Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • November 11th, 2017

MOORE IS LESS

By Joel M. Vance

In 1959 my wife, Marty and I fled the land of grits and hominy for Missouri, a move that couldn’t have come too soon. Now the rest of the world has gotten a graphic reminder of all that motivated our move.
Roy Moore, the Republican candidate and putative shoo-in for United States Senator from Alabama, has gotten caught with his hand in the panties of a 14-year-old girl, a transgression that, even in Alabama, with a reputation for some of the most disreputable politicians in the history of the country, might be enough to deny him a seat in the Senate.
Moore, already a discredited judge, still had enough credits with the credulous voters of Alabama, who were willing to ignore every one of his outrageous statements over the years, but who may not be able to ignore this over-the-top indiscretion.
Although, given that Alabama voted for Donald Trump to be the president of the country, a man who brags about his ability to fondle women’s underwear, anything is possible. Alabama has a long and inglorious history of electing politicians who, in a just society, would be serving prison terms. But then you have to remember that Alabama is a state where formal dress often is considered a white sheet, and a weenie roast historically often featured a black person as the main course.
The Republican primary was a typically bizarre Alabama political Keystone Kop melodrama. Moore ran against Luther Strange who had been appointed to fill the unexpired term of Jeff Sessions who had been appointed the nation’s attorney general, the top cop on the federal level. Sessions, of course, is at the heart of the investigation into the Russian meddling in the 2016 election which saw Donald Trump unaccountably become president.
Strange was the Attorney General of Alabama, who was investigating the governor, who was involved in a scandal of his own. Governor Robert Bentley was accused of having an overly cozy relationship with one of his aides, some of which was recorded and the salacious tape was played widely to the amusement of everybody not involved. So what happens? The governor appoints Strange to fill the empty seat of Jeff Sessions— rewarding (and derailing) the very fellow who was investigating him for sexual misconduct. Bentley resigned ahead of being impeached.
So you have the governor of the state hanky-pankying around with an aide, suspected of cutting a deal with his attorney general, the fellow who was investigating him, who in turn was defeated in a primary battle with a discredited judge, who now has been implicated in his own sexual scandal.
Alabama politics as weird as it almost always is, can’t get much more convoluted than that and, if you happen to live almost anywhere else, laughable. One of the former governor’s spokespersons, Angi Stalnaker, summed up Alabama politics thusly “all of our corruption up until now had been our own private family embarrassment.”
I started working for the Alabama Journal, a newspaper of not much renown, in 1956, the tail end of the political reign of perhaps the most colorful politician Alabama has spawned—and that’s saying a lot. Big Jim Folsom, 6 foot eight and 250 pounds, was coming to the end of his term as governor, ultimately brought down by a combination of outrageous behavior, not the least of which was appearing drunk on television.
He was called Big Jim, for obvious reasons, but also Kissin’ Jim for his habit of planting one on every pretty girl he met. I heard that once he tried that with a University of Alabama cheerleader and she responded by slapping the snot out of him. He bragged about his amatory overtures, but said that he confined his smooching to women 16 and up, unlike the present Republican senatorial candidate who apparently has no lower age limit. “It was sort of like baby kissing” Folsom said, “Only I started with the 16-year-old ones and worked up from there.”
Folsom was, as were all most all southern politicians of the day, a Democrat. It was only in the 1960s and later that the xenophobic Democratic party switched identities with the Republicans and today’s Republican is similar if not identical to the Democrat of the 1950s and 1960s.
Stories about Kissin’Jim were legendary in the Journal newsroom. He would show up drunk at a news conference and the reporters would enjoy his bawdy repartee with them. One possibly apocryphal story was that when he was barnstorming through southern Alabama some redneck shouted out, “Jim, they say you been stealing up there in Montgomery.” To which Folsom replied, “shore I stole. You want all them sons of bitches up there to get all the money?” And the crowd cheered.
The Folsom era ended with a typically knotted Alabama political Gordian knot. His successor was George Wallace whose second wife was Folsom’s niece. And Folsom had a well-publicized affair with the 18-year-old daughter of Earl Warren, later to be the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and a noted liberal who spearheaded the decision by the court to end segregated schools in the South. Wallace famously would go on to stand in the door of the University of Alabama to deny Autherine Lucy, an African-American, access to the then all white University.
To give Folsom his due, he vowed to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation order because as he said it was the law of the land and he would obey the law of the land. I worked with a fellow who had been a school principal in a rural Alabama school and who said the same thing—that if it was the law he would obey it and desegregate the school. He was fired by the school board.
I think that it may have been the morning before we left Alabama for good. Marty and I went out for breakfast. And I decided to try grits with my eggs and bacon. I discovered that, along with hominy, grits constituted the epitome of Alabama cuisine and it was time to hit the road. If Alabama politics had not curdled my soul, a diet of grits and hominy was sure to.
We headed back to Missouri which, in those days, was scarcely more advanced in civil rights than Alabama, but at least we didn’t endorse the Klan, white citizen’s councils, and other examples of Southern social clubs. We stuck with the Kiwanis Lions and other more traditional and acceptable guy gatherings of white middle-class males.
Still to come in the Southland I happily left behind were the murders of civil rights workers, the bludgeoning of marchers seeking equal rights, the loosing of police dogs and fire hoses on yet more protesters of school integration by such stalwarts of bigotry as George Wallace and Orville Faubus.
Still to come also was Roy Moore, the latest incarnation of bizarre Alabama politicians. His explanation for his behavior and the interpretations of his supporters are like dialogue from the most fervid imaginings of Lewis Carroll. Alice would have fled in horror— bad enough to be harangued by giant rabbits and deranged hat makers, but attempted diddling by Roy Moore is beyond Wonderland and well into the territory of Hell.
Moore was appointed as a judge by then Alabama governor Guy Hunt who would be convicted of theft for converting $200,000 campaign contributions so he could build a marble shower and buy a lawnmower. Hunt resigned in disgrace in 1993. Moore twice was kicked out of the judiciary, once for defying a court order to remove a plaque containing the 10 Commandments from his court room, the second time for willfully and publicly defying the orders of a United States District Court. In 2016 Moore was suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission which found him guilty of six ethics charges, stemming from his defiance of previous court orders.
Since then Moore has been active railing against same-sex marriage, homosexuality, Islam, and anything he doesn’t like. Moore did explain that he probably did date younger women when he was in his 30s but never, he stoutly maintained, without having gotten the consent of the girls’ mothers, an explanation that raises eyebrows high enough to cause vision problems. Can you imagine the parents of a 14-year-old giving consent to their daughter dating a 32-year-old man? Daddy would be busy searching for shotgun shells while mom would be busy dialing 911.
If you have seen the news stories about Roy Moore and it is difficult not to have, you doubtless have seen him riding a horse. Other than the fact that it’s difficult to separate him from the back end of the horse I am invariably inspired to comment to the television set with a suggestion that other than committing illegal shenanigans with underage girls he should also consort with, as the phrase ends, ” the horse you rode in on.”

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  • Blog
  • November 5th, 2017

ONCE AGAIN

I’ve posted this piece several times since I wrote it several years ago. Every day seems to bring new divisions in the country and new animosity among people that used to be United—or at least most of the time. We are a country of immigrants, of diverse religious, political, and social beliefs, and that is our strength. It is, when we forget, that we begin to become unraveled. I’ve submitted this for publication at least two dozen times and no one has seen fit to publish it. Perhaps it’s just no good, perhaps the editors are idiots, perhaps I should retire and listen to Beethoven.

By Joel M. Vance
It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”
Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.
I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.
The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.
And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.
Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.
We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.
We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.
But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.
It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.
Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.
We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last native acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.
While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.
So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • October 29th, 2017

