Archive for March, 2020

  • Blog
  • March 27th, 2020

NATURE’S UNDERTAKER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

It was a revelatory moment, like when you discover that a raw oyster on the half shell, complemented by a dab of horseradish and accompanied by sip of crispy white wine, is light years finer than the disgusting blob of indefinable food you thought it was.

 

I topped a hill and there in the middle-of-the-road ahead of me was a vulture snacking on a road killed vulture— evidence that even wildlife citizens enjoy an exotic and nontraditional meal once in a while. Not that I’m advocating we replace oysters with carrion, but I am advocating that we learn to appreciate even the most apparently disgusting creatures in nature. Disregarding the revolting sight of a vulture snacking on cousin Beaky Buzzard, I confess to having been a fan of the buzzard, a.k.a. turkey vulture, for many years.

 

Given the current panic over the looming threat of coronavirus, perhaps there is somewhere in the digestive tract of a turkey buzzard chemistry that would send coronavirus back to the hidden crevices from whence it came. After all, buzzards can digest botulinum, anthrax and other toxins, even a smidgen of which, kill a human being in a heartbeat.

 

Buzzards are properly called vultures.  We probably could live without them (people do), but life would be a lot more messy.  They are the manure bug of the skies, performing a vital function…but most people don’t want to know about it.

 

Turkey vultures are as familiar in North American skies in the summer as the fleecy cumulus clouds with which they keep company.  Vultures have mastered the art of soaring and playing amid the invisible currents of air. Their airborne antics would make any glider pilot gnash his teeth in frustration when in buzzard company, for he is doomed to rejoin the earth long before they must.  Only on the ground is the turkey vulture awkward.

 

Nothing is more overcome with panicky clumsiness than a vulture when surprised by a fast-approaching automobile while it snacks on some creature which dueled with Michelin Radials and lost.  Of all the birds, vultures offer the most clear and demonstrable service to humanity.  They eat offal that otherwise could putrefy and become a human health danger.

 

A prime mystery of the animal world is how a vulture escapes the microbes that laid low his dinner, but escape it they do.  Experiments have shown that vultures have dined on enough anthrax or botulinum to have killed susceptible animals ten times over…with absolutely no ill effects, not even heartburn.

 

Yet, for all the invulnerability of the buzzardial digestive tract, I  find few ongoing studies of why.  Don’t you want to know why toxins so terrible they make warmongers blanch and terrorists thrill go through vultures like ice cream through a child? Most research into buzzard immunity to toxins dates no further back than about 2015.  Whatever neutralizing agent lurks within the convoluted colon of a buzzard must be a powerful one indeed and it’s somehow comfortingly ironic to think that perhaps the cure for cancer (or of coronavirus) can be found in the digestive processes of a bird scorned by some, ignored by most and which lives on rotted meat.

 

I found a couple of studies of how vultures routinely digest bacteria that would eliminate a human being in seconds, but both basically concluded that they still don’t know how the birds do it. Michael Roggenbuck, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen said, “our results show there has been strong adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria they digest.” Well yeah, we already knew that. But how.  Another researcher said “the avian microbiome is terra incognita.” In simpler and more common terms, “beats the hell out of us.”

 

One study showed vultures easily outdid coyotes and crows in manufacturing antibodies to botulinum toxins.  Another focused on enteric pathogens, including salmonella in the intestines of turkey vultures.  “Very little data exist on the intestinal microflora of carrion-feeding birds in general and ‘C. aura’ (turkey vulture).”

 

The highly acidic stomach chemicals in vultures routinely destroy viruses that (does the name coronavirus immediately spring to mind?) are deadly for human beings. Obviously, given the current Covid 19 pandemic, we are decades if not centuries behind in researching what vultures can do and the human stomach cannot.

 

Not only are we behind in vulture digestive research, but the vulture has not been given its due as a cool bird. Well, not totally: there once existed, though tenuously, the Buzzard Council of America, founded in 1979 by a group of famous wildlife artists and outdoor enthusiasts.  The BCA grew by word of mouth until it numbered about a thousand members (I was a proud one).  Each year, America’s leading wildlife artists flipped a coin and the loser painted a buzzard stamp print.  The organization even held an annual picnic to celebrate vultures and, incidentally, indulge in what I deduce was hefty amounts of adult beverages—no doubt to spur the creative juices for the chosen stamp artist.

