Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • August 20th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I started bird hunting in my 20s but only started keeping a diary or a daily log of my adventures in the field I half a century later. 50 years lost. Not totally lost, of course. The years cough up bits of themselves. The memories are conveniently skewed so my shooting recalls better than it was, and the dogs of recollection are far more efficient than the dogs of actuality.

The real value of a diary is in the narrative, that spot, however extensive, where you relive your impressions of the day. I tried to go beyond the dog-and-shot brags to the real meaning of the hunt.

Golden hemlocks flaming in an alder bog? A grouse fanned on the ground in front of the dog? The pup tentatively bug-eyed on his first woodcock? The ghost buck that you glimpsed, but didn’t shoot at (or the snort in the night just before dawn and legal shooting hour)? The turkey that came in behind you so close you could hear his measured footsteps in the dry leaves and his spit-and-drum?

“Really nice day,” I wrote back in 1986. “Good dog work, good shooting, good guys to be with. Andy is so much fun to hunt with. I’m lucky to have such a fine son and good hunting buddy.”
Andy is halfway through his 40s now and I am half way through my 80s. And 1986 was more than 30 years ago. It’s not so much what was written but that it is a remnant of life of importance to me, certainly, but potentially for those who will read it long after I am gone.

This is the stuff that needs telling so you can recall it once again…or so someone else can. Maybe you never again will crack the pages, but someone will. Your son or daughter, your mate, maybe your hunting buddy, grown old and with eyes too dimmed to see the flicker of a buck’s tail in the dark woods, but not dimmed to where he can’t read about those times you enjoyed together.

I remember the first quail I shot. It flushed under my feet as I struggled out of a Chariton County gully and I got the old Stevens single shot half-mounted and pulled the trigger.

That gun was the bastard child of the Missouri state animal–my all time favorite equine, the mule. It kicked me back down the slope of the ditch and the top lever ripped a chunk of meat out of the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. My memory tells me I killed the bird and perhaps I did, but it’s more probable that I created a dead bird as the consolation for having maimed myself.

Memory is far more certain of the fact that a large Labrador retriever ate the first rooster pheasant I ever shot, filching it from the tailgate of my station wagon where I’d left it while I went looking for someone to brag to.

And I remember shooting two boxes of shells on my first dove hunt without scratching a feather. “That’s all right,” said my host. “It’s not uncommon at all.” “Then why do you have a limit?” I grumbled sourly, indicating the pile of defunct doves on the tailgate of his vehicle, and he had the grace to blush.

I should have been writing all that down, the defeats as well as the triumphs, but I didn’t, not for all those lost years. There were the thousand and one hunts that Foster Sadler, my best friend, and I made together–trips to the Dakotas for prairie grouse, camping along the ridge in north Missouri where the turkeys prowl.

Foster’s pointer, Joe, was the first bird dog I hunted behind. I spent half of the hunt jumping when Foster or his father would scream, “Joe! Cut your head in, dammit!” thinking they were shouting at me. Mr. Sadler not only was the school superintendent, but also our basketball coach and I was not his most apt benchwarmer.

Most hunting diary entries are dull enough to put an insomniac to sleep: “Two coveys. Big one in beanfield flushed wild, up to road. Ginger pointed 3 birds. Guff found dead bird. Andy missed, I missed….” And so boringly on.

Nothing much changed in my shooting, I see (one for five that day), but Andy certainly is better than the 0-for-2 of that 1984 opening day of quail season. Later on that year, I see we put up a bunch of woodcock at the Stringtown access. It was a consistent woodcock producer then, but the pole thicket grew out of favor with the little bogsnipe and now you won’t find them there (which is why I have no compunctions about naming the place–you couldn’t have dragged it out of me with white hot branding irons in 1984).

There are other reasons for keeping a journal. There always is the chance that you’ll become famous and someone will plunder your past for archival material. Thoreau would be just another nut living on chokecherries if it weren’t for his journals. Lewis and Clark are familiar to us because of their daily jottings. Journals don’t have to be literary efforts. They are a sketch of your thoughts, your experiences. They recap the day as you saw it, in whatever detail you care to supply.

For the literal-minded, a journal is a dry recitation of statistics. My father, not given to imagination, carefully recorded the weather conditions in his journal. He might mention that he and Chaps had treed and shot two or three squirrels in the Bend. Little Chaps was the product of an affair between a cocker and a springer spaniel. She was the quintessential squirrel dog. She treed them and barked until my father appeared with a .22 single shot Winchester.

That team accounted for many a squirrel over the years, but what did my father think about his relationship with the faithful little dog? I’ll never know, for he didn’t write it down, only that it was dry, but looked like rain, and the temperature was 75 degrees. The corn was made and the beans looked good. My father was a farmer first, a hunter second.

But my dogs raced through my journal pages, muddy and bloody, triumphant and chagrined, sometimes heroes, sometimes goats. They were my partners and I wrote their entries for them. It was a ritual. Each evening, after I cleaned birds and ate, cleaned the shotgun, took a shower, I got the diary out. I always paused a moment to collect my thoughts–but as much as anything to savor the pleasure of this ritual. There was a woodstove in the family room and I would open the doors to let the flames flicker hypnotically.

I could feel the soft warmth of the stove, the pleasant ache of my legs and arms after the long day. Sometimes I would read the previous hunt’s entry, though it still was fresh in mind, just to contrast that one and today.

Occasionally, some event is so transcendent it leads my entry, but mostly the writing is chronological, a progression of events. “What a wonderful day! Hunted deer early and shot at a spike buck at 30 yards. Had crosshairs right on his chest and missed. Saw a huge gobbler on way home running across Highway C. On to quail at H-C. Bumped a river bird and dumped it nicely. Ginger found it in the prairie grass. Missed an easy shot at another, then doubled on a double point. Missed a pointed bird on first shot, nicked it on second and lost it. Scrivner Road–saw a covey fly out of milo and land, circled them and Guff pointed nicely. Hit one of two on covey rise. Didn’t follow. Then saw about 40 turkeys and another covey that flew out of milo across river. No shots. Beat Andy one-on-one in basketball…twice!”

I found later the scope on the deer rifle had been mis-mounted and the gun was shooting ‘way off. The “river bird” was one from a covey that invariably flew a sizable river out of range. Killing any of this covey is a triumph.

Andy was 16 then, lean and tall, and I was 52, short and, well, flabby is a fair word. But I nailed him twice on the basketball court. That day was a jumble of unrelated events that, in total, brightened my life for a time.

Lined Big Chief tablets or a three-ring binder notebook will work as a journal, but they aren’t exactly pretty and they deteriorate. A formal log is an incentive to use and it also is more durable.

One hunter I know uses accountant’s ledgers, bound in pebble-grain imitation leather. There also are commercial shooter’s diaries. What you put in a diary is subjective. Some enter weather, scent conditions, the minutiae of fishing and hunting. It may help to know that the water reached 62 degrees on April 17 last year if you’re trying to figure out when to start crappie fishing. But it may not if this year is colder or warmer than last year–a thermometer will do you more good than year-old information. On the other hand, it will be of interest to read that “today I caught the first crappie of the season in shallow water, earliest ever.”

Covert locations and detailed maps are helpful if you have a brain like a sieve and are prone to forget where you killed a limit of woodcock in 45 minutes. I may forget my children’s birthdays, but I damn sure never forget a limit covert. Sketch maps are most helpful when there aren’t many landmarks and the turns are tricky. I’ve been into some northwoods coverts where you either know the exact route, within a couple of yards, or you flounder hopelessly in alder bogs. One involves a beaver dam crossing; another is through a hemlock thicket. There are no alternative routes. There is the right trail or there is the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Here is what should go in a shooter’s diary: the date of the hunt, weather conditions, companions (most important), the area hunted, guns and loads used, the hunt results. If it’s a bird hunt, list the dogs and if you’re box score oriented, you can list finds and retrieves (and backs, too, which are like assists in hockey and basketball), and shots fired and species bagged for yourself.
I’d rather rely on memory when it comes to shooting success. Time blunts hard edges. Actual figures tend to depress.

Sometimes one mood overrides everything and it is the bulk of the entry. “The pits! Dropped Nikon motor drive in creek. Then Ginger rolled in something long dead and stinking. Guff and/or Ginger bumped the only covey we found and the birds vanished. Jo rolled in something worse than Ginger did. Toby rolled twice in cowflops and ate horseapples twice in the first 200 yards of the hunt. It’s a wonder lightning didn’t flash out of a cloudless sky and the last voice we hear is huge and booming, growling, ‘I don’t know, guys, there’s just something about you that ticks me off.'”

I suppose the super-organized keep a log for each activity: Hunter’s Diary, Angler’s Diary, Shooter’s Diary, and so forth. There even are computer database programs which invite you to fill in the pertinent information for a given outing. Then you can call up information in various relationships, even print it out. But that seems stiflingly technological. I don’t want a journal to help me kill more or even kill better; I want one to help me remember.

One friend is meticulous. His log is a model to which the rest of us can only aspire. He draws neat sketch maps of grouse coverts that look as if Rand and McNally did them. His printing is monastic, elegant and ornate. I suspect he’d decorate with gold leaf if he could afford it.

My diary, in contrast, is a scribble which looks like the prescription file at a pharmacy. There are blots and beer stains and what looks suspiciously like shreds of last year’s woodcock dinner.
But it is legible to me most of the time and that is what counts. There is an entry from Nov. 21, 1984, which tells me it was “Beautiful–sunny and 40s.” My hunting partner was Foster Sadler, first time we’d hunted together for a long time. He’d had some problems and we just hadn’t gotten together. But now we were out and he had his old Parker and I shot my L.C. Smith.

Just a couple of old friends with old guns. The dogs didn’t work well. Foster shot a wild flushed quail for the only bird of the day. But I didn’t mind. It was enough being out with a friend of nearly 40 years. We found a small stream on the back side of nowhere and made plans to fish it come spring. A few weeks later, I find an entry that begins: “The perfect day…” and goes on to detail a long, solitary hike across the ridges of a favored hunting area. “Everything was simply fine,” I wrote. “I’m proud of my pups and feeling more relaxed than for a long time.”

