Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • April 3rd, 2020

A HANDFULL OF SUNSETS

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

 By Joel M. Vance

                There’s something about a brookie.  Imagine getting all gooey over a fish that has to strain to reach 10 inches.  It’s like Mike Tyson getting sentimental about knocking out Pee Wee Herman.

                Still…there’s something about a brookie.

                I love the little fish with the fierce heart.  Maybe it’s that a brookie isn’t sophisticated.  I’m not either.  I don’t half know one fly from another and a brook trout simply doesn’t care.  If it looks like food, he’ll give it a shot.  I’m the same way.  I like beer and brats.  A brook trout is a beer and brats fish, designed by Jackson Pollock.

                Maybe I love brook trout because they are the mine canaries of a stream.  Rainbows and browns, cutthroats and bull trout can handle temperatures and pollution that will turn a brook trout belly-up.  Or maybe it’s something else.  Researchers claim that brook trout do have a fair tolerance for acidity and temperature, but don’t compete well with other fish.  Maybe that’s it.  I get grouchy when my stream has too many anglers.  Me and brookies, we like the stream to ourselves.

 

                 In the words of researchers, “Brook trout are vulnerable to angling.”  So what?  Just because a brook trout is naive is no reason to trash him.  He is a fiery fish of unlimited courage that lives where virtually nothing save the occasional osprey preys on him.  He is not stupid; he is noble in the sense that Sir Galahad was noble because of his naïve innocence.  Everything is black and white to a brook trout.  You’re either food or you’re not.

                Call it stupid.

 

                Just not in front of me.

 

                Fishing writers tend to disparage brook trout.  They damn them with faint praise: beautiful but stupid.  Sounds like rednecks telling dumb blonde jokes in a bar.  “How many brook trout does it take to change a light bulb….”Are brook trout dumb?  Famed fishing writer Joe Bates wrote about highly-selective trophy brookies up in the Maine woods where they didn’t see an angler a year.  They weren’t dumb.

 

                Other anglers admit they use 12-foot leaders with elf-hair tippets and tiny flies to catch those stupid eight-inch fish.  So what if a brook trout will attack a chunk of nightcrawler.  A rainbow trout will gratefully accept two kernels of Jolly Green Giant on a No. 12 hook, too.

 

                Could it be that today’s brook trout has been pushed upstream so far, ahead of water warming and trace pollution, that it’s eating out of a nearly bare cupboard and feels compelled to take whatever looks like food?  That’s not dumb–it’s desperation.  Brook trout belong to hidden little streams as intimate as a chat with a lovely woman in a dark bistro.  I grew up on brook trout on northwest Wisconsin streams like Sucker Creek and Thirty-Three and Weirgor. 

 

                  Only one time have I fished for brook trout that reached weight and length you read about in books written before I was born, a depressingly long time ago. That was in the High Uinta mountains of Utah where a wealthy contractor had built a resort that was half for profit, half for his own enjoyment.

 

                    Being a contractor with heavy equipment available, he gouged a series of small lakes out of the thin mountain soil and allowed them to fill with snowmelt from the nearby Uintas. Then he stocked brook trout. You fish from float tubes only—no boats or wading— and use barbless hooks, catch and release only. The grateful fish gorged on natural food, grew to astonishing size, posed obligingly for photographs with which one (me) could taunt envious fellow anglers back in the flatlands of Missouri.   Today’s angler is more likely to encounter a brookie of about 8 to 10 inches long and perhaps ½ pound in weight. The largest weight I’ve seen recorded for brook trout is an astonishing 17 lbs. 10 oz.   

 

                          Except for the often intrusive manipulations of man those brook trout shouldn’t even have been there. Brook trout are native to the Eastern United States, not to the high Uintas or Wyoming or any other Western state. They are transplants who have adapted to the two thirds of the country where they didn’t exist in historic times. And, for that matter, they are not trout but char, a distinction which matters more to another brook trout than it does to me, especially at spawning time. I’m just happy they exist at all, no matter where, for they are as a friend once described them, “a handful of sunsets.”

 

                         Long ago I fished with an old guy named George Mattis who knew more about the woods and wildlife than 99.9 percent of the outdoor writers of the time.  He was an outdoor writer, in fact wrote the best-selling book ever published by the Outdoor Life Book Club.  But mostly he was a chunky little bachelor who’d gone to high school with my mother and who took pity on a young guy whose idea of fishing tended toward dunking turkey liver for channel catfish and who didn’t know beans about trout.  There were better things in life, he thought, and he shared them with me. I was carp comfortable because that’s the fish I grew up with, a fish of muddy water which tasted pretty much the same. You didn’t need intricate little insect imitations to catch carp; you needed a concoction of Wheaties, combined with sorghum molasses, rolled into a ball and molded on a number 2 hook. If you got hungry you could eat the bait.

 

                George used some flies, but was partial to crappie minnows when he wanted to catch big brook trout (which he kept and ate).  One researcher found brook trout almost never took other fish–just insects.  Tell that to George.  His crappie minnows were fish candy to the trout on Thirty Three Creek. Bait fishing violated the canons of purist trout angling, but George was no stream killer.  He hiked farther than any other angler on streams where few others fished anyway and the few trout he took to eat were cream off the top.

 

                You had to fight through alder swamps and stinging nettle and swarms of deer flies and mosquitoes just to get to beyond where the rest of the crowd quit and went to the car.  That was where George put his rod together.  “I don’t start fishing until the cigarette butts and chewing gum wrappers run out,” he said, busting through another impenetrable jungle like an aging halfback going off tackle.

 

                “If there’s a fisherman’s path, just keep going.”  There was no path where we were and it was a brutally hot day and I had a terrible thirst, possibly the result of an overindulgence in a local Wisconsin brew the night before that, while it may have lacked the indefinable bouquet of craft beer, had the advantage of being cheap.  “I gotta have a drink,” I rasped.  “Is this water safe to drink?”

 

                George shrugged.  “Bears poop back here.  Up to you.”

 

                I chanced it, felt better, and we pressed on.  Finally we came to a bend far back in the Blue Hills where the stream charged into a pool, hit the high bank on the far side, then eddied, scouring a deep, tannin-dark hole.  George nodded, as if to an old friend, dug his Coke bottle from his hip pocket, and shook a minnow free.  That’s the way he kept his live bait oxygenated–a Coke bottle jiggling in his hip pocket.  The minnow swam around, wondering what the hell pass in life it had come to.

