Archive for August, 2019

  • Blog
  • August 30th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


I was born in Chicago, Illinois, and spent the first 14 years of my life on the south side of the city, never venturing farther north than the Loop. The only landmarks I was interested in were the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum and it wasn’t until I was living in Missouri and in college that I worked one summer in Chicago and ventured north of the Chicago River once, to Wrigley field where I watched Stan Musial rocket a line drive off the right field wall so hard that it bounced all the way back to the second baseman and limited the great Stan the Man to a single.


I’m not sorry that I missed one north side landmark, a small park within which the city’s mentally deranged would gather to harangue whoever they could entice to listen to them, with dire predictions of the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse, the End of Times, and, in more optimistic diatribes the Second Coming.


They called the place Bughouse Square because of historic adjacent mental facilities. If you want to listen to outrageous predictions, deranged pronouncements, and outlandish goofiness, Bughouse Square was the place to go. Today, Bughouse Square is more of a tourist attraction than a gathering spot for weirdos. But not to mourn for a lost opportunity to listen to the nonsensical rantings of the mentally ill— just take a trip to the Nation’s Capitol and wait. Shortly, Donald Trump will emerge from the building housing the nation’s leader and proclaim himself the son of God, the chosen one, the second incarnation of Jesus Christ. I am not making this up. He’s already done it.


If this sounds like a recreation of Chicago’s Bughouse Square, so be it. If there was any lingering doubt (certainly, not mine) that Donald Trump is mentally ill, he dispelled that the other day when he glanced heavenward, and told a gathering of media people, that he is the Chosen One. I suspect, more than one of the assembled reporters scrunched up their shoulders, expecting a lightning bolt to fry the fat boy in his tracks.


Trump wasn’t even chosen to be president by the people, much less to be the second incarnation of Jesus, losing by more than 3 million popular votes. He was chosen by the outmoded electoral college system, which allows a president to be selected by a minority of the states in the union, fertilized by the generous donations of special interest donors. And I say “his” because we haven’t yet had the good sense to elect a woman to be our president.


Except maybe Edith Wilson, wife of the last overtly racist president, Woodrow, who basically ran the government for the last two years of her husband’s presidency, 1919 to 1921, after he suffered a debilitating stroke. But then, she was not elected. She just arbitrarily took over. She once threatened to refuse the credentials of a foreign representative unless he would dismiss an aide who had made demeaning comments about her.  She sounds like the precursor of Trump.


Trump now explains away his claim to holiness by saying it was meant as sarcasm. “When I looked up to the sky and jokingly said ’I am the chosen one’ at a press conference, referring to taking on trade with China, little did I realize that the media would claim that I had a Messiah complex. They knew I was kidding, being sarcastic and just… having fun.” Somehow, Trump’s idea of “having fun” seems remarkably like a four-year-old “having fun” by pulling one wing off an insect so he can watch it flounder about.


So we have a guy who almost daily demonstrates that he should be standing on a rickety orange crate in Bughouse Square spouting nonsense before wandering off into the who-knows-where, muttering to himself.


To support his declaration of divinity, Trump “reposted a comment” by Wayne Allyn Root who said, “President Trump is the greatest president for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best president for Israel in the history of the world and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the king of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.”


An article in the magazine “Psychology Today” contains an interesting paragraph describing what they call “mission-oriented‘ serial killers. “Mission-oriented killers justify their murders as being necessary to rid the world of a group of people that they perceive to be undesirable. “Such groups may include prostitutes, the homeless or those who are different from the killer in terms of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.” Now I don’t mean to imply that Donald Trump is a latent mission-oriented serial killer, but think about that sentence for a while and think about the various groups against whom Donald Trump has demonstrated antipathy–African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ,  makes one wonder (this one, anyway).


To deviate a moment from the mental instability of Donald J Trump, let’s examine the mental instability of Wayne Allyn Root. Root has not been a rooter (sorry about that) for other presidents. He called President Barack Obama “Marxist in chief” and described the Obama administration as “a gangster government.” I suspect Donald Trump would agree with that wholeheartedly–shitbirds of a feather flock together.


According to Root, Democratic members of Congress are “the druggie who has abandoned his spouse, kids and job to snort crack cocaine 24 hours a day.” The perigee of his ludicrous comments perhaps is his warning that men should not date a liberal woman who has cats because “She’ll cut your pee pee off, I promise you.” How the cats figure into this, I don’t understand, except that perhaps a virulent case of cat scratch fever, acquired when sometime in his muddled past, Root mistakenly dated a liberal woman and got crossways with her pet cat and it scrambled his brain. I won’t even speculate about what happened to his peepee.


Or maybe, like Trump, his brain ceased to develop in his early years in elementary school.


I recently watched a TV show about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb which said that the Boy King was only nine years old when he became pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. The narrator speculated that, because of his youth, perhaps Tut’s mother did the actual running of the government because “who would choose a fourth grader to govern an empire?”


“We did.” I sourly snarled at the television set.


It’s not exactly comforting to realize that the president of the United States, rather than seeking counsel from wise men, those with long experience in government, those who have survived the rigors and perils of public life, instead hobnobs with, and takes his lead from obvious lunatics like Root. Never before has the warning (origin unclear but possibly from the weird movie “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘) that the inmates are running the asylum’ seemed so appropriate.


Trump’s diarrhea of self-aggrandizement is a bonanza for late-night talk show monologues and would be funny if it applied to almost anyone else, but coming from the leader of the free world, it is a lot closer to terrifying than it is to amusing.


