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  • Blog
  • November 20th, 2020

IT’SGOOD, THOUGH

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

There were a dozen couples grouped around a table in a nightspot, all of us on dates. I knew the guys but was only vaguely familiar with their girlfriends so I studied their names more assiduously than I ever did, for example, algebra. It would be horribly embarrassing to introduce my date, Martha Lou Leist, the girl who would become my wife, now of 64 years and counting.

 

So, came the time to introduce ourselves and I began around the table, flawlessly remembering the names of the young ladies, correctly identifying both them and their male companions until I came to the lovely young woman seated to my right and I said “and this is……ah, er…..”

 

“Marty,” she said. And everyone laughed except me.

 

The late, great, comedian, Chris Farley earned himself a spot in the comedian’s Hall of Fame when, during a skit on Saturday Night Live, posing as a bumbling, inept, interviewer, he blurted out to Paul McCartney, “didn’t you used to be a Beatle?”

 

At a gathering of outdoor writers and celebrities, I once went to breakfast with a tall gentleman whom I assumed was a fellow outdoor writer. Smalltalk is something I’m not good at—sometimes it’s beyond small to downright infinitesimal. “And what is it you do?” Expecting him to answer that he was a specialist in big game hunting or upland birds. Much to his credit and without so much as a scornful “you idiot” remark he merely said “I’m an actor.”

 

Through quick deduction, which I am noted for like Sherlock Holmes, I looked at his name tag “Richard Anderson.” Whoever that is, I thought. When I had time to check him out on the Internet I found out that not only was he an actor, but I had been watching him on the popular television show “The Six Million Dollar Man” just about forever. Not only that, but he had appeared in countless movies, which I had seen and even beyond that, he had been Debbie Reynolds’ first serious boyfriend, something that I will never forgive him for because that was supposed to be my role.

 

I also once had dinner at a table with some guy named Denis Potvin without having the faintest idea who he was. Through some fortuitous twist of fate, I avoided asking him what he did for a living and was grateful when later I found out he was a Hall of Fame hockey player. Kind of like asking Stan Musial, nicknamed the Donora Greyhound, in honor of his Pennsylvania home town, “Didn’t you used to raise racing dogs?”

 

If there is an upside to coronavirus it is that self isolation, and the wearing of a mask, somewhat like the Lone Ranger putting his mask on over his nose and mouth rather than his eyes, lessens the opportunity for one putting his Air Jordans where his stupid tongue resides.

 

As I add up the times that I have publicly embarrassed myself over the years, I remember more than a few times that I have come across looking like Private Zero at Camp Swampy in the Beetle Bailey comic strip. Or maybe more like Lieutenant Fuzz, especially the time that I failed to salute a general. It was at the end of the long day on the road from mid-Missouri to camp Ripley, Minnesota, where we intrepid National Guard warriors were to learn how to defend the country from invasion by people named Olson.

 

I sort of noticed a couple of guys walking across the vast parking lots where my troopers were washing our tired vehicles and when they got close I turned and one of the two,  who turned out to be a Colonel, who snarled at me in a rather unfriendly way, “don’t you know enough to salute a general?” I then realized the other fellow had a star on his shoulder which did not come as a prize from a box of Cracker Jacks.

 

I lofted a sort of sloppy salute and mumbled abject apologies, none of which were sufficient for the colonel who proceeded to ream me what’s known in the military as “a new one” while the general stood impatiently rapping, I swear to God, a swagger stick against his leg, probably wishing he could instead rap it repeatedly against the side of my head.

 

Once, I attended a celebrity and press event whose main celebrity was General Norman Schwarzkopf. I was long out of uniform and didn’t have to salute, but I still was awed by his militaryness, having learned for all time at Camp Ripley the difference between me and a general.

 

Restaurants seem to encourage in me a compulsion to do incredibly stupid things, much to the amusement and entertainment of friends and strangers alike.  If one incident comes up a lifetime of embarrassing ineptitude, I think it is the time when, returning from a family outing, we stopped at a chain restaurant for dinner.

 

I rose from our table and threaded my way through the crowded restaurant to an ice cream machine. I fished a bowl from a stack beside the machine and pulled the lever to fill it to the brim. I turned and began to move back to my table, lofting the near overflowing bowl of sweet stuff. And then I realized that my hand holding the bowl was uncomfortably hot. Apparently I had picked up a bowl fresh from the scalding dishwasher and I also realized that the ice cream had lost the ice part of the description and was beginning to flow down my hand and arm.

 

I began to sprint my way through the occupied tables like a border collie negotiating an agility course. “Hot bowl!” I exclaimed, the ice cream reaching torrent proportions on my arm, “hot bowl!” The bemused crowd seemed to be unanimously concluding that they were watching a madman.

 

Did the family rallies around its humiliated father with words of encouragement?  It was several hundred miles to home and I don’t think the family ever stopped laughing.

 

Restaurants seem to bring out the stupid in me. There is an old joke which I heard on a recording by the late wonderful Utah Phillips about a bunch of hunters who vote to punish one of their members by making him camp cook. The camp rule is that if anyone complains about the cooking, they have to do it.

 

One day while grumbling to himself about having to cook, the luckless hunter spies a moose flop in a meadow, has an inspiration and exclaims, “I’m going to make a moose flop pie!” He takes the meadow muffin back to camp, prepares an elaborate pie tin and bakes a moose flop pie. When the hungry hunters return, he serves the pie.  One hunter shoves a fork full in his mouth, howls, “that’s moose flop pie!” Long pause. “It’s good though.”

 

I was reminded of the joke when I went for lunch one day at a local eatery and ordered a chicken breast sandwich. It arrived and I dug in and ate about half of it before I noticed the waitress standing by the table.

 

“Uh, excuse me sir,” she said, “but the cook forgot to put any chicken in your sandwich. He’s making another one and I’ll have it right out.” I had eaten much of a chicken breast sandwich without the chicken and never noticed. As the waitress set it down and picked up the original half eaten sandwich, she looked at me as if examining a strange bug and I said, “it was good though.” Later, I noticed a little knot of waitstaff at the far end of the place chattering to each other and giggling. They seemed to be stealing glances at me.

 

I wonder why.

 

It’s possible that restaurant stupidity is catching. Several years ago, my wife, Marty, and I decided to eat lunch at a Mongolian restaurant named Hu Hot.

 

I had no idea what Mongols eat, although I know they are fond of drinking yak milk which, I suspect, tastes like yak milk. We found a booth and sat and I waved off the menu from a timid waitress (increasingly, waitstaff seem timid when serving me) “We’ll eat the buffet,” I said.

 

Marty and I went to the long buffet table and I shoveled a heap of ice cold noodles into my bowl. That seemed peculiar, but I thought maybe that’s the way Mongols eat noodles. After all, it’s a cold climate up there in the Siberian desert. Next came a helping of meat labeled as beef and ham. Each of the shaved pieces of meat were frosted—obviously frozen. Maybe that’s the way the Mongols eat their meat, I thought. Stuff a bunch of yaks in a frozen food locker and shave off what you need for each meal. We added more gelid goodies, went back to our seats, and dug in. I had never eaten food covered with frost before except for a Popsicle. It’s a tough life out there on the Steppes, I thought.

 

I became aware of someone standing beside our booth and looked up to behold that same timid waitress, appearing even more timid. She cleared her throat nervously and said “Ah, I think you’re supposed to cook the food.” Marty continued to eat, amid tiny crunching sounds.

 

For the first time I became aware of a roar from what turned out to be a massive grill about 20 feet away. four or five cooks circled this superheated metal cooking surface stirring the food of everyone else, those who were not noisily crunching frozen fish and chips.

 

I was mortified, realizing that Mongols do not shave yaks for dinner and that once again I had turned a restaurant into a Three Stooges comedy. Marty and I were emulating Moe and Shemp, lacking only Curly Bill. I looked up at the waitress, still standing there, poised as if to flee if I showed the any sign of unrestrained madness.

 

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks— we’ll cook it.”

 

“It’s good though.” I added.

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  • Blog
  • November 13th, 2020

SHADOW ON THE WALL

By Joel M. Vance

 

In a few days we will be celebrating Thanksgiving and doubtless there will be many reproductions of a painting that typifies what us white folks like to think of as the ideal Thanksgiving dinner. Painter Norman Rockwell showed a happy family gathered around the dinner table, steaming turkey waiting to be sliced. It was the quintessential joyful family gathering. Of course, all the family participants were white, but never mind. Rockwell also painted “The Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want (the subject in the Thanksgiving portrait), and freedom from fear) which rallied the country during World War II.

 

But of all the 4000 paintings and illustrations Norman Rockwell created, the one he titled “The Problem We All Live With” is perhaps today the most relevant, more so than the comforting one of a white family celebrating a national holiday.

 

I am wondering how many thousands, if not millions, of voters now celebrating the election of Joe Biden and, Kamala Harris as president and vice president missed a poignant and significant Facebook post now circulating which pictures Ms. Harris striding determinedly along a sidewalk carrying a briefcase, obviously marching into the future with purpose.

 

Overlooked by me and, I suspect, a multitude of viewers is a shadow figure on the wall beside Ms. Harris. After seeing the image a number of times, I finally registered a comment by someone saying it had brought her to tears. And then I realized what I was seeing.

 

The shadow is not that of Ms. Harris, but is that of Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl who, in 1964 was the subject of a painting by Norman Rockwell which appeared as a centerfold in “Look” Magazine. The entire painting shows the little girl being escorted to school by federal marshals while the wall along which she is walking depicts racial slurs and a splattered tomato, symbols of the despicable reaction to her in the actual 1960 event which inspired the painting.

 

Ms. Bridges was on her way to enter William Frantz elementary school, a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. It was not an isolated incident and it happened six years after the Supreme Court had issued its landmark Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954 which desegregated public schools. White America reacted with the despicable racism and violence that has tainted American history for centuries and which, to our everlasting shame, lingers today.

 

The crowd which threatened the little girl with violence repeatedly was largely composed of white women—think about that. There were an uncomfortable number of white women shouting during Trump rallies during the interminable recent presidential campaign and I suspect some of the modern vulgar rhetoric came right out of the nineteen sixties. The New Orleans mob was not composed of Barroom Babes or Biker Bitches. They were middle-class white moms, professed Christians, regular churchgoers, who would adamantly proclaim themselves without a mean bone in their bodies. But their minds were infected with the virulent virus of racism and doubtless they would pass that infection along to their children just as it had been passed along to them by their parents.

 

The cost to the Bridges family was widespread. Her father lost his job and the grocery stores where they shopped refused to serve them. Her sharecropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for 25 years. The New Orleans school situation proved as chaotic as the overall racial picture in the city. While the elementary school was forced to admit black children, only one did enter, Ruby Bridges, and only one teacher remained to tutor the lone black child who braved the angry mob—Barbara Henry, a-white Boston native. Thus, the school became a student body of one and a faculty of one.

 

It’s also significant that, before black children could be allowed into southern schools, at least in New Orleans, they had to pass a test to prove they were eligible. Ruby passed the test which no doubt caused consternation among the white school officials who had done their damnedest to prevent her from associating with their lily white progeny.

 

Think of the incredible courage that Ruby Bridges had—a 6-year-old girl, no matter the color, reviled by angry adult women one of whom threatened to poison her (she brought her lunch from home from then on).  Another woman exhibited a coffin with a black doll inside. One of the marshals who guarded Ruby later said, “she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we all were very proud of her.” In 2000, Ruby Bridges was named an honorary federal deputy marshal.

 

Ruby Bridges not only survived the ordeal of her courageous act, but grew into a now 66-year-old admirable adult. In 1999 she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote “the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation of all differences.” She added “racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a civilian. She also reunited with Pam Foreman Testroet who as a 5-year-old white girl with her mother defied the angry mob joined Ruby and effectively integrated the Frantz school. Ruby also is the author of two books.