The next entry was five days later and it is terse: “No hunt. Today is the day I lost my hunting buddy, Foster. There’s no space here to record 37 years of memories.”

It was cold and cloudy.

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  • Blog
  • August 12th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Non-migratory wildlife being, well, non-migratory is subject to the same problems as people when the neighborhood goes to ruin. It’s difficult if not impossible to pick up and move to a better ‘hood.

Ducks, geese, other peripatetic types, can light a shuck for new territory—but how can you fill a wildlife vacuum with animals that don’t want to move?

Fortunately wildlife biologists have invented an array of methods to get wildlife from here to there and the result is a series of remarkable comebacks of endangered or threatened wildlife species by trap-and-transplant. They’ve been trapped by an array of schemes, some right out of a Three Stooges comedy.

It all started with a device designed for a migratory species. Sir Peter Scott, son of the famed explorer Robert Falcon Scott (who froze to death during an Antarctic expedition in 1912) devised a rocket net that could be fired over waterfowl.

The birds then could be banded, aged, sexed and otherwise studied. Rocket nets worked when they worked…but often they misfired or tried for a space launch. Scott wrote about his adventures and misadventures with the rocket net and a pair of innovative wildlifers at Missouri’s Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, manager Herb Dill and staff member Howard Thornsberry, read what he wrote.

Thornsberry, a mechanical marvel, devised a “cannon” which more resembled a mortar. It fired a dependable missile at a dependable trajectory. The “missile” was a weight attached to the leading edge of a net. A pair of mortars, fired in unison, would launch the net over baited birds.

Since Dill and Thornsberry began using their net in 1950 to capture Canada geese for tagging and study, the cannon net has become a staple in the wildlifer’s arsenal, used to capture both deer and turkeys. Sandhill cranes and tundra swans also have fallen for bait and been netted.

Box traps are as old as the country and still are in use—in fact, box traps were the trap of choice for Dill and Thornsberry before the advent of the cannon net. But the drawback for flock creatures was that box traps don’t catch enough animals. Instead of one goose or turkey at a time, the cannon net can catch 25-50.

Trapping gathers animals for transplant to suitable, but uninhabited habitat also allows researchers to equip the critters with tracking devices so they can be studied. Sometimes the motive is to thin a population of animals that have become nuisances.

Urban wildlife problems are a relatively new phenomenon and, faced with increasing incidence of people vs. critter, biologists have two choices: either kill the offending animals or relocate them. Relocation is the usual (and more desirable) choice.

What do you do when a 1,600-pound bull moose invades your city? Anchorage, Alaska, has faced this situation. Other than hunters, the only predators on moose are wolves and vehicles (about 160 collisions a year in the Anchorage area). Wolves by their nature are rural residents, not city dwellers…which leaves the Anchorage moose with only one predator, the SUV, and as powerfully-built as four-wheelers are they don’t stand up well to a collision with a moose.

Alaska sees a thousand or more car-moose encounters each year and the moose toll is more than 500. Several people also die. So, while back country moose populations in Alaska have declined in recent years, the city herd has increased dramatically…and with increasing friction between the animals and those to whom a moose is an accident waiting to happen.

Gray wolf restoration in Yellowstone is a fact. Controversial or not the reintroduction there produced a rare alliance against the project between the Sierra Club and ranchers—Sierra arguing that the introduction of trapped and transplanted Canadian wolves would dilute the gene pool of any indigenous wolves remaining, and ranchers simply not wanting large predators. But the project went ahead, beginning in 1994 after a number of court challenges.

There even was controversy over how to catch wolves: trap, live-snare, tranquilizer darts from helicopters, or nets fired from helicopters. The biologists decided to dart wolves in Alberta and supplement with wolves neck-snared by trappers (the snare has a stop to prevent strangulation). After all the court battles, biologists captured 33 wolves in the first go-around, one of which died.

Two decades later wolves still are at the center of a controversy over whether they should be managed as trophy animals or “delisted” in much of the state, to be taken at any time in any numbers. Regardless, the capture methods and the reintroduction both were highly successful.

Some years ago a wolf release in Minnesota involved transmittered animals. When one signal became stationary, wildlife officers investigated and found that a farmer had shot the wolf, discovered the transmitter collar and then panicked. Not realizing the transmitter continued to broadcast, he buried the wolf in his manure pile. He was fined but he got to keep his manure pile.

In Wyoming the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed nearly $400,000 through 2003 to wildlife management, which includes elk transplants. Counting cooperative contributions, the total is more than $1.5 million.

Wyoming Game and Fish used cannon nets for sage grouse. Researchers studying West Nile virus in sage grouse in Powder River Basin night netted sage grouse with a spotlight and a big dip net. Wyoming also has used just about every capture method for a variety of wildlife. Including pronghorn antelope caught for relocations to other states where large numbers (more than 30) are needed are driven into a big corral trap by helicopter. Other big game animals are generally darted, but researchers used clover traps for some things like deer and elk and have used drop traps baited with apple pulp for capturing large numbers of bighorn sheep. Ferrets are live trapped with a special long, narrow trap that looks like the usual Havahart or similar live traps.

Grizzly bear relocations (usually related to human/grizzly or livestock/grizzly conflicts) within the Yellowstone Ecosystem are via culvert traps or snares and then immobilization via dart gun or jab stick.

As retired Montana game warden Louis Kis found out in 1987, a culvert trap can work both ways. He was relocating a grizzly bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photographer Richard Smith was along to record the release. The bear, instead of heading for the woods, turned on the trap and dragged it, and Kis who was standing on it, out of a truck bed.

The bear grabbed Kis by the leg and Kis grabbed his .357 pistol and emptied it, somehow managing to avoid shooting himself in the leg. He killed the bear, thankful to be alive, although his leg was broken. Smith, whose first instinct was to help, realized a motor-driven camera wasn’t much of a weapon against a ticked-off grizzly bear and did what photographers always do—he kept shooting until he ran out of film. Kiss got mauled, but Smith made considerable money off the photos of the attack. Usually the trappers win, but not always.

Some years back a Canadian moose tagging team was working from a helicopter. The procedure was to herd the moose into a lake deep enough that the animal had to swim. Then the chopper could hover above the swimming moose while a biologist leaned out and clipped an ear tag to it.

The idea worked well…until the moose reached a submerged island and lurched out of the water, dumping the helicopter on its side. Fortunately no one was injured, but the pilot and biologist had to swim to shore and hike for help.

Among the more unusual trap ideas is a mailbox, used to snare ruffed grouse. Male grouse use a “drumming log” to advertise their virility. The male finds a downed tree, preferably with a bit of overhead cover to discourage hungry horned owls, and “drums,” a wing beat that sounds like a distant tractor starting up.

Mating males are competitive. Grouse trappers placed a common rural mailbox with a mirror inside on or near the log. The grouse would glance inside the box, see what appeared to be a competing male, and charge in to do battle, tripping a door behind it. The device worked on male birds, but a population of males won’t proliferate. So the trappers devised a miniature version of the corral, used by Westerners for decades to trap wild horses. Grouse prefer to walk unless they must fly, so the trappers placed 50-foot, 18-inch-high chicken wire fences or “leads” which led to a wire cage on either end.

A wandering grouse would reach the fence and, like someone looking for a gate, amble along it into the cage from which it couldn’t escape. A similar technique is used for geese during their molt period or before goslings can fly. They’re herded into a corral, chased down, captured and tagged or transplanted. It’s a raucous scene, often involving bloodletting—that of the biologists who are flogged and clawed by angry geese (wrestling an eight-pound Canada goose has many similarities to wrestling a bobcat).

Earlier researchers relied on tagging (a leg band or a visible colored plastic tag on the wing), hoping that observers would report sightings or dead animals. These days radio telemetry is the key method. Transmitters allow biologists to track the activities of everything from timber wolves to bobwhite quail.

Wildlife capture inevitably runs afoul of animal rights activists who focus on the stress and occasional mortality associated with capture. An elk that wandered into Missouri some years ago was dart tranquilized because of local fears about Bangs disease. The elk died…and proved negative for Bangs. But wildlife management is predicated on the health of the population, not the individual. While some individuals may die during a trap-and-transplant project, the ultimate judgment rests on the establishment of a viable population—and there have been far more successes than failures.

In fact, some of the successes have become problems. Giant Canada geese, which once were thought to be extinct, now are thriving to the point of being pest animals, especially in urban areas where they can’t be hunted. They munch on gardens and foul golf courses with droppings. And a 15-pound gander protecting a nest can be a ferocious adversary.

River otters (captured with leg hold traps which are, according to animal rightists, cruel) have been transported hundreds of miles, released…and have established healthy populations in 18 states. Lee Roy Sevin in Louisiana used leg hold traps to capture river otters which he sold to wildlife agencies around the country. Missouri’s river otter restoration has been so successful that the animals have become a localized nuisance.

Since an initial release of 20 otters in 1981, the Missouri otter population has reached at least 10,000 animals and they are being accused of depredation on fish hatcheries and the smallmouth bass population in small streams. A couple of otters loose in fish hatchery pools can do major damage and otters in steam headwaters will eat fish as long as the fish are available

“If an otter wants to catch a fish in open water the fish doesn’t stand a chance,” said the late Glenn Chambers, retired wildlife biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, and “father” to captive river otters for 30 years. Missouri’s otters are a remarkable wildlife restoration success, despite the problems. More than 5,000 otters have been trapped for their fur, yet the population remains healthy—a population that did not exist 20 years and more ago.

So it is with the mammal version of catch-and-release: today’s triumph may be tomorrow’s problem…but that’s better than having nothing left to create the problem.

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  • Blog
  • August 5th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There is a poignant moment in the television series “Band of Brothers” when Capt. Richard Winters, the commander of a company of American soldiers and his fellow GIs engage a group of German soldiers in a firefight.

Capt. Winters is by himself when he surprises a German soldier whose back is turned to him. He raises his rifle and the German turns and he is perhaps 14 or 15 years old. There is a moment, suspended in time, when Capt. Winters as to make a moral choice. The young boy looks at him with a mixture of terror and hope- and Capt. Winters pulls the trigger. If this actually happened, there is no doubt it haunted Richard Winters to the end of his long life which ended not that long ago at 92.

