Archive for January, 2020

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  • January 31st, 2020

wET WONDERLAND

By Joel M. Vance

 

Okay Kiddies, sprouts, whippersnappers, and all others whose combined years on earth are fewer than those of this boring old coot nattering on about how things used to be so much better than they are now. Time for the old guy to reminisce over yesteryear.

 

Today’s kids are so saddled with outdoor fun created for them in Silicon Valley or some other Valhalla of childhood marketing, that they don’t have time to go outside, unsupervised, and suffer broken limbs, abrasions, and the thousand cuts, that once were the accepted norm for growing up. Who among today’s pale equivalents of Huck and Tom can offer the next generation a story of how his brother shot him in the lip with a .22 caliber short? Not that I am recommending today’s kids start practicing fraticide with the family squirrel gun—far from it. But it is a truth that my father’s brother once plugged Dad accidentally with the aforementioned squirrel pellet and my father enjoyed tightening his lower lip to show the ancient projectile still buried beneath the skin.

 

It was tough being a kid growing up on a hard rock farm in the early years of the 20th century and many youngsters of that era failed to grow up, victims not so much of small caliber accidental shootings, but because of such now vanished medical nightmares as diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and a host of other medical emergencies that plagued society before the dawn of antibiotics and the miracles of today’s advanced medicine.

 

I even benefited from a medication dating to the dawn of modern medicine when I came down with blood poisoning from having scraped my arm on a tree during a quail hunt. I woke in the night with my arm throbbing and rummaged through the available medical supplies for some sort of antibiotic and came upon a long forgotten bottle of sulfa tablets. The family doctor told me that I had accidentally done the right thing for the problem at hand (or arm actually). I survived; he had had a patient with similar symptoms who died.

 

Anyway boys and girls, there was no sulfa available for my dad when he and his brother who had been squirrel hunting came home without squirrels, but with a wounded warrior. My dad did what any youngster of the time would do—he hid out, somehow managing to conceal his wounded lip until it healed over and his parents were none the wiser. They had enough problems trying to raise a family of Hucks and Toms without worrying about a minor bullet wound.

 

His mother coped with the daily brutal necessity of raising a brood of children as well as a bounteous garden which provided the family with canned goods throughout often harsh Missouri winters (we had winters like that once upon a time), and tending to life on a farm that barely provided enough to sustain life. You try milking a cow in the predawn darkness by the feeble light of a coal oil lantern, or dibbling tobacco seedlings, painfully bending over to poke a hole in not very fertile soil in which to plant a spindly seedling, part of the family’s only cash crop. If the boys could come home with a squirrel or two to supplement the supper table, so much the better, and who had time to worry about a stray bullet.  Structured playground for the youngsters? What’s that?

 

Which brings us to the subject at hand, children, those of you who are still awake. By the time I was of an age to tote a 22 caliber rifle, my father had rigorously schooled me in gun safety (obviously having learned about it the hard way) and my outdoor fun took place on a different venue—the Dalton Cutoff.

 

The Dalton Cutoff, playground of my teen years. Back in the seventeen hundreds the ever capricious Missouri River decided to carve itself a new channel and severed off a bend of the old channel leaving behind a lake cut off from the new watercourse. Thus the name, the Cutoff. It spans 645 acres running roughly from North to South. 

 

Long vanished is Sasse’s Hole, the swimming pool of our teen years. It, itself, was a cut off from the Cutoff, a possibly spring fed blue hole of about one fourth acre, separated from the big lake by a narrow natural dike. The water was cool and clear, an unbelievable bonanza on a hot summer day, many of which occurred in relatively modern times. Boys and girls in the know gathered there to frolic and we kept it our secret as much as we possibly could. The Sasse brothers, Chris and Romeo, who owned the land adjacent were goodhearted and didn’t mind us trespassing and, in those litigiously loose times, probably never gave a thought to the possibility of lawsuit if someone got hurt. Neither did we. And so we sported without care during those long lost times.

 

The idea of suing someone for injury incurred on private property also never occurred to me when, during a pickup hockey game on the frozen Cutoff, I took a header on the ice and split my chin five stitches worth. I drove to Salisbury, trying not to bleed on the family car seat, and found a doctor who sewed me up. I wore a conical (and comical) bandage I looked like King Tut while it healed.

 

Today, a gravel road dead ends at the North shore of the Cutoff and this road unaccountably is named for me. Joel Vance Avenue is about a mile long from its junction with another gravel road that traverses between Dalton and Brunswick to the west. Apparently, I am considered a notable former resident of Dalton but with a present population of 17, Dalton doesn’t require much accomplishment for one to become notable.

 

I tried over the years to find out who is responsible for forcing Chariton County to the expense of buying a pole and road sign with my name on it, but with no success. No one will own up to it. Possibly shame, regret, tacit admission of a stupid error, clerical stumble, left over money in the budget, or obscure joke? All are possibilities, but with a limited catalog of notable achievements over the decades, I’ll take it.

 

While I unaccountably have a gravel road named for me, far more famous personages than me paused at or near the Cutoff.  When, Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri in 1804 they camped near the Cutoff which, they said, was connected to the Missouri River by a creek. There are no local gravel roads named for either of the famed explorers who headed West to discover the other two thirds of the country that,  until then, were a vast blank on the map of North America.

 

In 1832, George Catlin, traveled some 2000 miles from St. Louis up the Missouri as far as the Yellowstone River to document in paintings the life of Indian tribes along the way. His 500 or so paintings show the life of some 18 Native American tribes, including some that were decimated by smallpox epidemics, caused by white traders spreading the disease through infected trade blankets. Aside from his paintings, Catlin is honored by his name being associated with a Minnesota’s rock, used by Indians to fashion ceremonial pipes, today called catlinite.

 

And then, in 1843, along with his son, Victor, John James Audubon, the famous painter of birdlife in America, explored up the Missouri River, pausing along the way to do what, next to artistry, was his favorite pastime—shooting birds. That obsession with blasting the life out of feathered creatures causes dyspepsia today in the sensibilities of bird watching little old ladies in tennis shoes who think of Audubon as their patron saint. It’s entirely possible that Audubon stopped by the Cutoff to whack a few birds because he commented that along the way he and his company paused to enjoy what he called “great sport” bird hunting.

 

At Glasgow, not very far east of the Cutoff, Audubon reported that they got shot at by “the blackgards on shore” but “they did us no harm.” Farther on upstream which had to be very close to the Cutoff, and in floodwaters, they paused near Brunswick, near the mouth of the Grand River. No mention of stopping off at Sasse’s Hole for a cooling dip. Just more shooting of and at almost anything that moved.

 

So there’s the Cutoff, a playground like no other in my life. It was there through all seasons, offering some sort of recreation where a teenage kid could find something to do. In the summer we fished in it, in the fall we hunted ducks there, and in dead winter we skated on its ice. We picked up pecans for a dime for 10 pounds in the pecan groves in the Missouri River bottomlands bordering the Cutoff. Brunswick is known as the pecan capital of Missouri. Dalton is known in the history books as the site of the Dalton Vocational School, a black institution patterned on the famed Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, and founded in 1907 by a protégé of Booker T Washington who founded Tuskegee.