Trump’s economic war with China where he fires a barrage of tariffs at China, and the Chinese launch a counter fire round of tariffs at the United States and the economy of both countries suffers as a result is yet another example of Trump’s chaotic administration. The latest Trump ploy is to demand that United States companies move out of China, an order which typically is more noise than possibility. Tough these days, to shop at almost any major retail outlet and pick up an item not made in China.


Whether you like it or not, that’s reality. What happens to those companies so dependent on their merchandise that to bar them from manufacturing in China would devastate not only them, but the American economy. It probably won’t happen anyway since there is no mechanism to enforce a ban on Chinese manufacturers and moving companies out of China to other countries is largely impractical and not likely. It’s just another Trump bluster like a fart in his windstorm of incompetence.


Satirists are having a ball suggesting that Trump’s next move will be to order Americans to stop eating Chinese food. Don’t count it out—that’s no more illogical than most of the harebrained ideas that Trump comes up with.


Nowhere is Trump’s lunacy been more obvious than it was in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, you freaking moron) mass murders than it was when he visited the two cities, and especially the hospital in El Paso. “The people that were so badly injured that I was with, they love our country. And frankly, you want to know the truth? {An editorial aside—yes, you freako, we would like to know the truth for once if you would bother to tell it} they love their president. When I went to El Paso, and when I went into those hospitals, the love for me, and maybe as a representative to the country, but for me and my love for them, was unparalleled.  “Not only did they meet with me, they were pouring out of the rooms. The doctors were coming out of the operating rooms. There were hundreds and hundreds of people all over the floor, you couldn’t even walk on it.”


Where do you even begin to dissect that vomit of nonsense? Doctors leaving the operating rooms in the middle of surgery? “Here, nurse hang on to this scalpel while I go worship Donald Trump. No nevermind I’ll just stick it in the patient’s thigh.”


Not only did doctors and hospital personnel not scramble to kneel at the feet of the new divinity, but most of the shooting victims still in the hospital refused to meet with Trump, so he and his trophy first lady, Melania, hijacked a baby who had been wounded in the El Paso shooting so she could dangle the little kid for the assembled photographers. I had held slim hopes for Melania as a possible representative of the human race, but no such luck. She is just another Trump wife, past her due date.


Somehow I have gotten on the Trump-Pence reelection Facebook mailing list and being technologically challenged, I don’t know how to get off of it. But I was struck almost as dumb as Trump-Pence by a recent email that began “Will you tell me the truth?”  If ever there was a loaded question to ask me that was it.


The email began: “Joel, I know you are someone I can count on to tell me the truth…” Talk about having  an invitation to tell the truth, using foul language and inflammatory invective, this was it. Yes, Donnie, I will tell you the truth: you are an idiot, an incompetent disgrace to the human race, a bigot, a racist, and lots of other derogatory and defamatory things which in the interest of good taste I won’t go into. In summation, I hate your guts. Is that truth enough for you Donnie? If not, send me some more emails, and I will go into more detail, you fat, blathering nitwit.


Actually, I would be happiest if you would just send me instructions on how to delete you from my Facebook account.










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  • Blog
  • August 23rd, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

Jack Ballard is running as a Democrat for the United States Senate from Montana.  “Say what?” You ask, followed by the second question: “And just who is Jack Ballard and why should I care?”


First let me tell you the why and then the who. The United States Senate presently is controlled by the Republican Party, by a razor thin voting majority of 51 to 49. Leader of the Republican pack is Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell (who has come to be known as Moscow Mitch because of his refusal to allow votes on any legislation designed to curb Russian interference in our elections and because of a large influx of Russian money into his home state of Kentucky) Considering that there is a 99.9% certainty that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is why today we are almost daily diminished as a nation of integrity and honor by Donald J Trump.


McConnell’s fellow Republican Senator and prime enabler is South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham who increasingly is being nicknamed Leningrad Lindsay. Apparently, neither of them is fond of being associated with Russian interference in United States elections (tough noogies), but the solution is to elect senatorial representatives who truly do represent their constituency and the interests of the country. Enter Jack Ballard, a person I have known and respected deeply for many years.


Jack and I served together on the board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and, as the group’s historian, I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, although I rarely did— as opposed to Jack who sat quietly amid a group of ego dominated communicators until he had something to say. And when he did say something it was thoughtful, intelligent and incisive. It didn’t take long for the board to realize that rather than chewing an issue to tatters, it saved time just to ask Jack what he thought, nod and vote in agreement, and move on to the next question.


If Montana voters choose Jack they will not just be gaining an outstanding Senator, they will be gaining a marital team that, it is not overstating to say, is comparable to the vintage Golden State Warriors or Chicago Bulls at their peak. Between them Jack, and his wife, Lisa, have teamed to pile up more accolades in their field of outdoor communication than the Warriors and Bulls did on the basketball court.


The two married six years ago after a romance that spanned two thirds of the country— Lisa Densmore at the time had established herself as a multifaceted outdoor communicator, specializing in cinematography, writing and as a downhill ski racer in the northeast’


A three-time Emmy-winning host and field producer, Lisa spent 20 plus years working in television and documentary film, covering mountain and water sports, outdoor recreational activities, nature, wildlife, adventure and conservation topics. Her television programs have appeared on virtually all the network and cable channels.  In addition to her television work she has been a writer since 1991 with hundreds of regional and national magazine and website publications to her credit as well as 11 published books.


In addition to being a professional writer she also has taken thousands of photographs from all over the world which have won many awards and have appeared in books, on calendars, greeting cards, advertising and websites as well as in her own books.


