked a drive and when Charlotte instantly blocked my path, I launched a desperation three point shot that somehow went down. Me, up three-two.


Much of the rest of the game is a blur but I do remember glancing to the sidelines to see if my fan base was cheering me on, only to find that they seem to be talking among themselves, busily opening new beers, posing for photographs of each other. Those who were paying attention seemed to be chanting, “go, Char!” And similar supportive exhortations that did not contain my name.


It came down to the final possession, score tied. By now the concept of male superiority in what was supposed to be a masculine endeavor had pretty well been destroyed. I was exhausted, bruised and only foolish pride kept me from conceding or inventing some feeble excuse for fleeing to the beer container for relief. It was my ball, one last chance to avoid the inevitable—watching that winning bucket, as Charlotte, fresh as the proverbial daisy, blew past me for the game ender.


Breathing like the bull, just before the toreador plants the fatal sword, I faked feebly as if I were going to drive for the basket. Charlotte, perhaps out of respect for her elder, especially one so clearly outclassed, relaxed and gave me an opening and I launched a prayer both Heavenward and at the basket. Perhaps that Presence above, in Her compassion heard my plea and had pity. The ball bounced around, dropped through the net, and I had won the great challenge.


“Great game, Char,” I wheezed. “Let’s get our guitars and play “’Rocky Raccoon.’”













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  • Blog
  • April 5th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


                Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim survived many adventures as they rafted down the Mississippi River, but Mr. Twain, even at his most fervid, couldn’t have dreamed up an encounter with African lions on a river island.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Had Huck and Jim landed their rude craft on an island off Mississippi County in the Missouri Bootheel, in January, 1932, they might have run headlong into the King of Beasts–really.  The 1932-33 Bootheel African lion hunt stands as the most bizarre episode in Missouri’s hunting history


                It was the Perfect Brainstorm of a wealthy St. Louis businessman with an obsession over big game hunting and the money to make it happen.  Denver Wright Sr. (one of his nine children was Junior) made billfolds, belts and other leather sundries at two plants, one in St. Louis; the other in Doniphan.


                When he wasn’t holding up the pants of male America he was afire with the intrigue, glamour and danger of Dark Africa in the days when the Great White Hunter ruled and African safaris captured the imagination of everyone.  Frank Buck brought ‘em back alive and Denver Wright brought ‘em back dead….or wanted to.  Although Wright would go on to hunt worldwide and bag nearly every species of big game animal, the Missouri lion hunt was his first foray into the figurative jungle after animals far bigger than the biggest native Show-Me wildlife and ones that theoretically could kill him as easily as he could kill them.


                Yes, they were real lions, the kind that introduce movies from Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and no, they aren’t native to Missouri.  The plan was this: acquire a pair of lions, release them in what wilds remained in the Bootheel and hunt them down, African safari-style, with gunbearers, beaters and all the accoutrements of an Hemingway-esque outing. 


               Wright started big game hunting in 1932, coincidental with his Keystone Kops outing on an island in the Mississippi  River.  He had hunted Missouri’s indigenous game and apparently a few that aren’t, like moose, but Africa was his dream and, at that time, an unattainable one.  ”You can’t hunt big game in Missouri, so I decided to supply my own quarry. Just sort of bringing Africa to the United States,”  Wright said.  Later in life Wright said, “Some people wonder why a man takes a gun, goes into a steaming jungle, wades around in water for weeks, gets chewed up by bugs, doesn’t eat and is generally miserable—just to outsmart an animal.  Well, I sometimes wonder why some men meander around a golf course all day trying to outsmart a golf ball.”  Over the next two decades he traveled the world in search of big game—from polar bears in the Arctic to charging Cape buffalo in Africa. Ultimately he would visit 82 countries, often hunting, and would average two such trips a year.


                Wright was one of five children, born in 1889 in Providence, Kentucky.  He apprenticed at 17 to a Cape Girardeau shoemaker—his introduction to leather—and went to St. Louis, spent some time as a news “butcher” (peddler of newspapers) on a train, went to Atlanta for a while, eloped with a 14-year-old girl in 1911 (with whom he would have nine children) and moved to St. Louis permanently in 1918.