 

                I flipped a wet fly into the large, slowly swirling pool and a brook trout whacked it and I dragged the fish, flipping and wriggling, onto the grassy bank.  It was about eight inches long.  George, meanwhile, had landed a rich beauty whose dotted sides glowed with color, like the dabs on a pointillist artist’s palette.  It would go a foot, maybe 14 inches.  He whacked it on the head with his belt knife, expertly gutted it, and stowed it in a wicker creel that Theodore Gordon might have worn.

 

                George was from another time, another century.  He remembered when the loggers came to Birchwood and cut the woods over the first time.  In winter, he wore snowshoes that looked to be 100 years old. He ate venison and brook trout. The local grocery store was foreign territory. Sometimes he would take a small frying pan with him, a salt shaker and some oil and fry up his trout on the streambank and there, alone in the sweet woods he would dine luxuriously. George was a man of another century—the one before, not the one to come.

 

                Next morning, we had a fisherman’s breakfast, brewed up by my Aunt Vic, who had been dealing with smelly anglers for about 70 years.  She fried a bounty of eggs, heaped diced potatoes and toast…and a platter of fresh-fried brook trout.  You ate them like an ear of corn.  Nevermind the careful peeling with a fork that you see in upscale restaurants.  We’re talking fisherman’s breakfast.  You didn’t talk; you ate.  You ate with both hands as if there were no tomorrow.  You picked up a brook trout by head and tail and ate your way from butt to neck on one side, turned it over and ate the other side.

 

                The coffee was lustily constructed to float bricks.  After breakfast, there was a period of contemplation, punctuated by grateful groans.  Then you were ready for another day of brook trout fishing.

 

                This is the way I learned to fish for brookies.  It was a meat-gathering exercise.  Since, I have fished for them in Utah, the high mountains of Colorado and the remote streams of Wyoming’s Big Horns.  I’ve been back to Thirty Three and Sucker Creek, but George has moved on to more distant streams and it isn’t the same.

 

                      I went back to Thirty Three Creek a decade ago, on an uncomfortably hot early fall day. There was a small parking area at the bridge across the creek and I rigged up a fly rod and plunged into the faint fisherman’s trail alongside the stream. It didn’t take long before my T-shirt was soggy with sweat. The creek was narrow and so low that the pools were few and far between. I had a hit on a woolly bugger that, at first, felt like the tug of a trout, but what came to hand was a large sucker, about the right size for a pike bait.

 

                      After a couple hundred yards of unproductive, nearly dry riverbed, I realized this was not the trout stream that George Mattis and I had cherished so long before and I gave it up and trudged back to my truck. There was a conservation agent there, dutifully checking to see who would be fool enough to struggle through the brush alongside this barren stretch of former trout stream. “I don’t think there are any trout left here,” he said. “We’ve had several dry years and most of the streams around here lost their trout.” I resisted the impulse to snarl “thanks a lot!” I gratefully gulped down a bottle of water, gone as tepid as that from the stream…. although presumably free from bear poop.

 

                      The dutiful agent had no idea that that stream had lost more than its trout—it lost a big piece of me in the process. I don’t know if there is a heaven or not but if George Mattis is looking down, as romantics are fond of telling us those who have left us do in their off hours when they are not playing harps or whatever, George could only have been thinking “dumb kid, things change.” And not always for the better. Maybe 33 Creek went to heaven along with George. After all, it was his stream far more than it was mine. The legacy he left me was an appreciation for brook trout and the knowledge that no matter how thirsty you get be aware that bears poop in the stream.

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 27th, 2020

NATURE’S UNDERTAKER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Do buzzards stink?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Up the buzzard!

-30-

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  • Blog
  • March 20th, 2020

TRIPPING DOWN MEMORY LANE

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • March 12th, 2020

ROUGH AND READY

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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  • March 6th, 2020

RIVER STORIES

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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  • February 28th, 2020

HERE THEY COME AGAIN!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The Missouri legislature is considering HJR 100 which would if installed in the state constitution give the authority to oversee any agency regulation to what amounts to a super regulatory panel called the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR for short). In essence, it would mean that all fish, wildlife and forestry regulations would be subject to tinkering by this political entity. It would strip the Conservation Commission from its present authority to create regulations, an authority  which voters installed in the state constitution 83 years ago.

 

The bill currently is in legislative limbo after a public hearing heavily attended by conservationists outraged at the legislature’s blatant attempt to destroy the state’s fish wildlife and forestry program. HJR 100’s sponsor, Representative Robert Ross a Republican from the heart of the Ozarks, also sponsored a resolution inviting Donald Trump to deliver the State of the Union address from the Missouri capitol. That didn’t work out but perhaps Ross can persuade the Disney Corporation to send Goofy next year.

 

Legislators have been sharpshooting at conservation’s constitutional autonomy ever since 1936 and it has become an almost annual exercise in political banditry by greedy legislators to overturn it, eternally miffed because they can’t get their avaricious mitts on conservation money and rulemaking. Placing the authority to distribute conservation money without political interference has been vital and effective and replacing that authority with nonprofessional conservation managers is, on the face of it, destructive and without benefit to the common good of the state’s almost universal affection for a clean and diverse outdoors.

 

I wrote the following article in 2006 for the Missouri Conservationist magazine as a memoir of my involvement with the effort to pass a 1/8 cent sales tax constitutionally dedicated to fish, wildlife and forestry conservation. And other than updating a few spots, it seems as applicable and timely today as it was 14 years ago and, for that matter, 83 years ago when, by initiative petition, voters approved constitutional autonomy for the Conservation Commission, ensuring its financial independence from legislative tampering.

 

So here is what I wrote:

 

It was the longest night of my life. It lasted seven years. In the small hours of the morning, when even the best news doesn’t seem that great, we waited for final election results. Talk had dwindled to a minimum, mostly discouraged.

 

“I thought we’d lost it,” said Ed Stegner, who then was the executive secretary of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He was one of the many who had given their heart and soul to the 1976 Conservation Sales Tax Campaign that began in 1969.

 

For me, passage of the Design for Conservation (the name of the program that the tax would pay for) was the end of the toughest half dozen years of what would be more than 20 years with the Department of Conservation.

 

The pressure began almost the day I started working at the Conservation Department in 1969. I had joined what then was the Information Section.“Have you heard about the Leopold Report?” asked fellow writer and editor Mark Sullivan. “You’d better bone up on it—you’ll be involved.”

 

That was an understatement. In the next half decade, along with many others in and outside of the Department, the campaign to realize a new conservation program would become almost an obsession with us. It was not a job; it was a calling.