As if that weren’t enough to attract any prospective suitor, Lisa is a professional skier. She has been downhill skiing since she was a kid and now participates in ski racing camps as well as ski clinics. She also competes in downhill racing on the Masters circuit.


If ever there was anything to test the strength of a romantic relationship, it would be that last facet of  Lisa’s resume.  Jack says, “When Lisa and I got together, it was understood that a long-term relationship would require my becoming a skier, preferably an alpine racer (though I was candidly told not to try to keep up as all previous boyfriends had failed.)


“And so, seven years ago I started alpine racing. It’s what now motivates my fitness throughout the year and has become a primary focus in life. The only thing I really, really enjoy while skiing is arcing fast turns on an open slope. But alpine racing also has some hazards. Sustained injures along the way are as follows: sprained MCL (left knee), two broken ribs and torn sternum cartilage, dislocated pinky finger, sprained wrist with probable hairline fracture, severely sprained MCL and LCL (left knee), torn labrum (left shoulder), grade four AC joint separation (right shoulder – collarbone no longer attached), concussion, broken rib and a completely ruptured Achilles’ tendon. So what do you think, healthy addiction or no?


Here is a capsule biography of Jack from his website:  “I will do everything in my power to get money out of politics and get thoughtful, committed, middle-class people on stage,” he says.  “The “system is tilted toward wealthy people from the get-go.”  Jack is neither related to the Ballard Oil Co. family nor to the Orioles baseball player Jeff Ballard, who was born in Billings. “If it’s a Ballard who is famous or has money, they are no relation,” Jack says.  “Many people are asking how they can help. We can use lots of volunteers in Montana to get the word out nationally. And of course there’s that money thing… The campaign website is up and ready for donations.”


Calling himself an outdoor guy from Red Lodge, Ballard says one of his top concerns is the Trump administration’s management of public lands to benefit extractive industries, like mining and the oil and gas industry, to the detriment of native habitat and wildlife. He also chides Republican opponent Steve Daines for his proposal to release the state’s wilderness study areas from protection without first discussing it with constituents.  Jack says “It seems obvious to me we need to invest in better management and emphasize activities on public land that are better for wildlife habitat,”


He emphasizes the need to reduce medical costs for Americans. “Without cost containment there’s no meaningful health care reform,” he said. Among his health care ideas are to study what other countries have done successfully and consider a price  cap on services to contain costs.


As an example, Ballard pointed to charges he faced for a wrist brace following one of his ski injuries.  The brace’s cost was $226. A similar one was $65 online, delivered to his home. When he called the California-based brace company to complain, the company representative basically told him to pay up or shut up.


“We have a serious health care problem in the United States,” Jack says. “We pay much more on a per-capita basis and receive in some cases inferior service compared to many other countries.”


Jack is the second youngest of seven children and grew up on a ranch his grandfather homesteaded between Three Forks and Whitehall. He earned a master of arts degree in 1989 from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1994 he earned a master’s in education at Montana State University, Billings and then taught there for a dozen years.


He is now a full-time writer, sat on the board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and has published 13 books. He has been married to Lisa for six years and has three internationally adopted children from his previous marriage. “One of the most satisfying things in my life is trying to give those kids a way to be successful in a country that gives them more opportunity,” Jack says.


He  criticizes incumbent Senator Steve Daines for supporting President Trump’s tax cut, calling it a mistake for Montana while adding to the U.S. deficit at a time when the economy is doing well. In addition, Ballard said Daines has done “nothing to check”  McConnell’s “worst instincts on bottling up legislation.”


Although being a rancher’s son and a popular outdoor writer in Big Sky Country, Jack’s path to the Senate will not be a smooth one. Before he can challenge Steve Daines in November 2020, he has to get past two formidable Democratic challengers. Democrats Wilmot Collins and John Mues who both bring powerful resumes to the contest.


Collins is the first African-American mayor of a Montana city since the state joined the union in 1889. He also is a naturalized immigrant from Liberia a country from which he fled in 1994 to escape civil war. He won his mayoralty in 2017 by beating a four term incumbent with 51% of the vote. He was been a naval reservist for 20 years and worked for the state child and human services department, specializing in child protection.


Mues is a nuclear engineer and a graduate of the U.S. Navy Academy, trained as a submarine nuclear engineer. He is a fourth generation Montanan and after leaving the Navy he taught on the Fort Belknap Indian reservation for two years. Perhaps the most telling attribute of Mues is that the Montana Republican party has assailed him as “yet another Democrat running in Montana to represent the radical left and their socialist agenda,” and adding that Mues would oppose Trump’s policies.   The Republicans undoubtedly will say the same about Jack Ballard.


Of the three men standing between Jack Ballard in the Senate, Steve Daines the Republican incumbent might be the most vulnerable.  Daines is a first-term senator, elected by a weird set of circumstances in 2014. Basically he replaced Max Baucus, who was the longest serving senator in Montana history— nearly 36 years before he resigned in 2014 to become the United States ambassador to China. Here’s where it gets complicated. Montana Governor when Baucus resigned was Steve Block, a Democrat, who appointed Lt. Governor John Walsh to the vacant senatorial seat.


Walsh intended to run for a permanent seat in 2014 but then withdrew after he was accused of plagiarism while working for a master’s degree at the U.S. Army War College. The Democrats picked one term legislator, Amanda Curtis, to serve in Walsh’s place and she was defeated fairly handily by Daines in the general election


Jack’s fellow outdoor communicators have flocked to express support for his candidacy. Unfortunately, most of them don’t live in Montana so can’t vote for him. But they have outlined in print the reasons the country needs Jack in the Senate to fight against the incessant assault by the Trump administration on the nation’s natural resources.