                  Ultimately he would have two profitable leather operations.  The one in Doniphan employed 300 people, which undoubtedly made it the biggest employer in the area.  Famed tennis player Helen Wills Moody wore a Wright products sun visor when she won at Wimbledon.  Wright became a licensed pilot at 58 and owned his own plane.  He was a police commissioner, school director and a deputy game warden in the days before Missouri’s conservation program became professionally-oriented (that happened in 1936 with a citizen-driven Constitutional amendment).


                     The January, 1933, hunt was the second of two tries.  The first, in October of 1932, involved two female lions he bought from a circus (the whole thing reeks of circus, as a matter of fact).  Wright planned to release those in Mississippi County but the sheriff, Jesse Jackson, was less than charmed at the idea of live African lions roaming his county.


                     Here’s how Time magazine described the first attempt: “Into the Ozark foothills in a truck went Denver M. Wright one day last week. With him beside the two young lions he had bought from a circus for $75, were two friends, a barber and a plumber. Somewhere in the hills were his two sons, lost. Behind him, horrified, was the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood, where he had long been respected as a manufacturer and a member of the school board. All around him was hostility. In Mississippi County waited a sheriff with an insanity warrant. In Cape Girardeau County waited 800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there. Over the rough roads of Scott County bounced the truck, stopping now and then while Hunter Wright begged shelter at a farm house. Always there was only one bed. ‘It’s making me look like an inhuman ogre,’” cried he.


                         While Time’s story captures the innately ludicrous nature of the outing, it was at odds with other stories (the part about the sons being lost, for example).  As a matter of fact one son, Charles, was a willing participant in the second hunt and applied the coup de grace to the first lion the Wright team encountered.  And it’s doubtful that Wright’s home town, Brentwood, cared much one way or another as long as the lions were released more than 100 miles south.


                       The first hunt was even sillier than the second.  It involved two young lionesses, a chicken dinner and a lost opportunity.  The 10-month old lionesses apparently were far less enchanted than Wright with the idea of a get-together in the brush.  They cowered in their cage and, as a reporter put it, “sulked.”  Wright’s hunting party released the two lions on a small island near Commerce Oct. 16 and repaired to Commerce for a chicken dinner.  When the hunting party returned to the island, they found lion tracks overlain with boot prints.  It was an “uh-oh” moment which became more suspicious when they found gouts of blood.  “Maybe somebody was hurt here,” Wright said hopefully.


                      Something was—the two lions had been shot by a fellow named Walter Wise, one cat lying down, the other just getting to its feet. Wise used a submachine gun borrowed by sheriff’s deputy Tom Hodgkiss.  The two finally ‘fessed up and returned the defunct lionesses later in the day.   The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, having fun with the whole thing, wrote, “So, the lionesses, poor, beaten creatures bought by Wright from a broken-down circus for a $15 drayage fee, had taken it, in a manner of speaking, lying down.”  That should have ended the harebrained scheme, but Wright was nothing if not persistent.  He bought two mature male lions from a north Missouri wild animal farm and set his sights on January for the next try.


                      Wright’s original plan was to release the lions on 20,000 wooded acres south of East Prairie, but the local citizenry, especially law enforcement personnel, started playing “What if?”  Especially, what if the lions somehow evaded Wright’s guns and got hungry?  What if the first hearty meal they happened on was some farmer’s prize bull?  Or the farmer?  A reporter for the East Prairie Eagle said, “Wright has been maligned, praised, complimented and criticized for organizing the hunt.  On the one hand a sly desire to see him prosecuted has been entertained.  His motive has been questioned.  His sportsmanship has been attacked.”


                       That’s a fair summary of the reaction from St. Louis descending to the Bootheel, with the antipathy swelling the farther south the safari went.  According to Time Magazine, folks in Cape Girardeau County were as grumpy as those in Mississippi County, recruiting “800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there.”  Time had a wonderful, well, time with the story   “Newshawks asked Hunter Wright if his lionesses were real. “’Well,’” said he, “’they look like lions, and they roar like lions, and they eat like lions. I guess they’re just lions.’” 


                      The hunt was plagued from the outset with weather—it rained almost constantly and the road to the river turned to slop.  The mighty hunters wound up pushing their vehicles out of one bog after another and finally enlisted a sympathetic farmer to pull them with his tractor.  The unnamed shipbuilder who put together the boat that ferried them to the island hunting ground apparently had fashioned a craft much like the African Queen, fittingly enough.  “A discarded automobile engine furnished the power,” George Conrad Nagel, who would be Wright’s eager chronicler, wrote.  “A discarded dish pan served to hold in place the stove pipe projecting through the top and acted as insulation against the deck catching fire.”