 

In 2010, Ms. Bridges, then 57 years old, decided to urge Ppresident Barack Obama, the first African-American president in American history, to display the Rockwell painting in the White House. With the help of Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, the wonderful late Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, all Democrats. Mr. Obama did hang the painting in a hallway outside the Oval Office. As he and Ms. Bridges admired the painting he said, “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”

 

I admit that when I realized the significance of the Harris\shadow image my eyes filled with tears because it all too dramatically recalled my own time living and working in Montgomery, Alabama, during the late nineteen fifties and my own background living in a small Missouri town dominated by white people, but populated largely by black people who were segregated, and of going to an all white elementary and high school.

 

I regret that I went to two all white elementary schools in Chicago, finished elementary school, high school and four years of college in Missouri all in segregated schools and it wasn’t until the nineteen seventies, an adult married with children that I worked with African-American coworkers and found that, guess what, racial unease was a white folks problem that should not exist. I cannot know the stress that people of color face continually and to believe  that “black people have come a long way” as I so often hear white people say, is a fiction constructed by us white folks to feel better, but that does not reflect reality.

 

Rockwell’s painting dramatically pointed up the racial separation in the country more graphically than any torrent of outrage by racial activists ever could. It was a quintessential “one picture is worth 10,000 words.” The painting was America’s gain and the Saturday Evening Post’s loss. Rockwell, who painted hundreds of covers for the Post had become disenchanted a year earlier because they wouldn’t let him express his liberal views on the political scene. “Look Magazine” welcomed him and his views on civil rights and racial integration. Rockwell, who often used local people as models in his paintings, used a girl named Linda Gunn as his model for Ruby Bridges.

 

Ironically, the painting also was used to gain sympathy for O.J. Simpson in his trial by his lawyer “if the glove don’t fit you must acquit” Johnny Cochran. The original graced the White House wall from July to October 2011. Too bad it could not have hung there until 2016 when Donald Trump took over. Trump, characteristically chose to hang and celebrate a portrait of Andrew Jackson, possibly the most overt racist president we’ve had.  Jackson owned a thousand acre plantation maintained by black slaves, and also was responsible for forcing Native Americans westward on the infamous Trail of Tears. There is no way in which his awful presidency does not represent the worst of America’s racist legacy. And yes, Jackson was the founder of the Democratic Party, and also reprehensible was Woodrow Wilson a Democrat and a racist which proves nothing except that racism is not a possession of either of the two dominant parties in American history.

 

In fact, during the time that I spent in Montgomery, all prominent southern politicians were Democrats.  One of the worst was Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas. Indirectly, he was responsible for my  involvement with the desegregation of the nation’s public schools, but even remotely the experience was jolting. In 1957, three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision to desegregate the nation’s schools, (Ruby Bridges was born within days of that landmark Supreme Court decision) and three years before Little Miss Bridges’ incredibly brave decision, nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock’s Central High School. All were from previously all-black schools, all were exceptional students and eminently qualified to attend Central school.

 

Arkansas governor Faubus called out the state National Guard to “preserve the peace”. Read that as “preserve the whiteness of Central High School.” Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower, activated the 101st Airborne and nationalized the Arkansas guard, effectively removing control of the state troops  from Faubus and providing federal protection for the nine black students.

 

Many years later my son, Andy, and I were duck hunting in Arkansas and our local hunting partner got permission for us to hunt on a rice farm. We found the owner and several of his buddies making sausage and helped them trim pork butts for grinding before we hunted. I thought it would make a good story and told the owner I’d like to talk to him for details. “I don’t much like writers,” he said. “A long time ago I was in Little Rock and there was a bunch of pictures that got out all over the country that didn’t make us look very good and I haven’t been very friendly to writers ever since.” Almost instantly I recalled a photo from that Central High School situation which showed Arkansas guardsmen armed with bayonet tipped rifles confronting the African-American youngsters who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine.

 

He was one of those guys! I dropped the conversation. I was there to duck hunt, not argue racial politics with a redneck. The pork sausage was good; the duck hunting was not. But the incident has simmered in my mind like that frying sausage over the years.

 

Norman Rockwell also painted another portrait of his fellow Americans, not as well-known as the turkey dinner titled “Freedom From Want”. The lesser-known painting is crowded mostly with children but some adults and is titled “Golden Rule”. It portrays people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds and printed over the figures in the painting is the well-known but all too seldom practiced Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

It’s an American shame that in the New Orleans of 1960 so many people forgot that gold colored admonition in favor of a darker and far more shameful hue.

 

A postscript: Lucille Bridges, Ruby’s mother who escorted her daughter by the angry mob on the 1st day before the federal marshals took over, has died the age of 86. Rest in peace, brave mother.

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • November 6th, 2020

HAVE I GOT A PROPOSAL FOR YOU!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Last week’s post was an attempt to avoid talking about or even thinking about the looming election. Now, a week later, the election is past and for better or worse we are stuck in the muddle of history for another four years. I don’t want to think about it and certainly don’t want to remember the last four. One reader of last week’s blog commented “Will there be a chapter two?” about the ongoing romance between Martha Lou Vance ne Leist and me. Things change but, yes, there is.

Jim Despain has passed on Suzann is a widow and the Larry Don, last time I passed by its anchorage, is a heap of rust metal sinking into the mud of the Lake of the Ozarks. The Strip has been bypassed by a modern highway. For a another nostalgic look at Lake of the Ozarks, read Bill Geist’s highly entertaining memoir “Lake of the Ozarks” about his association with our honeymoon Lake and the Larry Don.

 

Last week  I told how I met Martha Lou Leist on a blind date and fell in love. I could paraphrase the words of the old folk song “Cotton Eyed Joe” and sing “Where did you come from/ where did you go?/where did you come from Cotton Eyed Joel” Let’s find out.

At the time it seemed to Marty and me that we were proceeding toward the altar with due deliberation, but actually it was a giddy six months from the moment she floated across the Leist living room and I lost track of whatever her mother was saying, to the terrifying moment when I couldn’t remember what to say when the minister asked, “…to be your lawful wedded wife?”

                We met on the Easter break from school, were married Sept. 30 and for three of those six months we were separated by 800 miles, writing daily letters that, to an outsider, are so gooey as to cause a sugar high (or, in the case of our youngest daughter Amy, an embarrassment so acute she can’t read them).

                Marty and I met in March and I proposed on the throbbing deck of the Larry Don cruise boat barely two months later.  Our folks were dumbfounded when we announced our engagement and even more thunderstruck when we told them after another two months that we planned to marry in September. 

                Their reservations were as obvious as skin damage from extreme acne and for them every bit as painful.  Meanwhile Marty and I floated on a sea of bliss, so distracted by love that we never considered the practical ramifications of marriage.

                Such as:

  1. Marty would quit college a year early and not get a degree, thus not be able to teach, thus not being able to add to the family income (which, for a beginning newspaperman, was the very definition of “poverty level”).
  2. The family income for the next six months would rely on me, a second lieutenant who would be making $275/month and who, after that
  3. Had no money and no real prospects for a decent job (see 1. above re newspaper salaries);
  4. No car;
  5. No hope of help from parents who had no help to spare;
  6. A multiplicity of other good reasons that we ignored, not the least of which was that we had not been together long enough to discover incompatibility, if it existed.

                That dopey unrealism is why at least half of today’s marriages fail, but failure wasn’t part of our disconnected dreaminess.  We had each other and that was enough.  We were exemplars of all the smarmy lyrics of 1950s love songs: “But we’ll travel along/Singing our song/ Side by side” warbled Kay Starr and if it was good enough for her it was good enough for us.  Of course Kay Starr made more money on that song than I was likely to make in a lifetime.  She also sang about catching her parents boogying to rock and roll which wasn’t likely to happen with Marty and me unless Marty married someone else who could dance.

                That was but one inconsistency in our lifestyle.  I liked country music, early jazz, blues; she preferred Sinatra and, oh unhappy day! Liberace.  She could dance like Ginger Rogers; I was as clumsy as a water buffalo that has been darted with ketamine.  She was friendly, outgoing and self-confident; I was friendly.  She went to a high school where they actually played football and had a track team; I went to one where the track equipment consisted of two hurdles, both of which I managed to knock over trying to be the school’s designated hurdler.

                But none of that mattered.  We were in love.

                The proposal came during a weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, 60 miles south of Columbia.  We loaded up our provisions—a half dozen quarts of beer—and headed south in Jim Despain’s venerable DeSoto.   Jim’s date was Suzann Carey, Marty’s best friend from high school.  I’d lined the two of them up a month or so earlier because Jim and I were good friends and, while I had a date and he had a car, he didn’t have a date.

                So we began double-dating.  Jim and Susie hit it off and someone suggested we go to the Lake for the weekend.  This was an incredibly daring venture because it would involve an overnight.  Jim and I both came from backgrounds where the idea of sharing a cabin, much less a bed, with someone of the opposite sex was unthinkable unless you were married.  .

                Or, it was thinkable, but unlikely.  Thinkable in the sense of erotic daydreams which, like most daydreams, was…well, a dream. Girls were an abstraction that had no basis in my reality.  I knew them as friends; I knew them as occasional dates…but I didn’t really know them, either in the Biblical sense or in the practical sense.  Girls were alien beings, possessed of knowledge that I, as a male animal, had no access to.  There was an ageless well of wisdom in the female and it was as secret from males as if it were writ in cuneiform.  Women, for all their historic subservient status, were an entity that I was both baffled and intimidated by.  

                And both girls, Marty and Susie, were 1950s “good girls,” an attribute that didn’t mean they were goody-goody, but that their reputations were unbesmirched.  They drank beer and, in those days, smoked cigarettes, but they didn’t go on overnight outings with boys.  After all this was the era of “Wake Up Little Susie” when the Everly Brothers lamented that they’d fallen asleep on a date and waked up at dawn realizing “our reputation is shot.”

                It was a romantic and naïve attitude, but one typical of boy/girl relationships in the 1950s, at least mine and Jim’s.  Jim was from Arkansas and had been going with a girl there just about forever (they ultimately would marry).  But Suzann was fun to be with and they liked each other enormously.  I don’t think there was any thought of anything beyond enjoying each other’s company.  Unlike Marty and me they were not in love.  They were in like.

                There was no question but that we would rent two cabins at some resort, one for the girls, one for the boys.  Jim and I didn’t even discuss it, none of that locker room sniggering about “getting lucky.”   In fact, we never discussed whether or not we got lucky.  Maybe there were guys who bragged about the girls they had scored with, but Jim was cautionary about premarital sex. 

                He dragged me aside and growled, “You’d better take care of that little girl!  You won’t find another one like her.”  I was chastened.  He was right—I’d never felt the way about a girl that I did about Marty. 

                Lake of the Ozarks was dramatically different from my North Missouri background.  Corn and bean fields gave way to hills and sparkling water (I’d never seen water that clear except out of a well).  The Lake is a power generation reservoir of 61,000 acres, built in the 1930s by Union Electric (now AmerenUE).  Zebulon Pike, en route to the Rocky Mountains, would have had a hell of a portage as he traveled up the Osage River had Bagnell Dam been in place in 1806.

                The lake was built at the dawn of a spree of dam building in Missouri, mostly by the Corps of Engineers, which saw some of the state’s most historic and wonderful streams vanish beneath lake waters.  Not just streams, but whole towns—the town of Camdenton (now nearly 4,000 population) was created when Lake of the Ozarks drowned the original village.

                But stream destruction was far from our minds when we crossed the high dam, looking for a place to stay.  We had no plan, hadn’t even thought about a romantic sail on the Larry Don until we passed a sign advertising the boat.