 

The Missouri River has not been kind to Dalton. Once it was a thriving railroad stop on the St. Louis and Pacific route. It also, I believe, had once been a river port on the Missouri before the river decided to go somewhere else.

 

There was a recent listing of 163 acres on the east side of the Cutoff at $369,000. That figures out at more than $2000 per acre, a substantial chunk of money to plunk down for a playground—especially one that historically has been prone to disastrous flooding. There’s not much point planting any kind of row crop when it may become submerged several feet under Missouri River overflow. In fact, that’s what doomed Dalton to its present piddling population. An historic flood in 1993 and another in 1995 drowned the lower end of the town, that which huddled below a low bluff (the mostly African-American population found itself safely above the flood on high ground).  In 2019 another flood swamped the area once again and predictions are that if 2020 has even a moderately wet spring, the Dalton bottom once again will become a humongous swimming pool.

 

I think that the parcel for sale is what once was the Dalton Hunt Club, a lodge for big dollar hunters. Once, three of us, me, Karl Miller, and Foster Sadler used to hang around the clubhouse and talk to the old man who was the caretaker. When the old man got sick and spent his last few days in the Moberly hospital, we went to visit him.  He was wasted and hardly recognizable as the kindly old man who had put up with teenage pups, answering our questions and showing us how the other half recreated. I don’t think we ever knew his name, only that he was tolerant of youngsters and seemed to enjoy our company. Maybe every would be outdoor kid needs an old man to show him the way. Robert Ruark wrote a couple of books about the old man and the boy. We had our old man too.

 

While the Cutoff was a playground for us teenagers, it also hosted the rich folks. The lake is located in what is known as the Golden Triangle, an area between Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, and Grand Pass Conservation Area, a trio of wildlife refuges that annually hosts many thousands of ducks and geese. This wildlife fertile location is a magnet for big dollar waterfowl hunters and the triangle acts as a funnel, the lower end of which spills into the Cutoff. It still is a magnet for migrating waterfowl, but not nearly as attractive as it was in the glory days of the nineteen fifties, 70 years ago.

 

So there is my playground, muddy old lake with a sometimes glamorous history, without monkey bars, slides, and teeter totters.  It’s where my dad and I hunted geese and ducks from a rude blind on the opposite shore from where the rich guys hunted. They shot a lot more birds but we had just as much fun. Once, according to local legend, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, ran the governor out of the rich guys’ blind with a shotgun, during a political discussion. Maybe true, maybe not, but it adds to the myth of the Cutoff.

 

The Cutoff has survived for many decades, has seen historic legends pass by, has endured floods and has endured for me in memory and words. May she long thrive, muddy old playground—until the Missouri River once again decides to change course and erase her, doing what the Big Muddy always has done. What it damn well pleases.

 

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  • Blog
  • January 24th, 2020

WORD(S) FOR THE DAY

By Joel M. Vance

 

As one who has dabbled in the English language for going on 70 years, I occasionally find myself puzzled by questions, not to mention nagging irritation over the use and/or misuse of words, both published and spoken. I realize that I run the risk of being labeled a grammar Nazi, not to mention setting myself up for being sharp shot by those who are bugged by having their grammatical shortcomings pointed out by a smartass, otherwise known as me.

 

I was trying to take a nap the radio on low volume when a guest on a talk show, who just happened to be a former poet laureate of the nation, used the word “argumentative” and my linguistic and grammatical antennae bristled. Do we need the “at” in the middle of that word? How about a simple “argumentive”? I have long been bugged by those who say they do “preventative” maintenance on something. But then that’s me— I’m too lazy to look it up in my tattered Miriam’s dictionary from college days to find out which, if either, is correct.

 

After all, I spent many years believing that the word “gazebo” instead of being pronounced “gah-zee-bow”was pronounced “Gazebo” as if a damsel were gawking at her beau and I once confused  the family doctor by confusing a “diuretic” with something that causes diarrhea. He didn’t know whether to prescribe Kaopectate or give me a motorman’s friend to pee in.

 

Back in the latter stages of grammar school, kids were terrorized by the necessity of diagramming sentences. I don’t know if that exercise exists today, but I am certain that lingering trauma in my subconscious produces a visible shudder of revulsion at the very thought of dissecting a simple sentence as if it were a defunct frog in a biology lab.

 

As best I remember, trying desperately not to, you took a simple declarative sentence and broke it down into subject, predicate, modifiers, and other stuff that I’ve forgotten, by drawing lines as if you were outlining the bracket of a basketball tournament.

 

The result was an assortment of hashmarks that looked like the back of a galley slave whipped by the first mate of a pirate ship for having questioned the orders of the evil ship captain, possibly by using incorrect grammar.

 

Most of what I know about grammar and punctuation, has been learned through osmosis— reading until my eyes turned bloodshot and writing until my mind was the same. When I was in high school I had access to my parents’ antique Underwood typewriter, a manual contrivance as distanced from today’s computer keyboard as a model T Ford would be from a Lamborghini. On this rickety anachronism I wrote a novel, the plot and voice of which I swiped from the, for the times, bawdy writing of Thorne Smith—an alcoholic fiction writer from the Roaring Twenties whose most notable character was Cosmo Topper.

 

One of my pet peeves language wise is the use of the word “wise” adjectivally. There’s nothing wise about it— it is just stupid wise. After many years of trial and error (mostly error) I have finally solved the mystery of the difference between “it’s” and “its.” But I suspect I am in the minority.

 

And I confess that I’ve never quite figured out the whys and wherefores of who and whom. Where would Dr. Seuss be if he had written “Horton Hears a Whom”? Or who would go to listen to a rock band titled “The Whom”? And I would never have watched the old television show Kojak where tough guy Telly Savalas menacingly rumbled  “who loves ya, baby?” “Whom loves ya, baby?” I think not.

 

 I have no right to criticize those who mangle basic English. In common with, I suspect, the vast majority of English-speaking people, I misuse “lay” and “lie” with regularity. I know that you lay a book down before you go to lie down for a nap— inanimate objects take lay while animate ones get the lie verb. (I resisted, mightily, the urge to say “the book got laid, before the person did.”)  What’s more, the Ink Spots song tells us that “it’s a sin to tell a lie.” Is it a sin to confuse “lay” and “lie”? Common usage has pretty much eliminated the distinction between the two and I, for one, am willing to bend to the will of the majority.

 

More confusion with lay/lie. You can lie while standing up, but theoretically you should lie down, not lay down before your nap. So many words spelled the same have totally different meanings. You can lead a horse to water, but unless it is the jumping frog of Calaveras County, you shouldn’t fill it with lead. And you can lie either standing or prone—Donald Trump does it all time.