 

The first stamp print (in 1980) was a turkey vulture, the most common of North American vultures, painted by David Maass, the second a black vulture painted by Robert Abbett.  The third print was of a group of African vultures enjoying a snack on a defunct critter of the veldt and the fourth (and final) print featured the endangered California condor.  The Council became so popular that it began to dominate the careers of the artists and they shelved the organization until buzzard enthusiasm cooled a bit.  It has never, sadly, resurfaced.

 

A vulture’s cleanup duties are not altruistic.  They do it to survive.  Though members of the order Falconiformes, which includes hawks and eagles, buzzards rarely take live prey and really aren’t equipped to do it.  They’re slow and have feet more like chickens than like taloned raptors.  One writer described turkey vultures as “degenerate raptorial birds,” which could have been either a biological or social judgment.  The family name is Cathartidae which comes from the Greek word “kathartes” meaning “cleanser.”

 

Here is where I have to differentiate between the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Turkey vultures equal good while black vultures have proved, especially recently, to be as black hearted as they are colored exteriorly. To put it gruesomely, they are accused of and proved to be fond of pecking the eyes out of small, helpless farm animals like calves or lambs until the defenseless animal dies, after which they eat it. Blame global warming which has encouraged black vultures to migrate from South America northward to the American Midwest. Black vultures are protected by the long-standing migratory bird treaty, but can be shot if you can prove that they are fatally mugging baby livestock.

 

Do buzzards stink?

 

One historic ornithologist, Elliott Coues, thought that the vulture not only stank horribly because of what it ate, but had an intrinsic stench that so deadened its olfactory sense that it didn’t mind diving headfirst into putrefying meat; however, I have been in petting range of a zoo buzzard and could detect no aroma at all, good or bad.  An ornithologist studying a nest found its young inhabitants aromatically inoffensive until they started eating carrion.  As some wise person said, “You are what you eat.”       Vultures have little sense of proportion and will dine on a juicy chunk of long-defunct mammal until they are too heavy to fly.  Then they sit around like overstuffed middle income television watchers until they digest enough to be able to fly.

 

There is almost nothing a vulture won’t eat if it’s dead.  Leonard Lee Rue III said he’d never seen a vulture dining on another vulture; although as I said I once did and that scene has lingered with me as the epitome of something.  I haven’t decided what and try not to think about it.  However, one observer watched two turkey vultures snack on a defunct skunk and reported that they left the scent gland untouched.  Apparently even a vulture has its limits.

 

At close range a vulture of any species is of marginal beauty.  Its head is raw- skinned red and its feathers a dusty brown.  Most turkey vultures have the slightly frayed appearance of a seedy undertaker in some American frontier town whose customers generally wind up in the Boot Hill cemetery. The featherless head allows the buzzard to root around in gore without needing an industrial strength bird napkin to clean up.

 

The turkey vulture has a six-foot wingspan which enables it to stay aloft almost endlessly on thermals rising from the heating earth.  Because nature’s elevators don’t start working until the sun gains authority, buzzards rarely soar before 9 a.m.  They often sit on damp mornings with wings outstretched, perhaps drying them.

 

Vulture parents are a mixture of good and bad.  They build no nest; the female lays two (sometimes one, sometimes three) eggs on the ground, often in a cave, crevice or hollow tree. But both parents incubate the eggs for 30 to 40 days and both feed the young by regurgitation.  While it may not appeal to you nor me, pre-digested food (notice the euphemism, like “pre-owned car”) works wonders on young vultures.  They’re ready for their maiden flight in eight to ten weeks.  They’re not bad looking as birds go–covered with a fleecy white down.  But that gives way to the bleak adult plumage.

 

Regurgitation is a neat trick (so to speak) often used by turkey vultures when threatened.  Vomiting may lessen their payload so they can make a quicker getaway or it may serve the same purpose as a skunk’s fusillade. If that doesn’t work, a vulture may collapse and appear dead.  No one knows if this is a purposeful escape maneuver or the result of psychological overload. If you aren’t sufficiently grossed out, here’s another factoid— one source says vultures defecate on their feet to cool them off while another says that the acidic defecation kills bacteria (although considering that they’re gulping it down at the other end, the mind boggles).

 

One playful ornithologist trapped several vultures and the birds, after realizing they couldn’t escape, all keeled over, whereupon the birdman decorated them with streamers, paper collars and colorful anklets, then freed them.  Barring accident (power lines are one threat, autos that surprise engorged birds another) a vulture can live a long, long time.  There are records of vultures living more than 100 years.