 

The Department had been studied for a year by three consultants, with the fee paid by the Edward K. Love Foundation of St. Louis. The consultants were Starker Leopold, Irving Fox and Charley Callison.

 

Starker Leopold was the son of Aldo Leopold, considered the greatest philosopher/conservationist ever. Starker had deep ties to the Department. He’d been a graduate wildlife student in Missouri and had done turkey research on Caney Mountain Conservation Area. Irving Fox was a water resources expert from Wisconsin. The third team member, Charley Callison, was the executive vice president of the National Audubon Society and one of Missouri’s own. They looked at what the Department was doing in fish, wildlife and forestry conservation—and, more importantly, what it should be doing.

 

The trio concluded that while the Department had done an exemplary job of providing for hunters and anglers, it had neglected the majority of Missourians who didn’t hunt or fish. It was, the study concluded, a lack of money, not a lack of desire. And the flip side was that hunting and fishing areas were being used for many activities other than those two things, but the people doing the using were paying none of the upkeep.

 

The Leopold team concluded there was an obligation to provide and manage areas for everyone, but no money to do it. So, a conservation program for the future needed to find a funding source and then develop a program that offered something for everyone. It sounded like pie in the sky.

 

But there still were pioneers of the 1930s petition campaign that had given Missouri conservation its constitutional protection. There was also a new breed of younger, but no less dedicated conservationists. They believed that Missourians had faith in the program they’d created in the Depression days and would support a giant leap forward.

 

Conservation Department Director Carl Noren recognized that conservation in Missouri was stalled without additional funding. Every division and section wanted to do far more but had no money or staff to do it. The education program was small. A Natural History Division didn’t even exist. Compared to other outdoor states, Missouri was public land-poor.  Conservation agents literally qualified for food stamps. Missouri, with a history of cherishing conservation, dating to the 1936 constitutional amendment, was running way behind.

 

But you can’t just ask people to trust you with their money. You have to tell them where the money will go. That’s where the dreamers became planners. My boss, Jim Keefe, was among the handful of thinkers and wordsmiths. He’d been editor of the Conservationist since 1957, and his monthly column was the essence of the Department’s direction and philosophy.

 

The September 1971 issue of the Conservationist contained the text of the Leopold Report and the Department’s proposals in response. We called it “Challenge and Response.” The Leopold study provided guidelines, which were that people, especially urban people, needed places to go and Missouri didn’t have enough public land.

 

The dreamers, as inventive as they were, ran smack into hardheaded realists among citizen conservationists. “Yes,” they said. “all well and good, but we want dollar signs attached to these ideas.” The result was The Citizens’ Committee for Conservation, an invaluable group that provided the feedback necessary to learn not just what the Leopold study experts thought the Department should be doing, but also what the people of Missouri thought should be done. We put figures to the ideas and called it the Design for Conservation. But it all depended on money.

 

The first try was in 1972, a petition for a soft drink tax. The petition drive gathered the most signatures ever on a citizen initiative. But none counted because conservationists proved better at taking care of outdoor resources than they did at drafting a petition. The proposal lost a court challenge because it lacked the simple words, “Be it hereby enacted….”

 

It was like being Santa Claus and getting stuck in a narrow chimney, managing to struggle free, then dropping the gifts down the chimney… only to see them burn up because someone forgot to put out the fire. The Citizens’ Committee, both young and old, took a deep breath and decided to try it again, this time with a valid petition and a different funding source— a general sales tax.

 

No one person deserves more credit than Doris “Dink” Keefe, Jim Keefe’s wife. Mother and homemaker her entire life, she decided that someone needed to organize the petition drive. It was light years from anything she’d ever done, but she volunteered full time, unpaid, for a year at the Conservation Federation office, organizing petitions. There were thousands of signatures to check in nine congressional districts.  After the first debacle—leaving out four words—the second try had to be meticulously checked, and Dink was the checker. There were no phony signatures, nor mistakes. She made sure.

 

Charlie and Libby Schwartz put pictures and sound to my script for a movie called Design for Conservation that showed to groups all over the state. Carl Noren and Ed Stegner traveled many miles together, speaking to any group of any size. Carl would outline the plan, the Design, and Stegner would explain that a vote for the tax would ensure the plan.

 

We traveled the state talking about the Design. Everyone knows now that the one-eighth cent sales tax for conservation passed, but until those wee hours in early November 1976, we didn’t. We stirred restlessly at the Ramada Inn in Jefferson City, a television set muttering in the background with election news. Local druggist and hunter Jim Whaley showed me a pair of English double-barreled shotguns that had bluing deep enough to go swimming in. Lovely as they were, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but that television set with its talking heads and updated vote totals.

 

Hour after hour it looked grim, but this was such a great program and Missouri such a conservation- oriented state that I couldn’t believe what we’d worked so hard for could fail. A political consultant and friend of conservation had told Ed Stegner that the more voters who turned out, the more likely it was our tax would fail. It was a record turnout, and the governor, now retired Senator Kit Bond, lost his bid for re-election (he would win a second term four years later). He had been a staunch friend of Missouri’s outdoors for his four years in office.

 

There was so much at stake. The entire future of Missouri’s conservation program rested on what the voters decided that night. I doubt we would have tried a third petition drive, no matter that “third time is a charm” is supposed to be true. It started to turn from dark to daylight, but gradually the votes in favor of the tax climbed, and finally it was over. We had won.

 

So many dreams were part of the Design for Conservation; so many now-legendary conservationists had contributed their wisdom. Most have since died, but their names and faces are as close to me as those of my family: Jim and Doris “Dink” Keefe, Mike Milonski, Charlie Schwartz, Carl Noren. All are now gone. They have been named to the Conservation Hall of Fame, along with Ted Scott, chairman of The Citizens’ Committee. Ed Stegner is gone as is Libby Schwartzwho died on her 101st birthday.  Few remain among the living handful of those who thought it out and made it happen. The effort included folks from every corner of the state. Many carried petitions. Others spoke to any group that would listen. Most important, they voted.

 

When the word finally came, conservation had won. Missourians had decided to tax themselves to ensure the diversity and health of Missouri’s woods, waters and wildlife. It was and is a landmark effort, envied by every other state agency, and still is unique in its constitutional authority.  The conservation sales tax has endured for 44 years and has brought Missourians an extensive program as well as new places to hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch and whatever else folks do outdoors.

 

What sold the Design was reaching potential “yes” voters with a twofold message: first, that they should tax themselves to protect Missouri’s natural resources for their children and grandchildren, and second, that they should do it for themselves. It was an appeal both to altruism and self-interest.