                Marty and Suzann had taken a cruise on it during a Girl Scout camp at the Lake and one of them suggested we take the Moonlight Cruise, a two and one half hour excursion, complete with music and dancing. I could only dance  what we called “belt buckle polishing” (what Fred Astaire, who was considerably more sophisticated than I called “cheek to cheek”), but dancing seemed better than wandering The Strip, which was the name of the tawdry shop-lined road leading from the dam.  It wasn’t exactly a cruise in the Mediterranean, but it was the best the Ozarks had to offer.

                The Larry Don left from Casino Pier on Lake of the Ozarks each night during the summer, cruised uplake, made a turn and headed home.  Lights from shoreside resorts and homes shone like fireflies and the heavy diesel engines thumped rhythmically. 

                For country kids it was as exciting as yachting on the Riviera since we’d never yachted on the Riviera and had only a vague idea of where it was. 

                The reality of the Larry Don was somewhat less exotic than cruising with the Onassis crowd.  The Larry Don was a converted Union Electric barge, used to transport equipment during the construction of the Dam.  No amount of paint and chrome could transform its squat outline from a barge to a yacht.  The boat was named for the two sons of the original owner and it was the oldest excursion boat on the Lake of the Ozarks, dating to 1948.  It took moony couples out on the lake on soft summer nights, their sweaty hands intertwined. 

                We paid our $2.50 per couple, a sizeable excision from my disposable income, and we trooped onto the big boat, along with about 190 other lovebirds.  We managed to find a booth and realized that if someone wasn’t in possession of the booth at all times we’d lose it.  So we took turns dancing.

                The boat was crowded with couples, swaying to the music and the gentle rock of the boat as it lumbered through the night.  I danced then like I dance now—awkwardly.  My mother had taught me a simple foxtrot when I was in high school, the two of us determinedly marching around the living room while a scratchy phonograph played 1940s swing music. 

                Fast dancing was an art form as foreign and unattainable to me as etching Biblical scenes on the head of a pin.  Marty on the other hand danced fast or slow like Cyd Charisse.  “Come on,” she urged when the band struck up a fast tune, “I’ll show you.”  I dug my heels in, bowing my neck with my lower lip stuck out, like a two-year-old on the verge of a tantrum. 

                “Don’t wanna!” 

                “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed, laughing.  She thought I was being coy, but I was being childishly adamant and the next step might have been me stalking stiffly out the door, except there was nowhere to go but a half-mile of deep water between me and shore.

                She tugged at me and I shouted, “No!” and her eyes got big and hurt.  It was our first argument and I had just lost it.  “I don’t like fast dancing,” I mumbled miserably, wishing I weren’t such a jerk.  Fortunately the song ended and the next one was slow, something I could handle, and as we danced I felt the stiffness go out of her.  I tucked my head next to hers and kissed her on the cheek and things were as they had been.

                It was our turn in the booth, so we sat while Jim and Suzann danced.  We were on the lower deck, inside the enclosed part, below the captain’s bridge.  Susie and Jim were on the exposed deck, dancing to the music of The Beachcombers, a five-piece swing band.  It was fairly quiet toward the stern of the boat and Marty and I faced each other across the table. 

                We started telling stories about silly names.  I said I’d heard that a woman in my home town had so many children that she ran out of names and when the next one came along she cast about desperately for a given name and happened to see a calendar on the wall and named the tot “Buford Plow Company Jones.”

                Marty said, “I know a girl named Susie Collins, but she’s engaged to Don Genuse, so if she gets married she’ll be Susie Genuse.”

                With no forethought I blurted, “How does Marty Vance sound?”

                There was a pause during which the stars stood still, the boat didn’t rock, the music didn’t play and I didn’t breath, stunned by what I had said.  Marty started to laugh, thinking it was another joke, then the words sank in and she assumed the expression of a sheep that has just head-butted a locomotive.

                “Fuh..fuh..fine!” she quavered.  To this day I don’t know if she intended to say yes or if I surprised it out of her.

                Jim and Suzann came back from their dance to find that their friends now were engaged.  They looked at each other and had two thoughts: 1. What the hell is the matter with them—they hardly know each other; 2. I hope to hell they don’t expect us to do it too.

            Jim would spend the next four months trying to talk us into waiting but to no avail.  Both he and Suzann` would marry others, but Marty and I, for all our impetuous and irrational haste, have stuck it out for more than 64 years and counting.

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  • October 30th, 2020

A LOVE STORY

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

        She was slim and elegant, in a rust-colored knit dress.  I mumbled and fumbled and imitated the vintage Mortimer Snerd.  Her name was Martha Lou Leist and she was a blind date, arranged by a friend.   She has been my wife for 64 years and counting, but in the spring of 1956 she was a mystery package wrapped in a knit dress. 

        Her father was not around when I stopped to pick her up so I didn’t have to endure a paternal inquisition, feeling like a field mouse penned up with a red-tailed hawk.  But her mother and I endured an awful minute or two making small talk, something that, in 1956,  I was no better at than I would have been at explaining a massive military screwup to Gen. George Patton.. 

I’m sure Vangie, who would become a dubious mother-in-law, thought her daughter had, through a dreadful twist of fate, been linked for the evening with someone on work release from a school for the mentally challenged.

        Marty drifted into their front room and I gulped because she shimmered.  You’ve seen old black-and-white movies where they filmed the ingénue through a lens coated with Vaseline, giving the lady a hazy, shimmering glow?  That’s the way Marty appeared to me.  She seemed to float through the room, much as the vintage Glinda, the Good Witch of Oz.

        Billie Burke, who played Glinda, had a distinctive voice and so did Marty.  Marty’s voice was throaty, unlike that of so many girls of then and now who talk through their noses.  I didn’t know right off if this was THE Girl of My Dreams, but she certainly was a waking moment of consequence.    

        I hadn’t seen or met her before the date.  I went to Keytesville High School and she graduated from Macon High School.   The only time the two schools had interacted was during a basketball game.  Keytesville won.  Marty was a cheerleader, but I hadn’t noticed her, concentrating instead on mind control over my coach so he would put me in the game. 

        He didn’t and the two teams went their separate ways. 

        Now it was four years later and Marty was a junior at the University of Missouri, majoring in education, and I was a senior, majoring in journalism.  My parents had moved from Dalton, near Keytesville, to a log lodge just outside Macon after I graduated from high school. 

        I knew no one when I came home on weekends or during summer vacation.  And I was entirely too shy to haunt Louie’s, which was the local soda fountain/hangout for my contemporaries.  Louie’s featured a sliced pork sandwich called a Pig Hip which Marty fixes today, six decades later.  Invariably it upsets my stomach–either an innocent physical reaction or a Freudian enteric.

        Our house was across the road from the Macon Lake, a large reservoir holding both the town’s water supply and a bounty of bass and bluegills.  So on weekends home I fished and fantasized about meeting the girl of my dreams.  I didn’t know what that girl would look like or be like, but she had to be someone who could put up with my incredible gaucherie.  I had a wealth of college knowledge, but my practical experience with life and love was at the day school level.

        John Zollman was a college acquaintance who hailed from Macon.  I complained that, being a recent émigré to Macon I didn’t know anyone and spent my weekends at home much as I spent them when I didn’t go home—alone and lonesome. 

        John got tired of my whining and said he knew a girl who maybe would go out with me since she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend or so he had heard.  I slobbered on him like an eager puppy, begging him to set up a blind date for me.  We could double date and I’d even provide the car (praying that my father would agree). 

        John returned from a weekend in Macon and said it was a done deal.  I quizzed him about this girl he knew.  “She’s really nice,” he said.  That, of course, could mean anything from “She darns her own socks,” which was a chauvinistic euphemism of the times for a girl who was not attractive, to “She’s neat,” which did not mean she darned her own socks but that she was, in today’s lingo, a stone fox.

        “She’s really nice” sounded encouraging, but not entirely reassuring.  I wondered what John had told Marty about me: “I don’t think he darns his own socks.”

        The timing was serendipity—Marty had been going with the same fellow for years.  In that sense, I guess I was a rebound date.  But then I was bouncing a bit myself from an infatuation with a girl from Oklahoma, whom I had met while at R.O.T.C. summer camp at Ft. Sill.  She had recently sent me a letter announcing that while I was a really nice guy she didn’t love me and never would.  

        I didn’t really love her either I realized after a period of pouting.  Rejection never is fun, even if it means the end of what was, at best, a casual relationship.  And a long-range romance between a girl who didn’t love me and lived 600 miles away was doomed from the start.  I could not woo her with my guitar and stock of sappy love ballads which, to that date, no girl had requested anyway.

        Long-range romance seemed to be my specialty.  I’d had a few dates with a cute girl before the end of my junior year, but she transferred to Southern Methodist University before the start of my senior year and that was the end of yet another short-term relationship.  At least I knew my upcoming date with the Macon girl wouldn’t end with her being in some Southwestern state while I stayed in Missouri.  Macon was 90 miles away, not 900.  Although with no car home might as well have been 900 miles away most of the time.

        I’d already written an unpublished novel or two, based on my vast knowledge of the human condition, and I fantasized that Martha Leist and I were like two strangers orphaned by a storm of love, adrift in a sea of uncertainty (and yes, that’s the goofy romanticism that I was prone to).  We each were ready for new encounters (or I was—I couldn’t speak for her, at least until I’d met her).

        So I buttoned my blue Sears and Roebuck oxford-cloth shirt with the button-down collars, tucked it into a pair of cords, pulled on a genuine imitation cashmere black v-neck sweater and slipped into blue suede shoes.  They were shiny on the toes where the nap had worn smooth and I buffed ineffectually at them with a wire brush.   I also buffed ineffectually at my crew cut which stuck up at odd angles, like a sheep sheared by a five-year-old.  I was Joe College, home for a big date with a home town girl. 

        Who knew what the night would bring?  In my mind was the hope that it would end in a thrash of passion, but the odds were against it.  None of my other dates had.  Still….

        The culmination of most dates, at least in the mind of the boy, was to spend some time on a secluded country road “necking.”  I’m not sure where that euphemism came from, since the neck was among the least important body parts involved, but that’s what we called it.  “Kissy-face,” “swapping spit,” and “licky-face” were other unsavory descriptions of what usually was much kissing, accompanied by hand wrestling.  It was a revelation to many boys, including me, that girls were far stronger than I thought they were.  The tiniest slip of a maiden could arm wrestle a fairly hefty date to the mat if he tried to put his hands in unwanted places.  

        Double dating in the 1950s was a comparatively chaste affair.  If you were the couple in the rear seat you had a certain measure of privacy, but in the front one of the couple was the driver which limited passion while the car was moving, and also there was the awareness that just behind you two people could see and hear everything you did. 

        Blessed was he who had a gearshift on the steering column because the floor shift was as large an impediment to lust as a chastity belt.  A stalwart young lad’s aim was to inveigle his date to the back seat where, it was alleged, incredible events were possible.  Of course if there already was a couple in the back seat that option was out.

        On that first double date, with John Zollman and his girl friend there was no possibility of a back seat encounter, nor did I want one.  In fact I was intimidated by this regal girl with a throaty voice.  We went to a movie, which neither of us remembers today, then to a roadhouse where the college crowd (and the local rednecks, male and female) gathered, charmingly called  the Moonwinx. 

        It was a quintessential Missouri roadhouses, parking lot crammed with cars, someone vomiting in the bushes at the edge of the lights, Webb Pierce lamenting lost roadhouse love on the jukebox, smoke so thick you could sell it for cotton candy, the roar of conversation.

        Marty’s warm hip was nestled next to mine and the knit dress was soaking up stale cigarette smoke like a sponge.  Kids I didn’t know came by and talked with Marty, John and Pat while I crouched uncomfortably in my corner of the booth.  I knew that everyone there was comparing me with her ex-boyfriend, probably unfavorably.  Thus is born paranoia.