 

Ornithological literature does not abound with information on turkey vultures.  Most ornithologists seem slightly discomfited to be dealing with the birds and race through their meager life history as if rushing guests past a messy room.

 

Some writers are positively antagonistic to vultures.  The authors of Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America Edward Forbush and John May, said, “your Buzzard is a cowardly fowl and intends to take good care of his precious skin.  They often gather thus, not only about dead animals, but also about the sick or disabled when death seems imminent.  If the death of the victim seems assured, they approach their prey.  Over what follows, let us draw the veil.”

 

Ornithologists seem to feel honor bound to say something about vultures, though they’d rather be rhapsodizing about nightingales, so they salt their prose with apologies and disclaimers, then invariably speak of the bird’s grace on the wing.  It’s as if a historian were to write in graphic detail about the atrocities of Attila the Hun, then conclude, “But he was good to his mother.”

 

It’s true that a buzzard is not beautiful–but surely there must be a homelier bird somewhere.  Consider the superbly functional design: featherless head and neck, the better to shed gore.  Beak as sharp as poultry shears.  Raspy tongue to extract delicate morsels with the adroitness of a seafood gourmet picking at a lobster, feathered ruff a biological bib.

 

I find vultures much maligned, fascinating and likable.  They mind their own business, harm no one, perform a useful function without complaint and under working conditions that would have union workers on violent strike.  They’re poetry in motion and they seem to have a bit more brain than the average bird.

 

The one buzzard I was privileged to pet was a captive, fed on hamburger and, for all I know, chips and soft drinks as well as a refreshing concoction of anthrax and botulism bacteria.  It was curious, clever and friendly.  No buzzard ever started a war, though if there is an Ultimate War they will be in attendance after the gods “draw the veil over what follows.”

 

One thing is certain, if a pandemic ever wipes out the last Adam and Eve, standing over the carcasses will be a vulture and a coyote squabbling over the tidbits. Were buzzards ever to fade from the skies our eyes would be the poorer.  Were they to change their diets, our health would be the poorer.

Up the buzzard!

-30-

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  • Blog
  • March 20th, 2020

TRIPPING DOWN MEMORY LANE

By Joel M. Vance

 

It was the most important piece of furniture in our Chicago apartment, otherwise furnished with typical middle-class equipment, some so old that I remembered when an ice wagon delivered blocks of ice for keeping perishables in an ice box to be chilled during Chicago’s steamy summers. But old didn’t mean antique, just old. The radio, a Zenith console model, would be a collectible antique today— but in the nineteen forties it was a magic carpet transporting me to worlds unknown and barely imagined. It was a magic portal to an exotic world of promise.

 

I lived by and for that radio, a kid plagued by a succession of childhood diseases that, each time I encountered them, sent me to bed for a week or two, safe from school (where I probably picked up the germs to begin with). I don’t know if it is still common practice or not but in those days, at least with measles or mumps or chickenpox (I forget what one or ones) you had to stay in a darkened room for fear sunlight would damage your eyesight. That left you in the gloom with the radio for company, unable even to read a book.

 

So I spent long days in the company of One Man’s Family, Stella Dallas, Backstage Wife, all part of a multitude of soap operas that spun out endless tales of woe and misery well beyond the scope of a seven-year-old to understand but maybe comforting in the knowledge that no matter how much I longed to claw at the poultry pox that deviled me, those unseen folks on the Zenith were worse off than me.

 

Zenith radios date to just after the end of World War I and by the nineteen thirties they were preeminent. Our Zenith probably was born in the mid to the late nineteen thirties and probably was produced in Chicago which was a hub for the corporation. Today vintage Zenith radios are highly sought after by collectors and can sell for many thousand dollars—the top-of-the-line model has gone for as much as $50,000.

 

It was on our Zenith that news came on December 7, 1941, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. In one of the ironies of history, Zenith became a victim of the modern electronic corporate war and was sold to the South Korean LG Corporation in the nineteen nineties and thus now is an Asian corporation rather than a product of the Midwest United States.

 

Our Zenith had two shortwave bands and sometimes, late at night, when my parents were asleep, I would tune in to one of them and carefully, like a safe cracker feeling for the tumblers on a difficult lock, delicately probe the frequencies hoping to hear a distant, static- garbled voice, speaking in a foreign language.

 

Imagination kicked in. Was this some frantic sailor far out on the ocean in the midst of a terrible storm, 40 foot waves crashing over the bow of his foundering ship, the vessel plunging precipitously into the huge troughs between waves as he frantically sent out signals begging for help—but only heard by a seven-year-old kid located in the middle of the United States. On the other hand, speaking from the viewpoint of an adult, it probably was some totally bored seaman gossiping with another equally bored ham radio enthusiast who happened to speak the same language, both complaining about how bored they were.