There is no doubt that similar choices faced soldiers on all sides in every war since history began to record their bloody trail. That’s what war is—kill or be killed. It’s all about which side has the highest heap of dead bodies.

We, as a nation, are making a somewhat similar choice every day we continue to brutalize children at our southern border whose only crime is not that they have been drafted into an enemy army, but that they have been caught seeking refuge in our country. We are not physically killing youngsters at the southern border, but we are doing something equally as reprehensible— we are killing hope.

And yet, some 40%, of our population supports,fervently, every savage edict of our president. Many of them are evangelicals who claim, with a straight face, that Donald Trump has been installed in the oval office by God. He has, they maintain, been chosen by God to lead us. Given the often demonstrated perverted lifestyle of Donald Trump, and the evangelical concept of good and evil— not just a God, but also a Devil— isn’t it feasible that it wasn’t God who chose Trump, but the Devil?

What are we are doing to families whose only transgression has been to seek asylum in our country after having traveled in many cases hundreds of miles to get here, hoping to escape tyrannical cruelty in their home country, only to find themselves torn apart by the same sort of authoritarian tyranny that they fled to get away from?

The administration, which has separated children from their parents and sent them to what amounts to a fenced in reform school, has the audacity to defend this policy with the assertion that the separated children are really having a good time. Matthew Albence, the acting number two official at the immigration and customs enforcement agency, said that detention centers set up to imprison migrants are “more like a summer camp.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono a Democrat from Hawaii, and one of the few Senators with courage enough to be outraged and let the world know it, asked Albence if he would send his children to one of the centers predictably Albence fumbled his answer because there actually is none, To equate what amounts to a concentration camp with a summer camp is ridiculous on the face of it.

Is this what we have become as a so-called bastion of freedom? Are we now a country that does not welcome oppressed, believing in the words etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty? Are we, as evangelicals so fervently maintain, a Christian nation— in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”?

Apparently, liberty and justice for all, applies only if you pledge fealty to Donald Trump, and his increasingly arrogant and out-of-control border security troopers, and to that 40% of the population who think that what they are doing along the southern border not only is true blue American, but necessary to protect us from some vague, perceived threat to our national security from refugees seeking only to find liberty and justice for all.

It will take years and probably history books yet to be written to sort out the many injustices that have been perpetrated on these poor folk whose lives went from bad to worse when they got to the United States. Almost daily there are new outrages reported and the list is so long and so depressing that those of us who live in comfort and security should feel a national shame.

Kids in cages like zoo animals, parents deported without their children, children that the authorities who took them from their parents can’t even find, abuse of the children to include dosing them with psychotropic drugs— all these and many other outrageous crimes against morality have been happening since Donald Trump took office and began his campaign against anyone who doesn’t kneel to his royal presence.

We didn’t elect a president (well, I sure as hell didn’t); we elected a despot. This is a depraved man who in the manner of the crazed Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland, shouted “Off with their heads!” every time something offended her. We are in a sort of Wonderland without any of the redeeming whimsy of Lewis Carroll. It is a national nightmare unfolding at the southern border and the only way to wake ourselves from it is to head to the polls in November as an outraged majority and clean house.

We once had an infestation of termites in our home and had to have the exterminators come in and get rid of them. Another person I know is facing the prospect of fumigating his home to get rid of brown recluse spiders. The problem with brown recluses is that you can never get rid of all of them; you can only kill perhaps 40% of them. Brown recluse venom is nasty stuff.

It is a hemotoxic venom which, in the worst cases, produces necrosis of the skin and erosion of underlying muscle tissue much as does the bite of a rattlesnake. I’ve seen the results (though, thankfully, not through personal experience) of both types of bite and they are nothing you want to suffer.
If you can stand to watch Trump exhorting his slavering 40%, and think of brown recluse spiders and rattlesnakes, you can almost see the venom poisoning the crowd. We need a political fumigation and the only way to do it is for everyone eligible to vote in November to oust those who enable Trump and his execrable cronies from power. But it’s not enough for each eligible voter to vote— not only should you go to the polls but you should inspire at least one other potential voter who otherwise would not cast a ballot.

You can bet that the 40% will be energized by their collective hatred, and will be fueled by money from special interests. That’s what seems to drive elections these days— anger and hatred and unlimited money from people and groups who have no interest in the public good. Politicians elected to office that way are not likely to do the right thing or to oppose His Royal Lowness Donald Trump.

Most of what gets passed around on the Internet is garbage especially the venom posted by the craziest of the 40% but every now and then there is a gem and I am indebted to a high school classmate for the following joke which is almost too true to be funny.

“I met a magical fairy yesterday who said she would grant me one wish.
“I wish to live forever,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the fairy, “I’m not allowed to grant that particular wish.”
“Fine,” I said, “then I want to die the day after Congress is filled with honest, hard-working, bipartisan men and women who act only in the people’s best interests!”
“You crafty old bastard,” replied the fairy.”

All too true. We have a Congress that has abdicated any semblance of responsibility and any semblance of acting in the best interests of its constituency. The Republicans are drunk with power; the Democrats are timid with indecision. All are gridlocked in incompetency and subservient to the Criminal in Chief in the White House. The Republican majority seems paralyzed by the rage of the increasingly savage 40 percent

Of course we need border security. I’m not saying we don’t. But good security comes from common sense not from building incredibly expensive and basically useless walls and not from barring those who truly need kindness and caring. Try going to Canada sometime if you want to find out how border security should work. And, by the way, the Canadians don’t much care for us anymore—with good reason, considering that the Idiot in Chief as managed to alienate them along with the leaders of virtually every nation once considered our closest allies.

Instead of pouring endless dollars into building a great big dumb fence, why not spend those dollars on drug interdiction and coming down hard on the other border intrusions (like, for example, human trafficking). A recent story points out that the proposed border wall would be an impossibility because it would have to cross countless ravines that in flash flood time “(a fairly common occurrence) would wash the fence out or require millions if not trillions of dollars to maintain, not to mention the enormous cost of construction in the first place.

Trump cozies up to every despot that he can find. Birds of a feather etc. Cosying up to Putin, Kim Jong-un and others of that murder of political scavengers is not diplomacy, nor is it leadership. Donald Trump is a schoolyard bully the quintessential big kid who steals lunch money from the little ones, cheats when he doesn’t have to, lies when he’s caught, sucks up to the tough guys, the gang leaders, and talks a far better game than he is capable of playing. Despite what he thinks he is, he is not a leader. He is a cowardly sloppy big fat boy hiding his insecurities behind bluff and braggadocio.

He should never have been president and he should now be impeached, though he probably won’t be. The only way to rein in his paranoia and his unhinged presidency is to bring some balance back into our democratic system by installing a Congress with some sort of accountability and conscience.

And for those who think that God sent Trump to lead the country, consider that one young migrant child said that he saw another being shot with drugs and was afraid he would be next. Then there was the 15 month old baby who was forced into a courtroom for a hearing as if she were a criminal facing charges. 15 months old! She has taken her first step and said her first word while detained, but her father was not around to hear it— he was deported leaving behind his pregnant wife and young baby.

These are not isolated incidents. Children from babies to teenagers are being traumatized almost on a daily basis and any of the so-called Christians who think that Donald Trump is an emissary from God and who continue to tolerate such behavior toward children are not Christians— they are hypocritical deviants for whom the pit of hell is not nearly punishment enough.

On the other hand, the number of Christian denominations were active in separating Native American children from their parents and forcing them into schools—the historic equivalent of charter schools— so they could be converted from what the good Christians considered heathen religion to what the good Christians considered good Christian religion. And we all know how slave families were separated and sold during pre-Civil War times.

A Jewish poet, the descendent of immigrants, wrote some lines in a poem which have become famous because they are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That is a lesson from the past worth remembering, not the transgressions against immigrants in our history and certainly not the transgressions being committed today by our bigoted and mentally and morally impaired president.

Just because we did it in the past, does not mean we should do it now.

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  • Blog
  • July 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

For a quail hunter, a dog’s nose is the animal’s most important component. For the dog, his dick is paramount. Consider how much time a dog spends licking it. Which brings to mind the old joke about the two guys who see a dog self-laving and one says, “Gee, I wish I could do that,” and the other guy replies, “Don’t you think you should pet him a little first?”

Hollywood has Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, but only Missouri has a famous dog with a painted penis. The dog is Old Drum and the appendage in question actually is on an anatomically-correct statue of him in the courthouse square at Warrensburg. It probably would make more sense, historically, to have the statue with its fangs buried in a bleating lamb, but instead Old Drum stands in a noble pose as if he were Rin-Tin-Tin on a mission of mercy.

Mark Twain, Missouri’s most famous ironist, no doubt would have appreciated the incongruity of erecting a statue to a dog that almost certainly was guilty of sheep-killing and whose only notable accomplishment was that he got killed for it. And, to compound the irony, the fellow who shot Old Drum was nicknamed “Dick.”

And, with his notoriously bawdy sense of humor, Mr. Twain would have commented with unbridled zest on the repeated assaults on the dignity of Old Drum. Unfortunately for the world of pungent comment, Twain had been dead for many years before the bronze likeness of Old Drum came to rest on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn in 1958.

Warrensburg not only is the site of the courtroom trial that made Old Drum famous; it also is the home of Central Missouri State University and it is a well-known fact that any animal statue with paintable parts erected (pardon) in a college town is going to get enhanced by artistically-inclined students. No matter how many times the town fathers darken Drum’s dinger, it shortly regains its non-canine glow.

Twain did write this about dogs: “”If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” Think what he could have said about a dog with a decorated dick. I also have a T-shirt with a quote by Groucho Marx which says that “Outside of a dog a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it’s very dark.” Real wisdom is not limited to the insane tweets of our insane pretend president.

The living Old Drum went to the great Sheep Meadow in the Sky in 1870. He belonged to a fellow named Charles Burden, but strayed onto property owned by Leonidas Hornsby, whereupon Hornsby’s nephew shot him. Burden then sued Hornsby and set in motion the events that led to immortality for old Drum.