        I don’t know who suggested we leave, but it was a welcome idea, especially to me—I wanted to get away from those inquiring eyes.  We breathed deeply of the fresh air outside.  I drove by the lake to the log lodge where my parents had lived until they recently had moved to a tiny house a dozen miles away .  I made an inane joke about running out of gas right in my driveway as I drifted to a stop beside the silent, dark house.

        “Nobody home,” I said.  “Actually my folks don’t live here anymore.”  I gestured to a small outbuilding.  “That’s where I used to write stories,” I said.  I described the inside as if it were a writer’s den, but in actuality it was more like a wolverine’s den.  I fiddled nervously with the radio.  

         There were murmurs from the back seat, rustling sounds as John and his date melded, and I gulped and took a deep breath.  Charles Boyer would not be acting like Gomer Pyle.  I swallowed again, leaned toward Marty and kissed her without touching anything but her lips.  I remember that kiss as if it were yesterday.

        Her lips were as soft as a down comforter on Christmas Eve and I inhaled a scent that, like fine wine hinted at summer and mint and love.  Had Marty asked me at that moment, “Do you love me?”  I would have exclaimed, “Hell, yes!”

        But there was more to come before that happened.   

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  • October 23rd, 2020

HORSIN’ AROUND

By Joel M. Vance

 

There is a well-known love-hate relationship to describe an attitude towards something that is diametrically opposed yet present within a person’s experience. I wouldn’t say that I have a love-hate relationship with the horse; it’s more of an apprehension- appreciation relationship.

 

I freely admit that horses in general are smarter than I am–they have proved it time and again over the decades that we have had fleeting association, and maybe that’s why I may seem to disrespect them from time to time.  After all, the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States honors the horse—the Kentucky Derby, which began in 1875.  People other than me have been in love with horses far longer than I’ve been around. And I confess to the general romance with the horse. Our neighbor has a full-sized horse and two ponies and we often cross the road to feed them handfuls of grass. The big horse is gentle and loves to have its nose scratched, but I’m tentative around those great big teeth when she gently mouths the grass in my hand. But it’s one of the ponies, says our neighbor, who bites.  I don’t know the pony’s name but perhaps it is Tyson, celebrating boxer Mike Tyson, who bit the ear off an opponent. The ponies get no grass from me.

 

Without horses the Spanish conquistadors would not have been able to conquer much of the Americas and John Wayne would have been forced to hitchhike around the American West. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would’ve cherished pet armadillos.  And whoever heard of armadillos named Trigger and Champion?  My Sweet Pony would not have captured the affections of tots everywhere ; instead, perhaps, as a white rat.

 

Speaking poetically “I rode a horse/throughout the gorse.” I did that in Wales atop a Welch cob, a stout horse genetically designed to pull heavy loads from the narrow corridors of Welch coal mines.  It was glorious in the unusual sunshine of the normally gray days in the Welch Highlands plodding through the blooming gorse, the rounded humps of the Brecon Beacon mountains around us.

 

I also rode a Western horse on a similar highland, amid even taller mountains on a similar sunny day, and on another Western trip I hiked into a vast prairie (“watch out for rattlesnakes” cautioned our guide”) to see feral horses. There they were, a wary band of never tamed, wild born horses, either destined to remain wild, be captured and adopted, or turned into nutritious food for my bird dogs.

 

Feral horses are considered equine cockroaches by many Western ranchers who condemn the animals for eating forage that otherwise could be utilized by sheep and cattle grazing on public land at what amounts to a minimal grazing fee.

 

That subsidized situation defines the classic definition of a predator “something that gets something that we want for ourselves.” Cows and sheep are not the only grazers on arid landscapes—once millions of bison roamed those same acreages and we know what happened to them. Antelope, prairie dogs, any grazing animal is competition for domestic livestock. Where anything stands in the way of man’s insatiable desire to plunder the landscape, the anythings suffer.

 

I confronted a saddle string of 26 horses and one mule on a horse packing trip in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming, and the outfitter took one look at me and said, “you look like the mule type” and issued me Andy, a sagacious horse-like animal which proved to have far more common sense than its 26 stable mates, not to mention longer ears.

 

I was issued a mule to ride out of the Grand Canyon on a mule- wide trail and for seven hours I devoutly wished it would magically become a four-lane highway with guard rails on the edge nearest the abyss. “We use mules because they are smarter than horses,” the muleteer said. “They’re smarter. A horse just might back off the edge but a mule never will.”

 

My mule, incongruously named Streak, did not fall off the edge or I wouldn’t be writing this since the next stop was about 1000 feet below us, but she did have a frightening tendency to want to break into a brisk trot to catch up with the mule ahead of her. I found that screaming in terror is not accepted mule driver language.

 

I also communed with the Budweiser Clydesdales and also saw another burly draft horse step on the foot of a diminutive handler who tried to persuade the animal to lift its thousand pound foot from her toes. Finally, the animal shifted and she freed her foot and complained, “I’m supposed to go dancing tonight.”

 

Famed outlaw, Butch Cassidy, before he became an accomplished train robber, owned a horse which didn’t look like much, but possessed the legs of a Kentucky Derby winner. Cassidy would travel from town to town in Colorado, conning the locals into picking their favorite fast horse against his unprepossessing nag. All bets were on and Cassidy’s horse inevitably beat the locals, he collected the bets, and moved on to the next bunch of suckers. That worked until he ran out of suckers and turned to train robbery.

 

That long history with horses has not endeared them to me. If I have to climb 15 hands above ground, I prefer to do it on a mule, and for travel, I prefer to do it either on foot or in a pickup truck. It’s a long way from saddle to turf and I can only offer the example of Superman (a.k.a. Christopher Reeve) who was paralyzed for the rest of his life after losing contact with his saddle while riding a horse—and I doubt the horse felt a smidgen of remorse afterward.

 

Lest I be accused of being anti-horse (because I know there are legions of folks out there who are pro-horse) let me say that as a child my two most favorite books were “My Friend Flicka” and “Smoky, a Cow Horse”, both about horses. I have to confess that I named my first dog Chaps after the dog character in “Flicka”, not the horse, and Smoky was the name of the first horse I ever rode, my uncle’s plow horse who managed to dislodge me a half-mile from the house and keep just ahead of me all the way to the barn as I followed in her wake, crying and saying words that would’ve earned me a Lifeboy mouthwash if my mom had heard me.

 

Horse history began long before Proto man struggled upright and began walking on two legs, as opposed to the four-legged gait of what would become known as the horse.

 

I think I can dimly remember a horse drawn wagon delivering milk to our Chicago apartment, but I was barely out of the milk bottle stage of infancy and may be imagining it. Whatever, the motorized vehicle fairly quickly supplanted the horse in American culture, although automobile manufacturers have paid tribute to their equine antecedents by naming several car models after horses.

 

It starts with the Hundai Equus, the Latin name for horse. And they must be stuck on horse love, because the company also manufactures the Hundai  Pony. Dodge also pays tribute to kid horses with its Colt. Ford’s Bronco is a staple of heavy duty vehicles and the best known of all is the Ford Mustang.

 

Not so vaunted is the Ford Pinto, which had an unfortunate tendency to explode in a rear end collision, something that never was known to happen when a real horse suffered a rear end collision. However there was a famous episode of Seinfeld when Kramer was driving a horse named Rusty on a tour of Central Park after having fed the horse a can of some cheap stew he had bought in quantity. The horse committed the equivalent of a rear end collision which, if there was such a thing as smellavision, would have resulted in an olfactory injury to viewers.

 

Horses predate man by many centuries, having developed as a horse like creature some 50,000,000 years ago, well before primitive man discovered its use as other than a hooved chunk of supper. Horse things were two toed then but genetic modification gradually fused the double toes into a single one which made fitting metal shoes much easier, although at the time there was no such thing as a metal shoe.

 

About 15,000 years ago some smarter than average primitive man got the idea that perhaps that a four-footed (single toed by then) critter could enable him to get from here to there much quicker than his two feet could. It took considerable experimentation to catch protohorse, hop aboard, convince the animal that bucking was not the answer, and thus was born the distant ancestor of a guy shouting “Hi Ho Silver, away!”. Although what advantage there is over a simple “Giddyup!” to the curious shout “Hi Ho!” has escaped me. I would feel like an absolute fool shouting “Hi Ho, up and away!” even when I usually look like an absolute fool riding a horse.

 

The use of horse advanced as did my consideration of the horse and then:

 

We sat around a campfire in the Big Horns and the outfitter produced a battered Sears and Roebuck Gene Autry guitar and said, “does anyone know how to play this?” I confessed that I was guilty of guitar sin and he handed it to me. “Sing some cowboy songs” he said.

 

“I only know one good one,” I said. “Learned it from a Carl Sandburg recording.”

 

        “When I die take my saddle from the wall

        Put it on my pony, lead him out of his stall.

        Tie my bones to his back, turn our faces to the west.

        And we’ll ride the prairies that we love the best.”

 

I laid the guitar down, the night was totally silent, an infinity of stars sparked in the moonless arc of the universe , and there was nothing more to be sung about. One of the hobbled horses nickered and there were murmured good nights and life was good.

And tomorrow we would once again ride the prairies that we loved the best.

 

On 26 horses and a mule.

 

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  • October 16th, 2020

LESSON LEARNED

By Joel M. Vance

 

Once I took my Brittany, Flick to a fifth grade class, a first foray into the esoteric world of teaching. I thought I was a smash hit in front of the post toddler group until I got a batch of thank you notes that were mostly phrases like, “Thank you for bringing Flick to our class,” or, “We enjoyed having Flick come to our class.”

 

Obviously, my impact on the world of education was far less memorable than that of my dog. I should have had Flick with me on the eve of my initial teaching debut, a five-day writing workshop at Sterling College in northern Vermont.

 

Instead, I was terrified. My stomach was a roiling cauldron of acid indigestion, my mind awhirl with the certainty that the unknown that lay ahead of me for the next five days would be an abyss of abject failure and humiliation.

 

I would be teaching a class on writing, a subject that I had practiced for decades, but also a subject that is often described as “the loneliest profession there is” and not without good reason. Writers self  isolate themselves, cloaked in doubt and often in crushing despair. It is a practice of the mind, by its very nature uncertain and often frightening.

 

Trying to tell someone else how to write is like trying to tell someone how to ride a horse, without a horse, only far more daunting. It’s said that it was ridiculous for manager Miller Huggins, a pipsqueak of a guy, to try to tell Babe Ruth how to hit. With the writing, you either can or you can’t, you either do or you don’t.

 

I hiked down a gravel road off the campus of Sterling College, wondering why I had ever wanted to teach a writing workshop or anything else. I remembered a college course in economics, wondering  if the professor who exuded confidence and supreme knowledge in the esoteric workings of stocks, bonds, and the making of money, knew so damn much, why was he teaching about it rather than raking in the cash?

 

I paused alongside the country road and, while it was not a solution to my apprehension, it was a necessary comment on my mood. I threw up.

 

All of which is lead up to my blog theme— how do they do it? Teaching I mean? A teacher, to me, is the most sublime of God’s creations. Not only must the teacher have knowledge of the subject involved, but also the ability to convey that knowledge to an assortment of students of varying ability to absorb what they’re hearing and also to care one way or another about it. Teachers must have the patience of Job, the endurance of a marathoner and the charisma of a Broadway matinee idol.

 

Public education has long been driven by subtle divisions that complicate any semblance of a cohesive whole. Do we want public education or private education? Do we want religious versus nonsectarian education? Now we have an acknowledged battle between those who would teach history as it happened, ugly sores and all, or those who would continue to teach history sanitized and made palatable for those who don’t like to confront the ugliness that involved their forebears.