 

Today’s kid is burgeoned with a stampede of electronic devices that feed him or her with a constant and overwhelming avalanche of entertainment and information— cell phones, big-screen television, computers, IMAX and probably other plug-ins that I, dinosaur that I am, don’t even know about.  But,  today’s kid can’t jumpstart his or her imagination and create from voices on a radio a thrilling story of yesteryear (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!”) Hell, it was food for the ears!

 

Ah, the Zenith. It was a constant presence through my preadolescent and adolescent years, and then it traveled with us when we moved to Missouri through my teenage years into young adulthood. You didn’t just listen to radio in those days; you participated in it. You had to imagine. No one was bombarding your senses with pictures. When Fibber McGee opened his cluttered closet, as his wife Molly shouted a warning and there was a resounding crash, you imagined the cascade of objects that tumbled out.

 

Aside from the  chaotic crash of his closet, Fibber, in common with several of the radio shows of my childhood had an eccentric cast of characters with whom he engaged each week. There was Mayor LaTrivia, the mayor of the town in which Fibber and Molly lived (for some reason I don’t remember the name of the town, but indelibly engraved on my memory is their street address— 79 Wistful Vista). Living just down the street was Wallace Wimple, a birdwatcher who was extremely proud of his bird book (pronounced with explosive B’s). Never seen or heard was Myrt, the telephone operator with whom Fibber conducted a one sided dialogue which invariably began with him saying “Operator, give me number Three Two Zero…. Oh, is that you, Myrt? How’s every little thing, Myrt? What say, Myrt?”

 

After which, Fibber would repeat to Molly what Myrt was saying. Molly had a catchphrase, “Tain’t funny, Magee!” Although it was and the show was the most popular on radio at the time.

 

This was when you had to go through an operator to make a phone call—no direct dialing in those antediluvian days. Years later, when I was sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger I could direct dial all the towns whose teams I covered except for Laddonia who retained an operator who, like Myrt, I never saw but who invariably answered my dialtone by declaiming “La-Doan-E-Ah!” I was always tempted to say, “oh, is that you Myrt?”

 

Equally entertaining as Fibber and Molly with their multitude of odd characters, was the parade of oddballs who populated Allen’s Alley. I remember them as if they were neighbors of ours, first in Chicago and then when the radio moved along with us to Missouri in tiny Dalton. I guess the radio didn’t make the last family move which occurred when I was in college. I don’t know if my parents sold it gave it away or simply moved from their home in Macon Missouri a few miles west and left it behind. Whatever the reason it vanished from my life and I miss it.

 

I miss the familiar Allen’s Alley voices: Titus Moody, the Down Easter from Maine who greeted  Allen with a dry “Howdy, Bub.” Some of the characters today would be politically incorrect— the Irishman Ajax Cassidy who never met a drink he didn’t like, the Jewish  Mrs. Pansy  Nussbaum who would exclaim “you were expectink maybe Weinstein Churchill?” Or Sen. Claghorn, a blustering and unregenerate Confederate Southerner who wouldn’t drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or go to Yankee Stadium.

 

We didn’t know they were politically incorrect and they actually weren’t that far off from people we knew. They were funny at the time although they wouldn’t be today. It was a more innocent time, before the tumult of the nineteen sixties and the outrages that have dirtied every decade since. We may be better for it as a society, although enduring the Trump Era makes me doubt it. I still wonder about that storm tossed sailor whose  scratchy voice struggled through the speaker of the Zenith—was he in peril or not, and if so was he saved or claimed by the cold depths of the ocean.

 

These motes of memory stick in the mind’s eye like pieces of grit blown there by the winds of time, little irritants of useless information—the jumble of nuts and bolts that you save because they might come in useful someday but never do. However, life’s lessons sometimes are mixed in among those tattered remnants. For example, long before there was a popular television series called “Cheers” (where everybody knows your name), on the old Zenith there was a program about a bar, possibly at the same address where Cheers would be in the future, and after all these many years I still can tell you exactly how each episode began: a telephone would ring, and a voice would say “Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speaking, Duffy ain’t here.”

 

There are things I desperately want to remember in case they are needed, but that I cannot. For example I would love to be able to recite my favorite poetry. “Casey at the Bat,” “the Cremation of Sam McGee,” and especially “the Jabberwocky.” And Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address probably would be more impressive to listeners than a recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary tribute to a talking bird, but there it is.