It would be a mistake to think of Jack as a one issue candidate—protection of outdoor resources— when his platform is multifaceted, including dedication to other major issues like health care and education. The country needs a return to sanity and representation by legislators obligated to the common good, not to special interests. Jack’s values are what the country was founded on and what we aspire to be. But a return to that ideal begins at the ballot box.


Multi talented outdoor communicator Mike Furtman from Duluth Minnesota, said it as well as anyone could, “My friend Jack Ballard has announced he is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate to represent the great state of Montana. Would I vote for him? Damn right I would. He’s the real deal. I hope my Montana friends will read his story, and follow his progress. If you like him, help him! Heck, even if you’re not from Montana, you can contribute to his campaign (Put it a black envelope – we can call it “dark money” like all the fat cats get!)”


And renowned outdoor photographer Tim Christie, who lives in neighboring Idaho, said this, “Jack Ballard is the real deal. He is well educated, believes strongly in promoting and preserving public lands, has been a college professor, and is a well regarded outdoor writer and photographer with 13 books to his credit. If you’re from Montana, or if you believe strongly in protecting private lands and outdoor pursuits like fishing, hiking, photography and hunting, check him out. In 2020 we need more people just like Jack Ballard to fill Senate seats.”


Teddy Roosevelt, our most conservation oriented President, and his equally able and natural resource oriented Roosevelt cousin Franklin Delano, have been gone a long time and we are way overdue and desperately need legislators who care about the health and welfare of the natural landscape and have the will and the expertise to do something about it . I’ve given money to Jack’s campaign and will give more. A dollar or thousand dollars all will help. Check him out on the campaign website– and then send a check.


Beyond Montana’s need for a senator willing to fight for intelligent management of the state’s bounteous outdoor resources, the entire nation needs senators of integrity and intelligence, something woefully lacking in today’s lineup. Montana voters need to do what the Outdoor Writers Association Board of Directors did when Jack was a member— listen to what he says, quit chewing over the choices, and then vote for Jack. Both Montana and the nation will benefit.






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  • Blog
  • August 16th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


When I was a teenager on summer vacation from high school I  often would stay up until the small hours  searching the a.m. radio dial for a station playing vintage New Orleans jazz records— Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, King Joe Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton. Or if the stars were aligned right, pick up the all night broadcast of Jean Shepherd from Cincinnati and thrill to his hilarious stories of his boyhood, eerily similar to my own experiences in Chicago.



Failing to find that treasure trove of good radio (of course on AM—(today’s omnipresent FM radio was barely out of the experimental stage), I would search the upper reaches of the dial where the border blasters lurked. Those were megawatt transmitters, located just over the border between the United States and Mexico, not subject to US limitations on transmitter power. Their signals rocketed through the atmosphere over much of the United States, subjecting listeners to seemingly endless commercials for baby chicks, miracle pills and salves guaranteed to cure the ailing, and for decorative portraits of Jesus Christ on black velvet.


I wasn’t in the market for baby chicks, despite my tenuous membership in the Future Farmers of America, but I did listen to those weird radio stations hoping to hear a static-warped song by the Carter family. After the breakup of the original Carter Trio, Mother Maybelle took her three daughters, teenagers Helen and June and adolescent Anita, to South Texas where they could commute across the border to perform on one of the border blaster radio stations.


Those were the days when a Yankee could cross the border into Mexico without fear of anything other than Montezuma’s revenge from eating a dicey taco. No need for intensive security checks, passports, identity cards, or anything other than Yankee dollars to feed into the Mexican economy. It was just as easy for a Mexican to cross into the United States to shop, visit relatives, or, for all I know, revel in the fledgling American fast food industry— a vacation from burritos.


Now, these many years later, Mexico is a country rife with drug related crime, often inhospitable to Yankees and suspicious of a US government seemingly dedicated to inflicting humiliation and economic mutilation on our one time friendly neighbor to the south. Not to say that there are not genuine reasons for tensions between the two countries, but the Trump administration has spent the past two years plus rubbing salt in an increasingly festering wound without working constructively to medicate the rift between the two neighboring countries.


Since those late nights of listening to South of the border songs by the Carters, I’ve been to Mexico a couple of times at widely spaced border crossings, including El Paso, which, according to Trump, is the current bad guy among the gates between the two countries. I remain unscathed.


A few years back I was in the recovery stage of a debilitating siege of pancreatitis, the low point of which was several months of being fed through a tube for quite a few hours every day a concoction of what appeared to be Purina Hi Pro dog food. This unappetizing remedy was thrust past my touchy pancreas through a tube inserted through one nostril and out the other, down my throat into my tummy. It was a less than pleasant experience but it actually caused me to gain a few pounds and did allow my ailing internal organ to heal. No aftereffects, except that I now have to suppress a desire to pee on trees.


Through it all I had one overwhelming desire threaded through the long hours digesting dog food—that was to attack a shredded chicken quesadilla lovingly prepared by a Mexican cook, and to savor every bite of it.


Decades ago, I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss, Texas, adjacent to El Paso. The several couples in our apartment complex on Fort Boulevard all were young marrieds who became close friends since we all were stuck in the same boat. We partied and we would journey across the international bridge to Juarez to shop for 90 cent a quart rum and, once, to visit a nightspot featuring well endowed strippers. We all were embarrassed. My wife and I spent one afternoon in the Cavern of Music, a club featuring twin pianos, manned by classically trained musicians who played lovely duets while we sipped icy rum and Coca-Cola. If there was crime and pestilence in the border city we never saw it. Afternoons and nights in Juarez certainly beat training exercises in the broiling heat and dust of the Fort Bliss reservation.