 

Do we erase the fundamental meaning of the Civil War, or do we celebrate both sides with monuments and historic episodes that glorify the people and events without revealing the ugly culture that created them?

 

Now we are faced with a medical conundrum. Do we essentially shut down the education system of the nation as a safety measure until there is a proved vaccine against coronavirus, or do we open schools to traditional norms and run the risk of infecting children? Or if we can minimize the risk to the kids by masking them and distancing them in classrooms, how does that translate to the potential for them carrying coronavirus home to their folks? How do you police kids once released from a more or less controlled classroom environment to where they become kids once again, highly likely to ignore viral threat?

 

All these are questions for which I have no answer and, as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else. My feeling is that it isn’t going to hurt the nation to shut down education for as long as it takes to ensure its safety, but that undoubtedly is a minority opinion when it comes to the politics involved.

 

It probably even is a minority opinion among teachers whose livelihood depends upon them being in the classroom and collecting their paychecks. An unemployed teacher is no asset to the national dedication to economic growth, individual productivity, or most importantly, to the educational growth of the nation’s student population.

 

Our grandson, Martin, and his wife, Alex, both are teachers of elementary school special needs students. Teaching behind plastic shields or through a laptop computer simply won’t do the job. Their students necessarily are hands on and without personal contact between teacher and student effective instruction is simply not going to happen.

 

Facing ridicule if not outright annihilation on the eve before my debut in front of a group of peers, I remembered the quote by George Bernard Shaw, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”. That quote has been a bur under the saddle of the teaching profession for more than 100 years, mostly because it ignores the underlying motivation for teaching.

 

Shaw could write, so he did. But for all I know he would have been the lousiest teacher ever to stand in front of a classroom and bore the socks off his students. I’ve had both. I am reminded of a professor of American history in college who had given the same lecture so often and for so many years that he might as well have been a Disney audio animatronic figure. Once, a student in the large class raised his hand and asked a question. The professor, his rote lecture derailed, grudgingly answered just short of flying into a rage.

 

Just across campus however I was taking introductory French and the professor, Ward Dorrance, was the best teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. He was a fine writer as well, and not only could he write, he did. But it was teaching where he thrived best. He clearly enjoyed each day’s appearance in front of us. For him, it was a performance and he performed brilliantly. For a bunch of Missouri hicks, as far removed from the boulevards of Paris as you could get, teaching French was a hurdle which Dr. Dorrance jumped with humor and patience.

 

And, as is all too often the case with administrative politics, he was forced to resign because he was gay in an era when being gay in Missouri not only was frowned upon but was downright illegal. They should’ve fired the history professor, not the real teacher.

 

I don’t know the motivation behind the history teacher’s choice of profession, but in the case of most teachers I think they are in a classroom because that’s where they want to be more than any place on earth.

 

Back in antediluvian days all too often becoming a teacher for women was one of the few choices they had for a profession outside of being barefoot and in the kitchen. They could become teachers or they could become beauticians. High schools, including mine, taught home economics as assiduously as they taught shop or other profession destined for those who wanted to work with their hands, wrestle farm animals to the ground for castration or otherwise stay where they had grown up.

 

Gradually, teaching became a profession rather than a way to escape domestic drudgery. It became a calling, a noble lifestyle, respected. Unfortunately it mostly is recompensed as meagerly as is the calling to be a writer. Both teacher and writer are destined to be among those who “do” but not for the monetary reward.

 

Our oldest daughter, Carrie, is a case study in a teacher for whom there should be a statue somewhere as magnificent as the one welcoming immigrants to the country, the one with the torch.

 

She decided early on to become a teacher and she was a teacher for the next 30 years to retirement. As rocky roads go, it had some downright boulders in the path. Her first teaching assignment as a student was on a Minnesota Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students against setting fires…. Inside the building.

 

Her first  post graduate teaching job was to motivate a high risk high school class exemplified on television in the show “Welcome Back, Kotter”  Kotter was a teacher trying to influence a class composed of rowdy boys known as sweat hogs. It took an inventive teacher to maintain interest among those students who were basically on their last go around. Carrie would take her sweat hogs on a field trip to some educational venue by promising them a stop at McDonald’s or the equivalent on the way home. Dangling a carrot before the fractious horse.

 

Subsequently she migrated to a modern high school as an English teacher with students who were typical, rather than fire starters or sweat hogs. Even now, some years after her retirement, she gets comments from long-ago students who were influenced by her and remember her as the best they ever had. George Bernard Shaw may have been a great writer, but he apparently never knew a Carrie Vance DeValk or he wouldn’t have written “Man and Superman.”

 

I managed to get through that first awful day in Vermont, somehow holding the class attention without resorting to dramatics such as throwing up–guaranteed to grab the attention if not the interest of the students, but hardly a moment to inspire them to improved  writing.

 

Somehow, I survived that day and the next four and like the old joke about the guy who keeps hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops I went back 14 more years.  At least once in every session the tiny perverse imp in my brain screamed at me, “Why are you here! What makes you think you have any right to be here?”

 

By ironic coincidence, Carrie, was in the final class that I taught. She had gotten a grant from her high school to attend a writing workshop and not only chose mine, but chose my class to attend. The tiny ever questioning brain imp asked his usual question, but when I saw Carrie the answer came to me.

 

Here was a teacher on the verge of retirement after nearly 30 years of trying to have an impact on the lives and development of countless young people, who still was trying to better herself as a teacher (although with me as an inspiration, I was the Miller Huggins speaking batting wisdom to Babe Ruth). Dedication. A never ending effort to be a better teacher. An underpaid, underappreciated influence on the lives of people young and old.

 

Simply enough, teachers are leaders—leaders who guide us as human beings to a better place in life, if only we listen and learn. For every one of the history duds who fail at this task, there are thousands of inspired and inspirational teachers who make us better human beings. It’s not enough for us to show up and watch the clock, waiting for the bell to ring; it’s up to us as a society to appreciate what teachers do, to pay them appropriately, support them and remember them for their priceless gift of knowledge in the years to come.

 

I can only be grateful that there are teachers in my past who have influenced me and that there are teachers in my family who now inspire me. I couldn’t have taught Babe Ruth to hit either but someone did and that’s how history is made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • October 8th, 2020

GOING HOME

                            By Joel M. Vance

 

        Feathers of snow brushed the window with angel caress and the old man smiled at the peace of it.  The large flakes fell soundlessly in a still night, clean and airy messengers of a bright tomorrow.

         He sat in the sagging old leather chair that had been his since he was a bright young banker…what, a half-century ago?  First it went with the rich furnishings in his home; later it was demoted (his wife thought of it that way–he considered it a promotion) to the duck shack where he now sat.

        Not a shack, really, but a well-appointed cabin which reflected both foresight and the money to take advantage of it.  He had sensed the time would come when it would be difficult and expensive to duck hunt. So he bought the cabin and the shallow lake with its wild rice and marsh grass for what then was a pretty penny, now was a song, compared to what it would cost to replace it. They’d worked on it over the years, he and his cronies.  They roofed it and paneled the inside, installed plumbing, added two bedrooms and a full bath.  Now he was the only one left.  They all were gone, even his wife who had died a year before.  And he was old and tired and there was soft snow falling.  He’d always hated involved goodbyes, preferring a wink or a tap on the arm or a quick hug.      

        He touched a tarnished trap shooting trophy, let his fingers rest on a photograph of all of them in front of the original shack.  Maybe taken the first weekend they started transforming it into a home.

        He looked at the faded stain on the carpeting, right by the large Thermopane window that faced the lake.  He remembered how it got there.  Jack Stevens was cleaning his gun one afternoon after a fruitless morning hunt.  “Good Godalmighty, would you look there!” he shouted.  As he leaped out of his chair, the gun barrel knocked over a bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent which soaked unnoticed into the new carpeting.

        All of them had raced to the window to watch as a flock of at least a hundred mallards sank into the lake, just off the point where the water was shallow.  It was a migration flight, tired and ready to spend the night.  They knew there would be a royal shoot at dawn the next morning, with the promise of more ducks moving in ahead of the glowering Canadian front that edged the horizon in black.

        Jack Stevens was the first to go.  Killed instantly in South Dakota en route to a pheasant hunt.  Hit a big rooster pheasant head-on, lost control of the car and tumbled into a deep ditch.  The highway patrol found the rooster dead in his lap and him dead in the car.

      They’d started a tradition the night they got the news.  The old man brought a bottle of Remy-Martin cognac and they ceremoniously drank it, each remembering Jack and laughing about the irony of his death.  “Hell of a note when the goddam birds start fighting back,” John Howard grumbled.

        The old man considered the cognac in the snifter in his hand.  Now forbidden, of course.  Every God damn good thing in life is bad for you.  Life is hazardous to your health.  “Here’s to you, Jack,” he said.  “And John Howard, you can stick it in your ear.”  He savored a sip of the fiery liquor, felt it burn its way down.  The pain caused him to gasp and cough.

        He squinted through the glass, relishing the lovely, rich color. The firelight filled the snifter with golden jewels.  “Fire’s going down,” he said to himself.  He smiled to himself.  “Both in me and the fireplace.  Best put on another log or two.”  Groaning, he levered himself out of the chair and hobbled toward the wood bin at the side of the old brick fireplace.  He ran his hand over one of the bricks. They’d come from the last brick street in Birch Lake, pried up to make way for an impersonal asphalt with no more character than a television commercial.  Like everything else, faceless and without character.

        He steadied himself against the fireplace, pitched a couple of oak billets on the fire and prodded at it with an old, sharp-pointed poker.  The fire spat restlessly, sparking and grumbling, and settled into a brighter, hotter flame.

        The old man straightened, feeling the pinch of his years here and there.  A keen pain in one knee.  “Fell on the goddam ice right out in front of the cabin,” he said aloud.  “Remember?”  He waited for the unseen old friends to nod.  Oh, sure, they weren’t really there.  All dead.  All but him.  But they were there in the memories he had of them, and their photos tacked here and there, most turned sepia with the years.

        “Ice skating, for God’s sake,” he snorted.  “Bunch of old fools all full of scotch on a winter night cold enough to freeze the balls off a snooker table.”  They’d been playing hockey with a beer can for a puck and dead branches for sticks and he sprinted down the ice with muzzy bravado and tripped over a forgotten duck decoy, frozen in the ice.  Landed right on that knee and the sharp agony sickened him.  Figured he’d broken it, but a half-hour and another scotch and water later he scored an impressive goal with a shot right between Fred and Harry and John Robert.

        He remembered John Robert Hansen’s funeral.  The elegiac music, far more pompous than the rotund, jolly Hansen ever had been, filled the church.  John Robert looked like a refugee from Madame Tussaud’s museum.  Whatever had been the man was gone; what remained was a joke effigy. 

        The minister prattled on and the old man remembered the time John Robert had laced the scrambled eggs with a powerful laxative.  It was a harsh, windswept morning and every duck north of Birch Lake to Canada chose that day to migrate.  They poured into the marsh in waves and one by one the cramped hunters fled to the duck shack to relieve their roiling guts while John Robert wheezed and chortled and shot ducks right and left.

        When they passed by the coffin to pay homage to the undertaker’s skill at flummery, the old man slipped a 16-gauge shell under John Robert’s stiff, cold hand.  He winked at the icon in the fancy coffin, and moved on to a different part of his life.

        “We had us a hell of a hunt that day, remember?” he asked of the frayed hearth rug.  Jet used to lie there, his flat tail whacking the floor with the sound of a splitting maul attacking a dense wood chunk. Jet now lay on the knoll above the bluebill point, amid the pines where he could see the ducks incoming from the north.  See…hell, the dog was dead.  “Maudlin, old man,” he said to himself.  “Crying over dead dogs and dead friends.  Happens when you get old and crippled up.  Can’t remember whether you went to the bathroom or not, but you remember a useless duck hunt 40 years ago.  Old man.”