 

However, there is one tidbit of information I have never forgotten thanks to an obscure movie starring, I believe Ronald Colman (not sure—I’ve forgotten). At one time it was necessary for me to memorize my college student ID number, another time my military service number, and my rifle serial number. All those have been washed out of my mind’s eye by the Visine of forgetfulness. But thanks to Mr. Colman I still can tell you one vital number (well, I won’t because it is supposed to be a vital personal secret, although the Russians probably know it). Mr. Colman was a contestant on a Jeopardy-like radio show and he won consistently week after week, piling up money answering questions that no human being should be required to know until it came to the ultimate grand prize question which was…. What is your Social Security number? Instant funk! It was a life lesson that has stuck with me through the decades.

 

Ultimately, radio drama gave way to television and the voices that shaped my life became silent overwhelmed by what one critic called “chewing gum for the eyes.” As always, the acerbic Fred Allen summed up television succinctly, “you know television is called the new medium and I discovered why they call it a medium—because nothing is well done.”

 

Allen also observed, “I don’t like furniture that talks,” although I suppose that also could have applied to the Zenith radio. But, considering the endless list of dopey reality shows available today, Fred Allen hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head when he observed about television, “Television allows people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.”

 

Walter Winchell dramatically began his evening newscast with a burst of Morse code and the rapidfire words, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” Perhaps he was talking to that storm tossed sailor as well as Mr. and Mrs. America. The sailor is long gone if he ever existed many of the Mr. and Mrs. Americans have joined him in the dust of time.

 

And so has my beloved Zenith and perhaps it’s fitting to close with the words of Red Skelton, a radio fixture before he emigrated to television where he continued to close his show by saying, “Good night and may God bless.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 12th, 2020

ROUGH AND READY

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

Considering the precipitous plunge of the stock market, I have a tip for would-be investors. Our savvy business leader Donald J Trump, who used to spend more time practicing bankruptcy than he did at anything other than playing golf, recommends that investors, rather than running for the exits, spend more money buying stocks.

 

Okay, so I don’t know squat about the stock market, but I do have a surefire investment tip. You may have read that people, in blind panic over the potential spread of coronavirus, have been stockpiling toilet paper. Our son-in-law recently went shopping in Colorado Springs and the shelf normally containing Charmin and other paper products euphemistically titled toilet tissue, was bare.

 

Now, here’s my stock market tip: those of you with country roots may recall or have heard that in the absence of toilet paper and when the Sears and Roebuck catalog got down to the last few pages, our rural forebears resorted to more primitive methods of cleaning up after a trek to the little house out back. Among those emergency sanitary measures was the corncob— the very thought to a modern mind is enough to cause incipient hemorrhoids, but in olden times you made do. You see where I’m going with this don’t you? Here is a chance (assuming there is on the futures market an entry for corn byproducts) to clean up so to speak (I probably should apologize for that pun, but won’t).

 

There always has been a thriving market for corncobs in my home state, Missouri. Washington Missouri, a charming town on the Missouri River, blissfully and thankfully far removed from the similarly named seat of insanity located far to the east but with the same name, is the home of the corncob pipe. Corncob pipes have been made in Washington for 150 years at the Missouri Meerchaum Corncob Pipe Company, handcrafted for six generations.

 

The company grows its own corn on 150 acres, from corn hybridized, in cooperation with the University of Missouri’s agricultural school to create the best cob to be crafted into a smoking implement. Pipes range from about $17-$50 depending on how fancy you want the finished result to be. The company does not, nor would I expect them ever to advertise a secondary use of their cobs for you-know-what.

 

So now we come to the situation which everyone is sweating (hoping that the sweating is not a symptom) that of coronavirus becoming a pandemic of the magnitude of so-called Spanish flu which killed millions of people worldwide in 1918. That death toll seems unlikely, given the statistics that 80% of coronavirus victims have only a mild case, another 14% something more severe, and a final 5% suffer a fatal case. So an infected person has a 95% chance of surviving. Sounds like good odds, unless you’re in that 5% category.

I don’t know where I read it or heard the comment but considering the incompetent bumbling of the government in organizing efforts to contain coronavirus, it seems appropriate “they couldn’t organize a fart after eating a can of beans.”