The Mexicans we encountered invariably were friendly and welcoming, even including the clamoring hucksters trying to sell souvenirs to us Yankee tourists near the entrance to the country. I even bought a bota bag which I filled with cheap wine so I could squirt it in my mouth from a distance. Don’t tell me I wasn’t cool in those days, even if I did miss my mouth most of the time and decorate my shirt with wine stains.


A close friend I had worked with on a newspaper had been stationed at Fort Bliss. He was fluent in Spanish and had wangled a job as the base commander’s interpreter and would frequent Juarez with his boss and in his down time would organize a baseball game with Mexican kids. It was through him that I learned both about the Cavern of Music and that Mexican beer was infinitely tastier than the watery stuff on our side of the Rio Grande.


Donald Trump’s’s latest effort to overturn more than 200 years of immigration law and deny immigrant status to anyone whose skin color is different than his (an unhealthy artificial orange) is a proposed regulation that anyone seeking immigration must be both wealthy and healthy. Forget it if you don’t have a happy pocketbook and private health insurance— if Trump has his way anyone who is poor, has health issues, or (unbelievably) might possibly ever seek any form of public assistance like food stamps, Medicaid, or any other social service assistance will not be admitted to the United States.


The words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” would be replaced, according to Trump’s acting director of immigration services Ken Cuccinelli by adding “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”


Trump grumbles that we need more Norwegians and that immigration was designed for northern Europeans, not those shithole country folk who pollute Trump’s Aryan gene pool. A guy named Hitler had somewhat the same eugenic outlook on life. You remember him—he wound up committing suicide, somewhat like Trump’s dear friend and fellow party animal Jeffrey Epstein.


Skip ahead several decades to a trip to Brownsville, Texas, for a conservation conference just across the border from Matamoros, Mexico. Our tour group consisted of three Missourians who had driven the zillion miles from central Missouri to the Texas-Mexico border because my boss was afraid of flying and a fourth member, Arkansan Civil War buff Jay Kaffka who brought along a metal detector hoping to find minnie balls left over from a battle near Brownsville when Union forces tried to disrupt Confederate blockade runners along the Gulf Coast of Texas.


Jay found shards of a beer bottle and managed to put together enough to declare it an authentic Civil War relic. We were more interested in a cross-border foray into Matamoros to sample Mexican beer brewed more recently than 150 years ago.


We drove into Mexico, spent the afternoon in a cantina, delightfully cool, beating the intense heat back with several rounds of cerveza after which we went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. The food was superb (I don’t remember, but I probably had a shredded chicken quesadilla). Jay struck up a conversation with a gentleman at the next table who turned out to be the mayor of Matamoros.


Jay said that he loved Mexican spicy food, and there was no pepper hot enough to daunt him. Sticking up for Mid-America values Jay said that he often nibbled on jalapeno peppers while watching television. The mayor countered by saying that he would bet a fifth of tequila that he could furnish a pepper so hot that no one could tolerate it. Jay accepted, thus sealing a friendly cross-border challenge. The mayor produced a small bowl of an innocuous looking sauce and suggested Jay sip a spoonful of it.


I dipped my fork in the sauce touched it to my tongue and immediately felt my tongue and lips go numb. Jay filled his spoon stuck it in his mouth and swallowed. For a moment suspended in time he looked as if an angry bobcat were inside his mouth frantically trying to escape and sweat popped out on his forehead. After a few moments and a couple of hurried gulps of beer, he croaked “that’s pretty good.” The mayor gestured to a waiter and said, “Bring this man a bottle of the best tequila.”


Friendly hands across the border. The next day we were due to head home and stopped at the US border station where a burly customs agent who looked remarkably like Boss Hogg shuffled to the car and brusquely inquired “You uns Murricans?”


“Yes, Missouri” said the three of us from the Show Me State, and Jay who was small, swarthy and black haired said “Si”  visions of rotting in a Mexican jail flashed through my head! The border cop snarled, “And where you from, boy?”


In his best hillbilly accent Jay said, dragging the word out “Arr kin saw.”


“Get the hell out of here!” growled the border guardian and that’s the last time I have visited Mexico.


Mexico is not an enemy nation. Russia and North Korea are enemy nations despite Donald Trump’s cuddling up to them like a dog let into to the house on a freezing night which somehow winds up sleeping uninvited on the bed. Sure, Mexico has serious internal problems, but so do we. Instead of offering neighborly help, Trump is unswervingly dedicated to building a wall between the two countries and by inflammatory rhetoric dismantling any hope for rapport between us and them.


A question. What about the thousands, if not millions of Asians, Latin Americans, black people, and others who have brought their cuisine to this country as immigrants and have started restaurants? Add in Italians who, after all, are not northern Europeans. Are we so addicted to MacJunk food that we would deny immigrants a chance to start a business featuring unfamiliar food unless they come equipped with deep pockets and no possibility ever to need public assistance (something that is likely for any of us with immigrant northern European roots).


What an awful human being Trump is, as are those who support him. They will reap what they sow but unfortunately so will the rest of us and our children and grandchildren, potentially cut down by the scythe of history.