GONE HOME TONEW ORLEANS

By JoelM. Vance

A sprawling low ceiling room, filled with the stench of cigarette smoke (this was in the days when not only everyone smoked, but there were no prohibitions against it in public places), stale beer and sweating college students. The atmosphere was light years away from emulating the name of the place– the Paradise Club, part dance hall, part roadhouse, and all unique in Columbia, Missouri, where it introduced a generation of college students to seminal rock ‘n roll. There were three colleges to draw from–the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and Christian (now Columbia College).
It was for the last couple of years of my largely undistinguished college career, a Mecca of Music, a place where the aficionados of early rock ‘n roll could hear the giants of the genre in person. It sprawled four miles east of Columbia on old Highway 40, and there African-Americans and white college students mingled freely in an era when segregation still was in full flower and the three colleges were virtually lily white. The presence of several burly bouncers, who looked like the front four of any given NFL defensive line ensured that racial disharmony would be short-lived— but I never saw anything untoward just people enjoying the best of roots rock ‘n roll.
Outside in the crowded parking lot there was a Mount Everest of empty beer cans where once, while being introduced to the date of an acquaintance, I lost my balance and fell backward into that reeking monument to college degradation that, to give it its due, cushioned my fall. The guy went on to be the attorney for the University of Missouri, and I suspect he doesn’t remember the incident, and neither does his date, other than with disgust, but the moment is etched in my memory forever. That same attorney-to-be also had taught me to sift a salt shaker into a foaming glass of beer to temper the head on the beer, a useful trick for any lawyer. Apparently I had done considerable salt sifting that night, which is why I lost my tenuous grip on balance.
But I was not at the Paradise Club to fall into mountains of beer cans or to shake salt into my drink, despite my dive into the crumpled Budweiser talus. I was there to drink in the music of an entertainer who to this day, a sad one as it turns out, lingers in my memory like the sweet aftertaste of beer that didn’t go flat (thanks, no doubt to a deftly manipulated saltshaker). The evening news, now that my days of falling into mountains of beer cans, and seasoning my foaming beer glass, are regretfully over, carried the story that Fats Domino had died. If, in later years, there would be Deadheads who followed the fortunes of the Grateful Dead with the devotion of religious zealots, I was (and just skip the lame jokes) a Fatshead. Fats was the apotheosis of rock ‘n roll, nevermind the other giants who shared fame with him.
Yes, there was Little Richard, who attacked a piano as if he were afraid that if he didn’t it would attack back, Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage to the irrepressible lilt of “Sweet Little Sixteen’, and that amped up white kid from the Memphis area who would be crowned the King of rock ‘n roll —but not by those us who were Fatsheads. To give him credit the Memphis King is the only rock ‘n roll artist who sold more records than my king. But Fats racked up 68 million records sold and had more sales than Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly put together. Not bad, considering that Fats never had a record that hit number one on the best-selling chart. “Blueberry Hill” came closest topping out at number two.
The chunky baritone from New Orleans, with the fluid Cajun accent and a pounding boogie beat, was the real King of rock ‘n roll to me and always will be as long as I’m around to pay homage. Fats didn’t much like his lardy nickname when it was first applied to him but when he sold one million copies of his first recording titled “The Fat Man” he accepted the moniker with gratitude and a gold record.
The Paradise Club was respite from the drudgery and trauma of college classes. To be sure, there were classes that I enjoyed like French, with the idea in mind that I would someday travel to Paris, and live on the Left Bank and join the ranks of the literary lions of yesteryear— Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and those guys. Then there were classes like sociology, a so-called science that I equated with alchemy and the summoning of evil entities through devil worship. There were no devils at the Paradise Club, only the Angels of rock ‘n roll.
For his greatness, Fats only had an eight year career in the upper reaches of the charts before the Beatles came along and blew everyone out of the water. Still he didn’t quit even though early rock ‘n roll morphed into music that bore little relation to the boogie, rhythm and blues, and jazz roots that had nurtured it. He was still touring and filling small clubs with aficionados with long memories when he vanished amid the chaos of Hurricane Katrina and was feared dead. Several days later he was rescued along with his wife of 50 years from the roof of their destroyed home. Gone was the legacy of his musical career including his gold records, but his indomitable amiability remained as did he until time caught up with him.
Once I took a date to the Paradise, a freshman (or are they now in this era of gender equality, called freshwomen?) from Stephens College (they were and probably still are called Stephens Susies). Normally, our outings to the Paradise were guys-only where we could be unfettered and ill mannered without the animus of a date. My little Susie turned out to be a loose cannon who, feeling the effects of a drink or two which she acquired from God knows where (not me—I didn’t have enough money to buy a half pint of Jim Beam) she ran through the parking lot opening cars and jumping in while I vainly tried to corral her. It was like trying to put a halter on an unbroken filly and I vowed to myself that if I ever succeeded in getting this girl back to her dorm, I would, first of all, never date again and secondly I would never take another date to the Paradise Club.
Fortunately, I did date again and 61 years later, I am married to a subsequent date— but I never took Marty to the Paradise Club.
The parade of rock ‘n roll superstars who appeared at the Paradise Club is astonishing. Ike and Tina Turner owned a piece of the place, and appeared there many times. I saw BB King plucking blue notes out of Lucille, his fabled electric guitar as if he were back in the cotton fields of Arkansas pulling cotton bolls before the world realized his genius. Chuck Berry traveled over from his home in St. Louis to astonish with often copied guitar licks (hail, hail rock ‘n roll!).
Of them all there was one, only one, who approached Fats in my affection. He actually predated Fats in grabbing my musical mind by its metaphorical throat. Ray Charles sang “Come Back, Baby” on a distant radio station from somewhere in Arkansas and I picked it up on our old Zenith upright radio in Macon, Missouri, where I spent lonely weekends, because I had no baby to come back. Macon was the new town to which we had moved from Dalton where music appreciation ended about the time of the Edison phonograph. Charles had begun as a Nat King Cole clone, but had switched to black gospel-inflected blues and ”Come Back, Baby” was so raw with emotion that it made me shiver all over.
There he was, one night at the Paradise Club, not yet one of the towering musical geniuses of the 20th century, but to those of us who had delved into black rock ‘n roll before that insipid Pat Boone began to rip off black artists with his pallid and uninspired cover records, he was the real deal.
At the break I went to the stage, hoping to get an autograph but was intercepted by one of the Raylettes, and when I told her what I wanted she said I’ll sign it,” and did so.
Ray Charles was to the back of the stage slumped on his piano bench and although I didn’t know it, he was floating on a heroin high, a drug which ultimately he would kick en route to immortality
Our drug of choice was dime a glass beer or the cheapest whiskey possible—Early Times was a raw favorite, barely out of the still. If you want to experience the full flavor of Ray Charles musical genius look up the YouTube video of him and Willie Nelson singing “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Still, as much as I love Ray Charles, and the other legends of early rock ‘n roll, it was Fats Domino who dominated my affection. There is an indelible memory of the one night I saw him at the Paradise Club, in the full flower of his fame. He sat at the front of the stage, pounding out hit after hit, and leaning slightly toward the audience as if to inhale them. He sweated mightily with the effort of his entertainment, his ever genial smile warming the audience like a ray of sunshine.
Directly in front of him, perhaps six or eight feet back into the room was a support pillar against which leaned an enormous African-American lady who jiggled with the beat like a great bowl of Jell-O. It was hard to tell whether she was supporting the post or vice versa but to her it was a dance partner. She rotated around the pillar 360°, never losing contact with it. Each time she came face-to-face with Fats, she would jerk an enormous handkerchief from somewhere, the size of a bedsheet, and step forward to mop his streaming brow, after which she would step backward against her pillar and Fats would illuminate her with his capacious grin.
The Paradise Club is a long gone and now so is Fats Domino. It’s the fate of old men to mourn the golden moments of yesteryear, those pinpricks of sheer joy that will not come again.

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  • Blog
  • October 25th, 2017

