Archive for November, 2019

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  • November 29th, 2019

MOVIE MANIA

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was born when sound on film was only a few years old. It was a stunning moment for most ardent moviegoers when Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” became audible. But by the time I was old enough to plunk down my quarter or whatever it took to get into the theater, sound was omnipresent in movies and the silent era essentially was ended.

 

Except— I still will watch most or all of “The General” with Buster Keaton in glorious silent black and white if only to see the comic genius and the absolutely incredible and dangerous stunts that Keaton performed himself.

 

I recoiled in delicious terror when Dr. Frankenstein’s monster loomed on the silver screen or Count Dracula batted at the windows in the form of a huge bat. In company with legions of puny adolescents, I subsisted on the soul food of a movie addicted tot—Necco wafers and, especially, (nevermind today’s staple of the moviegoer, popcorn) the greatest of all cinematic junk foods, Milk Duds. All over the nation, dentists were rejoicing and booking their next Caribbean vacation.

 

All this is prelude to listing my 10 favorite movies of all time—those films that I will see time and again. Homage, thanks, and deep appreciation goes to Ted Turner, creator of the TCM channel (Turner classic movies) where we can indulge in nostalgia. And a list of 10 favorites is bound to exclude somebody else’s favorite 10 and possibly even lead to barroom fights.

 

But since I rarely visit barrooms anymore and never was inclined to fisticuffs where I would be rapidly reduced from inclined to reclined, these are mine and feel free to disagree.  There are countless movies that I will watch again either all or part of. Who can resist being lured into any of the “Star Wars” “or “Indiana Jones” movies? And I never miss a rerun of “A Shot in the Dark” with Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Clouseau. Monty Python movies are a drug as addictive as heroin.

 

I quickly can name three of my top five movies and all three star Humphrey Bogart, who on the face of it (and him) seems an unlikely Hollywood idol. He wasn’t very good-looking, only in a rough shod way, but he starred in three movies that I will watch every time they appear. In two of the three he was a scrungy character, far removed from a matinee idol. They don’t come any scrungier than Fred T Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or Charlie Alnutt in “The African Queen.” Only in “Casablanca” did Bogart portray a character with any kind of panache.

 

The pairing of Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” was a marriage made in Hollywood heaven. Director John Huston was a fan of filming on location and the actors in the movie suffered as a result of the hardships they endured in Africa. Bogart’s revulsion when he surfaced from repairing the Queen covered with leeches was not realistic acting— he was revolted. The leeches were real.

 

Orson Welles movie “Citizen Kane” consistently is voted the best film of all time but I beg to differ. How many people remember any lines from that movie other than Welles whispering “rosebud”, the name of his treasured childhood sled as he eases into eternity. But you can quote lines from “Casablanca” endlessly. Or at least I can. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And, of course, “you know what I want to hear. You played it for her, you can play it for me!” And he didn’t say “play it again Sam.”

 

That’s one of two lines that most people get wrong, along with Mae West saying to Cary Grant in the 1933 film “She Done Him Wrong”, “why don’t you come up and see me sometime.” (She actually said “why don’t you come up sometime “n see me?” And, in “treasure of the Sierra Madre” the grimy bandit did not say “we don’t need no stinking badges!” There was no “stinking” except for the obviously smelly bandit himself.? What he actually said was “We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

 

There are two moments in my favorite movies that are guaranteed to make me puddle up. One is when Marian the librarian in “The Music Man” sings “good night my someone, good night my love.” We were fortunate enough to see the musical on Broadway in revival with Craig Bierko as Professor Harold Hill, the role that Robert Preston created and against whom all others will be measured. Bierko was wonderful, but when Marian sang her hopeful ballad to the night sky, I was choked up and wiping my eyes, just as I do every time the movie plays on TCM. Most fans of Meredith Willson’s wonderful musical probably don’t realize that the melody of “good night” actually is the same melody as “76 trombones,” the most upbeat and boisterous tune of the entire musical, drastically slowed down.

 

The other tearjerker for me is at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Scout, the precocious (and precious) Mary Badham as Scout looks beyond the people who are tending to her after she is rescued from being assaulted by the movie’s villainous Bob Ewell and sees someone behind the door. She says softly, “Hey, Boo” to Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, her reclusive rescuer. Once again, the old softy in me turns me into weepy mush.

 

Ms. Badham spoke at the Columbia public library once and signed my copy of Harper Lee’s book, and talked about her experiences making the movie when she was seven years old. She loved Gregory Peck, who played her character’s father Atticus Finch, and revered him the rest of his life. And she was frightened by James Anderson, Who played Bob Ewell, the evil drunk bad guy. “He stayed in character all the time and I was terrified of him” she said.

 

I will not read “Go Set a Watchman” Harper Lee’s posthumous prequel to “Mockingbird.” Apparently, it portrays Atticus as a racially prejudiced southern white man before his enlightened days as the defender of a black man wrongly accused of rape. I want to remember the Atticus of “Mockingbird” and the saintly Atticus of the movie, so movingly portrayed by Gregory Peck. I had far too much exposure to white middle to upper class southern men with bigoted mindsets when I lived for a time in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama—and, for that matter, in the Missouri of the same time period.

 

Another of my top 10 is “Anatomy of a Murder.” I love it for a variety of reasons. First of all it is, in my mind, the greatest courtroom drama in cinematic history. And it stars Jimmy Stewart, among the greatest actors of all time, invariably involved in fascinating dramas. The dialogue sparkles and it is worth watching if only to see Joseph Welch as the wry, homespun, funny and lovable judge. Welch in real life was famous for destroying the evil Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy when he was a counsel for the Army when McCarthy, as insane and destructive as any Congressman in history (until now) accused the Army of being infested with communists. With weary resignation Welch said to the glowering senator and his ferret faced sidekick Roy Cohn, later to become one of Donald Trump’s infamous legal beagles, “Senator, at long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy shriveled like a slug on a hot sidewalk and soon oozed into history, drunk and disgraced.