There is a small Mexican restaurant a few miles from our home in the heart of a solid red town where probably more than half the town’s population voted for Trump. It’s family-run— I think husband-and-wife and daughter. We eat there once a week because it’s convenient, inexpensive, and the food is excellent. Are the three of them legal residents? United States citizens? I have no idea and have no desire to find out. They are pleasant people, obviously struggling to attract enough customers in a community more attuned to eating MacAwful greaseburgers than it is to experimenting with anything Mexican except perhaps an occasional daring stop at Taco Bell.


I have a sinking feeling that this little experiment in bringing South of the border cuisine to central Missouri is doomed, but until such time as we go by for our weekly outing and find the place closed down, I’m going to gratefully enjoy their hospitality and their food.


Invariably I order a shredded chicken quesadilla.





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  • Blog
  • August 9th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


By Joel M. Vance


            It was June and I was on a New Hampshire trout stream, armed with a fly rod, a box of miniscule flies and a permit.  The dark water burbled promisingly over rounded granite rocks, with deep pockets that simply shouted “Trout here!”  What more could an angler expect from life?


            The black fly, as it happened.  In the next few seconds I broke the world record   100-yard dash, wearing waders and a cloud of black flies.  I sat in the car with the windows shut, scratching myself frantically, thinking You’re not in Missouri anymore, Dorothy!


            The black fly was invented by the Devil to remind anglers that fishing isn’t all fun…or maybe that Hell is a blue ribbon trout stream with trophy trout but where, no matter how good it looks, the black fly is present and hungry…and you have no insect repellent.


            The calendar art of fishing depicts the angler in that most idyllic of moments, fast to a wallhanger, with nary a biting midge in sight (not that you could see it even if it were).  You won’t see a fishing supplies catalog with a cover shot of an angler wildly swatting at noxious insects. 


             Biting insects range in size from midges to horseflies, but you can see a horsefly which is a lumbering, awkward klutz that might be able to chew on a horse, nevermind where, but if a human can’t swat him before he begins lunch, that human should stay off the stream.


            But, ah! the biting midge!  It’s the Invisible Man of biting bugs.  I was in a camp in Arkansas, on the verge of falling asleep in my tent, when I began to itch.  Fierce itches.  Midges go through bug netting as if it weren’t there.  Think of a stampeding herd of bison charging through a chicken wire fence. This is the biting midge ignoring an insect screen on a camping tent. I clawed at myself and mumbled selected words from gangsta rap. 


            I had been attacked by little specks of insect with jaws like a great white shark.  No bigger than a grain of pepper, they have the penetrative ability of a .30-.06 bullet.  I stumbled around the camp in the pit of night, feeling one after another of the little demons ravaging my lovely complexion.  Finally I happened on a bottle of guitar polish and, lacking anything else, slathered it on my exposed skin.


            It worked.  Perhaps I have found one of those miracle products that, while developed for something else, makes a guy a millionaire from a peripheral use.  Yeah, and maybe pigs will learn to fly like biting midges. 


            Proving that some people never learn from experience, I was fishing on Wisconsin’s Chippewa River on a sunny day with blue skies, the river rippling and rushing over rocks in the rapids, still pools, eddies where the foam line simply screamed “Fish here!”


            My guidebook said there was a long stretch of fast water ominously named “Deer Fly Alley.”  Now, a comprehending person, one who had experienced black flies and biting midges, might approach this place cautiously.  That would not be Joel M. Vance.


            I barreled into the fast water, working hard to run the rapids without tipping over and quickly discovered a bit of natural history trivia that is more interesting if you’re reading about it; a whole lot less so if you’re experiencing it—that deer flies hover over fast water, just waiting for a canoeist who has both hands occupied.


            You’ve seen King Kong, clinging to the Empire State Building with one hand, swatting at airplanes with the other.  Picture Vance flailing at a swarm of biting flies with his paddle, banging off rocks, caroming down a long rapids like a pinball machine. 


            I bailed out, clinging to the gunwale with just my head above water.  Even that wasn’t good enough.  A head was as good a target as any.  I finally took a deep breath, ducked under water and rode the rapids out, hoping I would run out of fast water before my breath ran out of me.  Reluctantly the flies left and went back on station, waiting for the next gourdhead who refused to heed the guide book.  


           Years ago I was at a National Guard summer camp at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, protecting the rest of the country from invasion by people named Olson. We got to camp out like pioneers and shoot big guns and talk on radios like John Wayne in the movies. 


           Along with my socks and skivvies my barracks bag contained a tackle box.  We weren’t far from the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers and I told our commanding officer that I was going on a reconnaissance.  He was pleased to see me taking an interest in the military, since I never had before. Ostensibly, I was the Battalion communications officer, but I turned the radios off so I would become incommunicado figuring that I could blame my silence on faulty equipment since most of it didn’t work anyway. Thus, equipped with my very own vehicle and a concealed fishing rod, I was free to spend the day exploring Camp Ripley’s hidden fishing spots while my fellow troopers played John Wayne saves the world.


            My scouting expedition somehow wound up at the river where I paused to test the local waters for military significance.  I discovered that pausing for more than half a second was an invitation to the Minnesota State Bird, the mosquito, to home in.  So I slathered military issue bug dope on me and commenced to fish.


            Happily I hummed a tune in harmony with the humming of the insect population.  Then I noticed that my hands were curiously sticky.  I looked down to see the plastic handles of my treasured reel melting like ice cream in August. 


            Military fly dope keeps the bugs at bay, but it’s death to plastic and not only did my reel handles dissolve, so did every plastic lure I’d touched.  I had a Jitterbug that looked like the Phantom of the Opera with his mask off.  A Bass Oreno could have played the lead in Elephant Man. 