 

The key to finding out if you have coronavirus, flu, or the common cold of course is testing. But testing so far in the United States has been a bureaucratic nightmare, a tangle of red tape and confusion symptomatic of most efforts by the Trump administration to do anything. Trump says anyone can be tested if they want it while doctors struggle to get test kits despite promises that millions will be available within days (they aren’t and won’t be). The United States has tested about 5000 people so far in contrast to other countries where twice that number are tested every day.

 

Trump recently and reluctantly visited the Centers for Disease Control before enjoying a weekend playing golf at Mar-a-Lago and gladhanding his adoring big-money donors. Considering that frequent handwashing is the most often quoted defense against coronavirus, it’s somewhat astonishing that Trump would allow himself within shouting distance of a virus but he was quick to assure the public that he is the healthiest president in the history of the United States and since he has had no symptoms, he doesn’t need to be tested. No sniffles, no foul.

 

And to further assure his mindless base that he has the situation under control, he bragged that “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of the doctors said, “how do you know so much about this?” Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.” Aside from smarmy praise from Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, who obviously gets paid more to be an ass kisser than he does to be a CDC director, I suspect that rather than being “surprised” by the president’s medical knowledge, health professionals on hand were, to choose a better word, “appalled”.

 

“I don’t think it’s gonna spread. I think it probably will, it possibly will. We’ll have to see. It might spread a little, it might be a lot, I really think it won’t… Ebola makes you dissolve but this is like the flu—did you know that thousands of people die every year from the flu? I bet you didn’t know that, but we are ready.”

 

Amid this babel of nonsense is the fact that most people do know that thousands of people die from the flu every year and the Healer in Chief really should also because his own grandfather died from it in 1918. An essential difference between the two diseases is that there are vaccines and treatments available for the flu, but it will take a year or more to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, if indeed we ever can. To minimize coronavirus by saying that more people die from flu than do from the emerging virus is irresponsible and misleading. Many more people die from auto accidents than do from coronavirus…. So far. But the threat from a global coronavirus pandemic is obvious to virtually everyone except Trump and his dimwitted base.

 

Haven’t had enough Trump goofy speak? Here’s Trump is keeping up with coronavirus: “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you could possibly imagine. Many contingencies. A lot of positive. Different numbers, all different numbers, very large numbers, and some small numbers too… It’s really working out and a lot of good things are going to happen.”

 

One of the late-night comedians theorized that Trump will solve the threat of coronavirus from Mexico by moving the slats on his mostly nonexistent wall closer together so the virus can’t get through. It got a laugh, but don’t discount Trump proposing something every bit as ridiculous. Actually, Mexico has reported six coronavirus cases, unlike our northern neighbor Canada which has so far identified 93 cases and one death. As I write this United States case total has topped 1000.  Trump’s illlogic is mindbending. Criticized for not consulting with foreign leaders before announcing a travel ban from their countries, he equated the lack of contact with them to them raising taxes on American products without letting him know.

 

In case you have forgotten, now that Trump has declared himself a medical expert who amazes the nation’s healthcare professionals, he also is master of nuclear physics: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons, and other things, like lots of things are done with uranium, including bad things.” And in case you also have forgotten, this is the person who has his finger on the nuclear button and a quick temper. We may not have to worry about a coronavirus pandemic if Trump gets up some morning, watches Fox and Friends, and decides to rid the world of their mutual enemies.

 

At least Trump doesn’t have to worry about closing down Trump University as Harvard and other major educational institutions have done or are threatening to do—TU is as defunct and as decomposed as a Trump steak. You could lift a glass of Trump wine to mourn the failure of yet another Donald Trump business foray…. Oh, wait! That failed also.

 

So, until Trump (or more likely) healthcare professionals come up with effective treatments for coronavirus, stick with the widely recommended preventives: 1. Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds; 2. Avoid crowds; 3. Stay home from work if you’re sick; 4. It’s probably impossible but the recommendation is to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; 5. If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care. And I would add, frequently use hand sanitizer—if you can find any (apparently it has widely gone the way of toilet paper).

 

If you’re worried about your retirement income spiraling down the drain as the stock market continues to tank, you might follow Trump’s advice and invest in a diverse and time-honored way, cherished by all con artists. Gather your Trump loving acquaintances and offer them the deal of a lifetime. Tell them you own a bridge in Brooklyn that just happens to be for sale for a nominal amount. You will let them in on this one time offer before the stock market recovers. Tell them Trump has been pulling similar scams for many years and they will be scuffling among themselves to buy in.

 

But, just in case, don’t forget to stock up on corncobs.

 

P.S.: our local grocery store is out of toilet paper.