 

It’s tough to pick “Anatomy” as my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie because I also have watched “Rear Window” many times and also the movie that Stewart himself listed as his favorite of the many he starred in “Harvey.”  It’s hard not to watch a movie about a gentle, eccentric man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot rabbit. And how can anyone not watch, again and again, “Rear Window” a movie costarring Grace Kelly?  I can offer as a defense the idea of “irresistible impulse” which was the winning defense that Jimmy used to get a not guilty verdict in “Anatomy.”

 

I once had a chance to meet John Voelker, the real name of Robert Traver, a Michigan Supreme Court judge who wrote the book “Anatomy of a Murder.” Like a fool, I didn’t travel to the Upper Peninsula where Voelker lived in a home that he said was “bought and paid for by Anatomy of a Murder.” Voelker was an ardent trout fisherman and maybe we could have gone fishing together, using his favorite fly which he called “a little bitty brown thing.” And we could have shared one of the beers that he would stash in a cold spring hole while he fished, with which to cap off the day.

 

There is one other musical among my top 10. “Singing in the Rain” is absolutely stuffed with charming dance routines, topped off by Gene Kelly dancing his way down a rainsoaked street, while singing the title song. Costar Debbie Reynolds said Kelly was so demanding in their rehearsals that her feet bled. Add in Donald O’Connor’s show stopping “make ‘em laugh!” frenzy and who could ask for anything more?

 

The biggest trouble with Alfred Hitchcock movies is picking out which one you like the best and, for purposes of this list, which one you would watch over and over. It’s a tossup for me between “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.” Some opt for “Psycho” and others for “Vertigo.” And then there’s “the Man Who Knew Too Much” with the assassin waiting for the cymbal clap to fire the fatal bullet. Hitchcock knew how to draw out the suspense to the point where you want to scream “for God’s sake, watch out!” As many times as I’ve seen it, the scene where Grace Kelly is in the killer’s apartment and you see the burly killer Raymond Burr walking toward the door into his apartment, the tension is like an over tightened guitar string—will it snap or not, even though you know it won’t. But who can resist Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint capering over Washington’s nose (or was it Lincoln’s nose?) on Mount Rushmore, pursued by the killer Martin Landau?

 

As a nearly lifelong ardent canoeist, not to mention a nearly lifelong guitar player, I can’t resist revisiting “Deliverance” every time it broadcasts. I figure that Ronny Cox, taking a pristine Martin guitar unprotected on a canoe trip down a wild, rapid filled river, deserved to get shot. And there is an unavoidable quiver of recognition when the four canoeists run afoul of a pair of depraved backwoods types, remembering my own encounter on the Niangua River with a guy that came out of the bushes wearing a pistol. As it turned out, he was harmless, in a weird way, but I was extremely happy to see the rest of our canoeing party show up, even though none of them was packing a bow and arrow.

 

George Lucas wasn’t thinking of my generation when he made “American Graffiti” but there is no film ever that captured the spirit of the 1950s as thoroughly as did that film—even though the timeframe supposedly was the 1960s. We didn’t cruise the strip in Keytesville because there was no strip (main street was about two blocks long), but the songs were the songs of my teenagerhood, as were the tentative tiptoes into adulthood experienced by the picture perfect cast. No other movie comes close to capturing that era, except for “The Last Picture Show,” where the grimy small, failing Texas town is far closer to the reality of Keytesville than was “Graffiti’s” more urban setting.

 

There is one other movie involving kids that has to be on the list because almost everyone on earth has seen it at least once and most at least twice and many others countless times, including me— it also has a memorable line which every boy over 70 years old is able to quote: ”you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”The movie, of course, is “A Christmas Story.” Ralphie’s lust for a Red Ryder BB gun was universal when I was Ralphie’s age and though the red spot has faded with time, I once suffered a pellet wound about a quarter inch below my right eye when a fellow adolescent plinked me during a session of wargames that would have resulted in the confiscation of my Red Ryder, had my mother known about it.

 

Merry Christmas and, God willing, you won’t get bunny slippers from Aunt What’sherface.

 

I gave some thought to leaving my number 10 favorite movie blank so you could fill in your own choice but then I thought of the ideal movie to wind it up. Those who have seen the movie will know what I mean and those who haven’t are in for a wonderful treat. As the unlikely hero of “The Big Lebowski” says:

 

The dude abides…..

 

 

 

 

 

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  • November 22nd, 2019

CREATURE FEATURE

By Joel M. Vance

 

In1954 a film hit the silver screen (and it was silver in those days—black and white) which presaged an event that recently went on a few yards from the window I’m looking out as I write these words. All over the country, testosterone-poisoned male teenagers drooled over a young actress named Julie Adams as she (pardon the suggestive phrasing) breaststroked frantically to escape the deadly clutches of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 

We drooled every bit as copiously as the creature itself as the lissome Ms. Adams in her (unfortunately, for the days before far more revealing movie costumes, and again forgive the cheap pun) titillated us with her chaste white bathing suit.

 

Perhaps it was this memorable 1950s horror movie that inspires my lifelong fascination with air breathing creatures who choose to live in aquatic environments. After all some time back, the first of them escaped the ocean, crawled up on land, developed legs and the ability to think progressively. The ones left behind in the primal ooze became politicians.

 

All of this is prelude to what this blog is about, not confessing youthful  lustful thoughts (as opposed to geriatric lustful thoughts) but about a wildlife encounter I never thought I would experience.