            Our family is fond of Spoonerisms, named for a legendary Oxford don who mixed up words and phrases for comic effect. Comedian Archie Campbell of Hee Haw fame used spoonerisms in such mangled fables as the “Pee Little Thrigs” and “Rindercella.” Thus, when our house in town, before we moved to a wooded area, was assaulted by termites, they became “mertites.” When our newly wed son-in-law, Ron DeValk, first came to visit, we told him about having had mertites and I’m sure that he felt he had married into a family occasionally beset by alien beings.


             No, just another form of noxious insect (they don’t bite people but do bite your house until it falls down around your ears— the mertites also ate the album cover of the only valuable collectible record I had “Word Jazz, featuring Ken Nordine.  I don’t miss the house because we were going to sell it anyway but I deeply regret the loss of the record album.


            Hands down, the most annoying little insect, although not a biter or stinger, is the gnat. Battalions of these little pests appear in midsummer and a walk on our woodland trail is an exercise in learning new ways to swear. A gnat is genetically programmed to do a one and a half gainer into your eyeball and swim around like Ryan Lochte free styling for another Olympic gold medal. Unlike most insects which have some ecological reason for existence, the gnat seems to exist for no other reason than to dive into your eyeball like kids at the park pool on a hot summer day.


            Nearly as pesky a summertime annoyance is spider time when tiny web spinners string endless virtually invisible nets across the trail and you can’t walk 10 feet without contacting face first something that the poor little arachnid has spent countless hours fashioning to try to catch dinner.


            I sort of feel sorry for the little guys or girls when their eight eyes see me coming.  No doubt the little web spinners think, Oh no! Another eight hours shot to hell! I usually take along a stick, not to use as a walking staff, but to wave ahead of me, hoping to fungo webs out of the way before I face plant them.  I look like Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at breakneck tempo and if the neighbors would happen to see me they would be even more convinced than they probably already are that they are bordered by a madman.


           Looming above all the other insectival pests is the tick. Ticks have evolved over the centuries to be a host to more diseases than are contained in a physician’s handbook of perilous afflictions. Ehrlichiosis is one that you could die from before you learn to spell it. At least Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease bear names containing familiar words although neither of those or any of the other tickborne indignities contribute to fun time at the emergency room.


           Thanks to who did all the testing, the most effective insect repellent is a bracelet made by Simple Natural Products. The main ingredient is citronella oil, a natural substance that, according to some, even will quiet barking dogs (possibly even better than threatening them with top of the lung cursing).


           I once knew a couple the wife of whom, when they returned from a hike outdoors, would squeal “tick check!” After which they would disappear for quite a long time. Apparently they had found a substitute for insect repellent.


          The most often prescribed tick repellent is any product that contains Deet, a repellent that dates to the mid-1940s when it was developed for the armed forces, and which came into use by the general public in the mid-1950s. Deet has been known to cause skin irritation and, in extreme cases, seizures. I knew a fellow who claimed that he reacted seriously after spraying his clothing while turkey hunting. The experts recommend wearing clothing permeated with permethrin which actually kills invading ticks, but how many folks shop for and wear permethrin- impregnated clothing?


           Instead, they grab for the nearest aerosol can of whatever repellent contains deet and spray away. If it kills them, at least they’ll be free of ticks when they go.


            There are times when the disease is worse than the cure. 


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  • Blog
  • August 2nd, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


The July 29 issue of the New Yorker magazine has a long article by Jane Mayer, a long time senior staff writer for the magazine, examining in great detail the circumstances behind the resignation of former Senator Al Franken after he was accused of sexually harassing a woman on a USO tour.  Franken entertained troops eight times on USO tours.


The New Yorker is one of the last publications where situations of significance can be examined in great detail by the best reporters in the business. No word bites here—only meticulous reporting. It is where Rachel Carson alerted the nation to the dangers posed by hard pesticides in an issue-long article titled “Silent Spring.” As a result of that reporting bombshell, a number of dangerous pesticides were banned and the nation’s symbolic bald eagle was saved from extinction. The same magazine devoted an entire issue to an article by John Hersey in 1946 about the horrific effects of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.


It’s obvious that the situation involving Al Franken has nowhere near the significance of pesticides or nuclear consequences in the overall scheme of things, but Mayer’s piece nonetheless sheds disturbing light on today’s world where one after another prominent man falls victim to accusations of sexual impropriety.


Mayer’s conclusion? Al Franken was a victim of a media rush to judgment, a predictable and hypocritical faux outrage by the Republican right wing, and, most unfortunately, peer pressure from his Democratic fellow senators, calling for an immediate ouster from his seat on the Senate.  The Democratic call for Franken to resign was led by presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Some of the three dozen Democratic Senators who called for Franken’s resignation since have had second thoughts and have expressed regrets for their decision.


Mayer quickly followed her reporting job with a nearly hour-long interview with Terry Gross, National Public Radio’s venerable interviewer who is, in her field, as recognized as is Mayer in hers, as the best there is. Both women are staunch advocates of the Me Too movement and both are acknowledged reporters of significant cultural events who do not judge— they meticulously examine their subject and leave it to the reader or listener to draw his or her own conclusions.


It’s instructive to read Mayer’s article and to listen to the Gross interview, available on the Internet, or read the transcription of it. It should be impossible for anyone, having done that, to come to any other conclusion than that Franken was railroaded, out of the Senate, depriving the country of someone who had proved himself a highly beneficial and effective representative.