 

It took people with a rare combination of foresight and luck to get it before the public, and it took a voting public with an even more rare confidence in one of its governmental agencies to make it happen.

 

The sun was coming up when I finally fell asleep. My last thought before I drifted off was We won, we really won…and then I amended it: No—Missouri won. It still is winning, 44 years later.

 

A postscript: contact your local state representative and senator by phone or email to register opposition to HJR 100. Contact information can be found online at www.ogi.oa.mo.gov.

 

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  • February 21st, 2020

THIS LITTLE PIGGIE WENT TO HOG HELL

By Joel M. Vance

 

It has been 58 years since my late and dear friend, Mitch Jayne, brought to life one of the last, if not the last Osage Indian in a memorable book titled “Old Fish Hawk.” Mitch, born in North Missouri, emigrated to the Ozarks of southern Missouri where, basically, he spent the rest of his life— as a one room school teacher in the waning days of an old life that depended on the bounty of the steep oak and hickory forested hills (“them hills ain’t so high, but the hollers sure are deep,” said the old timers).

 

Mitch found celebrity as a member of the fabled bluegrass band, the Dillards, equally famous as the Darling family on the old Andy Griffith television show. Mitch saw his book brought to movie theaters as a feature, oddly filmed in Canada, many miles from the Ozarks setting of the plot. But if the setting was not authentic, the main character, Old Fish Hawk, a remnant Native American, actually was an Indian— Will Sampson, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma (who also portrayed a memorable character in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

 

Old Fish Hawk adroitly deals with a black bear that kills his dog, and then rids the backwoods neighborhood of a savage wild boar. Perhaps Mitch was having a bit of porcine prescience when he wrote the book because a half-century later the Ozarks not only has black bears, which were virtually absent in the nineteen sixties, but also the rugged hills today are plagued by, not one, but altogether too damn many feral hogs. Aside from occasional garbage can plunderers, bears have not become a problem in the Ozarks or elsewhere in Missouri, but feral hogs are a major threat to the rural environment, especially South of the Missouri River. Maybe not wild boars but the legacy of those frighteningly ferocious old world animals are the forebears (or forepigs?) of today’s rampaging hog herds. Often called “Russian” boars, the animals actually are Eurasian and once were native to Britain, so we can’t blame the Russians for the current foreseen porcine plague.

 

The problem is not confined to the Ozarks—feral hogs are increasingly prevalent in other states as well. As an introduced species they rank right up there with starlings, English sparrows, and other immigrant critters far less welcome to environmentalists than human immigrants are to Donald J “send ‘em back” Trump. Feral hogs occur in 38 states with populations on the rise. Texas, not only can lay claim to bigness in many things, it also leads in feral hog population with an estimated 2,600,000 of the estimated 45,000,000 feral piggies nationwide.

 

So far, efforts to control the expansion of feral hogs are complicated by the fact that the pigs are prolific, control methods are difficult, and uncooperative hunters, eager to add wild pig to their life list of trophy kills, have actually released fresh stock into the woods. Pigs enjoy sex about as much, if not more than their human counterparts, and give the fabled prolific bunny rabbit a run for its money when it comes to reproductive success. Given that a sow can have one or two litters a year, and that some of the up to half a dozen piglets will be females also capable of breeding the overall population is exponential, an explosion potentially capable of becoming an environmental disaster.

 

A few years back, an Ozark fishing guide, supplementing his summertime income by guiding hunters, offered to take me on a wild pig hunt. The idea was initially exciting—the opportunity to shoot an historic and fabled game animal that, at the time, I knew nothing about. I knew there were feral hogs in the Ozarks, but not that they were a problem. I didn’t take the guy up on his offer, and found later that he had been arrested and fined for poaching. I suspect perhaps he was among those backwoods types who encouraged pig prolificacy as a moneymaking venture and the hell with whatever damage it causes to the environment.

 

Wild boar hunting dates back almost to the moment when man, in his eternal search for food, began experimenting with ways to reduce wildlife to table fare. By the Middle Ages, boar hunting was elevated  almost to the equivalent of intrepid knights battling mythical dragons.

 

Given the once prevalent situation of open range in backcountry America, the introduction of Eurasian swine was akin to inviting the Russian mafia, bent on seduction, into the local debutant’s ball. After generations of injudicious crossbreeding between local piggies and their brawny and uncouth invaders, the result was what we have today—a feral hog.  As a bit of porcine trivia, a group of feral hogs is known as a sounder. Pigs are intelligent animals—probably close to the intellectual level of dogs. They definitely are smart enough to realize that when some hunter fatally shoots one among the sounder, it’s time to move on and become elusive. That’s why hunting or indiscriminate shooting is not an effective population control method.

 

Pigs, like humans are omnivores, eating anything that doesn’t eat them first. And, in feral hogs, that includes farm crops, food needed by resident wildlife, and even fawns or other small animals unfortunate enough to get in the way of foraging pigs. A sounder of feral hogs is the swine equivalent of a battalion of Roto-Rooters, leaving in its wake a ravaged countryside.

 

Wildlife introductions into the United States have not been notably successful. Florida is battling the unwelcome addition of pythons to its wildlife roster, and many large rivers are becoming clogged with Asian carp. Any introduced species inevitably competes with resident wildlife for food and housing—not to mention the possibility of introducing disease. And what fisherman wants feral hogs drinking from and wallowing in his favorite trout stream? For that matter what woodland hunter—deer, turkeys, squirrels or other wildlife dependent on nuts and other forest food for survival—welcomes feral hogs as competitors with native game? And certainly no farmer tolerates a sounder of feral hogs rooting up crops or eating the plants that are intended for people food or for sustaining domestic animals. Even if feral hogs don’t directly destroy crops, their rooting for anything edible turns topsoil into Erosion City.

 

Missouri conservationists have gotten proactive on feral hogs, forming what they call the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership—a group of agencies and organizations that are as they say “dedicated to the elimination of feral hogs from the state”  about 30 of the state’s 114 counties now are infested with feral hogs to the tune of “tens of thousands.”

 

Rather than shooting random hogs, the Conservation Department as the lead agency, recommends and practices trapping hogs and so far in what it calls Area One the group eliminated nearly 1000 feral hogs in 2017 and 18. The Department reports “once all known feral hogs are eliminated from the area, staff will monitor the area to ensure no hogs were missed and no hogs are illegally released.” The pig plan has closed most public land to feral hog hunting, and helps private landowners in hogicide on their own land. “It will take support and cooperation from all Missouri landowners to eliminate feral hogs from the state,” says the Department’s annual report.