 

A river otter appeared on our pond. My wife, Marty, insists on calling  the one acre body of water a lake, but whatever the designation it recently became occupied by a river otter. Possibly it was a young male searching for new territory, as well as searching for a female with whom to set up housekeeping. I originally wished them well and prosperity— but, the more I learned about otters….not on my pond.

 

Young wildlife males frequently go walkabout from territory dominated by older males, searching for otterly unoccupied terrain. A long time back, biologists, documented a young white tailed buck that had traveled at least 100 miles from near Kansas City, to central Missouri. Bullfrogs and snapping turtles frequently migrate cross country looking for a pond such as ours. We welcome the bullfrogs, but the snappers can go elsewhere. An otter, while evidence of a wildlife reintroduction success, also is a major problem waiting to happen.

 

We have plenty of bluegills and far too many young largemouth bass, so this otter had a set table for as long as it was allowed to sport where we swim in summer and ice skate in winter. Son Andy was less welcoming at the prospect of the otter deciding to overindulge on either of the eight pound largemouth bass that he has caught and released several times over the last couple of years. And the more I learned about otter ecology, the less thrilled I was by our visitor.

 

Likewise, there are a number of channel catfish that are nearly as large as the otter and I hoped that there would not be a mini confrontation like Godzilla versus Rodin beneath the waters of our pond/lake. 

 

I once attended an otter release and the animals, confined in cages, awaiting their introduction to new homes, were not happy and there was much snarling and display of teeth, accustomed to ripping flesh from prey animals. Once the gates flapped open, the animals didn’t stick around to be patted and fussed over, they lit a shuck for the water and, like creature from the Black Lagoon, were gone in an eyeblink.

 

The release was part of a Conservation Department effort to restore otters to Missouri, one of a number of outstandingly successful wildlife re-introductions.  The idea of a restoration program began in 1980 and took root in 1982 with the release of a few otters caught by a Cajun trapper in Louisiana. At the time there were estimated less than 100 otters left in Missouri, remnants of a once common animal, relegated to the to the equally almost vanished wetlands of the Bootheel.

 

The introduction of wildlife into unfamiliar habitat carries with it risks as proved by history. For every ringnecked pheasant success, there is a disaster like the starling or the gypsy moth that proves to be irretrievably misguided. It makes sense to try to restore an animal once native to the habitat, but not to introduce some creature either ill-suited to or competitive with the resident ecosystem.

 

Missouri has become a leading state for whitetailed deer and wild turkeys, both native to the state, and both outstanding reintroduction successes. The late John Lewis, godfather of the wild turkey reintroduction program, told me early on he would be happy if half the state’s counties developed a turkey population. Today, the big birds proliferate statewide, and the spring turkey season is nearly as celebrated as the fall deer season.  Chances are a wild turkey will grace next week’s Thanksgiving table on hundreds if not thousands of Missouri households.

 

The long-term goal was to establish a population of perhaps 10,000 otters statewide. Over the next 11 years, the conservation department released 845 otters in 43 streams in 35 of the state’s 114 counties. The otters, horny rascals that they are, responded with a frenzy of copulation and began multiplying like especially virulent bacteria in a petri dish. In a few short years the population topped 15,000 statewide and not only were river otters once again viable members of the wildlife community, they rapidly were becoming a potential disaster.

 

In fact, my otter, if it were to take up even semipermanent residence, would be a ticking time bomb. Dave Hamilton, the biologist in charge of the otter reintroduction program, had this to say about the Frankensteinian critter he had pioneered: “the state’s numerous farm ponds, most of which contain a combination of largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish, provide lots of recreational angling for kids and adults. We sure didn’t see these ponds as providing good habitat for otters, nor did we see the impending train wreck that otter depredation of the fish in these ponds would cause.”

 

Hamilton wrote that calls began to pour in about farm ponds being ravaged. “We now recommend that pond owners who are at all worried about their fish shoot otters when they show up. All we ask is that they contact us if they do so.” I was extremely loath to plug our new visitor, even in the interest of preserving Andy’s largemouth trophies or our cruising catfish. Hamilton said, “otters especially target hand fed catfish.” And we have shoveled many a sack of catfish chow off the end of our dock to the delight both of us and visitors—and, of course to the delight of the gate mouth channel cats who gather there. Our otter was inviting extreme sanction when Andy glimpsed a line of bubbles emanating from beneath the dock. The invading animal was asking for it.

 

Long time conservation department biologist Glenn Chambers became the foremost spokesperson for river otters nationwide by raising a pair in his home and traveling statewide in Missouri as well as in  other states to talk about otters and show off his frisky pair to the delight of audiences. In his earliest otter shows, Glenn would let the otters roam freely through the audience, but it quickly occurred to him that, no matter how cute and friendly they might seem, they still were wild animals and the specter of having one of them chew some toddler’s arm off at the elbow motivated him to restrict their freestyle antics to the stage.

 

He shared the stage with both the otters and a large tank of water into which the animals could dip, especially when he released small fish. It was the equivalent of throwing a training dummy for a Labrador retriever— the voracious predator instantly kicked in and the baitfish was history.

 

Living with a pair of river otters is not the same as having family pets, like dogs or cats. They are demanding and caring for one becomes pretty much like having a new baby in the family— having two is like having twins. It’s not a matter of training them to obey commands like sit, stay and come. Glenn had to become part of their family as much as they did his. He slept with them and adapted to otter time in order to become, basically, daddy otter in their family.

 

When it became obvious that reintroduced river otters were not only a restoration triumph, but a budding depredation problem, Glenn understandably was conflicted. When Ozark smallmouth bass anglers began to bombard the Conservation Department with bitter complaints about otters having decimated the bass population in their favorite streams, Glenn said, “if an otter wants to catch a fish, that fish is a goner.”