        He picked up a mallard call, carved by an old game warden down in Iowa.  It was art work, and it also had built-in magic that lured ducks when no other call would.  He pursed his lips, put the call to his mouth, took a deep breath, then muttered a feeding chuckle, quiet even in the cabin, reluctant to disturb the soft silence.

        A sudden anger grabbed him.  “What is this, a God damn church!”  He limped to the door, flung it open and stepped to the porch and the cold bit instantly at him.  He put the call to his mouth and trumpeted a challenging hail call, as loud and harsh as he could make it.  “Hey, ducks!  You hear that, you sons of bitches!”

        Shivering uncontrollably, he stumbled back inside and slammed the door.  He leaned against it, weak now, his defiance drained.  “Hell with you,” he muttered to no one.  He took another ragged, deep breath and moved across the room and replaced the call on the fireplace mantle. Another sip of cognac, another gasp. 

        He touched a scarred duck decoy on the mantel, feeling the heat from the fire through his pant leg.  “Bet you don’t remember the last time you were in the water,” he said.  “Well, I do.  You and about a half dozen of your littermates were in a tow sack up on Steen Lake and Fred Corbin set you out while I got the gear into the blind. 

        “We spent two days that summer building that damn blind and didn’t shoot a half-dozen ducks out of it.  Maybe you were the one the pike pulled under.  Remember–you started bobbing around and we couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Turned out there was a hammer-handle northern tangled up in your anchor line?”  The old man backed away from the heat, and the blank eye of the decoy.

        “You probably weren’t the one anyway,” the old man muttered.  He still didn’t like the curtains, but his wife had made them. They were woman’s curtains, airy and mincing, not what the cabin called for.  But she had made them.  Doris.  She understood.  Once he had forgotten their anniversary which inconveniently fell in the middle of duck season.

        He and the boys went to the cabin and had a hell of a poker game, and getting up was the toughest thing since the Army…but the ducks were flying and the shooting was fine.  Afterward, they popped a bottle of bourbon and he came home pretty well lit.

      “Hey!” he bellowed, though Doris was only a couple of feet away.  “What a hell of a day!”  For only an instant her face showed hurt and loneliness, and then she was happy for him, excited over the ducks he’d dropped in the kitchen.  But he knew, oh, yes, he knew.  He knew because she was wearing her best dress and he remembered he’d promised to take her to the Country Club for dinner.

        “I forgot,” he said, holding her.  “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

        “It’s all right,” she said.   “We’ll do it another time.”  But they both knew another time wouldn’t be this time.  It was a small wound, quickly scabbed and healed over.  He tried to share the cabin with Doris, but she spent little time there.  Once after a party they made love in front of the flickering fire, but it was tentative and unsatisfying.  The glass-eyed decoy on the mantle glowered and the photographs on the wall were silent critics.  It was his place.  And the curtains couldn’t change that.

        Fred wasted, eaten by cancer.  It took more than a year, all of them fooling themselves, but not each other.  Fred hunted a final time, a month before he died.  They watched him uncomfortably.  He was thin as Death, and as old in the face as driftwood.  No ducks flew and no one fired.  It was a bad hunt and they all wanted so much that it be a good one for him, because they knew he would not come again.

        “Life isn’t fair,” the old man said to the rug, half-expecting to hear the answering thump of the Lab’s tail.  “He should have gotten a good hunt that day.”  As usual, they gathered the night of Fred’s funeral and killed a fifth of Jack Black and remembered the time Fred had been relieving himself when ducks suddenly appeared.  They hissed at him to hunker down and while he was squatted awkwardly, someone dropped a greenhead.  The big Lab, Penny, blasted out of the blind and clipped Fred as neatly as an NFL linebacker, plunging him face first into his own mess.

        Drunk they were remembering it, sure, but there was an emotional cathartic that had nothing to do with the liquor.  They laughed and felt the friendship flow, one to the other, and it was almost as if Fred weren’t gone forever.

        The circle of survivors grew smaller.  The night only he and Harry Olson were left, he couldn’t remember laughing, though both of them got drunk.  What he did remember was throwing the empty fifth of Jack Daniels far out into the water where its splash caused a spasm across the smooth, silvery path the moon had painted on the lake.  The cold, thin ripples looked like fear personified and he cried out in terror and fled back to the fireplace.

        When Harry died, the old man killed half a fifth and found himself weeping for the time that was gone.  Then his wife was gone as swiftly as Indian summer.  A stroke that cleaved the other half of his life from him as neatly as the stroke of a keen ax.  It was as if both halves of his life had vanished, leaving only a thin membrane of himself in the middle.  A fragile membrane, desiccating in the sharp wind of time. 

        That was twelve months before.  He could cling to Birch Lake, hobbling to the coffee shop every morning to exchange meaningless chatter with people he scarcely knew, or he could move to the one place that held his finest memories.

        He moved into the shack the day after his wife’s funeral.  What fit from their home, he installed; what didn’t he sold.  The house in town went to a couple from The Cities.  And the old man lived on, comfortably, his savings more than adequate for his needs.  And he waited to die, for what was the point of living?

        The sharp ache of his wife’s absence was less distinct in the shack.  Sometimes he could be almost happy.  Once, when an early summer wind soughed through the green wild rice shoots and rattled the loose shutter at the west side of the building, he sat on the verandah and watched a hen mallard shepherd her ducklings across the shallow bay in front of the cabin. 

        It seemed there was a continuance of life that made sense.  “Where have they all gone?” he said aloud and the alarmed hen fussed her youngsters into the concealing vegetation.  “Old fool man,” he grumbled.  “Silly old bastard.”

        But he felt emptied, as if somehow he’d been tipped up and all the lives that he shared, all the active love and friendship, had been poured out of him, leaving only an insufficient film of memories clinging to the inside.  He felt the familiar, bleak fear.

        The cognac was hot in his gut and sour acid rose from its ferment.  His bones ached, with the cold that lived with him always, with the yellowed brittleness of their years.  He was tired, so tired, and alone.

        But he hobbled slowly around the old shack, touching this icon and that.  He had a premonition.  The wind had picked up and the snow tapped more imperatively at the window.  It was as if there were someone waiting for him in the night, growing more impatient the longer he delayed.

        He stopped before a photo of the whole group of them, taken back in the 1950s.  Beginning to go to middle age, they were–some balding, some with pot guts, but still unbent by the years, not yet leaning into the invisible wind of old age.  “Silly bastards,” he murmured affectionately.  Fred had his eyes closed.  Never was known to have had a photo taken with his eyes open, though you couldn’t get him to go to bed at night.  Maybe he only closed his eyes for photographs.

        Well, it was time.

        The old man poked at the fire and put the screen in front of it. Never do to burn the house down.  He had a nephew who would inherit, no sense leaving him a pile of ashes, including those of his uncle.

        He made sure the lock was secure on the gun safe.  Bunch of goddam vultures would be in and they’d home in on an unsecured gun like flies on offal.  He felt curiously at peace.  The old fear of death was gone and he sat on the edge of the bed, tired and even sleepy, his muscles loose with fatigue.  The cognac fire, like that in the fireplace, had dulled to a comfortable glow.

        He lay back in the bed and let his eyes drift shut.  There were a few thoughts of the old days, glittering shards of duck hunts and fireside friends, of old dogs, and whispering wings creaking past overhead in the thick dark before the dawn.

        Then there was nothing.

        The sunlight was brittle against his eyes when he opened them the next morning.  He smacked at a sour apple taste in his mouth and felt the mean ache of a minor hangover.  He hadn’t died after all.

      “Goddam old fool,” he groaned, prying himself out of the bed, stiff as a victim of the rack.  He sat numbed.  Fate’s pranks at work.  He’d been so sure. 

        One way or another, there had to be an end to mourning and to fear.  And death, the easy out, had been denied him.  Maybe he’d get a Lab pup and start working it in the spring.

        “Well,” he said to whatever invisible dog was in residence today. “We go on, I guess.”  And he got up to fix breakfast and figure out what to do with his day.

 

                              -30-

 

 

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  • October 1st, 2020

DEBATE DEATH AND TAXES

By Joel. Vance

 

Benjamin Franklin said the only two inevitabilities are death and taxes. We found out in the last few days that Donald Trump has figured out a way to cheat on the tax part of that and, given his gluttony for an hamberders and cofefe diet without so far paying the ultimate penalty for unhealthy eating, maybe he’s on the way to cheating the Grim Reaper as well.

 

Although, according to Waylon Jennings, the only two things in life that make it worth living are “guitars that tune good and firm feeling women.” Trump has solved the woman part, sometimes with force or by paying for them, but as far as I know he can’t play squat on the guitar.

 

Maybe that only works in Luckenbach, Texas.

 

For those who live by Biblical wisdom, the quote “the truth will set you free” is from the book of John (8. 32, in case you want to check it out). The evangelical right, disciples dedicated to “the truth” as Donald J Trump defines it, would do well to refer back to the good book, given the headline of the day.

 

By now, anyone in the United States who has access to print media, television, radio, or any other means of mass communication, should know that the New York Times has revealed the highlights of the last couple of decades of Donald J Trump’s tax returns and it doesn’t look good for the Orange Liemaster.

 

The truth as the Times reveals it, differs greatly from the words John quotes Jesus as saying. Instead of setting Trump free, the words of the Times reporting may very well plant Trump’s pudgy posterior in a jail cell.

 

Where the Times got its information, so carefully concealed by Trump for years, will never be revealed by the good journalists who work at the newspaper known as “The Gray Lady” in the world of journalism. Trump may unleash his battalion of lawyers on the news folk, threatening lawsuits, jail time, and for all I know summary execution, but I believe that the intrepid news hawks would rather spend time in jail so that Trump does the same. Trump may have stuffed the judiciary with like-minded puppets who may well sentence New York Times reporters to jail for refusal to reveal their sources, but you don’t get to be a New York Times investigative reporter by ratting out your informants.

 

Trump has repeatedly described the New York Times as “a failing newspaper”.  The times debuted in 1851 and has long  been considered as “the nation’s newspaper”. The newspaper has won 130 Pulitzer prizes, more than any other newspaper and is ranked third in the United States in circulation—hardly a failing enterprise. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump’s empire which has a number of properties in financial trouble and others that already have gone bankrupt. Donald Trump doesn’t live in a glass home; he lives in the White House which is not glass, but he still should not be chunking rocks.

 

There’s an old saying in newspaper circles that you shouldn’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Donald Trump is finding that out the hard way.

 

Each almost daily scandal falling like a hammer blow on the Trump regime, seems like it should be a fatal blow, but so far the Liar in Chief has dodged a lethal whack and now we are within a few days of the most perilous election in the history of the nation. If the revelations in the Times expose don’t sink the creaking ship of nation launched by Fat Donnie four years ago, I fear that nothing will.

 

Of all the revelations in the Times story, the fact that Trump paid only $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017, less than almost any American taxpayer, while simultaneously bragging about his enormous wealth (and living sumptuously on borrowed money and the taxpayer dollar) should piss off even the most ardent Trump devotee who chipped in considerably more to the Internal Revenue Service in that same time frame.

 

Trump, predictably, labeled the story as “fake news” but so far he has scrupulously avoided revealing even one page of his form 1040 return from the years in question which would either disprove the Times story or, more likely, reveal Trump for the tax scammer he is.