Burden ultimately won $50 in damages after the case went all the way to the state supreme court, but it was in the lower court that Drum made history. Burden’s lawyer was George Vest, later a U.S. Senator. Vest delivered what has come to be known as the Tribute to the Dog and everyone has heard parts of it: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world…is his dog.”

It went on from there, presumably bringing tears to the eyes of the sentimental and dog-loving jury. There was no direct transcription of the speech, but it was pieced together later on by the recollections of various onlookers and no doubt refined, the way a good story always is. Let’s face it, had Drum not been whacked, he would have been no more than a sheep-killing hound lost in history.

Wikepedia, the sprawling on-line encyclopedia of mostly useless facts, offers a list of famous dogs, including such luminaries as Sam, a Chinese Crested hairless dog which was a three time winner as the World’s Ugliest Dog.

But the list does not mention either Old Drum or Jim the Wonder Dog, Missouri’s most famous dog, perhaps the most famous dog ever. Both arguably are more deserving of lasting fame than, say, Millie, the springer spaniel owned by the George H.W. Bush family. Millie wrote a best-selling book with considerable help from the Bush family (kind of like what George W. would need were he to write a book). Jimmy Carter has written many fine books and Obama also is literate. Donald Trump, without ghostwriters, couldn’t write graffiti on a toilet wall, although he is eminently suited for it.

Well, Jim the Wonder Dog also wrote a book that did not become a best-seller through no fault of Jim’s. If ever a dog could write a best-seller, it would have been Jim, not that uppity Republican bitch. Jim was something else and theories abound from extraterrestrials to reincarnation.

Where Drum was notable for the words of his eulogist, Jim was an awesome presence in himself. There also is a statue honoring Jim, dedicated in 1999, in the Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Park in Marshall, site of Jim’s grave and much of his life. And there is a college in Marshall, but so revered is the Wonder Dog that the students leave Jim’s nether regions alone.

Jim was a Llewellen setter, owned by Sam Van Arsdale, a Missouri hotelier and quail hunter. Jim was a superb quail dog, but that’s like saying Monet also was a good cook. While Jim excelled in the field, it was in town that he dropped jaws with his decidedly un-canine talents.

Jim the Wonder Dog was from a kennel in Louisiana and came to Sam Van Arsdale as a free puppy, a gift from a traveling salesman who had stayed at Van Arsdale’s hotel. The puppy seemed uninterested in being trained, but a local trainer said he felt the dog had intelligence that seemed almost human.

But what he did transcended intelligence and skyrocketed into the realm of the supernatural. The list of his mental exploits is almost unending and if it was some sort of trickery or exceptional dog training, the evidence escaped thousands of witnesses over a number of years, including a joint session of the Missouri Legislature (normally politicians fool everyone else, not the other way around). Jim, in short, was the most spooky dog in history.

He obeyed commands given in foreign languages or Morse code, neither of which his master knew. And he predicted the future, although picking the 1936 Yankees to win the World Series wasn’t much of a trick, given a lineup featuring Ruth, Gehrig, et al–but how many dogs were making predictions of any kind? (Jim predicted seven Kentucky Derby winners in a row.)

Werner Nagel, longtime writer for the Missouri Conservation Department, once met Jim and said, “He had strange eyes.” A photo of Jim, glancing sideways at the camera, would agree—Jim has the expression of a creature that knows more than you do.

Van Arsdale’s niece played with the puppy and said the little dog seemed to understand what she was saying. By November of 1925 Jim was eight months old and Van Arsdale took him to the field. Jim walked into a field and went on point—no fooling around looking for birds. He seemed to know exactly where they were and he did this for the next 11 years.

Van Arsdale said he had shot more than 5,000 quail over Jim, a figure hard to believe—Jim lived a dozen years and that would have required Van Arsdale to shoot more than 500 quail a year. Judging by the accomplishments of our bird dogs, I sometimes feel there aren’t 500 quail and the whole damn state.

Jim’s other incredible talents became apparent when it appeared he would respond to anything Van Arsdale asked him to do: “Show me a black oak tree, Jim,” and Jim would amble over to a black oak and sit down. Van Arsdale would write down a license number and instructions to find that car and tell Jim to do what the paper said…and Jim would find the car. Tap out a Morse code message and Jim would do what it asked. Or ask him a question in French and Jim would respond.

The dog appeared before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature and pointed out people who were described to him. A friend of Van Arsdale’s said, “Let’s see if he can show me the car in which I came from Jefferson City.” Of course Jim did by walking to the car and putting his paw on it.

Van Arsdale ran a hotel in Marshall, and also in Sedalia. It didn’t take long for Jim to become a canine phenomenon. His puppies, three males, two females, showed none of his talents. Van Arsdale kept all the puppies and turned down a thousand dollar offer for one—big money today, much less in the pit of the Depression.

Van Arsdale could tell the dog to find a DeSoto (tougher to do today than it was then) and Jim would find the car that matched. Could be a trick, said doubters. Some said Van Arsdale was giving Jim body language hints but if he was he didn’t know it and no one ever caught him at it. “I don’t know the explanation,” Van Arsdale said. “Some say it’s mental telepathy. Maybe it is. It’s certain Jim won’t make a move unless I know what he is being asked to do.”

You’d be more suspicious if Van Arsdale had been collecting admissions or peddling Jim’s hairy body in the movies, but he never made a dime from his uncanny best friend. The New York Times offered to bring Jim and Van Arsdale to Washington to meet President Franklin Roosevelt, but Van Arsdale declined (apparently no one asked Jim). Van Arsdale also turned down an offer of $365,000 in Depression dollars (today, millions) to take Jim on tour for a year. “Some people said I had a trick with the dog,” Van Arsdale once said. “Was there ever a man who wouldn’t sell a trick for $365,000?”

All things, good and great, come to an end and they did for Jim and this world when he quietly died on March 18, 1937. (Will Rogers said, “If dogs don’t go to Heaven when they die, I want to go where they go.”) Van Arsdale was devastated by the loss of his longtime friend who meant more to him than anything in the world.

The story goes that Van Arsdale wanted Jim buried in the family plot in Marshall’s Park Ridge cemetery, but the cemetery authorities turned him down. So Van Arsdale buried Jim just outside the cemetery boundary in a specially-built casket…and the cemetery has expanded since Jim died in 1937 and the grave now is inside the cemetery, with a headstone reading “Jim the Wonder Dog.” There often still are flowers, left by fans of the remarkable dog.

And no sleazy desecrations on Jim’s private parts. Drum, however, is a dog of a different color…..

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  • Blog
  • July 25th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

And then there was one.

In the late 1950s two brothers from Salem Missouri and a buddy formed a bluegrass band and enlisted a local disc jockey as their bass player, acquired an aging 1950s Cadillac, loaded it with their instruments and with virtually no money, headed to Los Angeles to make their fortune.

After scrounging up traveling money along the way by stopping off to play music in the kind of places where there was chicken wire between the band and the audience to shortstop thrown beer bottles, the Dillards landed in Los Angeles, got a gig at one of the city’s renowned folk music venues, and within two weeks had been discovered by a talent scout for the Andy Griffith television show— probably the most popular show on television, then and still an enduring favorite in reruns now.

As the Darling family they were in a half-dozen episodes over the next three years and if nothing else their appearances were notable for exposing the nation to the finest bluegrass possible. The Darling family supposedly consisted of patriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle), sister Charlene (Maggie Peterson) and the boys— the Dillards who never spoke (and it must’ve been crippling for Mitch Jayne not to be able to talk– if there was any attribute Mitch had other than his musical talents, it was storytelling, both written and spoken).

The real life brothers were Rodney and Doug Dillard, the third Dillard and third Darling brother was their buddy Dean Webb, and their elder statesman fourth Darling brother and band spokesperson and bass player was Mitch Jayne. When Dean Webb, the mandolin player, died on June 30, it left only Rodney Dillard, the original guitar player as the sole remaining member of a legendary and much loved bluegrass quartet.

Over the years, the band not only splintered, but one by one except for Rodney they have died. Mitch was the first to go in 2010, and Doug, the banjo player, followed him in 2012. Now Dean Webb, victim of a heart attack, has joined them. In his final days in the hospital, someone asked Mitch Jayne how he was doing. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never died before.”

In Mitch’s obituary Doug and Rodney Dillard’s Aunt Dollie is quoted as saying about their impetuous emigration to California, “You boys sure are going a long way to flop!” But they didn’t flop and have endured in one incarnation or another for 60 years.

I’ve had a long love affair with the Dillards and was fortunate enough to be a close friend of Mitch’s. I heard about him long before I knew him. My boss at the conservation department, Jim Keefe, told me that he had been driving through the Ozarks one day when he tuned into the Salem radio station and heard the announcer giving the snake and tick market report. That was a signature tall tale of Mitch’s where he would emulate the stock market reports often given on local radio stations of the time and substitute the latest market report for “Who Boy White Dot Crush Proof Dry Valley Wonder ticks as well as futures for black, copperhead, coachwhip, garter and rattle snakes.”

When the group dispersed after their stand on the Andy Griffith show Mitch retired to Missouri, first to Columbia, then back to the old home country, settling in Eminence, just down the road from Salem. He made occasional forays to other towns, giving talks to various groups and telling his stories and keeping alive the legend of one room schools (his first job was teaching in one), of horseback rides just to get to school, and children speaking what amounted to Elizabethan English, a heritage from the Scots Irish immigrants who settled much of the Ozarks.

And he wrote—he had always written. In 1970 his novel Old Fish Hawk was published and subsequently became a 1979 movie starring Will Sampson as a remnant Osage Indian, an alcoholic, who hunts down the bear that killed his favorite hunting dog and subsequently saves a young boy from a wild Russian boar that has terrorized the town.

Oddly, the movie was made by a Canadian director and has very little resemblance to the Ozarks or to the spirit of the novel itself which, thanks to Mitch Jayne’s Ozark roots, is filled with the local color and flavor of his old home place. The novel is light years from the methamphetamine suffused plot of the recent novel Winters Bone and you won’t leave the theater feeling as if you need a period of detoxification.