 

No one was more associated with river otters in modern times than Glenn, a Renaissance man if ever there was one. Glenn sadly died in 2017 after a lifetime creating an incredible conservation legacy—one that included inclusion in the storied ranks of Missouri’s master conservationists. He and his wife Jeannie and a pair of river otters traveled more than 800,000 miles and entertained and educated more than 1 million people over 13 years after his retirement from the Conservation Department in 1995.

 

I don’t know about the creature from the Black Lagoon. It may still be there but Julie Adams was 92 years old when she swam into cinematic history earlier this year.

 

Much in the manner of the cat that ate the canary and is found with feathers sticking to its lips, Andy witnessed our otter munching on a midsize largemouth bass and, acting as prosecutor, jury and judge, retrieved his 12 gauge turkey gun and committed ottercide. Otters often travel in pairs, even as many as four, in search of new munchies, so we can only hope that our late otter did not send an ottergram home inviting family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner at our expense.  We haven’t seen any further otter sign so perhaps our invader was solo.  In requiem understand that its fate is at the same time, a source of regret and relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • November 15th, 2019

THRILLING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR–HI HO….BRRRRRR!

 

                By Joel M. Vance

 

                Every morning at sunrise recently when I went to get the newspaper, I heard the distant boom of rifle fire from the Conservation Department shooting range 5 miles away. It is that time of year— when deer hunters sight in their rifles, groups of three shots, hoping to put each bullet in a silver dollar sized spot on targets 50 yards away so they can likewise put a bullet through the heart of the largest antlered buck of their fervid imaginations, come deer season.

 

 

The season opens tomorrow. I will not be in the woods at dawn because of a combination of age, lack of conditioning, and sheer laziness. But good luck to those who brave the cold, the discomfort of the hard edges that invariably define where the hunter sits, and enduring the bitter residual taste of powerful coffee, brewed in what, for those like me who choose to stay in bed, is the pit of the night.

 

Each of those zeroing shots has triggered a memories of long ago at a time when we all were edging toward the inevitable. They say that bitter memories fade in time, leaving only recollections of the good times. It is true. Once, I spent much of every deer hunting season with Spence Turner and Dave Mackey, two of the best guys ever to share field and forest with, now sadly both gone.

 

But the memories do remain and they are good.  I wrote the following chronicle of deer hunting misadventures and stuck it in a drawer and forgot it until now. I can’t bring Spence and Dave back except in memory but I cherish every moment we spent together, Even when it wasn’t so good, it was good.  As the announcer on the Lone Ranger radio show used to say “Come with me once again to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”  Here they are—okay, some maybe not so thrilling….

 

                A country thrush is singing “Cool Hearted Man” on Spence’s truck radio and his dashboard clock blinks “1:38,” which means we either are very, very early or his clock is out of commission.  It is misting and chilly and dark as only pre-dawn on an overcast deer opener can be.

 

                We are heading for the Taj Mahal of deer blinds, a shack with windows—far more elaborate than the rickety tree blinds I’m accustomed to.  Our buddy Dave Mackey, weary of crouching in a tree that is swaying in a bitter north wind, has provided the blind.  It has comfortable chairs and an empty milk jug into which we are ordered by Dave to relieve ourselves.  “Don’t you dare pee around my blind—you’ll run every deer out of the country.” 

 

                The jug hangs from a nail above our heads, a pale reminder in the dark.   A thinking hunter would not drink several cups of coffee before the hunt, nor take a Thermos to the blind because of the inevitable imperative.  But Spence and I each have a Thermos filled with coffee strong enough to float a boat anchor.

 

                I don’t know why I’m here, other than terminal stupidity and the Vance family unwillingness to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.  I am in the best deer county of the state, but there is a curse in effect.  When I was little I went to movies that featured monsters that appeared to have cornered the market on surgical gauze, and they were forever laying curses on guys who messed with their tanna leaves.  I never messed with anybody’s tanna leaves, but it has to be a curse because I never kill a deer at Dave’s.  I never see a deer at Dave’s.  I can hunt at Dave’s until I’m ready to drop and then go to the little cabin which serves as hunter headquarters, dragging my rifle, not to mention my butt, and there will be a knot of fellow hunters admiring each other’s freshly killed trophy bucks.        

 

                It has happened too many times to be coincidence.  Once I sat in a rickety blind for four hours on a sleety afternoon.  There was a semi-roof but most of me was exposed.  I did not see a deer all afternoon, but when I left the blind there was a line of tracks within 20 feet of the back of it.  I came down with a monster cold.

 

                Another time I sat in a tree, facing a gully that was an Interstate for deer, a travel lane so auspicious that deer were drawn to it from other states.  The temperature was about 15 degrees and the wind was directly in my face, but no matter because it would be only minutes until I could pick a trophy from among a herd of deer. 

 

                I sat there until I was unable to feel anything from the neck down and then I went back to the deer shack where Dave’s preacher, an elderly gentleman physically unable to hunt in any other way, had briefly left the warmth of the wood stove, quietly opened the door, and shot a nice doe that crossed in front of the cabin, about 50 yards away.  Dave was field dressing it as I heard the story.

 

                I came down with a case of laryngitis that kept me from cussing for a week. 

 

                Another time I was in a blind in the middle of a crop stubble field when a huge buck, the kind you brag about until people can’t stand you anymore, headed directly toward me.  As I later reconstructed his path, he would have come so close that I could have stuck the gun barrel in his ear. 

 

                Except that Tim Schrage shot him about 100 yards before he rounded the bend.  I helped Tim load the buck in his pickup and it was all we could do to wrestle the huge animal over the tailgate.  Gee, that was fun!