 

Of all the confusions of the English language—and there are many— the one that perhaps bugs me, as an old artilleryman, more than any other is the misuse of the branch of the military once known for riding horses. The folks who climbed the Biblical mountain, likely were riding camels when they ascended Calvary. The folks who messed around with the wrong Indians at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in Montana were horse-mounted cavalry.

 

 

 General Custer made his big mistake saying to his troops “I couldn’t care less about how many Indians are over the hill.” Instead of saying what far too many people incorrectly say “I could care less,” he was grammatically correct and fatally wrong. Possibly he also said “all’s I want to do is whup up on some Indians.” I hear it all the time (often, dammit not “all the time”) — people adding an “s” to the word “all”.

 

Speaking of superfluous words I just read it in a book by one of my favorite authors. Two people “met up” in a social encounter. Unless, perhaps, they met on top of Mount Calvary, they probably met on the level or just, more accurately, “met.”  And my favorite author just stumbled again by referring to a “consensus of opinion.” Too much information—“consensus” is correct.

 

Furthermore, he said apropos of nothing, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? You wouldn’t say “farther more, apropos of nothing.” And you wouldn’t sing “further along, we will know all about it.” According to the experts, “farther” refers to physical distance—for example something is farther than something else, while “further” refers to “figurative and non physical distances.” (I.e. or, if you prefer, e.g. and isn’t this getting confusing and farther, er, further from the truth.) The hell with it.

 

Geographically, you can get to “Laugh-e-ette” in Louisiana (not “Loff-e-ette” Louisiana, by way of the “Appa-latch-ian” Mountains (not “Appa-lay-chian”) mountains. Probably always best to ask the people who live there how they pronounce their homeplace. Back during World War II when there was some sensitivity about long-standing place names the town of “Ber-Lynn” became Burl-in and Japan became”Jay-pan”.

 

Down along the southern border of the United States is a group of people whose grammatical status is, to me, confused. Their actual status is abused, maltreated, bullied, misunderstood, and wrongfully reviled by the political right wing. But, grammatically, are they immigrants or emigrants? I think technically, they are emigrants, those who seek to enter the United States from somewhere else. It’s my possibly confused understanding that they are not immigrants until they actually enter the United States and so far Donnie Trump and his evil minions have done their worst to prevent that from happening. Everyone in this country, dating back to the dawn of mankind, is an emigrant, an arrival from somewhere else. My distant forebears emigrated from France more than a thousand years ago as immigrants to what became the British Isles, from whence they subsequently emigrated to what would become the United States…. as immigrants. Subsequently, they journeyed from Virginia to Missouri’s territory, thus becoming migrants. Confusing, ain’t it?

 

Over the centuries no group has altered English more than poets.  For example, suppose Clement Moore had written “’twas the night ere Christmas….” Say what? And what does “’twas”mean? But if he had said “it was the night before Christmas….” It wouldn’t scan and almost certainly would not be around to be recited every holiday season. Poets are free to wrestle the English language to the mat in order to bring music to words, not words to music.

 

I know ‘twas is a contraction of it was, and a useful word in poetry. For example, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) used the word to great effect to begin a verse warning of the dangers posed by a mythical monster named the Jabberwocky. His nonsensical caution sounds to me frighteningly like the garbled ravings of a certain politician of today at one of his political rallies preaching nonsense to his devoted deplorables.

                                “Twas brillig and the slithy toves/

                                Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

                                All mimsy were the borogoves/

                                And the mome raths outgrabe.”

 

Our present day presidential Jabberwocky is especially frightening because he has his finger on the nuclear (not nucular) button. Others of my grammatical gremlins. Want a couple more? How about “realatore” instead of “realtor” and “jewelery” instead of “jewelry”?

 

Although some of the finest stories I cherish are, indeed, mini novels poetically set as lyrics to memorable tunes. I am a great fan of story songs—those musical pieces that encapsulate a mood or a story in a few words. “So set ‘em up, Joe/I’ve got a story that you oughta know….” So lamented Frank Sinatra in his memorable story song “Make it one for my baby/and one more for the road.”

 

Speaking of lost souls pouring out their sad stories in barrooms, how about June Christy opting for “something cool” in the song of the same name.  The Misty Miss Christy, in a story song about a faded and jaded lady tells us about the downward spiral of this careworn beauty who “once went to Paris in the fall” but now is stuck in a bar a long way from home, coyly accepting a cigarette and “something cool” from a stranger whom we have no trouble imagining is a guy looking for a cheap hookup.

 

Sometimes it’s not pathos that characterizes a story song, but the sheer cleverness of the lyrics. In “Glowworm” the Mills Brothers tell a lightning bug to “turn on the AC and the DC.” And “swim through the sea of night, little swimmer/thou aeronautical boll weevil.” Absolutely magical use of words. The incomparable Peggy Lee characterizes the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas (no, Donny, the historical Indian maiden, not your arch enemy): “sun lights up the daytime/moon lights up the night. I light up when you call my name/’cause I know you’re gonna treat me right.”

 

But the very same Peggy Lee went from the feverish heights of passion to the pit of desolation in what has to be the most despairing story song of all time: “Is That All There Is?”  “And when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath/I’ll be saying to myself…. is that all there is?”

 

But as for me I won’t be saying “I couldn’t care less.” And I hope I say it grammatically correct.  When I check out alls I want to do is get it right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • January 17th, 2020

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’ GONE ON

By Joel M. Vance

 

Recently while surfing channels on television I stumbled— tripped and fell face forward is more like it— into a movie the likes of which I have never seen and, if I’m lucky, never will see again. It was a Western, I think, called “The Fastest Guitar Alive” starring, improbably, Roy Orbison.

 

While Roy Orbison is one of the greatest singers in history and a personal favorite, I never quite equated him with John Wayne when it comes to horse operas or, for that matter, even with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, a couple of other guitar slinging and singing ersatz cowboys. I lasted about 30 seconds with Cowboy Roy, watching the bad guy (predictably wearing a black hat) sneak up on a scantily clad young lady who was doing something in the bushes—this being a family type movie, I think she was getting ready to bathe in a nearby stream. The bad guy had evil intentions and when she spied him, she screamed like Fay Wray encountering King Kong for the first time.

 

Cowboy Roy was propped up against a tree, singing and playing his guitar when he heard what I suppose was his lady love threatened with ravage by Black Bart. Roy leaped to his feet, clutching the guitar by the neck as if it were a dead goose, and raced to the rescue. What was he going to do? Maybe beat the bad guy to death with his guitar, although that seems like more of a terrible fate for the musical instrument than it does for a bad actor (in deed as well as in acting prowess)., But our hero had a secret weapon which you ain’t gonna see in most movies. The bad guy dropped the imperiled damsel at which point Cowboy Roy slung the guitar neck forward and shot the hat off Black Bart with a gun concealed in the guitar neck!