Between trips to the post office, and stopping to talk to probably half the people in Eminence, every day, Mitch wrote a column for the local newspaper, the Current Wave which, collected, would be worth a book by itself. He also wrote another novel and an account of the Dillards time on the Andy Griffith show— all entertaining all written with verve and humor. Shortly before he died he dictated the last chapter of another novel, knowing that he would not live to see it published but unwilling to die before he finished it.

Doug Dillard is considered one of the godfathers of the five string banjo, along with Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. He’s credited with being a major influence on John McEuen who became the Godfather and backbone of the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band and who in turn was a mentor to Steve Martin, all around Renaissance man— writer, actor, and now almost a full time banjo man.

In 1991 McEuen was inspired to produce a documentary on the Dillards titled A Night In the Ozarks which featured the original gang reunited in Salem for, first, a concert in town and then a gathering at a rural farmhouse where people wandered in and out, playing music, and re-creating the sight and sound of an old time front porch picking. Homer Dillard, father of Doug and Rodney, fiddled, and Rodney’s wife, Beverly Cotten, clog danced with Homer.

The DVD has become a collector’s item, still available here and there if you have deep pockets. I was lucky enough to attend the first half of the filming in town, but stupidly passed on a chance to go to the farmhouse for the finale, something I will regret forever. I remember Rodney before the concert started snarling in rage at faults he found in the sound system, but whatever they were, they were sorted out by the start and on a hot summer night in Salem, Missouri, where it all started many of the same people who were there when that legend formed were in the audience to cheer for their hometown heroes.

With what I suspect was usual , Dean Webb said little and stood unobtrusively until it came time for him to pick. He doesn’t get the press that, for example, Bill Monroe, the father of the bluegrass mandolin, has always gotten—but if you listen to him you realize that he was like Doug Dillard on the banjo one of the giants of his chosen instrument.

He and Mitch were roommates on the road and the two brothers took a second room. Dean Webb was in charge of approving where they would stay and once rejected a motel, explaining to the puzzled band that he had found bullet holes in the door between the adjoining rooms and considered that “not a good sign.”

Over the years the band morphed into something considerably different than the music that formed its musical roots. Doug Dillard left in 1968 to form the band Dillard and Clark. Rodney became the de facto leader of the Dillards and over the next decades formed and reformed the band many times with many musicians.

And the Dillards as a band are credited with being the leaders in the 1970s folk rock movement involving such legendary outfits as the Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. As an example of how tangled the web can become, Samuel (Buddy) Brayfield was a founding member of the Daredevils and our family doctor for several months before he moved his practice back to Lake of the Ozarks.

The Dillards are considered pioneers in folk rock and are credited with influencing some of the biggest names in music history–they toured with Elton John and had a major influence on the Eagles, the Byrds, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin who said Dean Webb influenced his decision to play the mandolin.

Even as the Dillards except for Mitch roamed far from their musical roots, they never got traditional bluegrass out of their system. They reunited for an Andy Griffith show special in 1988. A few days after Mitch died, Rodney and Maggie Peterson appeared on stage together to talk about Mitch and sing There Is a Time, the song that Mitch and Rodney wrote together. The Dillards toured together in the 1990s and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002 and in 2009, the band was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame with all four members in attendance.

Fittingly, in 2010 Mitch’s friends and neighbors gathered at Alley Spring State Park to honor his memory. It was there that Mitch and his wife Diana were married. It also was the last time I saw Dean Webb who was present with his band Missouri Boatride.

It could have been no other way— Webb and the band gathered on the front porch of a restored one room schoolhouse (could it have been anything else for Mitch?) filled with memorabilia about Mitch and the Dillards/Darlings and played and sang songs from the good old days including The Old Home Place, the song that he and Mitch wrote together.

The theme of one of Mitch’s books is “everybody back on the truck, a reference to the way the Darlings came to town to pester Andy Griffith. Now, many years later, virtually all the cast of that iconic television show have gotten on the truck and gone down a dusty country road to who knows where?

Now there is but one.

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  • Blog
  • July 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1922 John Flaherty documented the life of an Inuit family in Alaska on film. He called the documentary Nanook of the North. In one memorable scene (Flaherty cheated—he faked the scene for dramatic emphasis) Nanook and four of his family and a sled dog all exit a kayak. About 60 years later kayak mania seized me like a virulent disease and I bought a kayak.

My sensible family of five children and any of our several dogs absolutely refused to share the kayak with me, with good reason as it turned out since I spent much of the time in the inverted position, also known as “in danger of drowning”. I did, however, become an expert at what we veteran kayakers call “wet exiting”.

While Nanook almost certainly did not share his kayak, a flimsy vehicle at best, with his family or even the dog, he probably did learn to do what is called “an Eskimo roll” this is a tricky maneuver by which the capsized kayak can be brought back upright. Considering that an upset in Alaskan waters which, at the best of times, is not like boating in a hot tub, the Eskimo roll is a good trick to know.

Nanook was no fool and, in real life, rather than in a documentary made for theater audiences who didn’t know any better, he probably used something closer to a regular boat to transfer his family from place to place, saving the kayak as a one-man vehicle for him alone. Still, even today, the sight in grainy black and white of Nanook, the four family members, and the dog popping out of the flimsy kayak makes good theater— something like seeing a long extinct Tyrannosaurus lolloping through the jungle in one of the many Jurassic Park variations. You know that logically it can’t happen but it sure is fun to see as long as you don’t have to participate.

Boating enthusiasts with half a brain have seen kayaks in action –in the Olympics, for example, when there is competition on turbulent whitewater or in documentaries about intrepid explorers challenging river rapids never before successfully run. Those enthusiasts then quickly run to their nearest Bass Pro dealer and plop down many thousands of dollars for a bass boat equipped with an 80 horsepower engine and forget they ever saw a kayak, not to mention someone rolling the craft upright after upsetting in it. You don’t upset in a bass boat unless you try to cross the Atlantic in it during a category five hurricane.

But some few of us, deranged by reading too much adventure fiction and crippled by an inability to utilize common sense, succumb to the lure of a white water craft. Two friends and I eased into the world of raging river running by building our first boat, a whitewater canoe. Since none of us had any idea what the finished product should look like our approach could best be appreciated by watching any given episode of the Three Stooges.

I don’t recall many of the details of the shaping and finish of the canoe since much of the time we were working in a small enclosed building amid the billowing fumes of fiberglass resin. I have a feeling that brain damage is the byproduct of long-term exposure to such an atmosphere.

The resulting watercraft looked like something that had been put together by the Marx Brothers under the influence of an especially fearful hallucinogenic chemical and I’m not sure we ever put it in the water possibly because we were afraid the thing would sink like a lead balloon. Eventually it got stored in the woods behind the cabin where we built it and the two friends returned home more than 100 miles from their creation, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the birth place of his monstrous creation before the guys with the torches and pitchforks showed up.

The whitewater canoe moldered there in the weeds until Dacques, a burly French Brittany discovered it had become the home place of an opossum which he engaged in combat and eventually reduced to his trophy list. Dacques, in addition to seeking out game birds, bagged an impressive list of wild creatures— a half grown raccoon, a half-grown wild turkey, more than a few rabbits, some squirrels and, for all I know, grizzly bears and mountain lions that were too much trouble to bring home.

Briefly, the difference between a whitewater canoe and a kayak is that the canoe has a larger cockpit and you kneel in it whereas you basically wear a kayak. Putting it on a Laurel and Hardy basis, big Oliver Hardy would fit in a whitewater canoe and Stan Laurel would be suited for a kayak—although both probably would turn over within 50 feet of the launch.

You slide into a kayak, feet extended and sit. You are wearing what’s called a spray skirt a sort of tutu. The first time I tottered down to the water’s edge as a chaperone on a Girl Scout canoeing trip, wearing my spray skirt, I noticed that the girls were seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling and realized they probably thought I was auditioning for Swan Lake. It did not enhance my macho image, although I did manage to avoid flipping the kayak and having to ignominiously wet exit. I also managed to get locked in the bathroom of the bus when I was chaperoning a YMCA ski trip for teenagers but that’s another story for another dismal day in the life of Joel M Vance, Klutz in Chief of any given outdoor adventure.

I practiced executing the Eskimo roll as assiduously as if I were Nanook himself capsized in the Bering Sea in near zero water temperatures, seconds away from perishing. But no matter how many times I struggled with what is supposed to be a relatively simple maneuver I simply could not pop back upright. I would get three fourths of the way back, my head out of the water glimpsing the amused faces of those on shore and then I would slowly sink back into the depths. I have to admit it was sort of peaceful suspended beneath the kayak, glimpsing curious bluegills swimming around me. But inevitably, I would begin to run out of air and would frantically tug the spray skirt free of the kayak cockpit rim and porpoise to the surface blowing and whooping like a grampus.

I consulted an expert kayaker in a swimming pool in Arkansas, watching him flip the kayak upright with more no more effort than if he were scratching his ear. And then I would try to do what he had done and it was the same old story. “I don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he said. “There must be something wrong with you.” Yes, there was— I didn’t have enough brainpower to realize when I was whipped. I was like a little boy who refuses to cry “uncle!” in a schoolyard fight until the bully who is beating him to a bloody pulp finally quits in disgust. The kayak was my bully and I figured that sooner or later it would have to give up. But it never did.

And so it came to pass that Joel donned his tutu and tucked his kayak under his arm like a businessman going to his office with his briefcase and traveled to where the fast water flows, namely the Spring River of Arkansas. Icy water, gushing from Mammoth Spring, feeds the river across the border from Missouri into Arkansas and supports trout as it winds its way south often over small rapids and many rocky ledges. It was here that I skirted the edge of disaster when I sailed over one of these ledges, somehow turned sideways in the current, and wedged under a submerged limb which stuck up stream like one of the water obstacles planted by the Germans to deter the allies from landing on the Normandy beaches in World War II.

Fortunately, I was canoeing with several guys who were infinitely more rational than I and who realized that not only the kayak but I would be pinned beneath the water by the limb and they splashed into the river and dragged me and the kayak free. The narrow escape called for a beer so I had several.