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  • March 6th, 2020

RIVER STORIES

By Joel M. Vance

 

Rivers have voices. Sure they do. You know they do. If ever you camp on a gravel bar at night beside a stretch of fast water, you have heard the whisper of the river. Maybe it’s the gurgle of water pushing at a snag or the murmur of water piling up at the rocks downstream, but the voice is there. There are stories to be heard and retold in the sounds of the river—at the very least memories to be played again and again in the minds of tomorrow.

 

The Couderay River is a small stream in Northwest Wisconsin. Once I stopped at Billy Boy dam, allegedly named for a long ago Ojibway chief, and cast into the wash below the dam and presently a fish hit hard and fought fiercely for a few minutes until I landed it. It was a sub legal muskellunge and I released it.  Across from me on the far bank was a tarpaper shack.  A couple of Native American children played in the yard and I wondered how the family could endure the sometimes brutal cold of winter in such a ramshackle setting.   I continued on to another, larger river to the north, the Bois Brule, known as the River of presidents because several of our nation’s leaders fished in it at one time or another.

 

Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower all wet a line in the Brule at one time or another. One of the guides was rumored to have dallied with Coolidge’s wife while the notoriously taciturn Silent Cal was occupied on the stream.  But Cal was before my time, so I chose Mr. Eisenhower, among my most favorite presidents, to be featured in one of my fictional stories translated from river conversation.

 

The Brule is a storied river and the stories are there if you listen to the whisper.  The story I heard became the final story in my book, “Billy Barnstorm, the Birch Lake Bomber.”  My often hapless hero, Bobby, heads for the Brule in his decrepit pickup, Rocinante, (named for the addled would be knight Don Quixote’s spavined horse) and stops at Billy Boy dam en route where he meets a beautiful teenage Native American girl who invites herself along on his trip. They float the Brule in Bobby’s canoe and she seduces him and then abandons him. For her it is an insignificant incident; for him it is a transcendent moment. He runs after her, but she has vanished, and he stumbles onto the bank of the Brule, totally disoriented, only to encounter the president of the United States and a surly Secret Service agent, fully prepared to shoot him on the spot. You’ll have to buy the book to get the details, but that’s the bare-bones of a story whispered to me by two Wisconsin rivers.

It just takes a little imagination to fill the gaps and, for the record, there were no beautiful Indian maidens at Billy Boy the day I stopped and no presidents fishing on the Brule when I continued on. But imagination is a wonderful thing and all it takes is a few rivers whispering untold stories.

The Couderay is a sweet little river, not very long and totally without daunting rapids, unlike the Brule which has a couple of class III rapids interspersed among its many tranquil pools where the good angler can find brown and rainbow trout and, in season, spawning coho salmon fresh in from Lake Superior.

 

The Couderay was the last place I fished with George Mattis. George was considerably older than I, a high school classmate of my mother in Birchwood. George had written a book the first time I met him, and was trying to peddle it to a publisher. He was a journalism graduate and had newspaper experience and was writing an outdoor column for couple of local newspapers. I was dubious about the possibility he would find a publisher for his book about white tailed deer hunting since there already were countless other books on the same subject. On our next fishing trip together George told me that the Outdoor Life book club had accepted his book.  It turned out to be the best-selling book they ever published and I’m quite sure George made a mint of money from it.

 

We went fishing on a local lake for trout and George accidentally dropped his Wheatley fly box into the Lake where it promptly sank out of sight. George moaned as if someone had dropped a towering oak tree on his brand-new Mercedes (which I suspect he could afford from the royalties on his deer hunting book, except that he continued to drive a tiny compact, years old and without power windows steering or any other accessory you find on the lowest end Mercedes). “A friend in England gave that fly box to me during the war,” George said. He was a World War II vet, proud of his service so much that his rank and time of service are inscribed on his tombstone.

 

George largely was the inspiration for a story I wrote about trout fishing on Thirty Three Creek. Bobby goes fishing with his uncle Al, a combination of George Mattis and my Missouri uncle Roy Finney. Uncle Al is featured in many of my stories of the fictional town of Birch Lake which, in reality, is Birchwood, my mother’s home town. It’s a ghost story and appeared in my book “Autumn Shadows” and perhaps someday on a stream, not unlike Thirty Three, I will glimpse the ghosts of George Mattis and Roy Finnell, both of whom have faded into the autumn shadows.  Once again a body of running water inspired a story.