 

I think it is entirely possible that this movie contributed to the fatal heart attack that Roy Orbison suffered some years later. It certainly didn’t do anything for my mental health, but it did spark my thinking about the origins—musical, not acting— of Orbison and his musical peers.

 

I’m fairly confident that that awful movie was the end of Roy Orbison’s cinematic career except for his ethereal voice singing the title song about “pretty woman” in the movie of the same name starring the delectable Julia Roberts. Another singing cowboy, Tex Ritter, also contributed a title song to a movie, “High Noon” starring the equally delectable Grace Kelly. Tex starred in many oaters and his voice was about 4 octaves lower than Orbison’s, but they both headed for musical fame in different directions—Orbison to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Ritter to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

As far as I know and hope, the Fastest Guitar was Roy Orbison’s only foray into the world of cinema, unlike his Sun Record stablemate, Elvis Presley, who made a whole covey of teen heartthrob schlock movies (more than 30). Even Johnny Cash, another Sun alumnus tiptoed in the cinematic waters not as dreadfully as Cowboy Roy, but working on it. Sun records! Created by the eccentric and erratic Sam Phillips, the tiny Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio spawned more musical geniuses than any other major record company ever.  In addition to Elvis, Sam Phillips corralled Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, BB King, and Johnny Cash as well as a host of other midrange rockabilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll artists.

 

Where  Sam Phillips and Sun Records is concerned I get a mental picture of a lion who, after an arduous hunt, has managed to kill his very own wildebeest only to have a band of hyenas and other scavengers, dart in and grab the juiciest pieces of Simba’s evening meal. That’s what the major record companies did to Sam. first, RCA Victor, paid him $45,000 for all rights to Elvis which, given the eventual earning power of the Pelvis was pennies. Johnny Cash went to Columbia and has sold an estimated 90 million records since. Both of them continue to make more money dead, than Phillips did when he was alive. Today Elvis alive and dead, has sold an estimated one billion records, making him the best-selling solo artist of all time.

 

Those are just two of the legendary musical artists who Phillips let get away and who made more money for other labels than Phillips ever could’ve imagined when he signed them for pennies. He had under contract the legendary Million-Dollar Quartet consisting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (the latter of whom was born in a shack, so poor that he couldn’t have afforded even a worn-out pair of blue suede shoes until he and Elvis both scored mega-hits with the song).

 

It has been 68 years since Philips first opened the doors of Sun Studios, inviting would be superstars to come and record. He didn’t talent scout— the many musical legends who recorded for him were walk ins, including Elvis who merely wanted to make a record for his mama. But Phillips heard something special in the North Mississippi hillbilly and when he heard Elvis and pick up musicians guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Bill Black fooling around with “That’s All Right, Mama”, a song which black artist Arthur Crudup had recorded in 1946 and had made popular in rhythm and blues circles, he got the trio to record what would become Elvis’s first megahit.

 

I was browsing in a Montgomery, Alabama, used record store in 1956 when I spotted a Sun record by Elvis. It was off a jukebox, but not heavily played and in good condition. I knew who Elvis was—I had heard him on the radio from the Shreveport, Louisiana, Jamboree, a minor league Grand Ol’ Opry which had spawned many a country music star. And I liked Elvis. So I bought the record for a few cents and, some years later, sold it for $350. It was Elvis’s first record and so little thought of that someone had pasted the B-side label on both sides, but had scratched out the wrong title and had handwritten in the correct name. Maybe Sam Phillips himself. At that time, Sun Records was such a tiny operation that it amounted to Phillips and a secretary.

 

That was a 78 RPM record, a format long since superseded by LPs, compact discs, and digital downloads—but to a collector of Presleyana, I suspect it now would be worth far more than what I thought at the time was a humongous windfall. At the time in my penurious young adult years, $350 was equivalent to Little Orphan Annie hooking up with Daddy Warbucks (and I have always wondered how daddy made his bucks—from the sound of it he might’ve been a munitions mogul selling weapons of war worldwide, a real role model for the moppet).

 

Sam Phillips continued to acquire billion-dollar talent and often frittered it away for the next 19 years. In 1959 he increased the size of the original tiny studio and in 1963 he (having invested in the Holiday Inn Hotel chain) started Holiday Inn records and then in 1969 sold Sun records to a fellow named Shelby Singleton. The sun, you might say set on Sun records but it rose again in 1985 when Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash reunited for a recording session titled “class of 55.” And then in 1987 the original Sun Records reopened as “Sun Studio,” which was as much a tourist destination as it was a business enterprise.

 

Rockabilly, under the new Sun label became a distant memory, superseded by artists like U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr, the latter being symbolic of the British invasion that largely spelled doom for those old-time rock billies. Since, there have been sporadic attempts to revive rockabilly, recorded at the modern Sun Studio. But, lacking a mad scientist in charge (would that be Doc or Sam?), and a DeLorean capable of hitting 88 mph in a lightning storm, the old magic remains just that—old.

 

The rockabilly icons are all gone now save one who seems to be eternal—but then they all thought that when they were riding high. The Million-Dollar Quartet is down to one now—Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, who still can pound out an increasingly feeble version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and who hobbles on stage like the old man he is.

 

Just recently another giant of rockabilly who never received any of the accolades that the million-dollar gang, the Sam Phillips refugees, the darlings of 1950s teenagers got. Sleepy La Beef died at 85, still rocking in up to 200 performances a year, but unknown except to a few like me who refuse to let go of our deep-seated love for the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to see Sleepy in performance ever since the first time I heard him on a record. He reached deep down into what apparently was a cavernous chest to belt out in a near basso profundo voice legendary songs from the vaults of early rock ‘n’ roll. Call it rockabilly which is what the critics came up with to describe music that was a combination of rock and hillbilly music. It wasn’t Fats Domino or Ray Charles but it was the white version of black music fused with up-tempo country. Sam Phillips said that if he could find a white singer who sounded black he could make a millon dollars. He thought he had that singer in Elvis, but it was RCA that made the million. Some listeners swore that Elvis was black when they first heard him until they saw him on various television shows (Milton Berle, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen, and finally, reluctantly, Ed Sullivan).

 

Not only did Sam Philips pioneer rockabilly; he was the producer of what is credited as the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentson, recorded early in March, 1951. It was recorded at Memphis Recording Service, the precursor of Sun Records. But the first record that I would consider rockabilly, at least at least the first one I remember hearing, was “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, who recorded the song in 1955. Berry died at 90 in 2017. He has been called “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.” He recorded his landmark on Chess records, not, Sun” which, by 1955, was well past the heyday of rockabilly. And he holds the distinction of being the only black rockabilly artist among an otherwise white group of rednecks. Perhaps in heaven he and Jackie Brentson can have a dragstrip race between Brentson’s Rocket 88 and Chuck’s V-8 Ford.