Without going into the details (leave it to Mayer to have done that and to readers to do their homework) the short version is that Franken was accused by a woman named Leeann Tweeden of having forcibly kissed her against her will, and having humiliated her by simulating groping her breasts while she was asleep, and mugging for a photographer. Subsequently, several other women also allege that Franken had, in the past, made them feel uncomfortable by word or deed.


It sounds serious, and in today’s sensitive climate, it is. But does what Al Franken did reach the same seriousness as accusations made against people like Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby—or for that matter the president of the United States, Donald J Trump? There was no forcible rape, nor anything even approaching a physical invasion. There also is no doubt, after reading the evidence, that Franken behaved inappropriately and came off as a sometimes crude lout.


What he did was insensitive and stupid, but his account and that of many corroborating witnesses and people who know him starkly contradicts the account given by Tweeden, a right wing media commentator who comes across in Mayer’s reporting as a sloppy journalist and an opportunist out to create a sensational situation, no matter the cost to another person’s reputation.


Reaction to Mayer’s article has been both swift and widely varying—not to mention confusing. Jezebel, a feminist blog which has, in the past, been criticized by media observers for stepping over the accepted lines of journalistic integrity, jumped firmly on Tweeden’s side and was highly critical of Mayer’s reporting. The flip side of that was a reaction by Forbes magazine, a conservative media outlet, that was critical of the Senate’s rush to judgment against Franken.


The Nation, most liberal of publications argued both sides of the issue— saying that Franken’s behavior was marginal, but also that his reaction was “sullen” and belated. But the reaction from the magazine’s readers seem to tilt heavily in Franken’s direction with one comment summing it up, “I thought Franken took one for the team.”


The best analysis of and reaction to Mayer’s article is a piece by Emily Yoffe in The Atlantic magazine which you can read by going to “As a society, we are in danger of losing a sense of proportion, and a belief in forgiveness,” Yoffe concludes.  Al Franken could not have said it better himself.


If nothing else indicates that the entire episode was overblown, the fact is that the horrible Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein both attempted to buy off potential witnesses against them, whereas Al Franken demanded that his situation be investigated by the Senate ethics committee— and his request was denied. One senses a definite lynch mob mentality here and justice be damned. “He says, she says” situations rarely if ever are solved satisfactorily and almost always result inconclusively. It’s unlike sports events where you choose up sides and the winner is whoever scores the most runs or points.


The country is long past a time when it needs and deserves a woman as president. It’s pretty obvious  that a woman candidate is not going to come from the ranks of the Republican Party, a bastion of white male supremacy. Next year’s election has a better than usual chance of seeing a woman heading the Democratic party’s ticket. There are several outstanding female candidates among the more than two dozen Democrats vying for the party’s nomination and it would be more than unfortunate if none of the women is nominated, although the current front runner Joe Biden is just another white guy. He and Bernie Sanders represent the old guard, even with widely divergent political agendas. And, do we need another president (speaking as one of them) of a doddering old white guy?


The Democrats have a long and dreary history of nominating white guys who can’t seem to win— remember Michael Dukakis? Then came Al Gore and John Kerry. When it came time for the Democrats finally to choose a woman candidate, they picked Hillary Clinton who ran a fumbling campaign and who, to be honest, was roundly disliked even by many Democrats who grudgingly voted for her because the alternative was unthinkable. As unlikable as she is, she still drew two million more votes than the Groper in Chief we’re currently stuck with.


I was discouraged about the current crop of woman candidates when I read that two of the Democrat senators who vociferously demanded Franken’s resignation were Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, both of whom are talented and intelligent and come across as far more capable of running the country than the fat bigot currently diminishing the prestige of the Oval Office. Gillibrand led the charge for Franken’s resignation and Harris quickly signed on. But, as I said, a handful of Democratic senators who pressured Franken to resign have since said they wish they had not done so.


My hope rests in the dubious intelligence of the Democratic Party’s nominating process to pick the one woman I see as having the backbone, the intelligence, the integrity and the demonstrated executive ability to take the reins and do what is right for the country— Elizabeth Warren. I have been a devout fan of hers ever since she headed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—a wonderful government entity created to do what government is supposed to do, protect the citizenry. Predictably, Trump, among  recent actions has destroyed the agency by firing all 25 members of its advisory board.  Ms. Warren had proposed the agency in 2007 when she was at Harvard Law School, before she became a United States senator.


With nearly as many candidates as there are hopefuls on a football squad, the Democrats seem dedicated to destroying each other. They remind me of a school of sharks turning on a wounded member and devouring it. Infighting and partisan squabbling merely plays into the hands of the Republicans and my fear is that another four years of Trump would see the end of the nation as the world’s leading democracy, and as the world’s most eminent hope for good.  If we let the 40% of the populace who support the evil con man now in charge take over the operation of the country, we are doomed.  All that we have achieved as a nation for a quarter of a millennium would be for naught.


If the Me Too movement truly wants to get upset about the treatment of women, let it put aside the sexual aspect for a moment and concentrate on the treatment of four freshman women Congressional representatives by Donald Trump and his misogynistic Republican cohorts. It has been widely reported, but not dwelled on nearly enough that he has demonized the four women of color, snarling that they should go back where they came from (ignoring the fact that all four are US citizens and three are native born). To me this egregious treatment of four women by a man who quite obviously believes that women are inferior beings is deserving of far more attention than the allegations of sexual harassment against Al Franken.


Some years ago, my wife and I stood in line for more than an hour to get Franken to sign his book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. The senator-to-be wrote, “to Joel and Marty, Love, Al Franken”. He  smiled (not leered) at my lovely wife Marty when he wrote it and she didn’t feel a bit harassed, only honored and delighted..






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