 

In 1956, for a modest investment (modest was all we could afford), new wife, Marty, and I invested in a set of haircutting implements—electric clippers and a set of plastic attachments. Since, she and more lately our youngest daughter, Amy, have functioned as my barber. I feel somewhat guilty for having deprived a multitude of barbers over the years of income (my last barbershop investment was about two bucks) but I don’t think what we have saved for the past 64 years has significantly impacted the GDP. Certainly not as dramatically as Trump’s deduction of $70,000 for hairstyling.

 

I’m a great believer in taking any legitimate deduction to minimize my income tax obligation (and in the last several years as a retiree on low fixed income I have been exempt from income tax), but I paid up for many years and never once have I felt paying my share of taxes was an onerous duty. Sure, everyone bitches about having to pay taxes, but without them we would be in chaos. They pay for the cops, the firefighters, the roads we ride on and so many other necessary national housekeeping chores that no tax, no nation.

 

At the same time Trump has been cheating on taxes and paying either nothing or a pitiful pittance, he has stuck the American taxpayers for millions to play golf. His trips to Mar-a-Lago alone have cost an estimated $64,000,000 Trump brags that he has donated his $400,000 a year salary to charity, but as of October last year he had cost taxpayers an estimated $109,000,000 to finance his golf trips, equivalent to 278 years worth of presidential salary.

 

You’d think the sheer bulk of scandal would sink the Trump ship like the Titanic, but his faithful following allows for an infinite variety of misdeed without calling the Orange Menace to account. The evangelical right, Bibles in hand (one hopes right side up) should be outraged but Mike Huckabee, father of one time and gratefully faded into the background Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said this about Trump’s income tax hijinks, “so what. I didn’t elect him to be my tax accountant.” No, Mikey, you elected him to be the president and accountable for his actions. Apparently, you and your fellow evangelicals consider him to be without shame or blame. Is this a Christian attitude? I ask in the interest of one who is confused about what is morality and what is not.

 

Donald Trump has told 20,000 plus lies in his four years in office and each one of those falsehoods is a blot on the presidency and an insult to our democratic republic.  There is a reason that the first amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech because good people believe that the truth will out and without the freedom to speak it people like Trump can ignore truth more than 20,000 times until truth becomes a faded memory.

 

Thanks to the New York Times using words of truth, backed by the First Amendment, we now know that what Trump has tried so desperately to conceal more than 20,000 times is a despicable smokescreen to obscure his criminality, his inhumanity and his insult to all that we say we believe in.

 

Where does his loyalty lie? Certainly not with those who did not vote for him but more tellingly not even with those who did. I suspect most of the ardent right wing MAGA types (and why does my computer insist on typing “maggot” instead of MAGA?), those who have jobs other than inciting violence against peaceful protesters, and who pay income tax, paid more to the IRS in 2017 that Trump did. Have they no shame, no sense of being betrayed? Or are they content to foment violence?

 

We have two daughters who are priceless, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to list them as nearly $750,000 deductions on an income tax form. Trump has no problem doing so with Ivanka who has a job as “special advisor” with duties so indefinable as to seem nonexistent. She and her equally useless husband Jared Kushner both are drains on the national economy, banking money that otherwise could be used for good causes, none of which bears the Trump name.

 

Trump has collected money from business interests in foreign countries since he was inaugurated, a situation as far as I know unique among presidents. The Times did not find any income from Russian interests, but Trump is on the hook for more than $400,000,000 in loans due to unknown lenders within the next four years. One of a suspicious nature might conclude that whoever holds the mortgage will have considerable influence over the actions of the guy who benefits from this largesse.

 

There is a strong indication that a good bit of his loan obligation is from Russian deposits in Deutsche Bank which has in turn loaned money to Trump that other banks would not. As dumb as I am about finance that situation reeks about as much as $400,000,000 worth of Limburger cheese.

 

Maybe he will decide to stiff his suspiciously generous donors the way he has stiffed countless others in his business dealings. I wonder how Vladimir Putin will feel if Duplicitous Donnie says, “oh, by the way I’m kinda short now—I’ll pay you when I drain a few more bucks from the US treasury. By the way, can you spare a few billion to tide me over?”

 

Written last night just before the first of three debates between Joe Biden and Trump:

 

Tonight Trump and contender Joe Biden debate for the first time. I don’t plan to watch—neither my psychological nor my physiological health needs the stress involved. I think there’s a good documentary on venomous snakes on the National Geographic channel, so I can get my fill of slithering menace there, rather than watching Trump coil and strike on the debate stage.

 

A while later:

 

I relented at the last moment and switched over to the debate broadcast and watched about 15 seconds Trump was bloviating, ignoring decorum, ignoring moderator Chris Wallace, common sense and spouting toxic nonsense, so I quickly turned to National Geographic where unfortunately the subject was crocodiles whose gaping mouths and belligerent attitude was too reminiscent of Trump so I switched to “Life Below Zero” where featured character Sue Aikens is nearly as paranoid as Demented Donnie, and is convinced that every large predator north  of the Arctic Circle is stalking her. Once again she escaped the perceived menace of wolverines, although in one brief shot, a ground squirrel appeared threatening.

 

 In the memorable words of Lieut. Frank Drebin in the comedy movie “The Naked Gun” as the world is exploding behind him, cars are crashing, a fuel tanker is blazing and a crowd is gawking, “nothing to see here folks! Nothing to see here!”

 

Nothing to see on television either, so I went to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • September 25th, 2020

DECK REVERIE

By Joel M. Vance

 

Few Americans have earned the distinction of being instantly recognized by their initials. There was FDR, LBJ, JFK and RFK, MLK, and now RBG. All are gone, all representing the best that America has had to offer the world. We mourn them and wonder if ever there will be triple digit replacements for them.

 

I suspect , a side note, the only chance Donald J Trump has to go down in history with a triple digit memory is as “that SOB”.

 

It is a glorious, sunny September day with the first hint of fall in the air and on the still green leaves as I sit on our deck and wonder. It is a day to revel in the miracle of nature and to let the tranquility of the changing season and the still soothing comfort of midafternoon sunshine soak in. It was a hard blow emotionally to hear that Ms. Ginsburg had lost her valiant battle against death and to hear the insidious campaign by the Republican Party to replace her ahead of the November 3 election. Don’t tell me that the hard right Trumpers were not rooting for the Grim Reaper. Did not Donald issue a list of possible replacements for RBG the week before her death? Is he not gloating now, culling the list for the worst possible candidate for America, and the best for his megalomaniacal fantasies?

 

All I can do is pray for a political miracle that not only will voters defeat the Orange Menace, but also take down his vulnerable lackeys in the Senate and return the hope of sanity to the nation. And be grateful to sit here on my deck on a soft late summer day, at the edge of autumn and let the sounds and sights of my little corner of paradise soothe the aches and pains of reality.

 

The barred owls are gossiping, one which has not mastered the gargle at the end of its hooted question calls from the trees between the pond dam and the road, and the other, deeper voiced and probably the male of the pair, immediately answers from somewhere in the woods North of the house.

 

An industrious woodpecker (I can’t see it quite clearly enough to identify the species, but it’s small and relentlessly probing along tree branches) diverts my attention from the owls and a hummingbird, possibly the last summer time visitor to stoke its tiny furnace for the long trip south, darts behind my head to the feeder.

 

This deck, attached to the front of the house overlooking the pond has been a spot for meditation, reading, sun soaking and occasional naps for 27 years since we built the home on 30 acres (since expanded to 40) in 1993.

 

It has been a good growing year with the right amount of rain to keep green things green all summer long, as opposed to the nearly inevitable Missouri period of drought that browns everything and makes lawn mowing a thing of the past. All the trees and other vegetation still is green, except that I see the tinge of fall color peeping along the edges of the verdant dogwood leaves. If we get rain between now and mid October the towering oaks in front of the deck and those across the pond will turn a rich red. Already the walnut tree leaves are beginning to patter down and the hulled nuts will not be far behind.

 

I used to collect walnuts, lay them out in a line on the gravel road, drive over them several times with our pickup, gather the gooey crushed hulls in a five gallon bucket with holes drilled at the bottom for drainage, strip down to the bare minimum and spray them with a power washer. The result was clean,  walnut shells and a grateful nut gatherer looking like a refugee from a coal mine explosion. In the dead of winter, the nuts having dried sufficiently, I would watch television lay a brick in my lap hold a nut down with my left hand and whack it with a hammer until it cracked, then pick the kernel out. It was a laborious but somehow soothing experience, kind of like sitting on my deck with my mind aimlessly idling in neutral.

 

You could call the walnuts the fruits of my labor on these 40 acres, except that the trees already were here, save for four that I planted as seedlings almost 50 years ago. Two of the four did not survive, but two did and they now are towering nut producing adults. They both are children of a Conservation Department effort many years ago to collect nuts from wild walnut trees deemed exceptional by Department foresters. My forester friend Gene Brunk used to prune the Supertrees with a .22 caliber rifle shooting Supernuts down like the vintage Annie Oakley. Then the sprouts would be cultivated at the Department nursery and sold. Another friend, Don Woolridge, the Department photographer at the time, gave me the four sprouts that I planted. I consider that something of a cycle of life. Or maybe it’s an irony. I don’t know, and don’t care because I’m more captivated in the moment by owl calls.

 

Over the years I have gardened with mixed results. Some years the garden plot produced a bounty; other years it was a bust. Various ground hugging plants almost invariably fought a losing battle against insect pests and other fatal enemies. I was reluctant to use pesticides since I have a deep rooted belief that chemicals designed to kill things, no matter how seemingly insignificant, also have the ability to do me long range harm. So I would plant, hoping for the best, and usually got the worst.

 

Although I never kept books on it, I’m quite sure that I have spent far more money installing and maintaining my gardens than I’ve ever gotten out of them. Not just seeds and plants, but an expensive garden tiller which had enough power to till an interstate highway. I also haunted the city compost heap which was a mixture of everything city maintenance workers scraped up and dumped there. It was composed of some good stuff, but adulterated with roots, rocks and God knows what? I laboriously scooped this gunk into our battered pickup load after load and hauled it to my garden plot. It was a long way from being the rich compost that I got from cleaning out a friend’s horse barn for my garden when we lived in Jefferson City. At least I had a pickup bed in which to haul the compost; the well-rotted horse manure got shoveled into the back of the family station wagon. We didn’t tell guests riding in the backseat of the wagon what had been there previously.

 

But some of the gardening worked out. One year I planted several cucumber seeds and got enough cucumbers to can so many pickles that we still have several jars a number of years after I quit gardening. Another year the garden provided a bumper crop of tomatoes and, coupled with the produce of one or two pepper plants canned more than 50 pints of salsa. I also was successful with a plant or two of basil each summer and if there is anything finer than sliced fresh tomatoes topped with chopped fresh basil leaves and slathered with Italian salad dressing, I don’t know what it would be.

 

But more often than not Marty and I would travel to an annual outdoor writers conference, leaving behind a Garden of Eden and return home a week or two later to an Amazon rain forest of weeds. As age and decrepitude increased, so did my desire for gardening decrease. These days the supermarket and the farmers’ market are enough—let someone else do the dirty work.

 

We bought the 30 acres, now 40, a half-century ago. Immediately after we moved to Jefferson City we began looking for some acreage in the country which would become a weekend retreat. Perhaps I had a dim vision at the time of a deck where I would hear owls and the faint chirping of visiting hummingbirds, but for many years our Eden in the raw was a source of firewood, work tree planting, endless maintenance and blood, sweat, and tears.

 

Our in town realtor was ever helpful, locating isolated properties which we investigated but always found wanting until one evening he invited me to go with him a dozen miles from town. “You may like this place,” he said. “It’s actually our family retreat, but the kids aren’t much interested in it anymore and it needs to go to someone who will appreciate it for what it is.”