 

But…. Rockabilly historians generally credit Elvis’s “That’s All Right, Mama” as the first true rockabilly song. Berry actually swiped the music for “Maybelline” from the Western swing song “Ida Red” a staple of the repertoire of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Maybe we should give Wills the title of the first rockabilly?

 

Roots rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly line up almost exactly with my high school and college years. By 1960, the heyday of both had come and gone. The British invasion led by the Beatles took over and screaming guitars and screaming vocalists displaced the thumping pianos of Fats, little Richard, and Jerry Lee. In the ensuing years there were occasional flashbacks, but not many.  Woodstock, in 1969, is mostly remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s show stopping performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with many other performances by artists contemporary to the time—but a welcome (to me anyway) interruption was by Sha Na Na who probably confused the bulk of the half-million or so kids in attendance by bopping to ”At The Hop”.

 

It’s a sort of symbolic passing of the torch, or perhaps more appropriately an extinguishing of the torch. The recent passing of perhaps the last true rockabilly Sleepy la Beef, and a few days later the passing of the lyricist and leader of the modern rock group Rush Neil Peart exemplifies the truth that time moves on and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

 

When Marty McFly rode a DeLorean back to 1955 in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future”, it was to the tunes of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Penguins‘ “Earth Angel.” Jerry Lee became a fallen angel of rockabilly when he married his 13-year-old cousin, but he reinvented himself as a country singer with a definite rockabilly beat and even today sings what could be the anthem for that lost era “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano When I’m Gone?”

 

Who, indeed?

 

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  • Blog
  • January 10th, 2020

IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BIRD

By Joel M. Vance

 

A few million years ago at the dawn of civilization, when I was a callow youth in journalism school at the University of Missouri (as opposed to the callow old man I am today) we were assigned a “beat” which consisted of a square residential block in Columbia. The idea was we would timidly knock on doors and asked if the residents had any news to report.

 

One serendipitous day. I knocked on the door of a man who happened to be one of the wildlife professors at the University and he told me that a number of birds had been killed at the University’s television station, KOMU TV, the night before when a low cloud ceiling pushed the migrating birds into a collision course with the television station’s transmission tower. The story made the front page of the University newspaper, the Missourian, and I felt as puffed up with pride as if I had pulled off the scoop of the century.

 

Bird collisions with inanimate objects often result in avian mortality. In common with all other wild creatures, no bird dies in bed (unless, somehow, it happens to fly headlong into the headboard). We have a door leading onto our deck, with glass panes in it, where we have pasted the silhouette of a hawk. This is supposed to frighten small birds and discourage them from flying into the door with fatal results. Nevertheless, I have heard a small “bonk!”  And found a dazed bird lying outside the door, apparently unfazed by the hawk silhouette.

 

Ted Williams (not the ballplayer, but the major league environmental expose reporter) whose “Incite” column in “Audubon Magazine” for years has been the bête noire of those who would pollute or otherwise disgrace the world’s natural communities.  Ted often brings to light threats to the environment that are largely unknown or ignored.

 

One such is the threat to birds posed by the common house cat. Feral cats, those allowed to roam unchecked outdoors, kill more birds annually than nearly any other cause. We have two cats in our household— the operative word being “in”. Both are strictly confined to the house, never allowed out. They are members of the family, cherished and loved and, since our kids all are grown and on their own, the cats have become Marty’s and my de facto kids.

 

Except for Marty’s good graces, both today would be feral cats, intent on avian slaughter, rather than the coddled, cat chow munchingcreatures they are. Mama cat appeared one night at our back door (the one with the hawk silhouette pasted on it) underfed and overly pregnant. It was inevitable that Marty would feed this vagrant feline and that’s all it took for Mama Cat to settle herself in a convenient wicker basket on the deck and deliver five kittens. Ultimately, we kept one, a butterscotch colored female with more energy and curiosity than the other four. We found homes for two others and delivered two to the local animal shelter.

 

Mama and the long-haired kitten we named Fuzzy Butt have adapted well to in-house living and pose no threat to local birds. Not so, their uncounted millions of feral peers. Both are sexually defused so pose no risk of adding to the world’s puss population. They are, in short, cherished house pets, not threats to a bird population which, in many areas, is declining.

 

Why? He asked rhetorically. The reasons are several, with habitat loss the major one, but predation by feral cats ranks as the number one preventable cause of bird deaths. The Sibley bird guides are a standard reference for birdwatchers and also a good source of information on the causes of bird death. Habitat loss ranks number one but it’s not always the direct cause of avian fatality— think of it in human terms; when a tornado levels a neighborhood, many if not all the people simply move somewhere else. The same is true of birds, deprived of their habitat. That is, of course, if there is somewhere else for them to go. The sage grouse today is imperiled in the heart of its habitat, most of the state of Wyoming, by an exploding oil and gas exploration boom. Disruption of the bird’s nesting, feeding and roosting areas by oil and gas drilling is part of the problem, but also access roads and other disruption adds to it.

 

For a comprehensive discussion of the sage grouse situation, see Noppadol Paothong’s marvelous new book with wonderful and evocative writing by Kathy Love. The photographs will melt your heart and energize your mind toward helping to preserve this symbolic and direly threatened Western bird. (This beautiful book is $45 published by Laguna Wilderness Press, Box 5703, Laguna Beach, California 92652 – 0149–check it out@Lagunawildernesspress.com)

 

Sage grouse, as well as other avian species that are habitat specific, don’t have an alternative when their home turf is destroyed. My beloved bobwhite quail have been squeezed into tighter and tighter pockets of quail friendly habitat and their numbers have shrunk accordingly.  Mega-farms, fall plowing, intensive chemical drenching of the land with herbicides and pesticides all have conspired to make what was, in the glory years, a ten covey hunt into, if you’re lucky, maybe one covey– and you feel guilty about taking even one potential breeder out of that covey.

 

According to the Birdbrain in Chief, the alleged leader of the free world at least until he and his evil minions manage to eliminate freedom as we have known it for more than 200 years, a major culprit in bird mortality are wind turbines. Not even close. The aforementioned feral cats, according to Sibley, kill more than 500,000,000 birds annually. This compares with their estimate of 33,000 deaths by collision incidents involving the wind generators. My KOMU tower and its communication kinfolk account for at least 5,000,000 deaths and possibly as many as 50,000,000 annually. And, my hawk silhouette notwithstanding, collisions by birds with windows are estimated somewhere between 97 million to 976 million birds/year. 

 

“[Wind power] kills all the birds,” Trump told 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (who is at least in the running for being every bit as crazy as Trump). “Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

 

“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles,” Trump said. “You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles… They’re killing them by the hundreds.” Trump singled out Palm Springs, California, saying it had been absolutely destroyed by what he called the world’s ugliest wind farm, presumably one that has killed, in his words, hundreds of eagles. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that in the last 22 years Palm Springs wind towers have accounted for exactly two bald eagle deaths.