 

                As George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” and thus I am stumbling down a steep hill in the pit of night, following Spence who claims he knows how to find the Taj Mahal.  I had been with Spence in broad daylight when he got lost.  Once he took two of us trout fishing on a stream where he’d fished many times and we explored a half-dozen gravel roads before he stopped at a farmhouse and trotted to the door to phone a friend for directions.  The other fellow said, “You know, God must have been drunk when he made Spence.”

 

                We struggle up a steep hill and watch for a side trail; otherwise, Dave has told us, we will be in a tangle of brush from which no one ever has returned—kind of the Bermuda Triangle of deer habitat.  I spot the side trail, give thanks that I have gotten this far without being attacked by catamounts, and we climb yet another hill.  This is North Missouri, not Nepal, but you couldn’t tell by looking at 5 a.m.

 

                The blind is a darker blot on a dark landscape.  I stumble across rough ground, plowed by Dave’s grandson for a wildlife food plot.  The blind is in the middle of it.  Bryan has planted radishes and other garden produce for the deer which, we hope, will appreciate the salad course so we can appreciate the meat course. 

 

                “I didn’t get carpet down, so it’s noisy,” Dave had told us.  “You have to be careful.”  The night is as still as the jungle after a big cat kill, everything holding its breath.  Spence prepares his nest with the finesse of a water buffalo in rut.  He clatters the chair, clomps the floor with his boots, rummages in his kit bag like someone stirring ball bearings in a tin can.  “Looking for some stinkum,” he says.  Finally he finds deer scent and goes to scatter it on the wind.  I shake my head, imagining trophy bucks just crossing the county line, fleeing the cacophony.

 

                Finally Spence is back and settles in, and silence momentarily returns to the woods.  Then Dave appears, wearing rain gear that rustles with the sound of someone ripping 15 yards of Velcro.  I pour a cup of coffee in the dark of the blind, misjudging the flow so it slops over the top of the cup, scalding my hand and my legs where I have the cup clamped.  I try not to scream—bad form when deer hunting—and whisper Old English words.

 

                It now is light enough to distinguish a deer from a tree.  Dave has eyes like a barred owl and he whispers, “Two does!” to Spence, who somehow has gotten himself in the right position.  I possibly could knock him out of the way, stand on his neck while I take the shot, but the uncharitable thought is quickly gone—not because I’m charitable, but because he can whip me.

 

                Spence aims, fires and I see the flick of the tail of the deer that he killed.  This is my deer sighting for the day.  I spend the next three hours getting progressively colder, buttsprung and weary.  I fall asleep at least one thousand times for five seconds each time.  I see deer in the weeds at the top of the hill, but when I put the scope on them they are weeds.  A half-dozen turkeys eddy into the clearing below us and regard the blind with the same suspicion a spinster lady regards a bum clutching a paper sack from which the neck of a wine bottle protrudes.  They retreat into the woods, probably to alert the deer that would have been mine if there was any justice in this world.

 

                There are numerous shots in the distance  “That’s good,” says Spence, who has his deer so everything is good.  “That’ll run them toward us.”  A good theory, like the one that maintained that the Earth is flat.  Finally Spence, who no doubt is running over venison recipes in his mind, says, “Well, let’s go get some lunch.”    At the cabin an eight-pointer sprawls on the tailgate of Phil’s pickup.  Todd has a six pointer.  There are several does, freezer fodder.  Everyone has at least one deer.  Everyone else, that is.  They have their deer and they are drinking coffee and telling tales of success.  I have what I always have, grim resignation.  I wait for the inevitable question, “So, how’d you do?” 

 

                “Never saw a deer.”  I growl the words as if chewing carpet tacks.  Phil says, “Gee, I’ll bet I saw 30 deer this morning.”  Not realizing that his words are battery acid on my wounded pride.  I rub my gritty eyes, get a cup of coffee that tastes like gall and wormwood, the bitter Biblical drink that punishes man for idolatry.

 

                I don’t think it applies to the idolatry of deer, but maybe so.  Maybe it’s not the mummy’s curse; instead a great voice from the skies that thunders, “I don’t know Vance—there’s just something about you that really ticks Me off.”  Perhaps Spence will invite me over for venison chili.      

 

Memories of the thrilling days of yesteryear…..

 

-30-

 

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  • November 8th, 2019

PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE AND LEAK IT

By Joel M. Vance

 

It’s as if an environmental mugger sliced a 30 mile long gash across the face of Mother Nature. The Phillips 66 company is replacing 30 miles of elderly pipeline across the heart of mid-Missouri, including the state capital, Jefferson City. As if a spring tornado which ripped a wide swath through the heart of the city, were not intrusion enough, the pipeline repair has created a broad avenue of bare dirt through residential areas of the city, on into the countryside. Nothing impedes progress, including 200 year old red cedar trees and any other vegetation that stands in the way.

 

The massive oil corporation with the industry’s usual compassion for the damage it causes, generously offered free mulch to anyone willing to haul it away—the ground up vegetation their right of way clearing machinery chewed up. Wasn’t that nice of them?  In the words of Dana Carvey’s church lady on Saturday Night Live, “Isn’t that speshul!”

 

Gas and oil pipelines lace the United States like the circulatory system of the human body. And, like our own vein and artery network, there always is the potential for an aneurysm and an eventual rupture. While a ruptured artery in the human body may prove fatal, a pipeline rupture won’t prove fatal to the body politic— but it certainly does put a hurt on it.  The United States owns more than 65% of the more than 2 million pipeline miles worldwide.

 

Pipelines, like any other man-made creation, are prone to failure. They explode, leak, catch on fire, and wear out. And when they do any of these things, they pose a threat to the environment. They become, in short, a wound on the face of Mom Nature.  Pipelines are like riding a motorcycle—it’s not whether you will have an accident, it’s when.  Pipeline proponents argue that pipelines are the safest method of transporting crude oil, natural gas, ethanol, and other fluids and while that very possibly is true, the results of failure, even if rare, are ugly.