 

There it was, behind a metal gate. There was a concrete block cabin, equipped with electricity, but no water and a quintessential rough board outhouse a few yards from the back door. Over the years, we did away with the little house out back, drilled a well, added a room, which became a bedroom, installed a tiny bathroom, and called it weekend home. Proving beyond doubt that common sense is not my hallmark, I babbled to the realtor who was trying to sell me a piece of property, “I don’t care what it costs! I want it!” But he, being a man of rare compassion, turned down an opportunity to pick my pocket and sold us the land, the cabin, a garden tractor for a ridiculously low price—he even threw in the outhouse for free.

 

But we always entertained the dream of building our dream home facing the pond (or, lake, as Marty optimistically likes to upgrade it). Once the kids were out of school and I retired in 1990, we finally paid off our house in Jefferson City and plunged the money and savings into the house that now hosts the deck on which I sit and listen to owls.

 

Even the bird dogs got a new home. Sons Eddie and Andy first built a woodworking shop for me and then a small shed with enclosed dog houses opening into four chain-link enclosed runs. One woodworking project was a sign installed above the door to the dog houses reading “the Britz-Carlton.” The dogs were Brittanies.

 

Usually I don’t read while I’m sitting on the deck, reserving the time for not thinking and listening to owls, but today I made an exception and happened across a Facebook post by my friend Barb Brueggeman, passing along part of the profile of RBG by Sylecia Johnston. In part, the profile said, “Friends, it is not a coincidence that the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court died on the most holy day of the Jewish year. According to Jewish wisdom, a person who died on Rosh Hashanah is a Tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. It signifies that they were given the full measure of a year. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a person of great righteousness and a judge of truth, and her legacy will live on forever. May the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.”

 

That Donald Trump and his evil sidekick Mitch McConnell would desecrate the memory of this great human being by trying to force through a hastily chosen and suspect replacement, even before the nation’s grieving has ended, is beyond condemnation.

 

The owls hoot, perhaps in derision, and the hummingbird has left, perhaps on its multi-thousand mile migratory flight far to the south. Even hummingbirds, know when it’s time to escape. For us, who can’t leave and who don’t want to because even in the darkest of times, this still is our country and our love for it transcends the efforts of the Dark Side Trumpians. The chill that I seem to feel has nothing to do with seasonal change; everything to do with the Apocalyptic forces facing those of goodwill. If we don’t vote to clean house on November 3, we deserve whatever dire fate almost certainly will follow.

 

My late friend, hero, and role model Mike Milonski, when he was an assistant director at the Missouri Conservation Department, was responsible for hiring the first African-American conservation agent, the first woman conservation agent, and the first woman wildlife biologist. When he and his wife Winston moved to Florida after he retired, he retained Polack Flats, a farm adjacent to Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the farm named by him in honor of his cherished Polish heritage.

 

When Mike found that he had a terminal disease, his wish was that he sit on the deck at Polack Flats, watching the sun go down, seeing geese and ducks settling into the wetlands to the West. And there he died, hearing the gabble of ducks and the chorus of geese. It was a fitting way to go and I think of it as I sit on my deck, admiring my own Eden.

 

The owls hoot and the sun seems darker, even though the forecast is for continued mellow temperatures.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • September 18th, 2020

YUH WANT COCKROACHES WITH THAT?

By Joel M. Vance

 

There are two enduring legends on the campus of the University of Missouri at Columbia, both conceived in the fertile imaginations of generations of students (imagination which sometimes even manages to translate into the classroom).

 

One is that the stone lions flanking the entryway between the university’s two original journalism school buildings will roar if a virgin ever walks between them. The lions have been mute for decades, and I can testify from personal experience (humiliating but sadly true) that the rumor is false.

 

The other rumor is that the 1956 popular song “The Green Door” recorded by Jim Lowe was a tribute to the entry door at the Shack, an historic beer joint which defiantly squatted directly across the street from the University’s administration building, Jesse Hall.

 

That rumor also is not true, although Lowe was a graduate of the University (in 1948) and hailed from Springfield. But the song itself refers to a joint in Texas. A local historian wrote that he knew of a green door in Columbia, but implies that it opened to a brothel.

 

No one ever would confuse the vintage Shack with a sporting house. Describing the place in its glory years is virtually impossible. Imagine the most decrepit sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi transported to the University campus and plopped down facing the the most hallowed structure on the campus just across the street. It was, most generously described, an inflamed zit on the otherwise flawless face of Miss America.

 

The ill fitting green door, led into a murky fog composed of  cigarette smoke and beer fumes (everyone smoked and certainly, everyone was there to drink the dime glasses of beer). There also was a lingering tinge of sweat, especially in the sweltering days of early summer or fall. Hovering over all was the unappetizing aroma of the shack’s grill which created burgers and fries for anyone daring enough to eat them—I never did preferring to spend my meagre dimes on beer rather than on 25 cent hamburgers, cooked by impoverished students, desperate to make a few bucks toward the cost of their education.

 

The dimly lit interior was crowded with booths that looked as though they might have been built of weathered wood left over from a failed deck project. Generations of students had carved their initials, names or other symbols (perhaps some representing devil worship) in the tabletops leaving them so corrugated that there wasn’t a square inch of level space where you could perch a beer glass without it tipping over.

 

The origin of the Shack is as incongruous as was its presence as an irritant mongrel building defacing the august majesty of Jesse Hall across the street.

 

In 1920 the Chandler Davis family began serving sandwiches from a quintessential dining car which gradually became a building as bits and pieces were added to it. It actually began life as a tea room presumably patronized by Columbia’s staid matrons, delicately sipping oolong as they gossiped about those rowdy, outlandish college boys behaving irresponsibly with their prohibition liquor.

 

The tea room ceased life in 1933 but Vernon and Mary Blackmore reopened it in the nineteen thirties and named it Jack’s Shack after a co-owner Jack Armel. They shortened the name to the Shack and then in 1962, sold it to Joe Franke after I graduated from the University in 1956 (and I like to think of the glory years of the Shack as the late nineteen forties and nineteen fifties).

 

The Davis Tea Room and tea garden morphed into the beer joint that we knew and loved but it fell into disrepair (as if there ever was a period when it was in repair)

 

Columbia businessman Joe Franke, who also owned two other businesses next to the Shack, hung out in the beer joint with other ex-GIs after World War II and in 1962 bought his favorite hangout and would own it until 1984. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.

 

 In 1968 After Joe Franke bought the Shack, he temporarily closed it. In 1974 it reopened but went broke, but then in 1984 a couple named Weston closed the Shack for the last time. Joe Franke sold the property to the University, thus effectively ending its life as a private enterprise. And in 1988, a fire described as “suspicious” ended its life in any form.

 

It was at the Shack that Mort Walker, who would become the creator of Beetle Bailey after his 1948 graduation from the University, held staff meetings as the editor of the University’s humor magazine “The Show Me”. The magazine, typical college humor (not very funny) did have the distinction of being suspended by the administration about as often as it was actually in publication.

 

An indication of the level of humor was that the college president, Frederick Middlebush, was called Centershrub. But this also was the era of the panty raid when gangs of testosterone poisoned guys would gather outside the women’s dorm and plead for the girls to hurl lingerie from the upper windows. This became a national fad for a short time until college authorities cracked down on it. That was a major national college scandal until some years later when streaking became popular (running naked through the streets certainly is less offensive to the populace than another fad of the nineteen sixties—burning down the administration building).

 

Walker died in 2016 At the age of 93.  I wrote him a fan letter several years before he died explaining that we were fellow journalism school attendees and that we both had spent quality time in the Shack. Mort Walker returned for a visit in 1978, his last visit to the original building.  In his letter, Walker asked if I knew that the University had built into its new student activity center, a supposedly replica of the Shack, naming it Mort’s, and featuring a giant statue of Beetle Bailey.

 

Walker’s time at Mizzou was not a smooth one, beginning with what happened to him when he was in journalism school and a BMOC (big man on campus). The letter went on:

 

“I returned from four years in the Army during World War II, became editor of the Show Me magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and had had an office in the J-School.”

 

“The Dean “(Francis Mott) told me to report to his office and he asked what I was doing in J-School I answered brightly “getting educated sir.”

 

He said, “But I see by your records that you didn’t take my prerequisite course, ‘History and Principles of Journalism.’ I replied, “I was too busy serving the world for democracy, sir.  He yelled “GET OUT!”  I came to class the next day and found my office locked and all my belongings thrown out on the floor I applied with Dean Mott for a diploma in humanities and left for New York I had several other conflicts with the school and here they were honoring me that’s Mizzou.”

 

My longtime friend and retired coworker at the Conservation Department, Jim Auckley, worked at The Shack when he was in college and his memories of the place are what one might call bittersweet.

 

“We had a cockroach that came out at night near the beer tap at the Shack. We named him Archy.  The man who ran the place was a retired Boone County farmer named Ray…can’t remember his last name. He ran the grill at the front of the building; it had an outdoor take-out window. Ray and his wife made the secret Shack Sauce for the hamburgers at home and brought it in. The man who owned the jewelry store just down the street actually owned the Shack building [Joe Franke]. I remember one lunch hour when a hamburger fell onto the floor from the grill; Ray looked around, saw none of the customers were watching and deftly flipped the burger back on the grill!

 

“I was usually stationed at the beer tap, except for busy lunch hours when things got hopping. The Shack had a juke box that was always roaring.  One night, on a typically slow evening, I served two girls that I knew were under age. I almost had heart failure when two men in suits, ties and trenchcoats came through the front door…I just knew they were cops. Never did that again.

 

“I’m sure you remember Beetle Bailey started life as a college student; he spent quite a  bit of time at the Shack before becoming an Army private.”

 

Archy Jim’s cockroach, was named in honor of a fictional insect from a column in the New York Evening Sun by Don Marquis 100 years ago. Archy, a cockroach, crept into the newsroom after hours and would type (in lowercase because he wasn’t heavy enough to do capitals) stories and poems. His best friend was Mehitabel an alleycat. The Shack’s Archy, even in the presence of journalism students, never produced prose or poetry, although I’m pretty sure there were alleycats in the vicinity, attracted by the ever present fog of cooking oil.

 

Jim doesn’t remember the prices from the Shack, so dime beer and quarter hamburgers may be wishful thinking on my part, but they’re close.  Jim has a board from the original Shack, with carvings from some of the army of thirsty students whose initials and other jackknife created memorabilia went up in flames. A board like that is akin to owning a body part from a saint. I envy him.

 

Joe Franke had removed several booths from the Shack which saved them from the fire and those have been incorporated into that supposed replica of the Shack in the university’s student activity center. It is as pale an imitation of the real thing as are those goofy looking imitators who infest the country posing as Elvis. The phony Shack doesn’t even serve beer. That’s like being invited to the White House for a state dinner and being served cheeseburgers.  But what President would be crass enough to do something like that?  Unthinkable!

 

In October 2010, Mort Walker returned to Columbia to help celebrate the grand opening of the student center, featuring “Mort’s” supposely the re-creation of the Shack which, of course, was a physical impossibility. Walker must’ve been conflicted over the invitation but graciously accepted the dubious honor.

 

Did The Shack succumb to a stray spark that ignited generations of grease- impregnated, highly flammable walls? Or did a surreptitious night crawler, perhaps on orders from the higher echelons of the University administration apply the fatal spark?, We will never know and considering that the University is Columbia’s largest employer, any investigation into the origin of the Shack’s final dive into immortality was likely to be minimal.

 

Today, Dean Mott is gone (although I still have his textbook which, of course, I bought to avoid being kicked out of the school), the J-School lions still have not roared, Mort Walker is gone although Beetle Bailey remains in the custody of Walker’s two sons, dime beer and greasy hamburgers cooked in company with cockroaches also have vanished, as has the Shack.

 

R.I.P.

 

 

 

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