Proving that experience, even bad experience, is no cure for a lack of common sense, I launched my kayak into the Flambeau River in Wisconsin after perching my daughter ,Carrie, on a rock outcrop high above a 90 degree turn in the river where there was a daunting rapids. My idea was that Carrie would photograph me as I negotiated the rapids and then I would write an article with dramatic photography and become wealthy. The idea that I could also become drowned did not occur to me.

I negotiated the first set of rocks with all the aplomb of an Olympic contestant and then the river inconsiderately changed course 90 degrees with the water piling up at the bend, a tsunami of conflicting currents that grabbed the kayak in a giant hydraulic claw and flipped it over neatly with me underneath. I didn’t hesitate one second to see if somehow I had subconsciously learned the Eskimo roll, but frantically clawed at the tutu, ripped it free and squirted out in an explosive wet exit leaving the kayak which, as far as I was concerned, could careen on downstream to hell. At least, I knew that Carrie would have gotten several dramatic photos of me courting aquatic disaster. After I gathered my errant kayak and my wits I shouted up to Carrie, “Did you get that?” I had risked my life for a memorable series of dramatic photographs and had survived.

“I didn’t take any,” Carrie said. “I didn’t think you wanted me to take any photographs if you did it wrong.” I’m afraid I said some things and it is a tribute to her forbearance and forgiveness that she still claims to be my daughter.

My love affair with the kayak, much like an operatic libretto where the hero winds up with a dagger in his heart, came to an end on a searingly hot day in the mountains of Colorado. As if I hadn’t already tickled disaster in Arkansas and Wisconsin, I thought to pit my dubious kayak expertise against a real whitewater stream—namely, the Roaring Fork, the name of which alone should have given me pause.

I called a local floating shop and said “I’m a semi-experience kayaker and would like a short trip on local stream of several hours.” The helpful fellow directed me to a quick and what was supposed to be an easy 3 ½ mile float and said “This is a good stretch for an intermediate kayaker” and so it was for perhaps the first 200 yards. After which for the next 3 plus miles, if you have seen the movie Deliverance, you can understand what suddenly confronted me.

It was nonstop rapids and the only thing lacking was some inbred halfwit playing the banjo and a guy high on the banks above me (too high incidentally for me to climb out of the damn river and hike the rest of the way) with a rifle and a grudge against city fellers. The water was numbingly cold, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, although the day time temperature was in the 90s. But I wasn’t in the daytime—I was in the water and I quickly realized that if I ever flipped the kayak I would be upside down in the coldest water this side of one of those charity polar plunges where people raise money for hopeless causes. In this case of course I was the hopeless cause but I didn’t need money–I needed a warm bed under about four feather comforters where I could curl in the fetal position and forget Nanook and his damn kayak and especially my damn kayak.

I felt like a Chihuahua would feel balanced on a 2 x 4 rocketing down the Niagara River, nearing the lip of the Falls. To capsize would be the end of Joel M Vance as I knew him. Finally, a half hour after I optimistically entered the water on what was to be a several hour fun float, I rocketed at warp speed the last few yards to where my car was parked. I was so cold I couldn’t get my hands free from the paddle (possibly because my fingers were panic-welded into the aluminum shaft). Somehow I finally struggled out of the canoe, a cartoon caricature of hypothermia, staggered to the car, somehow got it started and turned the heater to full wintertime power and began to defrost.

It was the end of my obsession with kayaking and I loaded the thing on top of the car, tied it down and have never used it again except as a potential home for possums.

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  • Blog
  • July 8th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

North Korea and Russia are playing our mentally damaged buffoon president like a badly tuned banjo and the Middle East as usual is rife with seemingly unsolvable strife, and, for all we know, an undetected comet is bearing down on the planet and who knows what other catastrophes await the commander-in-chief’s urgent attention.

So how does the citrus tinged clown Prince of anti-democracy solve these looming situations?
Why, he goes golfing.

Golf is not considered a life-threatening sport on the order, say, of bull riding or NASCAR racing. But that’s discounting the way I played it for a couple of dissociative years.

I was manic about the game which was enough of a mental health risk without the physical trauma. “Mania” is not too strong a word to describe my obsession. If I were Catholic I would go to the confessional and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have golfed.”

There are no golf courses in Heaven. It is a cruel promise of the Devil that when a golfer dies he goes to Innesbruck. Instead there are numerous tees in Hell where, for eternity, sinning golfers are fated to hit drives that alternately shank into a rough inhabited by water moccasins and spiders, or into mephitic water hazards. There are putts that hang on the rim of the cup and tee shots that you barely tick and the demons and imps howl and point at you as the ball dribbles 20 yards down the fairway and the girl of your dreams looks at you as if you had vomited on her shoes.

W.C. Fields’ famous golf lesson skit where he growls, “Stand clear and keep your head down,” would be good advice for anyone contemplating committing golf. Golf courses are as omnipresent as political corruption and potentially just as destructive. I was consumed by the sport for several years before I came to my senses and underwent a curing process that reminded me of Frank Sinatra withdrawing from heroin addiction in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

My father had been a golfer in Chicago, but we moved to a town of 250 non-golfers and area golf courses were as rare as Isod shirts among the soybean farmers, so he gave his clubs to a nephew by marriage. Then I became a sports editor and was exposed to golf, an event like being exposed to plague.

“You mean you don’t play golf!” exclaimed Gary Filbert, the basketball coach at Mexico High School. Gary doubled as golf coach. How could I possibly cover his team if I didn’t understand the sport? He didn’t understand, nor did I, that golf, like most sports, requires athletic ability. Coaches had it or they wouldn’t be coaches. There was no such prerequisite for a sports editor–working cheap was far more important.

The various coaches played together at the local public course and it would be a chance for me to hang out with my sports page contacts, be one of the guys. But I needed clubs and buying a new set was out of the question. With two young children, a young wife and a fledgling bank account, golf clubs were far down on my list of Things We Really Need.

I pleaded with my father to reclaim his clubs and he asked for them from the nephew who returned them with ill grace. The clubs were an assortment from the Bobby Jones era, not exactly state-of-the-art. A couple were wood-shafted.

But it didn’t matter. They were golf clubs. I haunted weekend estate sales for months, filling the gaps in my golf bag with second hand clubs. It never occurred to me that there seemed to be an unconscionable number of beat-up old clubs for sale. If golf was indispensable to a complete life, why were so many golfers getting rid of their clubs? Some clubs showed evidence of having been pounded against hard objects–not golf balls, but perhaps a nearby tree. That this indicated a violent dissatisfaction with the game also never occurred to me.

I practiced putting into tipped-over water glasses on the living room rug while Marty occasionally paused to watch with a bemused look. She had seen me go through agony trying to tie fishing flies (and the family dog, a multi-colored collie, suffered too from being a repository of raw materials).

Now I was stuck in another obsession and she sighed and decided, with endless patience, to ride it out. Golf would come to be a source of marital friction that in some testier folks would have led directly to the divorce court. Only Marty’s uncanny forbearance got us through the several years when golf consumed me.

The public course in Mexico was that aberration, a sand green course. The greens, instead of being meticulously-maintained grass were sand. There was no roll. You pitched onto the “green” and the ball instantly stopped, as it would in a sand trap. There were no traps–what was the point when the greens were traps? Once on the green, you measured distance to the pin with a string attached to the flag pole and swung your ball around to a putting lane filled with oily sand (the oil allowed the sand to pack hard enough to allow a rolling putt).

It was a goofy way to end a given hole, but far less expensive than grass greens. Since I was playing on the cheap, might as well carry penuriousness to its conclusion. There was a local grass green country club, but given my meager newspaper salary we were as far from membership there as we were from membership in the French Foreign Legion.

Once I played the grass green course in Marty’s home town, Macon. By then I had developed my trademark drive, known as The Mystery Ball. I didn’t know if it would be a straight shot down the fairway (rare), a hook or a slice (common). Most golfers have a given fault that they can work on, but when you never know from shot to shot where the ball will decide to go it’s tough to develop control.

The ninth tee on the Macon course parallels U.S. Highway 36, a busy route. I was far above the highway (the course is hilly and the ninth tee was perhaps the highest point on the course). I teed up, took my stance which much resembled a person getting ready to projectile vomit, and whacked my shot. The ball rose higher and higher, began to curve ever more to the right, off the fairway, over the low trees and down to the highway.

It hit just in front of a speeding car, which fishtailed slightly as the driver slammed on his brakes. The ball ricocheted off the pavement and was gone before the driver had a chance to identify the unidentified flying object. And I was gone before he had a chance to sort it out, storm into the clubhouse to look for the author of his near miss.

A few months later I hit a line drive while trying to blast out of a sand trap and nearly crippled a lawyer. He did not sue, recognizing you can’t squeeze blood out of a golf ball, but he limped off the course and would not play with me again.

So far I had threatened the life of a couple of fellow humans. It only remained for me to put myself in jeopardy. That was not long in coming. Tagalong was a developing course near my mother’s home town, Birchwood, Wisconsin. Frank Stout, a lumber baron, built Tagalong between 1916-1919 as a playground for him and his guests. It was supposed to duplicate St. Andrews in Scotland.

After Stout’s death the place fell into disrepair and the nine-hole golf course had become an extended pasture for dairy cows. The bent grass greens, supposedly imported as sod from Scotland, had given way to clover and pasture grasses.

Then a resort development outfit began to resurrect the old golf course. The fairways still contained cows, but aside from the occasional fecal time bomb, they were in good shape. The greens were mostly clover, but had flags and were reasonably level. The place wasn’t open for business and I probably was trespassing, but there was no caretaker security or workers, nobody but me and my anachronistic golf bag.

Red Cedar Lake is adjacent to the first fairway. I know because the first drive I hit began its long journey straight down the fairway, then like a lefthander’s curve ball began to slice, over the bankside trees and far out into the lake, where it splashed down like a misdirected space capsule.

I invited Marty to walk around with me and perhaps she envisioned it as a pleasant walk in a sylvan setting, but she soon found that it was like being an unwilling member of the Manson Gang. Golf taught me to swear with the inventiveness of a mule handler. It wasn’t so much the individual words, which everyone knows, but the creative verb and adjectival constructions which would have awed a Parris Island drill instructor.