 

Transport of any potentially hazardous substance is risky. One only has to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 when that tanker hit a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Sometimes it’s not even the transport but the drilling for oil that is the source of the problem. Remember British Petroleum’s  Deepwater Horizon explosion of an oil rig in 2010 which contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil.  The oil slick covered an area roughly the size of Oklahoma.  And of course there is a current mania for fracking, in which wells are drilled deep into the earth and flooded with water, potentially dangerous chemicals, and sand. Fracking almost certainly has induced earthquakes and only time will tell what is happening to groundwater quality.

 

These are the extreme examples of problems caused by oil and gas extraction and transportation, but they are by no means uncommon—just extreme.

 

Reliance on mineral extraction for United States energy needs is both shortsighted and dangerous to the long-term health, not only of the country, but to the planet as a whole. The scientific community and, increasingly, the bulk of public opinion, is convinced that climate change (a.k.a. global warming) is caused by carbon emissions into the atmosphere— and carbon dioxide emissions overwhelmingly are the result of the combustion of those extracted minerals. The United States is the only country among 195 signatory nations  of the so-called Paris Agreement seeking to cut carbon emissions that has  announced withdrawal from the agreement. And we are the biggest offenders when it comes to atmospheric pollution. The administration has gutted regulations to limit carbon emission by automobiles and coal-fired power plants, and has encouraged more and more despoliation of the natural landscape by drilling for oil and gas.

 

The latest pipeline leak to make big news occurred in North Dakota when an existing pipeline known as the Keystone, ruptured and spilled 383,000 gallons of oil over the countryside.  There is in the works a plan to build an even longer and more ambitious pipeline known as the Keystone XL.  Tim Donaghy, a research specialist for Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy group, listed a few statistics which should give anyone pause before endorsing construction of Keystone XL: “History has shown us time and again that there is no safe way to transport fossil fuels, and pipelines are no exception. In the last 10 years, U.S. pipeline spills have led to 20 fatalities, 35 injuries, $2.6 billion in costs and more than 34 million gallons spilled. New pipelines are locking us into carbon emissions that will push our climate past safe limits. That is not the future I want for my children.”

 

Pipeline problems are not always that dramatic.  It’s entirely possible that inquisitive news hawks could report a pipeline break every day of every year, somewhere, that affects the United States.  In a statement about the North Dakota spill. Donaghy said “I wish I could say I was shocked, but a major spill from the Keystone pipeline is exactly what multiple experts predicted would happen. In fact, this is the fourth significant spill from the Keystone pipeline in less than 10 years of operation,”

 

The existing and the proposed Keystone XL pipelines would transport oil extracted from tar sands originating in Alberta, Canada across the United States. The existing pipeline was built directly on top of the Ogallala Aquifer….a large body of fresh water that supplies drinking water for 82% of the people living in the high plains, and which is already under stress and has been depleted by 9% by use for irrigation. The tar sands oil is trapped in a sludgy substance called bitumen and the process of squeezing out the oil is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

 

The latest newsworthy leak happened on the existing Keystone pipeline system, not the 1,179-mile  Keystone XL ‘s the construction of which has been under protest by environmental groups for years.  In 2015 then President Barack Obama denied a permit for it. Predictably just a few days after Donald Trump took office he gave the company, TransCanada, the go-ahead to build the tar sands pipeline.  The original Keystone pipeline system began operation in 2010 and carries tar sands-extruded crude oil from Alberta, Canada, south to Texas. The system would span 2,687 miles of pipeline.

 

Tar sands extraction is considered the most potentially hazardous way to pull oil from beneath the Earth’s surface.  Keystone XL would traverse the midsection of the United States like a gigantic and potentially lethal venomous reptile. Any cataclysmic eruption would threaten the Ogallala aquifer.  That gigantic underground lake provides water from which eight states draw for irrigation of crops as well as for drinking.  Irrigation itself has been a hazard for years, in that it is drawing down the aquifer level, which would take hundreds of years to recharge if the aquifer drops below a sustainable level. Irrigation is bad enough, but pipeline contamination would be insult added to injury.

 

Fresh water is mandatory for the continued existence of people; crude oil is not— we already produce and export more oil than is necessary to run the country. And, if technology achieves the promise of renewable energy, the demand for more and more oil should diminish in years to come. But not if the political powers that run the country continue to insist that we drill, baby, drill!

 

Some years ago I was sleeping in an old farmhouse in North Missouri on the night before a quail hunt when I woke and saw a strange glow in the window, as if being alone in an old farmhouse weren’t spooky enough. I got dressed and decided to see if I could track down the source of the strange light. Perhaps someone’s farm house was on fire and I could help. I got in my car and began driving north toward the light in the sky. After traveling several miles, I realized I was no closer to the cause of the light, so I turned around and returned to bed. The next day on the television news I found that a pipeline in Iowa, at least 100 miles from where I had been sleeping, had exploded.

 

Pipelines transport more than oil—they also are conduits for gas, a highly explosive substance to be pumping beneath the ground where people live. When gas ignites, like what happened in Iowa, it can be as spectacular and hazardous as a wartime bombing raid. Some years back, I used to leave my desk as a sports editor at the Mexico Missouri Evening Ledger, hop in my car and drive north several miles on State Highway 15 to a small farm where I bow hunted for deer. Highway 15 was the major conduit north from Mexico and fairly heavily traveled for a state road.

 

Several months ago an interstate gas pipeline, owned by Panhandle Eastern, developed a massive leak through a corroded pipe adjacent to highway 15, about 1 mile north of the city limits of Mexico. The gas leak ignited an explosion that literally melted the highway. The resulting fire also burned a house under construction and the result was a highway closure until repairs were made, compensation to the would-be homeowners, and $1 million in damages. It could’ve been far worse—suppose that pipeline had been the one now being buried under Missouri’s state capital?