LOST RIVER

By Joel M. Vance

Long before President Eisenhower became the father of the interstate highway system, the country was traversed by rivers. The earliest explorers probed up the upper Mississippi River in the 1600s and were frightened by the tumultuous rush of the Missouri River at its mouth. Then Lewis and Clark braved the Missouri River en route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5. Later explorers included the naturalist John James Audubon, and George Catlin a painter who documented Indian tribes that the white man callously exterminated by infecting them with smallpox against which they had no immunity.
Most settlers and pioneers who invaded what now is the United States relied on rivers to get from here to there. The Chariton River once threaded its way halfway through Missouri from Iowa to the Missouri River, a serpentine waterway that even as it quarters the top half of the state, also bisects the history of the Vance family. Almost all pioneers in Missouri and elsewhere owe some of their heritage to a river of some size, but the Chariton River is woven inextricably through the fabric of the Vance family’s history.
The Chariton belongs almost equally to Iowa and Missouri— with 106 miles of its length in Iowa and the remaining hundred and 12 miles in Missouri, before it is swallowed by the Missouri, South of Keytesville where I went to high school. That 218 mile length is misleading. Once the river coursed hundreds of miles until man got his grubby fingers involved, aided by the play toys of development gone mad.
The Chariton has been the victim of river rape that encapsulates all the bad things that can happen to once pristine watercourses. It’s dammed (read that damned) in Iowa and channelized in Missouri. It has been contaminated over the years by every agricultural chemical yet devised by man, muddied by erosive run off from the rich agricultural lands of southern Iowa and northern Missouri. The trade-off is that what once was a wooded and pristine small river became drainpipe for the evils of agriculture— erosion and chemical contamination.
In 1969, the Corps of Engineers, ever vigilant for a chance to alter the landscape, usually with disastrous results for the environment, began construction of 11,000 acre Rathbun reservoir in southern Iowa which drowned a considerable mileage of the upper Chariton River. According to Corps self praise the lake which spans 21,000 acres at flood stage, provides a virtual paradise for recreationists, alleviates floods, and does all kinds of good for the bureaucratic universe. This miracle Lake was dedicated in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon. Nixon and his tarnished legacy are gone, but the lake lingers on.
About 30 miles downstream from Rathbun dam, the Chariton slips into Missouri and heads downstream toward my territory, Chariton County, named for the river, or vice versa, where I lived for a decade in the late 1940s and most of the 1950s. The Chariton River threaded its way through my history, mostly in a good way.
The Chariton gained its name about 1804 when John Charaton established a trading post near the mouth of the then-unnamed tributary of the Missouri River and named the watercourse after himself. The little river was a godsend to Missouri, Sac, and Iowa Indians, who depended on it for fish and wild game. It was so insignificant to the early explorers that Lewis and Clark passed it by without comment. Then a fellow named James Loe explored upstream almost to Callao, where my parents would live in the 1960s.
The river continued to be a river for a century after John Charaton established his little settlement, but in 1904, a farmer named Peter Vitt started talking up the idea of pulling the kinks out of the Chariton and turning it into a straight ditch the faster to shepherd floodwaters downstream to the Missouri. In Chariton County, where my grandfather built and tended fish traps and where my father would own a farm, the Chariton River wound through an estimated 300 miles of streambed. From the Iowa line to the Missouri the historic length was about 900 miles. After the Corps of Engineers finished its lethal assault on the twisting stream, less than 100 miles remained, a straight ditch, as inviting to outdoor enthusiasts as a sewage lagoon. Gone were the bordering trees, the wildlife, and most of the fish that once provided bounty to settlers, replaced by bordering corn and bean fields.
My father was not immune to the pressure and so-called progress either. He was a partner in a 640 acre farm near Bynumville, through which once ran the original Chariton River. By the time we moved to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton had been straightened and the new ditch ran by it outside the property line. The old channel remained within the farm as a twisting watercourse, slowly growing stagnant.
In the 1840s, probably on our farm and a century before the river was straightened, there was a fish trap in the Chariton, that for many years provided a bounty of fish for individual and community fish fries. The ruins of this old fish trap are documented today in yellow photographs, although the trap itself is long gone.
Two memories stick out, concerning that old channel. One is of what we called the Bend, a crook in the river that isolated a five-acre patch of woods, that frequently was flooded. In the fall when mallards sailed down from the North country, this woods of water-tolerant old oaks was a magnet for them, and we would hunt there sloshing through the shallow water where my father had distributed a dozen decoys. The Bend was a microcosm of the flooded oak marshes of the Southland, legendary for duck hunting. It was, for us, a sometime thing where, when conditions were just right, our shabby decoys would trick a small band of migrating mallards into helicoptering down to where we would shoot, and more often than not miss, since neither of us was a particularly good shot. The excitement, for a teenage kid, and for that matter, his middle-aged father, was almost unbearable.
One morning we got to the Bend to discover that a neighbor had sneaked into the flooded marsh and, mistaking our decoys for living ducks, potshot them full of holes so that about half of them had a list, reminiscent of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. My father, caught up in the postwar mania for bigger and better farms, arranged to have the Bend cleared and drained and it became five acres of corn and beans, no longer our duck hunting spot, only a fond memory, tinged with sadness.
Another morning on another crook in the old channel my father and I walked up pair of ducks that flushed ahead of us in the early morning sunlight. I was carrying a model 12 Winchester pump with a 32 inch barrel, the quintessential old timers duck gun, which my father had gotten in a trade of some sort, and I shouldered it as if I knew what I was doing, and dropped one of the two ducks at 40 yards splashing it into the muddy water. My father’s pride in my shooting knew no bounds, and neither did mine. It was a rare moment, not shared nearly often enough.
In the 1940s we could travel a rough gravel road from the Finnell farm to our home in Dalton, crossing the Chariton at what was called Rockford, a grouping of houses which also included a hardware store where I got my first gun, an authentic Red Ryder BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”). The river was spanned by a rickety wooden bridge which vanished when the new channel cut through and the shortcut route from the Finnell farm to Dalton vanished along with it. Once, I had seen a brief flash of feminine flesh when a Guilford girl ran across the yard in her underwear, just up the hill from Rockford. That was every bit as exciting as getting my first BB gun.
Grandpa Joseph Oliver Vance was born just after the Civil War ended,in 1866, a son of a Union militiaman whose military career had lasted all of a couple hours before he was captured by General Sterling Price’s army and sent home to quit pestering the Confederates. My grandfather lived for 87 years, taking up carpentering as a trade, which helped him immeasurably in building fish traps. He also built a two room addition to the Finnell farm house where he lived with his daughter and her husband from 1937 until his death in 1953.
I would spend several summers on the Finnell farm, not learning to be a farm boy, but learning that I didn’t want to be a farm boy. I would watch my grandfather head across the hill in the morning to tend to his fish trap, often carrying a single shot 22 caliber rifle with which he would shoot squirrels for the family pot
As far as I know, the old man walked cross country from the family farm to the Chariton River, through the woods and across gullies, of which there were many in the pitted hills of southern Chariton County. At the river he tended his fish trap, a device cleverly constructed to capture catfish and other denizens of the murky river, which became his contribution to the family’s larder. It was about a mile hike to the old Chariton and it wouldn’t have been easy because in those days there was no cropland other than the occasional tobacco patch and the countryside was creased with gullies and ravines, the legacy of a century or more of trying to scratch a farm living from unfriendly and infertile dirt.
Little did the old man know, but when he was laid low by a stroke at 87, his day was over as was that of the lower Chariton River. By the time my folks and I moved from Chicago to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton River had been ousted from its original channel into a carefully engineered drainage ditch and the point of tending a fish trap was pointless.
My fellow worker at the Conservation Department, Kenny Hicks, once wrote a history of the Chariton, titled “The River That Went Straight” where he said this, “Where are the old fishing holes, the tree-lined banks, and the valuable otter? They helped feed, house, and clothe our last century kin, only to be swallowed up in the iron jaws of mammoth shovels or washed into oblivion by a modern method devised to rid ourselves of unmanaged water.”
Kenny closed his piece with this observation, “When will the conflict end? Will it be only when there are no more rivers or no more men?” Those are both questions that have yet to be answered, but I can answer them partially— gone is the Chariton, at least as my grandfather knew it, and so is my grandfather. Gone also is the Bend and the father with whom I shared misty mornings and shot-holed decoys. They say, “progress brings change.”
Please, define “progress” for me. I’m confused.

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  • Blog
  • October 15th, 2017

I CAN’T DANCE, DON’T ASK ME….

By Joel M. Vance

“I can’t dance, don’t ask me!” Famously sang Fred Astaire in 1935, the year after I was born. Dance he did, of course, and more gracefully and admirably than anyone before or since. He did dance in 10 musical movies with his longtime partner Ginger Rogers who, it was said, did everything he did, only backward and on high heels.
I can only marvel when Astaire danced up the wall and across the ceiling in one of the many movies he made with Rogers. In contrast, I have trouble negotiating simple dance steps on level floor. My history with dance is so personally depressing as to call for intensive therapy, but I think that having reached octogenarian status, my time to emulate, even faintly, Fred Astaire has come and gone.
Klutz like stumbling on the dance floor, is doubly depressing because Marty, my wife, is a mid-Missouri Ginger Rogers, and always has been. I have no doubt that she boogied in her crib and that her first steps were as flashy as those of the vintage Cyd Charisse. 
She is a veteran of an ice cream parlor right out of Happy Days, called Louie’s, which in her high school days was the gathering place for teenagers in Macon Missouri, her hometown. The jukebox rocked and so did the kids. Ask her today her favorite memories from high school and she will instantly reply, “Louie’s, where we went to dance.”
By contrast, in Dalton, Missouri, where I lived, or in Keytesville, where I went to high school, dancing for all boys save a few precocious and scorned showoffs, was something you watched Fred Astaire do in a movie, while waiting for John Wayne to show up in the second half of a double feature and shoot someone. 
I do recall one time in high school, possibly in a physical education class, where we attempted to learn how to square dance, stumbling around as fiddles played on a scratchy phonograph. The girls had no problem with the intricate steps of square dancing but us guys looked more like hogs loose on a skating rink.  Girls frequently danced together, while we wall flower boys sat on the bleachers steps and talked about baseball.
It occurred to me, probably because my mother told me, that if I wanted to be the most popular boy in school, I would have to learn to dance. Becoming most popular was probably about as likely as my becoming president, although given the one we have now, maybe I could’ve made it. Although, if being elected to the highest office in the land depended on my ability to dance, I couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher.
So, my mother attempted to teach me a simple two-step, which I think she called a foxtrot, although I did it more like a foxhound with sore feet. There are few things more embarrassing than dancing with your mother. We fox trotted around one of the many rooms in the Dalton Hotel, where we lived in semi-squalor, probably to a big band recording from the 1940s.
My mother, who had danced in Chicago nightclubs with my father, during the Roaring Twenties when they were dating and before I came along to complicate their lives, was incapable of teaching me the fast dance steps of 1950s teenagers. Even by the 1940s, she had passed through impetuous teenage dancing. So I learned a sedate two-step (two to the left and one to the right), a mechanical march that was about as rhythmic as if the Creature From Another Planet (a favorite 1950s sci-fi movie) had broken into a frantic shake and bake before destroying a major American city.
Now at least I was armed (or legged) to participate in what we called buckle polishing dancing, but anything faster than Glenn Miller, playing “Moonlight Serenade” was beyond me. Even when my cherished and deeply beloved wife of 61 years, Marty, offers to show me the steps that made her the Ginger Rogers of Louie’s Sweet Shop, I turn to jelly and step on my lower lip in a surly pout and quit, like a frightened dog being dragged to the veterinarian.
A couple of incidents in my formative years go a long way toward explaining my reluctance, inability or whatever it is to trip the light fantastic–which for me is so fantastic as to be beyond the realm of imagination. Let me explain:
For one thing, dance opportunities at my high school, Keytesville, were limited to school dances a couple of times a year. There was no Louie’s in Keytesville or anywhere close by where teenagers could gather and juke to the jukebox. Marty tells me that Louie’s was a gathering spot, not just for Macon teens, but for kids from neighboring towns as well. “After a football game,” she says, “we’d get kids from whatever team Macon was playing that night and we’d all dance.”
There was no football at Keytesville high school, not to mention no equivalent of a Louie’s, and none of the prom nonsense that was the highlight of the social scene at Macon high school. I had exactly one date to a dance in high school and came down with a case of impetigo on my face that made me look like a character from a horror movie. There was a grotesque scab running from just below my nose to below my chin. I looked like a pestilent survivor of a chemical warfare attack. Not only did I not dance, but my date was taken home by a senior who happened to have a car, which I didn’t, and who did not have impetigo.  That horrifying incident obviously did not increase my ambition to acquire terpsichorean facility.
I can date my aversion to fast dancing to one dreadful moment in the summer of 1955, at ROTC summer camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill historically was where Indians would drive buffalo over a cliff to their death and if I had been a buffalo I think I would’ve been happy to be driven over a cliff– anything to get away from Fort Sill. On weekends we callow would-be soldiers could escape to nearby towns where we could buy technically illegal beer (Oklahoma at the time was dry). Some warriors went to Wichita Falls, Texas, known as Whiskey Falls, a wet oasis just over the border, but some of us chose to go to Anadarko, where there were alleged to be real live girls in the roadhouses.
        There was a girl’s college in Anadarko and little knots of coeds would gather at a local dance hall and whisper girl secrets to each other and occasionally when approached by an especially daring male child would take to the dance floor and, miracle of miracles, engage in buckle polishing.  But all too many of the rock ‘n roll records of the 1950s rocked  ‘n rolled, requiring the  dreaded fast dance, which pinned me to my seat as if I were stuck there with super glue
It was in one of these beer joints, with Fats Domino rocking on the jukebox, that I summoned up my courage and asked a girl to dance with me. I had absolutely no concept of dancing outside the two-step box, but figured that natural rhythm would carry the day. I thought I was doing a credible imitation of somebody who knew what he was doing, when the girl suddenly stopped in the middle of “Ain’t That a Shame” and snarled, “what the hell are you doing?”
      “I don’t know,” I mumbled and slunk back to our booth, humbled, shamed and irrevocably traumatized forevermore.  Ever since that moment so long ago, I have been crippled by the deep and unhealing wound of that humiliating encounter.  I can stand alone in front of a thumping recording of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by the vintage Jerry Lee Lewis and manufacture a creative modern dance, on the beat, and as imaginative as something by Sammy Davis Junior in his prime— but there, in my solitude, is no girl looking at me as if I were a repulsive insect, sneering, “what the hell are you doing?”
I grew up, first on radio and later on television, listening to the inane jingle, “Arthur Murray taught me dance’n/in a hurry.” Murray packed it in long ago, but if his spirit were confronted with me at one of his dance studios he’d whirl in his grave like a centrifuge.  There is a local group where we live that offers what they call swing dance lessons but the thought of exposing my ineptitude to strangers makes me quiver. I can just see the instructor, after fruitless hours trying to teach me twirling and whirling to fast music, growling “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
So as I approach the age where, if I did know how to fast dance, I’d have to use a walker, I am doomed to be among the wallflowers.  I think I hear the Four Freshmen singing “Memories Are Made of This” on an oldies station.  Buckle polishing music.
Anyone care to dance?
 