Golf as it was developing in my life did not serve as a release from job stress or a challenge to my athletic ambitions. Rather, it had released a latent nasty temper. The inconsistencies of my game gnawed at me like intestinal wharf rats. Between gobbling Rolaids and swearing I threw my battered clubs after each drive that went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to. The Holsteins mooed apprehensively and trotted awkwardly in front of us, their pendulous bags swinging side to side. I laced another drive into the trees and snarled at Marty as if it were her fault. I knew I was being unreasonable and downright nasty, but couldn’t seem to help myself.

Marty stuck it out for a couple more holes but my near constant stream of verbal abuse finally exhausted her patience. “Maybe the cows can put up with it, but I can’t,” she said. She hiked toward the car to wait and perhaps contemplate a life in which I did not play a part. Fuming, I teed up and tried to unleash my fury on the little white ball.

It was a solid hit that screamed off the tee, low and slicing, the kind of shot that normally rises as it curves and becomes a 200-yard plus drive into the deep rough. But this one centered a tree trunk about 20 yards to one side of the tee and rebounded with the velocity of a rifle bullet. I both felt and heard it whisper past my ear. If it had hit me between the eyes where my brain allegedly resided it would have killed me.

The ball skipped up the hill behind me and came to rest about where the present day Tagalong Clubhouse is. There were a dozen or so cowpies where the dairy herd had been sheltering from the sun. The ball gleamed amid their dank presence. It seemed prophetic.

I sat heavily, my legs weak, and took a shuddery breath. It was time to hang up the battered old clubs and find some other obsession–like defusing old land mines.

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  • Blog
  • July 2nd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It’s been many years since suffocating summer nights in Montgomery Alabama, sitting on a rickety couch in a small room in Archie and Lou McKay’s house listening to opera over their treasured record player, drinking Jax Beer and learning about the world of opera.

Now it is a suffocating night in mid-Missouri more than 60 years later, and I am on an aisle seat in a restored old theater in Columbia Missouri, listening to live opera, La Boheme, performed by the University of Missouri music department and the Missouri Symphony Orchestra. Not Bjoerling and Roberta Peters but pretty damn good. In fact, outstanding, because live performance always trumps recorded.

I have a treasure trove of recorded opera. Some are highlights from favorite operas, others are complete boxed sets of favorite operas, some are on compact discs others on videotape, most on 33 RPM long playing records. Years ago on a grouse hunting trip in Minnesota I took a lunch break in town and stopped by a knickknack store where I stumbled on a stash of boxed complete operas for about two bucks each. No doubt they still would be there if I hadn’t pounced on them like a house cat on a mouse, Pine River not exactly being a hotbed of operatic fanatics, and I scarfed up the entire collection.

The magic still is there— opera became for me in that stifling hot summer in Montgomery an escape into a magic world of music that never has quite left me, despite sidetracks into folk, bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, early rock ‘n roll, and even an exploratory toe dipping into some of the more advanced wailing of drugged out rockers. But opera over the decades has retained a tenacious grip on my musical sensibilities. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart, and apprentice member of the peanut gallery whose appreciation is for the romance language composers. I’ve never developed an interest or affection for the German composers. Somehow even the name Brunhilda lacks the lyrical sound of a someone named Violeta, not to mention the music she sings.

Opera has a been around for centuries, since the first musician got the idea of turning spoken theater into music and adding song and dance to staged presentations even to the dramatic world of Shakespeare. No composers since have completely abandoned the idea of musical drama— there even is an opera about Richard M Nixon, which seems like some sort of cosmic musical joke. For me, I’ll stick to Giuseppe Verdi and, as it was on that wonderful night in Columbia, Giacomo Puccini and his tragic tale of the doomed seamstress and her heartbroken poet lover Rodolfo, a couple of Parisian proto-hippies living hand to mouth in the closing days of the 19th century.

When Rodolfo clutched Mimi’s hand and sang (in Italian, but thanks to supertitles, translated into English) “your tiny hand is cold” I got tears in my eyes, not because the soap opera plot is so moving, but because the memories of nights listening to Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters, and so many others now gone legendary opera stars made Jax beer taste like champagne. It overwhelmed me.

Arch McKay is dead, shotgunned in a parking lot in Mobile, Alabama in an apparent Dixie Mafia mob hit, and his grieving widow, Lou, died several years ago. Puccini, likewise, also died many years ago—possibly the first and maybe only opera composer ever to die of lung cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. But, unlike Archie and Lou, his music will live forever—as long as there is such a thing as music, and as long as there are people like me who cherish the idea and the performance of opera.

I still get all misty when I hear the slave chorus from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, always remembering the possibly apocryphal story of how grieving Italians spontaneously burst into singing it as his funeral procession wound through the streets of Milan Italy.

The legend is that, at the time, northern Italy was occupied by Austria and needless to say the Italians weren’t happy about it. Austrians, being a Germanic and irksome occupying type, suppressed any sort of subversive commentary by the Italians, but the Italians adopted Verdi’s slave chorus from Nabucco as an unofficial national anthem. The opera tells about the enslavement of Hebrews by Babylon, singing of their longing to be free and to return to their homeland — it’s in the Bible and you can read about it there (Nabucco in the Bible is Nebuchadnezzar king of the Babylonians).

Verdi was the most revered Italian of his time, which was long, and when he died at 87, some 41 years after the debut of Nabucco, his funeral cortege wound through the streets of Milan which were lined by an estimated 10,000 people who spontaneously began to sing the chorus from Nabucco. The Austrians, more attuned to the Hitlerian arias of Richard Wagner, no doubt missed the nationalistic symbolism of the Italian tribute to their revered composer.

Or, so the story goes— whether it’s true or not it’s a story worthy of inclusion as a dramatic act in a Verdi opera. Too bad the old man wasn’t alive to compose yet another timeless musical drama. The truth is that Verdi was buried in Milan and a chorus of more than 800, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, sang the Nabucco chorus for what was reported to be an audience of more than 300,000–possibly that included those thousands reported to have been lining the streets as the funeral procession passed by.

My infatuation with opera actually predates those hot nights in Montgomery cradling a bottle of Jax Beer and listening to Jussi Bjoerling (sometimes we drank Dixie Beer, this being the first capital of the Confederacy). Anyway, when I was incarcerated for six months at Fort Bliss, Texas, as a shavetail lieutenant, I went to see the film version of Don Giovanni with a beer drinking buddy who outranked me— he was a first lieutenant and therefore I felt a certain military obligation to go with him when he suggested seeing an opera movie.

Clyde loved beer as much as I did and once turned away a pair of Mormon missionaries when they knocked on his door early on a Sunday morning when he had a hangover. Clyde was a Jack Mormon so that transgression probably meant that he would suffer eternal damnation, chewed on by a swarm of locusts, but for whatever reason he wanted to see Mozart and so we went to the movie. At that time of life I was more in tune with Howling Wolf than with Wolfgang, but there was something compelling in the timeless story of the damned degenerate cursed and dragged to hell by the ghost statue of an outraged father.

And to go back even further in my love affair with opera, I was desperately in love at the age of seven with both Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, two movie stars who were not only lovely to look at but could sing like the angels with their Metropolitan Opera quality voices. But I forsook Jane and Kathryn later on in life in favor of the bluegrass tenor of Bill Monroe and the country bass of Tex Ritter—until I got that fateful job at the Montgomery Alabama Journal and hooked up with Archie McKay and his lovely blind wife Lou.

The popular perception of opera by most people these days is summed up in a phrase attributed to Texas Red Raiders sports information director Ralph Carpenter who said when Texas A and M rallied for a tie late in a tournament game “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While it’s true that historically many leading opera performers were less then lean, today many if not most of the stars of opera look the parts they are singing— sopranos who not only can soar above the clouds with their voices but also can melt your toenails with their looks. And many of the guys are, in the words of female audience members “hunks.” Even given the beefiness of some legendary opera singers, what would the history of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific have been without the rendition of “some enchanted evening” by chunky opera basso Ezio Pinza? A song title which, by the way, pretty well sums up the effect of a well performed opera.

And if there seems to be incongruence in the sight of two candidates for Jenny Craig singing a love duet, I can counter with the memory of a performance of Rigoletto by the traveling company of the New York City Opera which featured a sexual encounter between the ever horny Duke of Mantua and the equally seductive sister of the evil villain Sparafucile, the beautiful Maddelena. I well recall the two of them rolling around on a bed in near X-rated ecstasy. Made for a memorable evening and the singing was gorgeous.

Recently I watched a video of a lovely coloratura singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in a low cut gown that threatened to add a couple of dimensions to her performance possibly not intended by Donizetti. Eat your heart out, Janet Jackson.

If any one incident sums up the impact that opera has had on me over the many years, it happened some years back when Leontyne Price gave her final performance for the Metropolitan Opera. It was recorded on PBS and I watched as she, in the role of Aida, sang oh Patria Mia (my dear country). The role is that of an Ethiopian slave to the Egyptians, loved by the Egyptian military commander. Aida is consumed with longing for her homeland, but also torn because of her love for an enemy. But the conflict in her heart on that night of sorrow for Aida went far beyond the intent of Verdi when he wrote the part— he didn’t know it but he was writing it more than a century earlier specifically for Leontyne Price on her farewell night.

Ms. Price will go down in operatic history as among the finest sopranos ever to sing anywhere and not only, with her moving song of longing for her homeland, did she illuminate the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, she illuminated the tragedy of African slaves in our own terrible history— Ms. Price is an African-American. No one else could have sung that role so heartrendingly and with such conviction. There surely must have been in her mind as she sang not just the words or the feeling that Giuseppe Verdi had put into the aria, but also the emotion of centuries of oppression and heartbreak suffered by her race.

The tears running down my face were not only in appreciation for her peerless singing, but also in shame for my race.

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  • Blog
  • June 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have an image problem talking among a group of trout anglers. I grew up in Dalton, in Chariton County, Missouri, where a sport fish was a carp and a trash fish was any one you couldn’t catch. The only time I heard the word “trout” was in conjunction with “trout lines” which I found out actually were trot lines and had nothing to do with salmonids.