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an impeccable source of unbiased information has this to say about tar sand oil extraction.  “Extracting bitumen from tar sands—and refining it into products like gasoline—is significantly costlier and more difficult than extracting and refining liquid oil.  Common extraction methods include surface mining—where the extraction site is excavated—and “in-situ” mining, where steam is used to liquefy bitumen deep underground. The largest deposits of tar sands are in Alberta, Canada.”

 

Tar sands have been exploited for nearly 60 years and now account for about 5% of United States gasoline production. The scientists say that 1 gallon of gasoline from tar sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional processes— and carbon dioxide emission is the culprit in climate change.  And it takes about 6 gallons of water to produce each gallon of gasoline from tar sands—three times as much water as in conventional methods. Not only that, but toxic substances used in tar sands extraction can contaminate groundwater. The water people drink.

 

Catherine Collentine, an associate director with the Sierra Club, which opposes the Keystone XL addition, said   “We don’t yet know the extent of the damage from this latest tar sands spill, but what we do know is that this is not the first time this pipeline has spilled toxic tar sands, and it won’t be the last,” she said. “We’ve always said it’s not a question of whether a pipeline will spill, but when, and once again TC Energy has made our case for us.”

 

 This is the second major incident for the pipeline system in the last two years. In 2017, a spill coated a stretch of grassland in South Dakota with more than 407,000 gallons of leaked Canadian crude oil, which was nearly twice as much as originally estimated.  The pipeline also leaked about 16,000 gallons each in spills in 2011 in North Dakota and in 2016 in South Dakota.

 

Snow White’s dwarves whistled a happy tune as they marched off, digging implements over their shoulders. I rather doubt that the pipeline diggers whistle or sing a happy tune as they march off to scrape the land bare, but if they want one, how about the old English folk tune “Fair Ellen”? It’s about a murder over love, possibly not appropriate for pipeline excavation, but after all that’s a sort of murder of the countryside, and “Fair Ellen” does end with this:

 

                                

“Father, oh father, go dig my grave

go dig it wide and deep.”

 

I’ve looked at the trench being dug by the Phillips contractors, stretching for miles through the countryside and it looks like nothing so much as an extended grave. Let’s hope that it is not an interment site for our future.

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • November 1st, 2019

FROM SIN TO SYMPHONY

By Joel M. Vance

“And we’re building a wall on the border of New Mexico and we’re building a wall in Colorado, we’re building a beautiful wall, a big one that really works that you can’t get over, you can get under and we’re building a wall in Texas. We’re not building wall in Kansas but they get the benefit of the walls we just mentioned,”

 

Thus spake the beautiful border barrier obsessed president of the United States, Donald J Trump, indicating, one might say, a significant lack of geographical knowledge of the makeup of states west of Manhattan, New York. But this is a person who once, at a luncheon with African leaders praised the health care system in Nambia. There is no such place as Nambia, as opposed to Colorado which does exist and which, in the immortal word of Gomer Pyle “Surprise! Surprise!” does not border Mexico.

 

Colorado Governor Jared Polis reacted to the news that the federal government is building a border wall in his state, saying, “Well, this is awkward. Colorado doesn’t border Mexico. Good thing Colorado now offers free full day kindergarten so our kids can learn basic geography.”

 

The reaction to Trump’s goofy gaffe was immediate. Most of the reaction, predictably, came from Democrats and late-night talk show hosts who, instead of being appalled by the gut level ignorance of the nation’s leader, mostly just shook their heads in resignation, cognizant of the fact that the Donald is as dumb as a bucket of rocks. Every now and then some pundit posits that Trump really is canny beneath that veneer of stupidity, and is playing a gotcha game against his perceived enemies.

 

But given the weight of evidence, Donnie is no Gomer Pyle, a lovable but dimwitted buffoon— he is what he seems a dangerous ignoramus who is fully capable of using his apparently endless stupidity to bring the nation to the brink of irretrievable disaster.

 

One astonished citizen tweeted “Now this. I wake up to discover Trump wants to build a border wall with Colorado. If it was grandpa we would have taken his keys away.” Another dumbfounded person reacted by suggesting that instead of taking grandpa’s keys away (and, for the record, Trump is a grandpa) Trump should have the nuclear codes removed from his possession. After all, he has at various times, indicated he could and would wipe countries like North Korea and Iran from the world map, presumably by nuking them.

 

Sensible people do not give crazy people dangerous toys to play with, but far too many non-sensible people entrusted Donald Trump with toys that not only are dangerous but have the potential to obliterate the planet. Far better to give him a complete set of Tinker Toys and retire him to one of the upper floors of Trump Tower (assuming it doesn’t go bankrupt) to build little Tinker Toy walls to his heart’s content.

 

At the moment Trump uttered his chuckle worthy Colorado blooper, I was in Colorado, perched at 8500 feet above sea level in Woodland Park on the eve of traveling back to my home in Missouri far below. “Holy buckets, Batman!” I cried. “How are we ever going to flee this alien land with a beautiful border wall between us and the flat lands below?” I asked no one who cared.

 

It was not feasible to bore beneath the unyielding granite of Pike’s Peak, nor to scale the unknowable height of the Great Wall of Colorado. We could only glimpse the glory of Kansas through the narrow aperture between the towering metal slats of Trump’s beautiful monument.