 

Mike Bowdenchuk, from Texas’s wildlife agency, told Missouri lawmakers bluntly, “you can’t hunt your way out of this problem.” He said Texas had tried the hunting solution but only encouraged a hunting industry and the state now has millions of the destructive animals that caused an estimated $89,000,000 in damage in 2019 alone. He said “Allowing people to hunt them, putting a meat market in there and not regulating the movement of pigs allowed us to go from a few thousand pigs to 2,600,000 to 3,000,000 pigs. That’s a train wreck.”

 

Almost predictably, a relative newcomer to the Missouri House of Representatives, Chris Dinkins, representing a Southeast Ozark district, has become the champion of the feral hog hunters by introducing a bill that would decimate the state’s landmark conservation sales tax which finances what is universally acknowledged as the finest conservation program in the nation. The tax, constitutionally dedicated and insulated from legislative interference, passed in 1976 after a successful initiative petition drive put it on the ballot, much to the consternation of the state’s perennially greedy legislators who resent any money they can’t finagle.

 

Since the passage of the sales tax, the money has financed programs too numerous to list here but all to the benefit of Missouri’s outdoor oriented and enthusiastic citizenry. There have been numerous attempts by the legislature to overturn the will of the people, but all have failed. But you never know—in an era of political upheaval anything is possible. That a small group of special interest hog hunters, of whom my poaching lawbreaker of years back likely is symptomatic, could overturn nearly half a century of the country’s best and most progressive wildlife program seems impossible…. But even the possibility is frightening. All conservation groups, as well as other interested agencies agree that trapping is the key to elimination of feral hogs and that hog hunting is a highway to hog hell.

 

Mississippi State University has detailed instructions for building various hog traps, ranging from box and wire cage enclosures to larger ones intended to trap sounders. The drawback to a box trap or wire trap is that it is single piggy intended and both time and labor intensive. The obvious advantage to a sounder trap is that it captures several piggies at once and Mississippi State is sympathetic enough to include instructions on how to approach the trapped animals without traumatizing them and then how to send them to hog heaven “humanely”. The Mississippians even include instructions on type of ammunition and gun to use, as well as where to place a lethal bullet—and caution that you shouldn’t poke the gun into the enclosure where an aggressive or panicked animal can jostle the gun so that you wind up shooting yourself or a fellow trapper. Good advice all around.

 

Museums specializing in antiquities showcase weapons intended in medieval times to dispatch Eurasian boars which can be as formidable as any of the fabled dangerous animals of Africa. A true Eurasian (Russian if you prefer) boar has a hide that is almost impervious to any small caliber bullet or anything but the keenest arrow, as well as a pair of tusks fully capable of disemboweling anyone or anything foolish enough to get too close. In the Middle Ages, boar hunting consisted of boar hounds driving the animal to bay after which hunters on foot would use lances or mounted hunters swords to kill the beast. It was a sport mostly confined to the nobility, so cherished that kings and princes forbade peasants from fencing their cropfields to keep marauding hogs out. Today, one Internet site recommends fencing your garden plot, either with or without electricity, with a fence at least three feet high to prevent agile piggies from invading. I can’t even keep box turtles from somehow finding a way through the fence around our garden. I can’t imagine that a determined hog wouldn’t find a garden fence a minor inconvenience en route to a dinner appointment.  Favored boar hounds sometimes were clad in suits of armor to save them from goring by an enraged boar. Today one of the most effective’s feral hog hunting hounds is (are you ready for this?) The dachshund.

 

Once a feral hog has been dispatched to piggy paradise, the question becomes what to do with the body. One suggested remedy is simply to leave it where it drops, relying on scavengers to pick over the remains until nothing is left. But there are obvious drawbacks to this solution— dead hogs are less than aromatic, the family dog is every bit as attracted by defunct  hog as is the local coyote or buzzard. A second solution, favored by animal control folks is to bury the carcass. Labor-intensive, but effective as long as scavengers don’t dig it up.  One recommendation is for composting, although I think I would have second thoughts about snacking on root vegetables raised on dead hog compost soil. Or, you can call a dead animal disposal operation to give you that out of sight out of mind feeling.

 

People talk about “being in hog heaven.” But, as far as the state of Missouri is concerned it’s more like “being in hog hell.” Some folks actually eat feral hogs, ignoring the possibility of disease such as trichinosis (cooking to an internal temperature of 160° supposedly kills potential pathogens). Suckling piglet might well be a delicacy, but references say that cooking old boar both smells and tastes pretty rank. I think I’d rather leave a defunct feral hog as a scavenger smorgasbord or find a couple of shovels and a willing helper to inter the defunct porker.

 

Afterword:                                

 

I commented to representative Dinkins by email concluding , “stay out of conservation areas where you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about and where you have no business being.” I did not mean she has no business being in the legislature although we probably can argue about that point too, but that she has no business claiming expertise over conservationists with long experience in combating the feral hog situation.

 

 I received the following gracious (sarcasm intended) reply: “Unfortunately, you did not leave your phone number for a discussion with your comment so I suppose I must respond on here. As the old saying goes, “Follow the Money”.  I guess that also applies in this case too seeing MDC buttered your bread for so many years. As to your statement, “where you have no business being.” I am a Representative of the people. The people I represent have a different view than you and I plan to continue to represent the people that elected me. When they go to the cemetery and see their loved ones grave destroyed they do not think MDC is so wonderful. When their livelihood and their ability to provide for their family is at stake, they do not think MDC is doing such a wonderful job. So until you come to my district and see and talk with the people, I respectfully request that you keep your biased opinion to yourself and I will continue to work for the people who sent me to do just that.”

 

I doubt that those who voted her into office were exclusively hog hunters.  I can’t even begin to analyze her loopy justification that she represents her constituents (who, according to her, have loved ones all apparently buried in one grave). And it’s all the fault of the Conservation Department. I worked 21 years for the Department; she has represented her district for two. And the Conservation Department, proposed by citizen initiative and affirmed by all the state’s voters, has existed for 83 years. Do the math.