 

Another estimate is that wind turbines account for the deaths of between 140,000 and 368,000 birds annually, a figure substantially higher than the Sibley estimate but certainly far lower than Trump’s implied wholesale mortality. One estimate is that the number of birds killed by cell towers is 6.8 million and the total done in by glass building collisions is up to one billion each year. The point here is that no matter who is doing the estimates they are far lower than the fantastic claims spouted by Donald Trump, designed only to disparage alternative forms of energy in favor of his cherished oil, gas, and coal industries.

 

Trump also told Cain that solar and wind are “very, very expensive” and “not working on a large-scale.” And he criticized the way wind turbines look, calling the windmills in Palm Springs, California a “junkyard.” Someone should tell Trump about the threat from feral cats— he’d probably go on some sort of insane rant against cats and thereby alienate yet another substantial bloc of otherwise uncommitted voters.

 

The unfortunate truth is that no form of energy is without its inherent risks and downside. Carbon-based fuels spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an obvious (at least to the bulk of science and thinking people) cause of global warming. So-called clean energy (i.e. wind, solar and hydro) each have a downside— wind, giving Trump a teensy bit of credit, does contribute minimally to bird death, but more to disruption of habitat.  And, Trump fantasy notwithstanding, wind turbines do not cause cancer.

 

Dams kill fish, either by turbulence, or by creating low oxygen problems, plus they often result in downstream flooding and there is the habitat lost by the creation of a lake.  Solar energy has the same inherent problem as wind energy–the installations  occupy space and inevitably upset associated habitat by roads and other disruptive intrusions.

 

Nuclear energy is scary stuff. Russia’s Chernobyl proved that dramatically, as did Japan’s Fukushima disaster and as Three Mile Island nearly did to the United States. And then there is that atom bomb thing in 1945 and how do you dispose of all that radioactive goo?

 

So we have a Great Oz in the White House, living in an alternate reality served by what the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.” The simplest solution for today’s insatiable hunger for energy is to have fewer kids, keep more cats (indoors only), protect and encourage expanded wildlife habitat, and, in the words of an unknown political philosopher, “vote the bastards out.”

 

Werner and Lowe must have been anticipating future times when they wrote the lyrics to a song from the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” in 1959. The song was “They Call the Wind, Maria” and part of the lyrics graphically describes the Windbag in Chief:

 

I am a lost and lonely man/

without a star to guide me/

Maria blow my love to me/

I need my gal beside me.

 

Change Maria to Melania and need I say more?

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  • Blog
  • January 3rd, 2020

I’M NOT LION TO YAH!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Back in the 1970s there was a report of a mountain lion roaming the wilds of the Current River country in the Missouri Ozarks. Mike Milonski and Alan Brohn, both of whom would become assistant directors of the Missouri Conservation Department, mounted an expedition to prove or disprove the existence of the cat.

 

They didn’t have a visual sighting of the animal, but did find a paw print and made a plaster cast of it. Department wildlife biologists agreed that it certainly looked like a mountain lion track. But, echoing the prevailing philosophy of the day, they agreed that Missouri did not have wild mountain lions and if there was a cat present, it probably had been released there by someone possibly disenchanted with it as a pet. The prevailing philosophy for years was that if mountain lions existed in the Missouri wild, one would have been shot by a hunter or, at the very least, captured on a trail cam.

 

More than 30 years later, a motorist (perhaps driving a Mercury Cougar?) Killed a male mountain lion on Highway 54 between the state’s capital, Jefferson City, and Fulton, to the north. Blood tests proved that the cat indeed was a wild, not pet, animal, most likely having originated far to the west—perhaps in the Black Hills of South Dakota . No explanation as to how it came to be in Missouri, but young male animals, looking for territory of their own, often travel long distances to establish their own identity. Evidence that Missouri could and would play host to visiting mountain lions was reinforced when a second lion fell victim to one of Detroit’s finest on a highway in North Kansas City, and a third lion recently succumbed to automotive caticide after being hit by a car on Interstate 44.

 

These are widely divergent geographic locations which would indicate that mountain lions, being reclusive by nature, and while not widely exposed to public view, are indeed a statewide resident.

 

At least one female lion has been among the 74 confirmed mountain lion reports since 1994–and one female, among all those randy male lions certainly raises the possibility of young ones.  But there have been hundreds if not thousands of reported mountain lion sightings and it seems as if every other person who has spent any time in the outdoors claims to have seen a mountain lion—or at least knows someone who has. But what you see is not necessarily what you get. Over the years there have been many supposed sightings of black panthers which, I feel confident in saying, do not exist in the Missouri wild— and I further suspect that the family black Labrador retriever on walkabout has been responsible for most of them.

 

Some reports include having heard a lion screaming in the night. Not to discount them, but raccoons squalling, as they often do, could easily become the wail of a mountain lion to the ears of a listener.

 

Mountain lions, like wolves, spark an immediate and primal fear in people. Both are apex predators (kind of like people). Wolves have been the stuff of legend for hundreds of years, not to mention fairytales like the Big Bad Wolf (or in the case of Archie Campbell’s Spoonerised version of the three terrorized piggies, the Pee Little Thrigs). Every one of the very rare attacks by a mountain lion breeds immediate fear of being assaulted by a ravenous big cat in legions of outdoor enthusiasts. Statistically, any wilderness traveler stands a far better chance of being killed by lightning than he or she does being killed by either a timber wolf or a mountain lion. A mama grizzly bear with cubs is another story entirely but Missouri so far has avoided being invaded by grizzlies. Black bears could be a threat, especially with cubs, but again watch out for the lightning.

 

Not to discount the possibility of a mountain lion attack—last year a Colorado hiker strangled an 80 pound lion after it attacked him. And just recently Arizona wildlife officials shot three mountain lions who apparently had happened upon the body of someone who died in their territory and they scavenged the poor person’s remains. “We do not believe the lions attacked the individual who died there,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for Arizona Game and Fish. “An autopsy will tell us more. But our belief is they were eating the human remains after the fact.”

 

The ubiquitous presence of trail cameras nowadays is behind almost all the confirmed Missouri sightings— it’s hard to argue with a sharp photograph. It’s equally impossible to deny the evidence of a lion carcass, one of which is mounted in the Conservation Department’s Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.

 

Recently an alleged mountain lion sighting in the heart of Jefferson City dominated discussion on Facebook where the wilder the allegation, the more discussion, often heated and outlandish, proliferates. The sighting was atop a cliff face at the Menard’s store. A woman posted a video of an obvious cat of some sort walking along the top of the cliff, somewhat obscured by grass. She said it was a mountain lion.  The Conservation Department stationed someone at the top of the cliff with a cutout of a common cat and a mountain lion. What the woman had seen was, the Department said, a feral cat (and feral cats are responsible for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths every year).

 

There was an immediate firestorm of comments on Facebook from those who, mostly, claimed to have seen mountain lions to those who accused the Department of some sort of cover-up. Many claim that the Department has lied about the existence of mountain lions in the wild for years, although there is ample discussion about the animal on the Department’s website, and the prevailing official view is that yes, there are mountain lions in the Missouri wild, but no evidence of a breeding population.