 
 
 
:&

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  • October 8th, 2017

SASSE’S HOLE

By Joel M. Vance

It shimmers in memory, a half acre of clear water inelegantly named Sasse’s Hole. It was where we swam in the halcion days of teenagerhood. Hormones mixed with sunshine in a heady brew that only comes once in a lifetime, and all too soon vanishes amid the confusing infirmities of maturity.
Climate scientists doubtless believe they can prove that global warming began decades if not centuries ago, but for me it has happened in my lifetime. I was born in 1934, in the depths of the driest and hottest decade, possibly in the nation’s history. It was not only the Great Depression, but also a time of intense heat and massive dust storms that not only stirred up the dirt of the Midwest but also spawned me. And again, in the early and mid-1950s came another time of intense heat— all of these formative years with no air conditioning and virtually no way to find the relief from the smothering heat.
There was no incentive to be concerned about global warming at a time when immediate warming was a fact. National Geographic magazine may have provided titillating photos of bare breasted African natives, but no such photography existed for natives of mid-Missouri, and we had to live with what we had, amid demurely bra-clad female classmates.
That’s why Sasse’s Hole always will be for me a cool spot in the hell of memory. It was a blue hole, a rare phenomenon where crystalline water appears, apparently from nowhere to create a pond or lake where none existed before. They also call it a blowout as if it were somehow dynamited from nonexistence to existence by some cosmic explosives maven.
Whether or not Sasse’s Hole was a true blue hole or not is almost a matter of semantics. It could’ve been a cenote, another type of aquatic phenomenon, common in some parts of the world. Blue holes apparently are mostly associated with salt water while cenotes are more common in freshwater areas. Either way a normally circular body of water appears, caused by some geologic trick that I don’t understand and don’t really want to. More important is that Sasse’s Hole existed on hot days when teenagers suffused with summertime ennui needed cooling off—teenagers almost always need cooling off.
Sasse’s Hole was a bastard child of the Dalton Cutoff, itself a bastard child of the Missouri River. Once the capricious Missouri ran just south of Dalton, where I lived and then in 1875, the river that baffled and frightened Pere Marquette during his explorations into the heart of North America, decided, as it was wont to do periodically, to go in new directions.
So, in 1875, the Missouri decided to cut a new channel in the middle of the night (contemporary accounts describe a terrifying roar). When the river finally settled down it had left behind a sizable Lake which became the Cutoff. Later the Cutoff, mostly a muddy body of water, like its parent, the Missouri River, would become our playground winter and summer.
In the summertime it was a fishing hole, in the fall it became one of the best duck hunting spots in North America, and in winter time some of us played ice hockey on its frozen surface. I have a 1 inch scar on my chin from having taken a header onto the ice during a heated hockey game which required several stitches to repair. We didn’t have regulation pucks so used beer cans, which might have had something to do with the reason I went sprawling.
We drove to Salisbury about 16 miles away and found a doctor with some surgical thread who stitched up my chin and bandaged it so I looked like Amenhotep or some other pharoah from an Egyptian pyramid tomb. I was quite the object of admiration and revulsion at school for several days until the stitches healed enough that I could peel off the bandage.
I think the explanation for Sasse’s Hole is that it was the result of a conduit between the Dalton Cutoff, which decided to burrow like a mole, under a fairly narrow screen of dry land and trees, perhaps into a subterranean sinkhole, and then surface as a blue hole, perhaps reinforced by possibly sizable springs–the water always was cool no matter how hot the summer temperatures got.
Visualize a basin perhaps a half acre in size with the deep end at the east tailing off to the west. The banks all are clean sand with the northern half almost a beach. The sand is heaped on the east and dune-like. Someone, perhaps Chris Sasse, built and floated a platform a few yards out in the middle of the deep end, to which you could swim, haul yourself out and soak in the sun. Today no landowner in his right mind would risk financial ruin from a lawsuit alleging criminal indifference by letting kids swim without supervision on his land. But those were far different times, not that the kids were more responsible or less prone to get in trouble than they are today.
Sasse’s Hole was a godsend (or, perhaps, a Sassesend) to kids stuck in the hinterland with no access to a public swimming area. The nearest public swimming pool was in Marshall, 50 miles away and across the Missouri River via a bridge at Glasgow. We went there exactly one time in my teenage years, and the water was crowded with other kids, saturated with chlorine, and altogether unsatisfactory, compared to the unsullied water at Sasse’s Hole.
The East sandbank offered a refuge behind which the tender of sensibility could change clothes without embarrassment . Norman Rockwell and other artists of Americana were fond of paintings depicting the old swimming hole with bare butt kids cavorting, but unfortunately for us would be lascivious types there was no skinny-dipping at Sasse’s Hole, especially and regrettably not co-ed. I came close to it only because the only swimming suit I had was inherited from my father, possibly because we were too poor even to afford a Sears and Roebuck special, or because I was so war orphan skinny that anything on my meager shanks was likely to wind up around my ankles.
Only rarely was there a mixed crowd, boys and girls. Usually it was a group of guys swimming, mostly talking about girls. Only once I remember a group of boys and girls gathered and I swam out to the platform with a cute girl who had come with a friend and apparently had borrowed a bathing suit from her larger friend because it up hung on her much like my baggy trunks sagged on me. There were gaps in her one-piece suit that offered tantalizing glimpses of the flesh within and I was smitten with lust for this stranger. I searched for conversational gambits which would indicate to her that I was a potential lover of such amatory ability as to be enshrined in the annals of romance— a Don Juan of the Dalton bottoms.
I asked her name which I immediately forgot and searched for inflammatory phrases, none of which came to mind. She seemed preoccupied, possibly wondering what she was doing with this hapless nerd, while we hung suspended in the water in our baggy swimming gear like a couple of mosquito larvae. Presently she mumbled, “well, I gotta go,” and dog paddled back to shore where she rejoined her friend and they vanished amid the fog of memory.
Possibly the best thing about Sasse’s Hole was that you had to know it was there in the first place, and then how to get there, which was not easy unless you were local. That kept out foreigners perhaps from Chariton County’s metropolitan areas such as Keytesville, Brunswick, or Salisbury. Those of us in the know kept the location of the Hole close to our scrawny chests.
If it were 1952, you couldn’t pry the location of Sasse’s Hole out of me with thumbscrews, but that paradisiacal swimming hole is no more so here is how you would’ve gotten there in those long ago days: you drove south out of Dalton, first past the one-room school, now a community center, where I was threatened with attendance in the eighth grade after we moved to Dalton from Chicago but after I howled like a gut shot coyote at the prospect of having to attend school with a bunch of hillbillies (cosmopolite snob that I was), my parents paid the tuition so I could go to Keytesville elementary school six miles away, but a place with at least more than one teacher and presumably more than one or two books.
Across the street from the one-room school was the Methodist Church where once, at the urging of my mother, I sang “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” to a massively disinterested congregation, a performance enlivened mostly because a wasp fell on my neck and stung me midway through the song. I said a word not often heard in church, one that I had learned in the alleys of Chicago, and an old lady fell asleep and snored in harmony to my adolescent warble.
Continue on South on a gravel road until it’s time to turn west on yet another gravel road toward the Dalton Cutoff. Drive between the Sasse brothers homes, on either side of the road— they owned most of the land east of the Cutoff–and ahead you will see the levee, an earthen barrier designed to keep the Missouri River at bay, something it has failed to do many times over the years. In fact, in 1951 and again in 1993, the Big Muddy overwhelmed not only its banks but the many levees along it, flooding farms and towns to the point where some, like Dalton and Cedar City, became historic footnotes.
Turn on to the farm lane at the base of the levee and park. Get out of your car scramble up the levee and across the top and there, for your bemused eyes, is Sasse’s Hole. From then on it’s up to you. I give you the directions because they no longer are operable or have any meaning. They would’ve worked 65 years ago, but assuming that today there even is a body of water it will be as I discovered it some years later when I made a pilgrimage to the site— a sort of homage revisitation to the bright and sunny days when I was a teenager and all the world lay ahead of me.
I parked and scrambled up that same levee somewhat less agilely than I had done years before and what I beheld was a mudhole, suitable for mud turtles, water snakes, and possibly a gar or carp. Time and floodwater had eroded the barrier between the Dalton Cutoff and Sasse’s Hole and they had become one.
A fragment of my youth had washed away with that barrier and drowned in the passage of time. Somewhere someone’s grandmother may remember an afternoon when she wore an ill fitting bathing suit and dangled in the water like a mosquito larva with a skinny kid.
What was that kid’s name again?