 

Forgive me if I consider this just another attempt by a Missouri legislator to overturn the will of the people of all the state who created the Department funding and independence by initiative petition in 1936 and again in 1976 specifically to put wildlife management in the hands of professional wildlife managers and insulate it from the uninformed and ignorant grasp of  greedy legislators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • February 14th, 2020

TO BEE….OR NOT TO BEE

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was maybe 6 years old, it was a pitch black night, cold in winter time, no time for a runty little kid to be out way past bedtime. But I was with the big men, mere shadows in the night, our path lit by a coal oil lantern (that’s kerosene for you city folk) —those being the days before rural electrification brought artificial lighting to the gullied hills of Chariton County, Missouri. We (they) were on a time-honored mission in rural Missouri. We were going into the nearby woods to cut down a bee tree and rob the resident bee colony of its winter food.  I may rot in hell for that environmental crime, but what did any of us know at the time?

 

After they had cut down the tree, someone handed me a small chunk of honeycomb and I can remember vividly the incredible sweetness of the honey there in the frigid winter night. Although refined cane sugar long since had become available to those whose idea of formal dress was a clean pair of Big Smith overalls, honey still, as it had been in pioneer times when it was the only available sweetener, still was a cherished accompaniment to the morning’s scratch made biscuits.

 

Missouri and the then territory of Iowa once nearly went to war over bee trees, the so-called Honey War of the early eighteen hundreds. A Missourian cut down some bee trees in territory disputed between the two political entities and both sides bristled at one another on another wintry night but ultimately stood down from armed conflict and today the border fight has been long settled, but the fight over honeybees is just beginning.

 

The little insects with the fiery butt ends today are the most prominent of all the pollinating insects in the United States, although they are immigrants, brought to this country by other immigrants—sorry, Donald Trump– yet another example of how immigrants have benefited our nation. Without pollination, the food crops we depend on for survival would wither. If you took sperm laden man out of the equation, leaving only women to populate the planet, you’d probably have a better society for a while, but it takes two to create and maintain civilization. That is equally true of plants which rely on insects carrying pollen from male to female vegetation to raise the veggies, fruit, and other food products that sustain us.

 

The Environmental Protection Agency which we all know as the EPA has been a mixed blessing ever since its creation in the early 1970s during the Richard Nixon administration. Under the Trump administration, the EPA has become a joke agency mostly dedicated to undoing what over the years it developed as some notable environmental protections.  All too often it has been become the fox in the chickenhouse with a political hack administrator who has seemed more interested in protecting the polluters than the environment. 

 

                The EPA currently is hanging fire on a ban of the pesticide clothianidin which the EPA approved for use on plants in 2003 even though its own scientists objected.  In brief, clothianidin is accused of causing “colony collapse,” an epidemic that has resulted in more than 30 percent of honeybee colonies to die off each year since 2006.  Europe’s leading food safety organization, the European Food Safety Authority equivalent of the EPA, has termed the pesticide an unacceptable danger to honeybees.

 

                And in case you’re tempted to reply, “Who cares,” the quick answer is “you’d better.”  Without bees to pollinate crops that provide just about every vegetable and fruit food humans eat, it would be a hungry time a’comin’.  Not to mention the incredible economic tangle that would result if corn and other crops lose their source of pollination.

 

                 Honeybees are the most efficient pollinators that exists.  Wind will scatter pollen, but it’s fickle and indiscriminate.  Bees are specific, flying from one blossom to another, with the precious pollen clinging to their legs. 

 

The threat is not just pesticides that kill pollinating insects; it also is herbicides that kill the flowering plants where bees and other pollinating insects gather pollen. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, a beautiful orange blossom milkweed beloved by butterflies and other insects. We have never sprayed anything anywhere close to those plants, but over the years they have dwindled to a single plant. A partial solution is to buy and plant butterfly weed and other native plants from nurseries that specialize in native plants, shrubs and trees.

 

Honey bees expanded to North America with human-assisted migration during the 17th century. Many Europeans fleeing wars, poverty, land laws or religious persecution brought extensive beekeeping skills to the United States during the next two centuries. Meanwhile, English colonists took bees to New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania, completing human-assisted migration of Apis mellifera around the globe.

 

Beekeeping became commercially viable during the 19th century with four inventions: the moveable-frame hive, the smoker, the comb foundation maker, and the honey extractor. These inventions still support commercial apiculture. A fifth invention, a queen grafting tool, allows beekeepers to control genetic lines.

 

 

                If the EPA does not take immediate action to ban clothianidin, it will be several years before it reviews the pesticide again.  And several years is just about what it has taken to create an environmental catastrophe in the first place.   Given another five years or so and we could be out of honeybees. 

 

                Clothianidin is more and more pervasive and the only American studies as to its longterm safety are from the industry that produces it, termed by the European FSA as “deeply flawed.”  Bobwhite quail eggshell thickness was affected when the test birds were given a diet consisting of relatively large amounts of clothianidin-treated seeds.  If you remember back a half-century, we almost lost the bald eagle because of eggshell thickness problems, due to so-called “hard” pesticides.  Will clothianidin be the next insidious pesticide threatening the Midwest’s most popular game bird?

 

                Or is it already?

 

                Dan West, who owns an apple orchard near Macon, Missouri, and who also has about two dozen honeybee hives to pollinate it, is convinced that clothianidin is bad news.  And Macon County is Missouri’s largest ethanol processor and ethanol depends on corn….which is a crop where clothianidin has become endemic.  For years West has rescued bees who have taken up residence where they’re not wanted, especially in houses. Rather than exterminating the invaders, West extracts the colony and relocates it to his orchard where the newcomers not only pollinate the apple orchard but also provide honey which West sells from his store in Macon. “I’m still beekeeping and rescuing bees but not as much as I have in the past,” he says.  “Gotten wiser and don’t like heights as much either.  The beekeeping rescues have turned more to catching swarms, which is kinda of an art in itself.  Caught 12 or so last year  and have a friend who caught 22 or so.”

 

He says, “Easier in the long run and still a joy to see them take off and produce a full colony and maybe even some honey their first year.  Our area of North Central Missouri is still doing well in an overall sense.  The bees are still plagued by pests including mites as well as the small hive beetle. The small hive beetle although I personally have little problem with them are particularly sinister in as much as they will hide in the hive and mimic a hungry bee, getting the passing bee to feed them directly. They lay eggs in open brood and also in honey and if the colony is not strong, the colony will soon perish.”

 

If nothing else the threat of honeybee extermination should emphasize how historically important honey has been to mankind, both as a sweetener and as a homeopathic remedy.  Honey as medicine is almost as old as bees and human ailments. The human digestive system must convert cane or other sugar, but the bee already has done that in making honey so people with digestive disorders could benefit from honey by cutting one step out of the process. 