 

There have been 74 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Missouri since 1994 amid thousands  of reported sightings, unconfirmed. Although the confirmed sightings are fewer than 1% of the total reported, the Conservation Department takes mountain lion sightings seriously enough to have formed a mountain lion response team in 1996 more than 20 years ago. And, the Department takes the presence of mountain lions in the state seriously enough to post instructions on its website about what to do if you encounter a lion, panther, catamount, puma (all names for the same critter).

 

Statistically your chances of encountering a mountain lion and definitely your chance of being attacked by one, is less than your chance of being struck by lightning or savaged by an angry dog. According to wildlife experts,  fatal mountain lion attacks have averaged one in every 7 years since 1980 in the United States compared to lightning strikes that kill more than 80 people annually.

 

Yet, the Facebook comments on the alleged sighting in Jefferson City range from casual to hysterical.  One posited that the Conservation Department for reasons unknown is stocking mountain lions. Some years back one of the Western state conservation agencies  suffered allegations that it was parachuting mountain lions into the wild immediately before elk season to drive the game animals deep into the back country so they would be unavailable to hunters. Why the department would do this, considering that elk permits, are a substantial contribution to the department budget, is beyond reason—but then reason rarely stands in the forefront of those who endorse and pass along outlandish rumor.

 

In the case of the alleged Jefferson City mountain lion, the most outlandish accusation was that (given that Missouri is a solidly red Republican state) the lion was part of a stocking plot by the Democrats. No explanation given but I assume that the rumor monger believed the lions are programmed to eat Republicans. The local newspaper, resolutely conservative, has not reported the loss of any of its most ardent readers, some of whom regularly write letters to the editor endorsing whatever the current right-wing conspiracy theory happens to be.

 

As an aside, some years back in a location not far from Menard’s a black bear was treed at a time when Missouri conservationists believed that few if any black bears existed in the state. Black bears actually are featured on the official state symbol, and there now is what appears to be a fairly thriving population of the animals, especially in the Ozarks. They probably are the progeny of bears stocked in northern Arkansas which disrespected the border between the two states.

 

 Similarly, mountain lions have no geographical know how and can leap across a state line with one mighty bound.

 

By the time Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz produced their landmark book “The Wild Mammals of Missouri” the mountain lion was considered an extirpated species in the state. “By 1850 most had disappeared although during the next 75 years occasional individuals were reported in the southern part of the state,” they wrote. “The last one definitely recorded in Missouri was killed in 1927 in the Mississippi Low Land.” The two authors presciently predicted “Pumas are primarily predators of deer and since the deer population has increased greatly in Missouri in recent years, pumas may come back too.”

 

Charlie and Libby said “an adult puma can easily be distinguished from the bobcat.”  Although, apparently not from the feral house cat. Bobcats, although larger than a house cat, are certainly smaller than the mountain lion (puma) and are bobtailed, rather than featuring the readily identifiable long tail of a puma, panther et al. And, bobcats are considered a major predator of wild turkeys in North Missouri—not white tailed deer (or livestock, house pets, and small babies). And none of the cats are notorious for dining on human beings, although anyone who is ever tried to stuff a house cat inside a small carrier for a trip to the vet might disagree.

 

Perhaps it is significant that three of the 15 bronze sculptures created by Charlie Schwartz after his retirement from the department feature a mountain lion. It’s possible that Charlie never saw one of the big cats in person in the Missouri wild but there is no doubt he considered them a valuable subject of his wildlife art. Charlie shared with me an affinity for the unloved of Critterdom— I cherish number one of an edition of 25 of a Charlie Schwartz sculpture featuring a disdainful coyote casually peeing on a sprung leghold trap.

 

Do I believe the Jefferson City woman saw a mountain lion? Almost certainly not. Do I believe there are mountain lions in Missouri? Indisputably. Do I believe there is a breeding population? Possibly. Do I believe they pose a threat to hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts? No. What I do believe is that there  is indisputably a thriving population of people willing to believe the most bizarre rumors and post them on Facebook.

 

No mountain lions were harmed in the production of this blog.

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  • Blog
  • January 1st, 2020

HAVE I GOT A STORY FOR YOU!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Any book publisher will tell you that short story collections do not sell, so save your time and money by not submitting them for publication. Try telling that to James Michener whose short story collection “Tales From the South Pacific” became a bestseller, a Broadway musical, a movie, and a staple of repertory theaters across the country. Try telling it to Stephen King who, when he is not writing 600 page epic novels, turns his hand to short stories and often sees them turn into major motion pictures.

 

A short story is a novel squeezed into a few pages and is as different from a novel as a diamond is from a chunk of road gravel. The novelist can sprawl all over the place, travel down by ways and alleys, and explore ideas that occur incidental to the theme of the story the author is exploring. Conversely, the short story writer needs to hew to the line and avoid being sidetracked. Every word counts.

 

Short stories offer the reader a sharp, sometimes disconcerting, glimpse at life. Sometimes they leave the reader hanging (“The Lady or the Tiger”), letting the reader imagine his or her own finale. Sometimes, a short story contains possible hidden themes, offering different interpretations, depending on what the reader decides they mean. Often a story is just that— a good old tale told by a good storyteller where there are no hidden messages and the intent of the writer is nothing more ambitious than entertaining.

 

I grew up when popular magazines proliferated (even delivered Saturday Evening Posts for a few weeks when I wasn’t much bigger than the bag I carried, filled with that week’s issue. The exploits of Crunch and Des, Tugboat Annie, Horatio Hornblower, and the many other short story characters in the Post entertained and inspired me to want to write short stories.

 

I took a class in short story writing in college, taught by William Peden, a wonderful teacher who overlooked my clumsy and obvious attempt to write like J. D. Salinger, and who encouraged me to keep at it, graciously ignoring the fact that I was not and never will be J. D. Salinger.

 

I actually once published a short story in a literary magazine—one of those known-by-very-few-readers  magazines where you don’t get any money but you can leave the free copies which function as pay for your story on your coffee table, hoping that visitors will notice them and be suitably impressed by your literary accomplishment.

 

My first short story collection “Grandma and the Buck Deer” is directly inspired by the short stories of Jean Shepherd, who I heard telling them on late-night radio when I was in high school. He made a fortune when his stories were adapted into the wonderful movie “A Christmas Story” (narrated by him). Perhaps the same will happen to me. What the heck, there’s still time—after all, I’m only 85 years old.

 

Some of the best American writers ever specialized in short stories, too many to pick out individuals. Raymond Carver is noteworthy for wonderful slice of life tales, sometimes as short as a page or two. For fantasy writing, no one beats Ray Bradbury. Right up there with him are Roald Dahl and John Collier.