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  • September 30th, 2017

VERANDA

By Joel M. Vance
About 150 years ago a Missouri River steamboat wrecked somewhere south of what became Dalton, Missouri, the town where my parents and I settled in 1948. In 1874 someone rescued timbers from the wreckage of that forgotten steamboat and built the Dalton hotel, a 17 room building that at various times was an overnight stay for traveling salesman and at other times a private residence.
The hotel had been closed for 40 years but became our home for a half-dozen years in the 1950’s. As romantic as that sounds, it was more like living in the Norman Bates house than it was a colonial mansion. No indoor plumbing, no running water, indifferent heat in the pit of winter from a coal furnace that rumbled in the basement like some slumbering monster. It was more like existing than it was living.
I can imagine couple of drummers off the train that stopped ever so briefly at the at the whistle stop station, who then trudged across the dusty street to the Dalton Hotel, hot, hungry and tired from their endless wandering, wondering was it ever gonna rain? They would gripe to each other, about the travails of travel and how lousy the times were, how tough it was to sell or try to sell whatever it was they carried in their shabby sample cases.
They had to be salesmen because no one else would ever take a train to this dusty backwater as far from a tourist destination as the earth is from the Pleiades. Dalton was a geological trick from the beginning. Founded in 1867 as a river port halfway between Keytesville and Brunswick, it lasted as that only until 1875 when the ever capricious Missouri River decided to cut a new channel, leaving Dalton stranded at the foot of a bluff which historically was the North bank of the river. A slight salvation occurred in 1867 when the Wabash railroad established a stop and a station right across the street from what would become the Dalton hotel.
The drummers would check in at the Dalton Hotel, dump their cases on a rickety bed in one of the several tiny third floor bedrooms and retire to the veranda to relax. They’d talk about the hot weather, and whether it was ever gonna rain? After a restless night’s sleep they’d trudge back across Main Street, a rutted and potholed gravel road, not far removed from the historic cattle trail it once had been, get back on another train and head down the road to another forgotten town.
It was on this crumbling veranda, decades later, that I set up shop. Gone were the drummers, peddling their wares in whatever spirit world awaits the tired and poor relics of a lost time. But below the veranda at street level was a large empty room that once had been a butcher shop, later the office of a filling station. There still were empty oil cans, broken fan belts and other detritus from the gas station when we moved in. My father’s business partner, a loose cannon, had bought the hotel in a moment of fiscal insanity, and when my father gave up a good job as a salesman in Chicago, to move to his roots in Missouri and manage a large farm, we had a place to live— if you can call that shabby antique, a place to live.
I’d sit on a creaky old bench that once cradled those vanished butts and play my cherished mahogany topped Martin 00 17 guitar. Within the outer wall behind me was what once was the lobby of the hotel. It became—almost in the wild animal sense—my lair. My folks, busy with the dreary business of trying to make a living from a sprawling crop farm, 40 miles away, stayed out of my lair and largely ignored the lifestyle of their only son which was just fine with me. I had a battered Underwood typewriter, almost as old as the hotel, on which I wrote ripoffs of stories in the style of Thorne Smith, an alcoholic writer of the roaring 20s. Smith was a so-so writer whose tales were considered ribald in his time but today are as innocuous as fairy tales for third graders. My ripoffs were ribald only in the sense that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I could only imagine drunken, lascivious characters since drunken, lascivious activity was as far removed from my lifestyle as were the roaring 20s.
The guitar was my reward for working three weeks 10 hours a day for fifty cents an hour detasseling seed corn. Dante’s Inferno, which posited various levels of Hell for sinners, missed one when he omitted a level for those who would be doomed to eternity detasseling seed corn. It was the dirtiest, most debilitating job I’ve had in my lifetime and I look back on it with a feeling of horror mixed with relief at having survived it. I almost didn’t— I came within inches of passing out one day from heat exhaustion and have never been able to stand hot weather since that time.
But I earned enough to buy my guitar for $60 and it had a sweet sound which endures to this day. It replaced a clunky orchestra style Sears and Roebuck guitar that, whatever I paid for it, was too much. The same Martin guitar from the Martin workshop in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, today would set you back $1000 or more. I don’t remember what happened to the Sears guitar but I hope it wound up in Hell being played for all eternity by some doomed, sinning seed corn detasseler.
We didn’t have a television set, those things having barely been invented, plus even had they been available, were far beyond our meager means. But we did have an old Zenith console radio with a short wave band on which, sometimes in the pit of night, long after my tired parents had fallen asleep in one of the small upstairs bedrooms, I would tune in signals so distant that I could only use my imagination to guess their origin, or to create some romantic or dramatic situation which caused someone in distress to broadcast them.
There is a magic in late-night radio which will not come again in an age of television, smart phones and computers. The old Zenith was a conduit to a world unseen and unimaginable. Short wave radio offered me the possibility of a frantic operator sending an SOS in an incomprehensible foreign tongue as his ship slowly took on water and sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. We weren’t that far removed from the days when German U-boats made such calls a grim reality there in the early days of the 1950s. More likely the signals I didn’t understand were from a couple of guys on ham radios exchanging inane gossip, but imagination was about all I had to enliven life in Dalton, Missouri.
But it was on Saturday night when I abandoned the doomed ships to their fate and tuned the a.m. dial on the Zenith to 650 and the many hours of country music on WSM radio from Nashville the home of the Grand Ole Opry. If atmospheric conditions were agreeable I could get a signal, thin through a catarrh of static, and catch the early evening shows, a warm-up for the main event. The Grand Ole Opry itself.
Those were the glory years for country music when giants strode the worn stage of the Ryman Auditorium. Today’s so-called country music is a travesty, a feeble shadow of what was in 1950. Hank Williams (the real one, not his overproduced and overhyped progeny) was a brief, flaming star like a summer meteorite, soon to be extinguished, producing hit after hit, most of which endure today.
I hovered in front of the old Zenith, my little Martin clenched in sweaty hands, because air-conditioning was something from science fiction in the 1950s summers were steamy, sticky and miserable, but endured because there was no alternative.
I’d try to figure out what key Hank and the Drifting Cowboys were in and usually figured it out about the time they finished the song. Hank played a Martin guitar too, a higher priced model than mine (most of the big time country music entertainers did play Martins) and I would dream of the day when I too would stand on the stage of the Ryman and do encore after encore as Hank did when he debuted singing “Lovesick Blues” June 11, 1949. He made history by getting six encores. In later years I would discover that I couldn’t yodel and I also didn’t have any talent, two drawbacks that would prevent me from debuting at the Opry. I still could debut in my mind on the veranda of the Dalton Hotel late at night with only the stars as an audience.
Saturday night for me actually finished early Sunday morning with the broadcast of the Ernest Tubb record shop show from midnight to 1 a.m. One night Tubb played a record and it changed my life. It was “Away Out On the Mountain” by Jimmie Rodgers whom I had never heard of. Rodgers died a year and a half before I was born and had become largely forgotten over time until others, like Tubb, who revered him as the father of country music, revived his legacy.
Years later I would stand at Rodgers’ grave in a small country church yard outside his home town of Meridian, Mississippi. It was quiet and peaceful there where he, his wife and his daughter are buried. Someone had left a guitar pick on his gravestone and I wished it had been me.
Rodgers was a sketchy guitar player and I probably was better than he was before the residual effects of a stroke messed up my left hand and ended my ability to make love to my little Martin guitar. But there was something magic in Jimmie Rodgers’ voice, accentuated by what he called blue yodels, something that has endured for me for the more than 80 years since he died, and something that has enchanted me like nothing else in music. A victim of tuberculosis, Rodgers flared like a comet, much as Hank Williams did two decades later, for six short years and then he went away out on the mountain.
And so I sat on the rickety veranda of the rickety Dalton Hotel in the darkness of summer nights when all the town was asleep (Dalton population peaked in 1920 at 400, but by 2010 there were only 17 people left). And I played my guitar and sang to the stars.
This Saturday night, perhaps I will sit on our deck, absent my Martin guitar, and listen to a Jimmie Rodgers recording of what was perhaps his signature song, one that I sang just across the dusty street from the railroad tracks on the creaking, unstable veranda of the Dalton Hotel: “Waiting For a Train.”
Waiting my turn to go away out on the mountain.