 

                Many a country kid has had a ragged cough soothed by a judicious mixture of honey and whiskey.  Which of the ingredients did the most to mellow the kid is open to debate, but in addition to kiddy cocktails, honey has been used as an ointment for rashes and burns.  Despite its long tradition the jury still is out as to whether honey really cures or ameliorates anything.  But it tastes so good!  A south Missouri bee enthusiast once discovered a bee tree filled with honey that tasted exactly like bourbon whiskey.  He theorized the bees had been feeding on residue from an Ozark moonshiner’s still.

 

                At the other end of the bee-honey production line, bee venom is widely used to treat arthritic pain.  Vermonter nurse assistant Reyah Carlson is an advocate of apitherapy which she used to treat Lyme disease.  “I don’t claim cures,” said Carlson, who said she had been stung 25,000 times. “In some cases, it’s ongoing treatment for life. For many diseases including multiple sclerosis and lupus, it’s a great way to keep things in check and under control.”  But some are violently reactive to insect stings to the point of death–anaphylactic shock.

 

Honey use in food is thousands of years old. The Egyptians flavored baked goods with honey but, disconcertingly, also used it in embalming corpses.   Many tea drinkers, including me, sweeten tea with honey, as do many others trying to wean themselves from processed sugar.  Honey is mainly fructose, about 38.5 percent and glucose, about 31.0 percent.  There are small amounts of other compounds hailed as antioxidants.  

 

                The late Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson proposed  legislation that President Nixon signed in 1970.  The law and several other environmental revolutions came into being in the 1970s—notably the Clean Air Act extension and a number of clean water acts.  All had their direct roots in the tumultuous 1960s when the nation, led by activist youngsters, decided enough was enough on civil rights, voter rights, and the environment, and became a force too strong to resist.

 

                The first Earth Day in April, 1970, was the catalyst.  Another great Senator (what ever happened to those) Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, created the Day as a way to focus attention on an environment gone haywire and 20 million Americans celebrated it.  That many voters will get Congress’s attention every time and presently there was an agency dedicated to cleaning up our fouled nest.

 

                It has not been an easy row to hoe.  The EPA is under direct control of the White House and thus its dedication seems to reflect the philosophy toward environment of whoever sits in the Oval Office.  Some have been notably hostile to environmental regulation and even the most liberal often have been lukewarm when it came to regulating industry or farming.

 

In April 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists said that more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work.  The EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban some pesticide use, citing lack of evidence. It’s pretty scary when the watchdog bites the farmer rather than the fox in the chicken house.

 

                And that brings it full cycle to clothianidin, one crop farmer’s pest control tool.  Studies show that pesticide dust released at planting time may persist in nearby fields for several years and be taken up into non-target plants, which are then foraged by bees and other insects.  Dan West says,  “Overall I’m not terribly worried about our bees here in North Central Missouri.  Even though we are a farming area and pesticides are the norm with farmers the bees seem to overall be holding their own.”

 

                In the seven decades or so since the end of World War II, farming has increasingly relied upon pesticides and herbicides to the detriment of native plants. Call them weeds if you want, but many of those unwanted plants are precisely what bees and other pollinators need for survival.

 

Some solutions? Abandon the decades old philosophy of “clean farming” which mandates that a landowner scrub his holdings of anything resembling a weed. Encourage instead leaving native plants that offer pollinators safe haven. The state of Minnesota is pioneering incentive payments to homeowners to plant their lawns with pollinators.

 

The late Don Christisen, prairie biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, once got crossways with  officials in his home city of Columbia when he allowed his lawn to go unmowed. To the city, it was unsightly and an affront to their idea of beautification. Don countered by having his lawn declared a prairie research area, immune from mowing. Instead, he showcased a mini native prairie, exactly what Minnesota is proposing its landowners should do and get paid for it.

 

It’s encouraging that Minnesota’s pioneer program is a start toward solving the impending crisis posed by the loss of pollinating insects. If we could as a society discourage weed growth and insect invasion by chemical solution, perhaps we can, with research and dedication, reverse the problem we created and bring back an environment rich with pollinators and pollinating insects.

 

Maybe the little insects with the stiletto tails will persist in spite of the scary array of threats to their very existence—and, by extension, our existence.

 

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  • February 4th, 2020

HAMBERDERS FOR THE KANSAS CITY, KANSAS, CHIEFS

By Joel M. Vance

 

The Kansas City Chiefs rallied in the fourth quarter Sunday night to win the Super Bowl 31-20 over the San Francisco 49ers and when they went ahead for good I let out a yell that could have been heard in Kansas City more than 100 miles distant. That game was all that is good in sports, no matter that the players are making millions of dollars and I’m not. The Chiefs lived out a Horatio Alger story, underdogs, coming from behind in super dramatic fashion to give coach Andy Reid, a beloved figure by players and fans alike, his first Super Bowl victory and all was well in the world.

 

And then Donald J Trump, who thinks Puerto Rico is not part of the United States and Puerto Ricans are not United States citizens, and who once promised a border wall between New Mexico and Colorado under the apparent impression that New Mexico is part of old Mexico, managed to throw dirt on the Kansas City win with this tweet: “you represented,” he told the Chiefs via Twitter, “the great state of Kansas and in fact, the entire USA, so very well. Our country is proud of you!”

 

Probably someone delicately pointed out to the Dolt in Chief (because you don’t want to piss off the great leader) that the Kansas City Chiefs, in fact, play in and represent the state of Missouri, not Kansas. To a Missouri sports fan, in anything concerning sports, Kansas is the arch enemy and has been since the Civil War when there was considerable bloodshed on both sides of the state line. Since then, spilled blood has largely been confined to sports venues, but the animosity remains.

 

Missouri reaction to Trump’s in-your-face insult to the Chiefs and Missourians in general was summed up specifically by former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill succinctly: “it’s Missouri, you stone cold idiot.” She was replaced in the Senate by Josh Hawley, a Republican lightweight butt kisser who, as far as I have seen, has yet to comment on the inexcusable gaffe by the geographically challenged  presidential dumbass. I suspect his fawning Republican devotees will ignore this unforgivable insult to the state’s beloved football team and probably will vote for the idiot once again in November, just as they did more than three years ago. For a few brief hours, Missouri was a red and white state (the colors of the Chiefs) not the politically red one, a sorry distinction it shares with Kansas.

 

Perhaps Trump had visions of moving Arrowhead Stadium from Metropolitan Kansas City across the state line to Kansas. After all, he once proposed moving the capital of South Korea, Seoul, when he found out how close it is to the border with North Korea. If you can move a city, why not a simple thing like a football stadium?  And this is a wizard who can with a single stroke of a Sharpie, move a hurricane one or two states inland. A little thing like the Super Bowl is simple, like his mind.