 

It was late in the evening when Foster Sadler and I eased our canoe to an inviting gravel bar on one of the many rivers that we shared together—so many that I have forgotten the name of this particular one, but not what happened and how it inspired yet another ghost story from “Autumn Shadows.”

 

I was wrangling cooking gear up the gravel bar where we were going to set up our camp tent while Foster bent over the gunwale of the canoe. I heard a cracking sound and turned to see a sizable tree that had chosen that instant in time to topple, beginning to fall directly toward Foster and I had just an instant to yell a warning. Foster straightened and the tree grazed his back as it landed with a thud and splashed partly in the river. Aside from a scrape and a bruise, Foster was uninjured.  If he hadn’t reacted to my shout, the tree could have broken his back or even killed him.

 

That was one half of a story but I needed a gimmick to flesh it out. I remembered that John Voelker, the author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout fisherman had referred to his favorite fly as “a little bitty brown thing.” I incorporated that favorite fly with Foster’s near fatal encounter with a falling tree and the result is another autumn shadow from the ghost book.

 

If it seems that I create stories from adversity and misfortune, it goes back a long way to when my wife, Marty, went to our family doctor during her first pregnancy for a routine checkup. She was sitting next to a woman in the waiting room who was cradling an injured arm. Marty asked what had happened and the woman mumbled something unintelligible. Marty asked again and the woman shamefacedly confessed that she had been shooting a game of pool in the family rec room with no one home when the cue ball became lodged in a ball channel. She fished for it, couldn’t quite reach it, pushed her hand further into the channel and her elbow dropped into the pocket and she was trapped, as effectively as a raccoon reaching for bait in a coon trap. She had to wait all day until someone came home and called paramedics to rescue her. They had to dismantle the pool table to free her.

 

When Marty told me the story and I quit laughing I realized that for a short story writer, the situation was pure gold. It became one of the stories in my first book “Grandma And The Buck Deer” after first being published for some nice money in Field and Stream magazine.

 

Once I was stuck for an idea for a humor column (the operative word here as it turned out was “stuck”). I remembered that once I had hooked myself while fly fishing for bluegills with a popping bug in the skin over the breast bone. I remembered the trick of looping monofilament over the shank of the embedded hook, giving a backward jerk of the loop, at which the hook is supposed to slip loose without leaving a mark or a bloody wound. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see what I was doing—try it some time looking at your mid chest without eyestrain. I found a mirror and tried the idea hoping to avoid self-mutilation. But everything is backward in a mirror and after imitating all of the vintage Three Stooges, I gave a hopeful pull and, miracle of miracles, it worked!

 

So I had the foundation of a humor column, but more in the nature of a how to—nothing there to form the basis of humor. So I polled some of my outdoor writer friends for funny experiences they had had with hooks. Every angler at one time or another has barbed himself or someone else. Sure enough, my dear friend the late Mike Levy, outdoor editor of the Buffalo New York newspaper came up with an incomparable anecdote.

 

He had taken his small son bluegill fishing and it was getting late and almost dark, time to go home. The youngster was fooling with a large fishing plug, bristling with treble hooks, and got his line tangled. Mike, good daddy that he was, began to straighten out the mess when the youngster somehow jerked his fishing rod and one of the treble hooks on the plug neatly impaled Mike’s right thumb. In pain, he reflexively pulled away with his left hand, neatly impaling his left thumb on a treble hook at the other end of the plug. A unique dilemma. “Have you ever tried to drive with both hands hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

 

The rest of the story, equally funny, if you’re not the hooked angler, is grist for another blog, but the incident obviously was grist for a short story, featuring my eternally beleaguered hero, Bobby. But I needed a hook, so to speak, on which to hang the story as well as Bobby so I remembered an incident when I was fishing on the Chippewa River and glimpsed a muskellunge rising from a pool like a Polaris missile only to sink silently back into the deep. The story is a chapter in my book “the Exploding Elephant.”

 

I wrote it, first using the original Mike Levy anecdote in my humor column, then I sold the subsequent short story for an impressive sum, then entered the short story in a contest and took first place for $500 prize money, then included the story as a chapter in the book.

 

When I told Mike, having the grace to be somewhat ashamed about how much money I had gleaned from his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again.”

 

So listen to the murmur from the river. There are stories in those mutterings. But be wary of fishhooks, especially if attached to little bitty brown things or great big Pikie Minnow plugs, and of letting your significant other shoot pool with no one else around.

 

On the other hand, the one not attached to a fish hook, you might miss some wonderful stories.

 

 

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