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  • September 24th, 2017

THAT’S THE WAY THE BALL BOUNCES

By Joel M. Vance

I turn 83 t0morrow, and have pretty well abandoned rambling afield in deference to my creaking bones. In the past three years, I’ve endured a stroke which bunged up my left hand,had a carotid artery Roto-Rooted, and a five-month siege of pancreatitis where I was tube fed a diet which resembled nothing so much as pureed Purina Hi Pro. Except for a tendency to bark uncontrollably at the full moon, I came through all this in pretty good shape.
But I have to admit that some mornings when I struggle out of bed I feel like a octogenarian-wait a minute! I am an octogenarian! I deem it as some sort of miracle that I’ve lasted this long. The Asbury Methodist Church yard is filled with graves of Vances who didn’t make it this many years. Fortunately, I am not yet an incompetent, sluggish dotard. We already have one of those and one is too many.
There must be a reason for this genetic anomaly and I owe it all to basketball, a sport that was barely out of the peach basket era when first I was introduced to it in an alley behind our Chicago apartment building. Baseball was the game for my crowd and we played in sand lots and wherever we could find an open area in which to play catch or some sort of a pickup game. Basketball was as arcane to us as rugby or cricket. I had pushed a basketball in the direction of a rickety goal in the alley but saying that I “played” basketball was as truthful as if I had said I had “flown” an airplane because I had built a balsa wood model of a World War II fighter plane.
But when we moved to Missouri in 1948, and I got off the school bus at Keytesville elementary and high school, I found that basketball was as holy a pastime as attending church on Sunday, something that neither I or my parents had spent much time doing. “You play basketball?” Asked a kid, which I discovered was the same thing in Missouri as introducing yourself. “Sure” I said, confident that basketball couldn’t be any tougher than playing burnout catch with my friends in Chicago.
He hustled me into cramped, tiny gym where what seemed to be every kid in school was playing a before class pickup game. He shoved me onto the floor and said, “you’re shirts” which made no sense, although half the boys seemed to be semi-naked while the other half wore shirts. Somebody threw me the ball and immediately all the half naked players charged me.
It was like being the last member of Custer’s command while several thousand angry Native Americans exhibited ill will. Utterly panicked, I threw the ball without any aim mainly just to get rid of it. It described a lovely parabola and swished through the net as adroitly as ever Steph Curry shot a 45 foot three-pointer.
As an aside the president at the time, my fellow Missourian Harry Truman did not rescind my invitation to the White House (although he never issued one in the first place). My reputation as the Windy City Whiz lasted exactly until afternoon when we had an eighth grade game and I managed to shoot not once, but twice, at the wrong basket (I missed both times). I forgot or never knew that the teams changed ends at halftime and when the second half tip came to me I saw nothing but open space between me and what I thought was our basket. No shirtless heathens were charging at me, and in fact the other team was more than happy to let me score for them.
From then on my high school basketball career got no better (or worse). I’ve written in my book Down Home Missouri, how the cheerleaders for New Franklin high school cheered for me, causing my coach no end of confusion and probably would’ve earned me a seat even further down the bench from him if that is been possible without my having to sit on the floor.
I maundered my way through four years of high school basketball, mostly polishing the bench with the butt of my threadbare uniform, but I never got basketball out of my system. I played intramural ball at the University of Missouri but got kicked out of it when the supervisor of the program caught me playing for two different teams. I wasn’t very good on either one of them but it kept me in tip top shape.
My basketball career began long ago in Dalton, Missouri a flyspeck on the Show Me state map. We lived in a ramshackle former railroad hotel with no running water and an outhouse up the hill from a cistern which theoretically would have provided drinking water if we been fool enough to drink it. We didn’t even bathe in it, preferring to cadge water from tenant farmers on the farm which my father owned.
My father and I fashioned a minuscule court up the hill adjacent to the outhouse and erected a homemade backboard of green oak planks which warped in agony in the heat of a Missouri summer. This insured that any ball shot against the backboard would carom off at unexpected angles. I needed to be as nimble as Steph Curry to corral rebounds before the ball bounded down the steep hill and into the street. Hundreds if not thousands of times, I leaped down that hill like a mountain goat. It was during those frantic descents into the dusty street that I learned to curse like a Parris Island drill instructor.
It also gave me legs of steel and conditioning which possibly has carried over into old age and explains why I too have carried over into old age. Coupled with the erratic backboard was the fact that neither of us had learned the cardinal rule of carpentering “measure twice, cut once.” Somehow, due to our mathematical inefficiency, the goal was about 10 foot six inches above the surface of the court.
I dimly remember that basketball legend Phog Allen, coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, was proposing that the goal be raised to 12 feet, rather than the standard 10 feet. This was to protect against his own Wilt Chamberlain and other seven footers from camping beneath the basket, swatting away everyone’s shots, and dunking 40 or 50 points a game. But it wasn’t designed to prevent someone well below the 6 foot mark from anything resembling the accomplishments of a seven footer. Phog died without ever realizing his proposal and today basketball goals still are 10 feet above the floor surface and even little fellows like me can dunk the ball. Well, no, not like me. I was lucky to jump high enough to graze the net with my fingertips.
Not only couldn’t I dunk the ball, but I was lucky to be able to bounce it on a hard surface and have it come back to my hands. Our coach handed each squad member a basketball with instructions to go home and practice the summer away rather than chasing girls or other more favored pursuits. I was willing, being woefully short on girls to chase, but the ball I was issued had a ruptured seam through which the interior bladder poked like a hernia. Thus, I could begin a dribble but, like a rebound off our warped backboard, the ball was likely to spurt off in unpredictable directions.
Determined to learn how to dribble with either hand, I scattered chairs on the rickety veranda that ran across the face of the hotel at the second floor level I would juke and jink my way down the veranda, the infirm foundation swaying and threatening to collapse the entire structure with every bounce. Every so often the ball would hit on the herniated part and leap over the railing into the street below sometimes in front of a farmer’s truck load of soybeans headed for the grain elevator just across the street, adjacent to the railroad tracks.
I don’t know what the occasional passersby thought when an errant basketball ricocheted off the fractured sidewalk in front of them, but Dalton being the somnolent backwater that it was, anything out of the ordinary was considered entertainment. They probably just thought I was insane, but having to live in Dalton was inducement enough to insanity, so why worry about it?
You’d think that all this practice on a rough hewn court never envisioned by the inventors of basketball, with a ball that might as well have been square, on a court as far from regulation as Arcturus is from earth, and on a surface threatened by imminent collapse, all this would have made me ultimately a legend in high school basketball– an incipient Jerry West, the mid-Missouri equivalent of Cabin Creek’s most famous basketball product.
But it did not give me the ability to sink jump shots from anywhere on the court, average 30 points or more per game, and illuminate the all-state team. Instead I gathered splinters on my butt from sitting on the bench, trying to mentally will my coach into inserting me into the lineup. The ball in real time was round and without random bulges. Further, there were real people rather than chairs between me and the basket, which was a conventional 10 feet from a hard surface floor rather than 10 ½ feet above an uneven and often muddy dirt floor.
It seems to be the fate of geriatric types like me to sit around and catalog our infirmities. I long for the days when I was a comparative kid barely past the mid century mark. I remember years ago when I was in my 60s and still playing semi competitive basketball, mostly going one-on-one with our son, Andy, our daughter’s boyfriend admiringly commented, “Boy your dad sure is an active old guy!” I guess those were the good old days. “Now the operative word is” old”. Even in those halcyon days I could occasionally beat Andy, but then came the game when I went up for my patented jumpshot and he jammed it down my throat. Intimations of mortality. Harbingers of doom.
The last competitive basketball I played was a challenge to a coworker at the Conservation Department, a woman who had been active in college sports. Our sons and I had built a half basketball court and we had a party one night and I challenged Charlotte to a one-on-one. I put a couple of my patented moves on her trying to get a clear path for a layup, but found that it was like trying to take a T-bone away from a Rottweiler. She was all elbows, knees, and slapping hands. I finally won, barely, by shooting three pointers, and realized that youth will out (not to mention athletic ability). Apparently girl’s basketball is a far more physical sport than I realized.
That was a wake-up call, kind of like turning 83 when theoretically you weren’t supposed to. Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a nap.