 

So there we were, trapped amid the Rockies, not knowing if we were on the true blue Ammurican side of the fence or on the alien side, amid rapists, drug smugglers, and other people who don’t look like Donald Trump’s multimillionaire political donors. It was a conundrum which cast a pall upon what had, until that moment of geographical barrier revelation, been a memorable vacation. In fact, there had been a bit of geographical synchronicity between our home state of Missouri, and our perch high in the mountains of that alien,  soon to be walled in nation.

 

But we had places to go and things to do before we tried to escape the confines of Trump’s mythical barricade.  Scott Joplin generally is called the King of Ragtime, a form of music that flourished in the late 1800s until it morphed into New Orleans style jazz and ultimately fell out of favor until it was rediscovered and re-popularized in the late 1900s— especially used as background music in the wonderful Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie, “The Sting.” Joplin’s second most famous rag, “The Entertainer” was the prime theme behind the movie and it was the closing piece played by Woodland Park’s ragtime ensemble on the night the town’s Wind Symphony mixed Sin and Symphony.

 

The Maple leaf Rag opened the night’s music. It commemorates an establishment in Sedalia Missouri which the history books generously describe as a gentlemen’s club and bar where Scott Joplin, composer of the ragtime melody, first of that genre to sell 1 million sheet music copies, played piano in 1894.  Whether the Maple leaf Club also functioned as a brothel is somewhat obscured by the historians— Sedalia certainly would prefer to call it a gentlemen’s club rather than a whorehouse. Ragtime performer and historian Jan Douglas says “ragtime made a sudden transition from whorehouse to the parlor” when describing the huge popular impact Joplin and his music had, not only at the turn of the 20th century, but after the 1974 movie, featuring Joplin’s rags.

 

Almost all of Joplin’s syncopated rags are uplifting, musical tributes to the idea of having a good time. After the Woodland Park group gave a somewhat tentative version of the Maple leaf Rag, it also cautiously approached  “The Cascades” and “The Chrysanthemum” (dedicated to Freddie Alexander, a young woman whom Joplin married in June 1904, and who died September 10 of that same year). It wasn’t until the group’s piano player Bruce Gibbons soloed on “Solace” that the ragtime concert became energized. “Solace” was described as “a Mexican Serenade for piano”. Perhaps that Latino attribution somehow has a connection with Trump’s assumption that Colorado borders Mexico? That far-fetched supposition is as tenuous and goofy as Trump’s Colorado wall itself. But the lovely, meditative piano solo seemed to inspire the ragtime group and they bounced merrily through the remainder of the program, finishing with “The Entertainer.”

 

After the rag timers ran through their occasionally raggedy rendition of eight Joplin rags, the entire Wind Symphony took over to give us three Irish and Scottish musical compositions, and then finished with a rousing version of John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan March (which surely made every veteran of Army Saturday morning massed reviews feel like saluting the grandstand and marching in step.

 

It certainly reminded me of the time at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, when I managed to escape passing in review after being endlessly frozen at parade rest by claiming that, as a newspapermen, it was my duty to photograph and report on the ceremony for our hometown newspaper. As excuses go, it was pretty feeble, but somehow it worked.

 

I did lurk near former President Harry Truman who, as leader of te free world in 1944 made the most momentous decision of any president in our history when he ended World War II by approving the dropping of the atom bomb on two Japanese cities, after which the Japanese quickly surrendered. Mr. Truman was the honored guest at our parade watching, no doubt with considerable pride, the passing in review of the 35th Division, the outfit that he had served in during World War I as a combat artillery officer. I overheard him ask the assembled generals waiting for the parade to begin, “So, what do you want me to do?” I felt like answering, “Harry, you’ve done more for the country than anyone could have expected or asked.” But it wasn’t exactly my place, so I stayed firmly in the background, and as the battalions of weary weekend warriors trudged past the reviewing stand in the hot sun, I reveled in the knowledge that I had pulled off a scam worthy of Beetle Bailey.

 

I cannot in my most fevered imaginative moments conceive of Harry Truman endorsing the building of a wall between us and any of our North American neighbors. But then I can’t imagine Harry Truman, a man of integrity, uncommon intelligence, and down home values, committing any of the idiotic and often downright insane antics of the present imposter in the office where Harry famously said “the buck stops here”, not meaning “the buck stops here in my pocket.”

 

Scott Joplin, himself, was a mixture of Sin and Symphony. Born in Texas in 1868, he lived but 48 years before dying of syphilis in a mental institution. But within that short lifetime he pretty much created the musical form known as ragtime, composed a pair of operas (one of which has been lost to history; the other “Treemonisha” was never performed until long after Joplin’s death in 1917). He also composed a ballet and his 44 ragtime compositions contain many that are the bedrock of all rags created by all other composers. In short, Joplin was the Mozart of ragtime composers.

 

So there we were stuck in the mountains of Colorado faced by an impenetrable though invisible wall between us and home. No way to tunnel beneath, no way to scale its imposing height. Donald Trump, once again emulating the autocrats of history (China, with its famed wall, the Russians post World War II with their Iron Curtain) had barricaded himself and, unwillingly, us.  Ahah! But we had a secret weapon. It’s known as the airplane and, after the ordeal of negotiating the Denver airport which is the modern equivalent of Dante’s tour through the various levels of Hell, we flew right over that Trump mirage to our home practically next door to where Scott Joplin once played the Maple Leaf Rag for sportin’ gentlemen.

 

Four days later a foot of snow closed Interstate 70 access to the Denver airport and the temperature dropped to four below zero.  Descending from the clear clean mountain air high above the Great Plains into the reality of today’s political scene was much like wading barefoot into a cattle feedlot immediately after a heavy rain.  The good news is that we escaped before Colorado became an impenetrable walled enclosure. The even better news is that the legal walls appear to be squeezing tighter on The Orange One, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.

 

“Play that Solace piece again, Mr. Joplin.  It always makes me feel better.”

 

 

 

 

 

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