 

Now that football has faded into thoughts of spring training and other sporting events of the warmer days, my memories return to fleeting glimpses of my misbegotten decade as a sports editor of a small Midwestern daily newspaper. Those days will not come again and in some cases, I’ll be just as happy. There was, for example, the night when the temperature was 17° and my town, Mexico, Missouri, was playing Jefferson City, the state capital team and also the reigning state champions.

 

Predictably, as I tried keeping score, prowling the sidelines with numbing feet, fingers without feeling, the Jays romped over Mexico like a high school version of the frequent national champions of the day, the Oklahoma Sooners who exploded at the snap of the ball with frightening speed and ferocity. Mexico didn’t have a chance and, when I covered Oklahoma versus the Missouri Tigers at Memorial Stadium, Missouri didn’t either.

 

Mexico football has improved since then; the Jays have declined somewhat in the years subsequent to the retirement of legendary coach Pete Adkins (who racked up eight state championships and405  Victories in his career at Jefferson City high school. Missouri football also enjoyed its best years in that decade from 1959 to 1969 under the leadership of another legendary coach, Dan Devine.

 

And the Tigers have been off and on since Coach Devine left to guide both the Green Bay Packers and Notre Dame. But not before he left me with one of the most memorable moments of my sports reporting days. I don’t remember who the opponent was, but I certainly remember what happened. Dan Devine had a sweet personality, likable and quiet until something triggered a volcanic temper that lurked, always alert, just below his otherwise calm demeanor.

 

I was on the sideline just at the edge of the coach’s box, the space along the field where the coach was allowed to roam freely and speak words of wisdom to the officials. One of those officials called a penalty on Missouri and that pushed Devine’s button. Clutching his ever present clipboard, Coach Devine charged onto the field apparently intent on mahem. He was pursued by a large assistant coach and corralled before he could commit officialcide. I always suspected that coach rather than being hired to supervise a component of the football team, was only there on salary to keep Devine from committing a capital crime.

 

Devine grudgingly turned back toward where I crouched, clutching a Speed Graphic camera, a Tyrannosaurus rex of photography, as relevant to today’s digital marvels as a model T Ford is to a Lamborghini. Devine’s expression looked remarkably like the dark green cloud that looms on the western horizon just before a funnel cloud drops down to the ground. And then, perhaps 15 feet in front of me, a frame filling moment for the 4 x 5 Speed Graphic large format, Devine spiked his clipboard, slamming it to the turf with Gallic rage. All I had to do for a front page prize-winning photograph was press the shutter release button on the camera. I didn’t. He scared the crap out of me and I missed the shot of the century.

 

Ah, sweet memory!

 

Often, during Missouri football games, I was not on the sideline but up in a pressbox, long since replaced by a modern facility, but then a rickety structure, always seeming on the verge of toppling over the back side of the stadium wall to the parking lot far below. A row of sports reporters from various newspapers around the state huddled over score books, typewriters, and telephones, depending on what form of communication with the home base they used. We were lavishly supplied with food by the University in the form of processed cheese and white bread sandwiches and warm Pepsi-Colas. I suspect today’s underpaid and overworked sports reporters eat far better than we did but, hey, it was free and no reporter I ever knew would turn down a free meal, no matter how humble it was.

 

I much preferred to patrol the sideline to be closer to the action although there were inherent risks— a fan, probably a diehard alum, who I think had inhaled more than a little Tiger spirit suffered a head on collision with a running back who careened out of bounds about five feet from me. The back bounced up, ready for battle once again, but the unlucky fan slept on, colder than that night when Mexico played Jefferson City. Another time, a running back sailed out of bounds and nailed an official, breaking the zebra’s leg. So I turned down stale cheese sandwiches for the perils of the sideline including the possibility of a fractured skull from a flying clipboard.

 

This is the same University that recently expanded seating on the South end of the stadium to the tune of $80,000,000 so more fans would have the opportunity to watch the Tigers lose. The athletic department reports that it is running in the red, so I suspect they’ll be begging for more money. I doubt that any additional funds appropriated by our bumbling legislature will go toward teacher salaries or improvement of the educational aspect of the University.

 

Speaking of free meals, one I cherish still was a dinner at the Mexico country club with a local sports enthusiast who had invited a famed football player to speak at a local event. I somehow got invited to dinner with Red Grange, the legendary Galloping Ghost. Without him, possibly there would be no Super Bowl today, because it was Grange who was the first college superstar to sign on to the National Football League and bring respectability to a sport which until then, had mostly resembled a parking lot riot on Saturday night at a sleazy roadhouse.

Red Grange was a college All-American halfback three years running at the University of Illinois where he lettered 18 times in four sports– baseball, track, basketball, and football. He scored 33 touchdowns eluding tacklers so deftly that he earned his nickname, the Galloping Ghost. In 2008 he was named the best college football player of all time by ESPN. He averaged more than five yards per carry, racked up 2649 total yards of offense.

 

Somehow the Chicago Bears convinced him to sign a professional contract and for 2 years he turned what had been poorly attended mayhem into the kind of mega attraction we see today. His 1st game drew 40,000 fans. He played only 3 years in the NFL before a knee injury, today’s ubiquitous injury, slowed him. After football, Grange appeared in movies, became a motivational speaker (which he was when I dined with him) and a sports announcer.  In 1978 he flipped the coin at Super Bowl XII. He was the first football player to appear on a Wheaties box.

 

When I had dinner with him he was a successful businessman, in his mid fifties, soft-spoken and gentlemanly and one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever encountered in or out of  sports. After I wrote a genuinely gushy story about our talk together, he sent me an autographed photo which I still have and  cherish.

 

Over the years I have interviewed and hung around with several superstar sports figures and of them all he and hockey legend Gordie Howe rank as the best. Predictably there also has been a worst, another NFL legend whom I won’t name, but who you can see in various television commercials today. I’ll stick with Red Grange who epitomized how we would like to think professional football player should act.  And Dan Devine who, over all my years, still to me is the finest football coach/human being I’ve admired.

 

And the Kansas City Chiefs who at least for now are the modern  personification of that epitome.

 

I also suspect the Chiefs would be gracious enough to honor the office of the presidency if Dumb Donnie invites the Super Bowl champs to the White House for a fast food feast instead of doing what I wish they would do and tell him to take his hamberders and shove them. Perhaps, being the ignoramus he is, he’ll invite the 49ers instead.

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  • Blog
  • January 31st, 2020

wET WONDERLAND

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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