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  • September 14th, 2017

JUNIOR’S BIG BASS

By Joel M. Vance
The late A.J. (Junior) Samples of Cumming, Georgia, couldn’t remember his lines, couldn’t read cue cards, looked like 40 miles of bad road and couldn’t sing.
Hardly the star image.
But he did one thing better than anyone ever has and it made him famous. He told history’s greatest fish lie.
Junior became a star on the syndicated country television variety show “Hee Haw” because of a taped interview made in 1967 with Jim Morrison, then chief of information for the Georgia conservation department.
Junior claimed he had caught a world record largemouth bass from Georgia’s Lake Lanier, a sprawling impoundment just across the road from Cumming. The fish allegedly weighed 22 pounds, nine ounces. Every schoolboy knows the world record is 22 pounds, four ounces, caught in 1932 by George Perry from Montgomery Lake, Georgia.
It is the outdoor equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s streak of hitting in 56 straight games. Perry’s record has endured for more than 80 years and anyone who breaks it will have instant fame. The endorsements alone will bring a fortune. Junior Samples won fame and fortune even though his record claim was a flat-out lie.
Morrison interviewed Junior, a sprawling 300-pound heap of a man, on a front porch right out of Dogpatch. “It was Squalor Holler,” Morrison said. “The outhouse was in a corner of a stall in the barn. There were no screens on the windows and there was trash and garbage laying out in the weeds.”
Morrison had no trouble finding Junior. Cumming wasn’t much bigger than Junior anyway, and he was, if not a leading, at least a prominent citizen. “He was racin’ cars and runnin’ a liquor store,” Morrison says. Before that, Junior had run moonshine–it’s how he learned to drive a race car, another of his good ol’ boy careers.
Junior also fancied himself a carpenter. “Drivin’ nails,” he drawled. But he allowed–and here he paused as if he were trying to spit out a mouthful of cockleburs–that work had interfered with his fishing before he caught the record bass. “But it ain’t gonna no more!” he vowed fervently. “Ah’m gonna do a bonch uh fishin’!”
Junior’s interview was a masterpiece of misdirection. “He told it so convincingly I believed him,” Morrison said. Junior claimed he ate the world record bass. “Ah’s lookin’ fer sumpin tuh eat!” he declared. That would have invalidated his claim even if it had been true. But he told Morrison the fish had been weighed in several places around the lake.
He claimed he couldn’t remember where the fish was weighed. “Ah don’t know. Ah was dronk,” he drawled. “We weighed ‘im sommers and didn’t nobody dispute the word. Ah showed him all over the county. Ah reckon ah did. Ah think ah did. There’s plenty of people seed the feesh. Ah thought we weighed ‘im down at Joe Hansard’s but Grace said Harold said we didn’t weigh ‘im down there, so ah guess we didn’t weigh ‘im down there.”
Morrison remembered , “I drove him all around that lake looking for who weighed it. And the hell of it is, we found someone who said he’d seen the fish.”
Junior said he was fishing about a mile below Bald Ridge Marina (for those who dote on where-to information). “On a smerged (submerged) island.
“Ah dropped mah anchor rock there on the island and ah peetched my little outfit out, that li’l 33 out? Ah had some heavy equipment there in the boat an’ ah uz gonna put uh big lizard on them an’ git ready for uh big bass an’ ah just got one hooked an’ ah looked over there an’ seed my line a- stretchin’ out, a-straightenin’ out and I reached down and caught ‘im. When ah jerked him, ah thinks ah’m hung fer it dint go nowhere when ah jerked.”
The fight, though, was unspectacular. Junior knew better than to embellish a good lie so much it sounded like a lie. “Atter he come up and stood on that tail and shuck that head three or four times he jist turnt over on his side and ah just drug ‘im right on in,” Junior said.
He showed Morrison the head of the fish and the size of it astounded Morrison. Only a world record bass could have such a head…assuming the decomposing remains were those of a bass.
By the time Morrison saw the head, it was several days old and stinking. “It was light-colored for a bass, but I figured a largemouth bass after three or four days of rotting might get a little lighter colored,” Morrison said.
When Morrison returned to Atlanta, he woke up a fisheries biologist and showed him the fish head by the light of a flashlight–not exactly the best conditions for identification. The biologist said, “Jim, this is the finest bass that’s ever lived in the world.” That was verification enough for Morrison.
The next morning, Morrison ran into Aubrey Morris, a reporter for Atlanta radio station WSB and told him the story. Morris aired the story almost instantly. “The cat was out of the bag,” Morrison said. “Then a biologist who’d worked in saltwater said, ‘hell, Jim, that ain’t no bass, that’s a red grouper.”
Hoax or not, the tape was country funny and Morrison played it on a Game and Fish Department radio show twice, once right after it was made and about six months later. Each time, he was flooded with calls from people who were tickled by it. The second time, two of the callers represented record companies.
During the original interview, Junior said something that either is totally puzzling or that reveals he was thinking phonograph record months before anyone else. I didn’t think I had no record,” he says. “I knowed I had a record, but I didn’t think I did on the fish.” Did Junior Samples set out to create an entertainment career? Some who knew him think he was just canny enough to come up with such a scheme.
There are at least two stories on how Junior came to have the head of a grouper in north Georgia, a long way from the ocean. The one he told was that his brother saw the fish below a bridge, apparently tossed there. The brother cut off the head and had it in the back of a pickup truck at an auto race. “Someone asked who caught that big fish and Junior and his brother looked at each other,” Morrison said. “His brother didn’t want to claim it, so Junior said he caught it.”
The other story is that the two of them swiped the fish out of someone’s car and ate it, except for the head. Morrison photographed Junior with the fish head, even in comic poses with him wearing the head like a cap.
After the recording of Junior’s story appeared, Junior began to get invitations to entertain in country and western beer joints. By then no one cared if he could catch record fish or not. He could tell a world record fish story and that was good enough. Before long, there was a commercial version of the interview, along with other stories.
In 1969, Junior reached the summit, if it can be called that, of country entertainment. He joined “Hee Haw.” Junior mumbled and stumbled his way through scripts designed to be deliberately baffling. His charm was not that he read the jokes right, but that he read them wrong.
My late and dear friend Mitch Jayne played bass for the Dillards bluegrass band, the group that had a continuing role as the Darling family in the old Andy Griffith television show. Jayne was a writer and former teacher who was as far intellectually from Junior Samples as the Metropolitan Opera is from “Hee Haw.”
But he liked Junior.
“Junior said things funny,” Jayne recalled. “The stories just poured out and he always had his lower lip full of tobacco, so he kind of mushed his words.”
There was more to Junior Samples than a fat drunk whom everyone teased. He only looked stupid; he was country smart. He was canny enough to tell a huge lie and get knowledgeable people to believe it. “Junior had the quality of cupidity,” Jayne says. “He could take almost anything and turn it into money. He started out delivering moonshine on a bicycle. Picture that–this kid who probably weighed 300 pounds when he was 16 riding a bicycle loaded with hootch.”
For all his financial cunning, though, Junior missed a bet in the big bass story. He did claim he caught the fish on a “Zebbyco 33,” a free endorsement for Zebco, but said the fish hit on “a leetle bitty what (white) bellied sprang (spring) lizard.” Every lure manufacturer would have killed to be mentioned as the lure-of-choice.
Junior became famous enough that he was invited on “This Is Your Life,” the Ralph Edwards television show that allegedly surprised celebrities, then confronted them with people from their past.
Junior stayed in California with Mitch Jayne and his wife. Jayne recalled his few days as Junior’s host with fond horror. “The producers said, ‘you’ve got to keep him busy and keep him from going crazy,'” Jayne said. “I figured what’s a week? If I’d known what trouble Junior could be I wouldn’t have kept him a day.
“He got off the plane wearing bib overalls and a striped tee shirt. It’s all I ever saw him wear. He had a cardboard suitcase with two pairs of overalls and three or four pairs of underwear and that just about filled the thing. Later on, he gave us a pair of his overalls and we had a Christmas photo taken, my wife and I each in a leg.”
Jayne had just bought a station wagon. Junior, after warning Mitch’s wife in the back seat to “get outa the line of farr, li’l lady,” proceeded to spit tobacco juice out the window all the way to Jayne’s home.
Jayne discovered that his new wagon had what appeared to be a brown racing stripe its entire length. “It was like a flame job done by a drunk teenager. We like to never got it off.” Junior asked Mitch if he “lacked bald shreemp.” “It took me a while to decipher that one,” Jayne said. “He meant did I like boiled shrimp.” Jayne bought 10 pounds, found that was barely an appetizer for the massive moonshiner. Junior cooked the shrimp in the Jayne’s kitchen, then pitched the salty water in the back yard, almost instantly killing a huge chunk of the landlord’s cherished dichondra lawn.
Jayne was supposed to keep the Edwards show secret from Junior, but it became increasingly difficult because Junior kept trying to call home and no one was there.
That was because everyone he knew in Cumming was on a train (they were afraid of flying), headed to California for the show. Jayne said, “Junior was ready to jump on a plane to Cumming–he’d fly in anything. Junior wasn’t afraid of planes. Planes were afraid of Junior.”
Junior became increasingly agitated about being out of touch. Jayne, trying to keep Junior off the phone to Cumming, stayed on it himself, so after two days, Junior insisted on getting a motel room where he could use the phone to track down his wife, Grace. Junior suspected Grace was running around on him. “I told the manager to keep an eye on him because I had no idea what the man was going to do,” Jayne said. “The first thing he did was spit in the lobby fountain. Looked like a spittoon to him.”
Junior got drunk in the motel and called Mitch. “He said he was sure Grace had run off and he didn’t care. He said, ‘I’ll give her the house. I’ll give her the hogs!'”
Junior called back and claimed he had flown to “Lost Wages” (Las Vegas) and picked up a waitress on each arm. He wanted to say goodbye forever. “He said, ‘Meetch, we’ll meet again some ol’ day, but it’ll be in a damn different place!'”
Finally, the producers caved in and confessed to Junior that he was to be the subject of the show and allowed Grace to stay with him until showtime. “He didn’t like being fooled,” Jayne said. “‘Hayull, Meetch,’ he told me, ‘they coulda trusted me. Iffen they want a show, Ah’ll give ’em one.'” And as each person from his past was introduced, Junior hauled out a huge red handkerchief and bawled and blubbered into it, acting emotionally blown away. The show remains among the best-remembered.
Junior Samples had come full cycle–from tiny Cumming, Georgia, where he founded a career on an colorful con to national prominence, still gulling everyone.
Junior Samples died in 1983 of a heart attack in his beloved Cumming and he now is no more than a footnote in angling history and a fond memory for devoted fans of rustic tomfoolery.
-30-