 

I cherish every story ever written by Thomas McGuane. His storytelling is straightforward and perhaps a reflection of his long experience as a screenwriter. His many novels and nonfiction are well worth your reading time, but his short stories stand out and make him one of the best of the contemporary short fiction creators.

 

Among the literary writers, the Nick Adams short stories of Ernest Hemingway are fine reads especially for anyone who hunts and fishes. William Faulkner took time out from his chronicles of Mississippi family drama to write “The Bear” and some other notable short stories, collected as a book titled “Go Down Moses”. Currently I am reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, a collection of mostly funny, sometimes fantastic tales. I’m alternating between that and E. L. Doctorow’s “Sweet Land Stories”.

 

Perhaps my favorite short story writer is Jim Harrison who died a year or so ago. He wrote voluminous poems as well as a number of memorable novels, but basically became the master of the novella— a cross between a very long short story and a very short novel—usually about 100 pages. Every one of them is a gem of wonderful writing. One “Legends of the Fall” became a movie and cemented Harrison’s reputation as one of the best writers in American history. His writing, like that of his close friend Tom McGuane, falls easily on the ear and the brain.

 

Here’s a few of my favorite short stories to spice up your new year.

 

A Sound of Thunder: of all Ray Bradbury’s many short stories this is the most memorable to me. And a word of advice— watch where you step or you might be dooming your relatives many generations in the future. If nothing else this story will give you a much greater appreciation of butterflies, which have enough problems in the present without considering what may have happened millions of years ago.

 

 

Broke back Mountain: Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story garnered eight Academy award nominations as a movie adaptation and probably should’ve won best picture. The story chronicled a gay relationship between two seasonal cowboys in the West. Annie Proulx writes sentences that are so perfect that after more than a half-century of writing for a living, they make me want to throw my word processor in the lake and get a job as a greeter at Walmart

 

A good man is hard to find: readers have been analyzing the theme and the underlying symbolism of the story ever since Flannery O’Connor wrote it. My take is that it dramatically illustrates the underlying truth of the statement “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Make of it what you will—good versus evil, God versus the devil, but remember that O’Connor herself was under a death sentence from disease and perhaps this is her bitter recognition of that.  A wonderful writer whom I don’t much like because her many layered stories confuse me and make me think, a dangerous affliction.

 

Why I Live at the P.O.: Eudora Welty is the finest of the Southern short story writers.  This delightful excursion into rural Mississippi is a combination of Hee Haw’s Culhane family and the dysfunctional family skits on the Carol Burnett show. I’ll swear I’ve known some of these people and Ms. Welty captures them for us memorably.

 

The Road to Tinkhamtown: if there is an aging grouse hunter who ever has followed an aging dog and who can read this story without puddling up, that man is not me—and I don’t want to hunt with him. Corey Ford’s short story in “Field and Stream” magazine is the greatest hunting story ever written.

 

The Open Window: H.H. Munro who wrote as Saki made it well worth five or 10 minutes of your time when you’re feeling grumpy and mad at the world to read this story and be delighted by the inventiveness of a irresistibly clever young con girl. We can only hope she grows up to be the Democratic Speaker of the House.

 

The Secret life of Walter Mitty: there’s a little bit of Mr. Mitty in everyone with any imagination. Every kid with a basketball imagines himself making the winning shot at the buzzer. I comfort myself often at night imagining myself invisible so I can invent endless ways to humiliate Donald Trump, including the use of a fart machine while he is debating with Democrat opponents in front of a national audience and close to a sensitive microphone. Thanks to James Thurber for bringing me and millions of other wannabes to life in fiction.

 

The Ransom of Red Chief: probably the inspiration for Dennis the Menace and the Home Alone movies, O. Henry’s 1907 “Saturday Evening Post” story is about the kidnapping of a 10-year-old boy by two men, who he drives absolutely nuts with his hyperactive antics to the point where they pay his father to take him back. Good story to read before you go on a long road trip with the kids in the back of the station wagon. It appeared as a segment in a movie titled “O. Henry’s Full House” starring Oscar Levant and Fred Allen as the two bedeviled kidnappers.

 

An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce survived the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War only to vanish years later amid revolutionary turmoil in Mexico but he left us with this eerie short story and also his definition of “I have a very good brain” Donald Trump   In his “Devil’s Dictionary” Bierce said: “Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.” Bierce’s Civil War story magnificently survived him. I hope we can do the same with Trump and his inappropriately self-described “very good brain”.

 

The Telltale Heart: it’s tough to pick a single Edgar Allen Poe story since there are so many but this one and the Cask of Amontillado stick out in my memory. Poe’s life was nearly as chaotic as his short stories, which probably explains why his imagination created some of the most memorable and spooky short fiction ever.

 

The most dangerous game: a short story, sometimes called the most popular short story ever written, with the same general theme as The Lady or the Tiger. Published in 1924 in “Collier’s” magazine it’s a good example that, at one time, the country benefited from short stories in popular magazines like “Colliers”, the “Saturday Evening Post”, and many others. Sadly, those magazines largely are gone and reader exposure to popular short stories has gone with them. F. Scott Fitzgerald, known as a literary novelist, made a good living off writing Post stories.

 

The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: I’m not sure we would be celebrating Mark Twain as America’s most famous writer today if it weren’t for this short story that jumpstarted (inadvertent pun) his long career. It’s a tall tale from his early days as a newspaperman in the Frontier West. Of course, you might say, that much of Twain’s stories were tall tales, amplified to novel length, but this one is pure campfire storytelling and is as much fun to read today as it was when I was a kid— and as it was when Twain wrote it more than a century ago.

 

The body: Stephen King occasionally takes time out from writing nuclear bomb size novels to write short stories. This one, Tom Sawyer for the 21st century, became the movie “Stand by Me”, which made a star of young River Phoenix who then proceeded to kill himself with drugs while still a teenager. It was, I guess, a fitting Stephen King like ending. In my mind, King is at his best when writing short stories.

 

Big Blonde: Dorothy Parker’s award-winning short story in the “New Yorker” was a sharp contrast to the usual picture of the wild, untamed life of the 1920s flapper— the party loving subject of the story is the antithesis of Zelda Fitzgerald, F Scott’s wife and the real life antithesis to Parker’s unhappy heroine. Zelda wound up a tragic mental case and Parker herself often was unhappy and far from the happy-go-lucky image she portrayed, much like the character in this most famous example of her short fiction. Once, my wife and I stayed at the Algonquin Hotel which hosted the famous Algonquin Round Table where Parker and other 1920s writers and famous characters gathered.   I hoped to soak up the atmosphere there— but aside from the hotel’s ever present lobby cat (probably not the same one from the 1920s) there was no ambience.

 

This is just a handful of short stories that have stuck in my memory for years. I have a deep and abiding love for short fiction and as far as those many publishers who say that short fiction doesn’t sell and therefore they won’t risk publishing it, I say the hell with them and the horse they rode in on.

 

Check out some of these writers and you might find that instead of burying yourself in a long novel you might also become an aficionado of the short story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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