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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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