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  • September 9th, 2017

FLY ME TO THE MOON

By Joel M. Vance

I have done considerable air travel. I’ve been up in the air many times—sometimes without benefit of an airplane. Once, I flew from New York to London and back again and found the two cities much alike. Lots of diesel fumes, lots of people and lots of taxicabs.
Only difference was that London cabs are big, black, boxy things and the drivers speak a form of English almost comprehensible. In New York cabs all are yellow and the drivers speak Farsi and tailgate the cab in front at about 40 miles an hour and a distance of six inches.
The only New York driver I’ve found who spoke English was from Brooklyn and leveled his curses as if he were back at Ebbets Field and Dem bums were down six runs in the eighth. He told me that he burned out a set of brakes on his Ford Crown Vic every two weeks.
The highlight of that England trip was en route to LaGuardia Airport when the bus driver got lost and we first took a scenic tour of what appeared to be the Mother of All Garbage Dumps before we wound up heading the wrong way on Fabled Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. “I don’t think this is the right way,” mumbled the bus driver, a statement with which an entire bus load of passengers totally agreed. Unless the bus company had a permit to drive across the Atlantic Ocean, we were in the wrong vehicle. But he finally managed to find a great big airport and we were off to London, the charming aroma of garbage lingering in our nostrils.
For a time my first airplane flight felt like it might be my last. Three of us took off in a light plane, as unsubstantial as the kind of paper airplanes we used to fold as kids out of an 8 x 10 sheet of typing paper. We were scouting for cornfields cut for silage, a wonderful place to hunt mourning doves.
The takeoff was uneventful, but the pilot soon was grasping at various levers and wheels as if seeing them for the first time, while I crouched fearfully in the rear seat, wondering if perhaps he got his pilot’s license through the mail, from one of those outfits that offers to make you a minister so you can perform weddings although not necessarily perform an airplane.
Came time to land the plane and that’s when things got interesting. The pilot increasingly became more physically active, grabbing this lever and that wheel while the plane caromed around the sky like an escapee from a pinball machine. “Do you think,” asked my other hunting buddy, who was functioning as the copilot although he had no more idea how to fly an airplane than I did, “you’ll be able to land this thing?” Words to hope to live by. “Never was the phrase “the miracle of flight” more appropriate. The Wright brothers were rolling in their graves. We hit the runway more or less in the right place and finally shuddered to a stop while I offered a prayer of thanks to Mr. Piper or Mr. Aztec or whoever it was who invented a plane that could survive being beaten like an unruly mustang
That was one of my less enchanting air trips but there was a time en route to Pierre, South Dakota , when the pilot announced that, because of high winds on the ground, we would instead fly to Rapid City and wait for the wind to die down in Pierre. So we did that and flew around for a while before the pilot, no doubt weary of over flying the Black Hills, told us he was going to head back to Pierre where “We will try to land this thing.” Very encouraging words. He descended to the Pierre airport to the point where it would be too late to abort and try again some other day when, in the words of pilots, weather conditions would be “severe clear.” The plane sailed like a thrown Frisbee and I expected to see a Labrador retriever or a border collie racing alongside trying to snag a wing as it went by.
I was sitting over the wing and saw it dip toward the runway as if the pilot were planning to dig potatoes. We dribbled down the runway like Steph Curry going full court for a layup, brakes and jet squalling and came to a shuddering stop. As we stepped out on the platform to clamber down to blissfully silent earth, a powerful gust of wind nearly lifted an old lady to Montana or eternity, whichever came first. The pilot standing in the doorway, looking enormously relieved, said, “Now you know why we get the big bucks for flying these things.” I think that’s known as gallows humor.
I’ve only been motion sick twice in my life. Once was in a small boat on Lake Michigan, fishing for salmon, when my boat mate produced a huge roll of summer sausage and asked if I wanted some. Until then I hadn’t paid attention to the rhythmic rocking of the boat in the waves, but then I did and wanted nothing more than to coat the entire surface of Lake Michigan with vomit.
My other bout with motion sickness was in a small plane flying to Saskatchewan, Canada, to fish, and my boss at the time insisted on giving me his ideas about some advertising copy I was going to write for him. The flight was rhythmically bumpy and while no one else seemed to be affected by the erratic motion, all I wanted to do was to vomit my toenails. I didn’t need a barf bag, I needed a 55 gallon drum, but throwing up in your boss’s lap is not recommended job security so I somehow managed to swallow my sorrow.
Far more entertaining than nausea was an encounter I saw between a flight attendant and a male passenger. She was very pretty and as she moved down the aisle she stopped at the seat just in front of me, and, with an expression that I later realized was stunned surprise, she exclaimed, “Hi! What a surprise!” I could see the back of the guy’s head as he jerked backward as if someone had tapped him sharply with a baseball bat on the brow. But I saw more clearly the profile of the girl sitting in the window seat next to him. Her expression was somewhat like that of a lover who has just been told that her guy is leaving her for another woman.
Instantly I realized the human drama that was playing out. The guy used to date the flight attendant and the present girl of the moment was seriously pissed off about it. I’m willing to bet she had no knowledge of the extent of this prior relationship, if she even knew about it. It was real life soap opera right in front of my delighted eyes. The flight attendant continued on down the aisle and on with her life, while the guy frantically tried to explain what had just happened to his girlfriend who wasn’t buying a bit of it. I’ll never know what happened with whom but I’d like to believe they all lived happily ever after. It was a real life version of “Days of Our Lives” only more fun.
My wife, Marty, has had both hips replaced, plus one shoulder. And she has a pacemaker. She is a walking mechanical marvel, so full of metal, that when she comes within 50 yards of an airport security checkpoint she sets off a symphony of alarm bells, whistles, sirens and buzzers. SWAT teams begin to lock and load. The last time she went through a security check, after having undergone more wanding than a magician’s assistant, she was asked to step into the scanning booth on two footprints where she was to place her feet. “Raise your arms and stand on the footprints,” she was told by a burly female security guard, who could’ve doubled for Marjorie Main in the old Tugboat Annie movies. Arms aloft and feet planted Marty did the only thing that seemed, to her, appropriate. She did a little Mr. Bojangles buck and wing, the humor of which was unappreciated by the dour Grinch and her compadres who are ever on the lookout for 82-year-old white Anglo Saxon Protestant terrorists.
Then there was the time even before Marty was studded with more metal than a Goth queen, that she set off the alarms because she had a pair of scissors in her purse. They were confiscated of course and as we walked away from the security gate, she grumbled, “Those were my favorite scissors. I’ve had them forever.” Then she opened her purse and took out a second pair of scissors and exclaimed, “Well, at least they didn’t get these!” While I frantically tried to pretend I’d never seen that woman before in my life.
Then there is the time that the plane I was flying on caught on fire. Actually, there was no fire, but the cabin filled with smoke. The man next to me said, “I don’t like this one damn bit.” I looked up from the book I was reading to behold a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which was not the book I was reading.
Either the crew was barbecuing (we were just over Memphis) or there was a problem you don’t want to enliven your flight. “Nothing to worry about, folks” the captain said cheerily. “A minor electrical problem. Will have it cleared out in a few minutes.” But a few minutes also is the amount of time it takes to plunge from 35,000 feet to the earth. I don’t know much about the mechanics of airplanes–what keeps them in the air– but I do know that there are many miles of electrical wire hidden within the fuselage, and that those wires, through the miracle of electricity, have a whole lot to do with the ability of that heavier than air machine to stay aloft.
The cabin cleared and after a half hour of anxious moments we landed safely in St. Louis–although well short of the terminal and surrounded by fire engines. We walked down steps to get to the tarmac and I didn’t get to slide down an escape slide, something I’ve always wanted to do, although only as a practice exercise, not because of the real thing. “I know where I’ll be tonight,” my seatmate said. “I’ll be in church!” The friendly skies are not always that friendly but I keep defying the laws of gravity and getting in various flying machines to get from here to there.
Who knows? One of these days I might find Amelia Earhart.

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