                      So far all the safari lacked was Humphrey Bogart covered with leeches. 


                     Everyone pitched in to drag the 800 pounds of lion ashore in their cage.  Instead of evolving from the ridiculous to the sublime, it evolved from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous.  “The first night was terrible,” Nagel wrote.  Not because of the accommodations, but the sudden change from modern conveniences, comfortable beds, steam heat, to an army cot in a tent on an island in the Mississippi River on a rainy night in January—one must experience it to appreciate how it feels.”  And the lions, no doubt just as uncomfortable as the hunters, persisted in roaring periodically through the night.  No one got much sleep.  When the lions were released they plowed through a four-strand barbed wire fence as if it were kite string.  That somewhat alarmed the hunting party which had hoped to rely on the fence to keep them safe during the night.


                    So, armed guards spent much time shining their flashlights into the trees and jumping at every sound.  Persistent rain glistened on the trees, looking in the light from lanterns much like the glowing eyes of ferocious lions.  “Throughout the 34 hours following their release from their cage Friday afternoon,” reported the Post-Dispatch, they [the lions] appeared utterly incapable of living up to the standard expected of hunted lions.  They refused to leave the vicinity of the camp, they gamboled before the bewildered members of the party, they insisted on howling through the hours of darkness when Wright’s retinue was already hard put to it to find dry spots under tents that failed to ward off the drenching rain.”


                        At one point all the accounts agree that many of the unarmed members of the hunting party took to the trees, including the mayor of East Prairie.  It wasn’t as if the lions were clawing at the trunks of the trees…but you never know.


                       The “hunt” was almost anticlimactic.  The several accounts vary, agreeing only that the two lions wound up dead.  Nagel’s admiring account said, “Without warning or a moment’s notice he [the first lion] rushed forward directly at Wright, who was nearest to him.  Wright quickly dropped to one knee.  There was a shot.”  Wright winged the lion which fled, seriously wounded.  Wright’s son Charles “finished the lion with a well aimed shot in the head,” said Nagel


                    The Post-Dispatch was far less breathless.  “One of the animals, less willing than the other, was wounded when it arose from its recumbent position as Wright and his three riflemen got too close.  It was finished off by Wright’s 14-year-old son Charles who shot it through the head as it lay on the mud at the water’s edge, bleeding from two body wounds.”


                    That left one lion and in Nagel’s account it died in mid-air from simultaneous shots from the two Wrights as it sprang at boatman Indian Joe Putnam who was poking it with a long stick.  Considering that the hunters had been throwing rocks and sticks at the lions for two days, cornering them at the end of the island with no escape route except back through the hunters, it’s no wonder the last lion made a break for it. 


                      The P-D had it this way: “The other got on its feet after it had been prodded by one ‘Indian Joe,’ a member of the party, and was promptly dispatched by Wright, his son, Ted Bennett of Dorena, Mo., and John Cliffy of East Prairie, who riddled the animal with rifle fire.”  That account sounds more like the end of Bonnie and Clyde than Hemingway on safari.


                      Quickly after the second hunt an obvious fan, George Conrad Nagel, published “The True Story of America’s Strangest Safari,” a 15-page booklet (which today lists for $600 in the rare book world).  The booklet is complete with photos of Wright and all the major participants in the hunt.  On the back page is an advertisement for “The Lure of the Beast,” a movie “with sound effects” of the hunt which, according to the booklet is “being publicly shown in various Motion Picture Theatres.”  If so it has vanished into the dusty vaults of forgotten celluloid—a Google search comes up empty.  Perhaps somewhere in the holdings of a library, museum or other repository there is a copy of this priceless comedy—one can only hope it still exists.


                      Nagel’s booklet conveniently makes no mention of the Capone-style execution of the lionesses.  Nagel says he is not an apologist or defender of Wright, but he is: “Wright merely did the unusual and reaped the pioneer’s crop of adverse criticism.”  He compares Wright to Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, not to mention Abraham Lincoln, all sons of Kentucky as was Wright. 


                      Denver Wright died in March, 1975, secure in the knowledge that he had organized and carried out the only African lion hunt in the history of Missouri…and without a doubt the only one that ever will be held. 

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