In fact, I thought salmonella was the study of cold water fishes until I started hanging around with my late best friend Spence Turner. Fly fishing always appeared to us kids as resembling a man fighting off yellowjackets. But I began fly fishing as a young adult and discovered that it is composed largely of esoteric knots. There are blood knots, nail knots and my specialty, the wind knot.

After a serious skirmish with the Boy Scouts, I realized that knots and me were never meant to be. The Outdoor Writers Association used to have a knot tying contest at its annual conference. It was sponsored by Trilene. They gave you a couple of pieces of Trilene and invited you to tie your favorite knot in 20 seconds. My favorite knot was actually the only one I knew with any certainty and that was a square knot, something that most kids learn at least by the second grade.

After my 20 seconds they hooked the mono up to a machine and started pulling. The winner was the one who registered the highest poundage before the line broke. I entered twice and both times the line did not break….because the knot slipped free within the first turn of their machine. I got the impression the second time that the Trilene folks would rather not have me come back.

The first time I encountered the wind knot was on the Brule River in northern Wisconsin. I was fishing with a guide who ran a fly fishing shop and he was clearly gritting his teeth. “You just had a hit!” he snarled. “The line shot at least six inches! Set the hook!”

By the time we got to the takeout the hook had become the “damn hook.” And he also cried in anguish, “You’re tying wind knots!” I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to tie a complex knot in the middle of the air, but he didn’t see it that way.

My first fly rod was leaning against a forgotten counter in a store that was going out of business. I think the business was a buggy whip factory. This thing was bamboo and I thought I’d made a buy. I have read books by legendary fly fisherman and they all seem to use bamboo rods. He I squinted along it and saw several curves that didn’t seem to be there because of superior engineering, but I figured what the heck, for four bucks I could forgive a few quirks.

Well, it was like casting kite string with a CB antenna. Partly it was because I didn’t have the idea of fly fishing down right. I was a refugee from spin casting—actually I began fishing life with a casting rod and reel and 20 pound test nylon line throwing plugs that were bigger than most of the fish in the lake. I still figured you cast the lure, not the fly, so I used such delicate fly fishing terminal tackle as a one-sixteenth ounce jig.

Picking it off the water was like dredging for alligators and it flew through the air like a .22 caliber bullet. It took just one shot upside the head to get my attention and I vowed never again to stand in the way of one of my own casts. I learned a technique that I named “hurl and duck” which I still use to this day. Visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame on the river with a fly rod.

You all know about “matching the hatch.” The first time I heard the phrase I thought they said, “Down the hatch” and I said, “I’ll drink to that!” Spence Turner was a man of infinite patience and tolerance. He’d have had to be to have invited me on a trout fishing trip to the Yellowstone area. He dropped names like Madison and Firehole and Henry’s Fork. The only Henry’s fork I knew was owned by a guy named Hank who used it to pitch manure and eat barbecue (actually, he used two different forks).

I checked the catalogs to see what it would take to outfit me like a real fly fisherman. There was a shirt with a fly pattern embroidered on the pocket for only fifty bucks. I looked in vain for the Jolly Green Giant kernel of corn emblem or at the very least a piece of foam rubber soaked in cheese juice that would represent the lures that I equated with trout fishing.

Finally I donned my ratty jeans and J.C. Penny shirt, scraped the dried mud off the butt of the fly rod (I’d been bank line fishing for catfish with it) and off we went. I knew we were in trouble when we sauntered into a West Yellowstone fly shop and heard the proprietor talking to a customer in a language which either indicated they were using the Latin names of aquatic insects or celebrating a Mass.

It’s one thing to say, “Old chap, I usually fish the No. 4 Hexagenia limbata, but I sense perhaps something a bit more delicate would be appropriate. Pray give me the benefit of your longtime local expertise.” It’s another to show the guy a tattered bug-eyed popper and say, “This here’s what we use for perch back home. Y’all got anything like it fer trouts?”

We left the store with me clutching a little paper sack of flies that weighed perhaps a tenth of an ounce and considering what I paid for them were about three times as valuable as high grade diamonds.

I found that trout on the Firehole were taking something so tiny that the smallest fly I had looked like a road-killed warthog by contrast. I can’t imagine why a fish eats something so small that it takes more calories to eat that there are in it. Then Spence got us a float on the Madison where he said the fishing was so easy even I could do it. Don’t you just love it when someone says something is so easy that “even you could do it”?

I was expecting another No. 55 size Trico, but the guide dragged out a big, ugly bug with rubber legs. It looked like what scuttles off into the kitchen cabinets when you switch on the light real fast.

And then it happened. There was a smashing strike, throbbing rod, line hissing through the water just like a page out of an Ernest Schwiebert book. I worried about my backing, mainly because I didn’t have any. . But I played the fish masterfully and everyone in the boat was openmouthed….one guy was asleep and the other guy was yawning.

I lifted my fish with a vibrant cry of triumph. ‘Huge brown?” I asked. “Trophy rainbow?”
The guide looked at it. ‘It’s a damned old whitefish,” he snarled in disgust. I looked at the bronze fish with its downturned mouth. It looked almost exactly like a good ol’ Missouri Ozark redhorse sucker.

It was just like being at home. You can take the boy out of the country….but you can’t make a trout fisherman out of him. It’s not that I don’t trout fish. Spence could have told you that I do it with great earnestness, though not with great success. Spence was from real trout country where the fish have their babies right in the stream instead of in a hatchery pool. My mother was from Spence’s home country, northwest Wisconsin, and I got started trout fishing up there. Once I went down the Brule River at night, fishing for big brown trout. It was both the most exciting and disappointing trout trip I ever took.

Dark as the inside of a Labrador retriever. Soft July breeze suffing through the spruce and fir trees. No traffic sounds, only the gurgle of the unseen Bois Brule and the pop of a cook fire.
My guide was cooking greasy, indigestible, delectable pan fries while we waited for night. The Brule is Wisconsin’s crown jewel trout stream. It gathers in miles of peat bogs, runs narrow and still with only faint swirls to show its current. Then it picks up speed as it senses lake Superior. Hall’s Rapids winds between a couple of rock walls that can whack an unwary canoeist and wake him out of the nine previous quiet miles.

Once I followed the canoeing guide book which told me to look out for a brown cabin so I wouldn’t stray into May’s Ledges, a Class Four rapids. I rounded a bend and was sucked into a series of roaring, frightening drops before I could react.

They’d painted the damn cabin!

The Brule is called the river of presidents because several fished there, but also Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and others sampled it. Calvin Coolidge, another comic actor, vacationed there while he was president. Mr. Coolidge ticked off the nation’s anglers when he was quoted as saying fishing was for old men and boys. That went over like a can of nightcrawlers at a Trout Unlimited banquet.

His advisors told Mr. Coolidge he’d better take up fishing and quick. So he did…with worms. Fly anglers were enraged. The man known as Silent Cal must have wondered how someone who never said anything could get in trouble so much for shooting off his mouth. Well, Mr. Coolidge finally recognized which way the wind was blowing and got himself a fly rod.

A fellow Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was unimpressed. He said, “President Coolidge apparently had not fished before election. Being a fundamentalist in religion, economics and fishing, he began his fish career for common trout with worms. Ten million fly fishermen at once evidenced disturbed minds. Then Mr. Coolidge took to a fly. He gave the Secret Service guards great excitement in dodging his back cast and rescuing flies from trees.”

By the time Silent Cal got to the Brule he had become so accomplished an angler that he bragged to game wardens at Cedar Island Lodge that he had caught 26 trout. Problem was the limit was 25. A local newspaperman commented, “Not a single word was spoken for several minutes by newspapermen or conservation officers assigned to the president’s security. They stood with bowed heads and all, including the president, appeared to be staring at their shoelaces.” Not surprisingly the president wasn’t ticketed for over the limit.

The first presidential visitor to the Brule was Ulysses Grant in the 1870s. Grover Cleveland did it in the 1880s and then came Coolidge in 1928. Herbert Hoover fished there as a senator and Dwight Eisenhower as a general. Ike’s guide wrote that there were no guards when he drove to the lodge to meet the general. “The only sign of life I encountered was an old male raccoon waddling down the road with his mate,” he wrote.

Ike’s fishing was featured in a 1955 outdoor magazine and they featured his recipe for “Trout Eisenhower” which brings on arteriosclerosis just by reading it. Chunk a pound of bacon and fry it over a hot bed of coals, remove the bacon and drain, mix bacon drippings with a half pound of butter melted in a second frying pan, pouring from skillet to skillet. Shake cleaned trout in a paper bag containing cornmeal, salt and pepper and lay fish in the butter/bacon fat to cook.”

My God, no wonder Mr. Eisenhower died of a heart attack!

I didn’t have any interest in politics that July night and no one was trying to make me run for office, but I did have an interest in the huge brown trout on the Brule. My guide and I were sipping bourbon mixed with springwater from the peat bogs which has a smoky quality to it that turns bourbon into something noble.

John soaked a huge hair mouse in the stream while we waited. There is no subtlety about night fishing for brown trout. You pick the darkest night ever created, tie three feet of 10-pound monofiliment to the end of the fly line, and the hair mouse on the other end. You blind cast and if you hear something that sounds like someone punted a yearling heifer into the river, you set the hook.

Finally we loaded into John’s canoe. It was so dark that I couldn’t see him in the stern. I would no more go down a river at night than I would drive after dark on a freeway without lights. But John knew the Brule. He’d learned a paddle trick from an old river guide. He sculled with two paddles with the shafts under his armpits. At the top of a riffle he’d dig the blades into the gravel and hold the canoe while I fished out of the bow.

At the first riffle he said, “There’s a race coming in here. Cast out at 4 o’clock and give the mouse a swimming action. Follow it with the tip of your rod. You can’t tell, but it’s swinging with the current.” I twitched the rod tip and tried to imagine how the mouse must be angling across the face of the feeder stream. There was a sloshing sound and John shouted, “Hit ‘im!”

I set the hook and felt the fish surge. There were three or four powerful surges and then the mouse came free and swished back and bounced off my chest. I recited an old Anglo-Saxon benediction. John said, “That’s okay—there’ll be more.”

And there were. The next hit was like what a big old largemouth bass does in the springtime. The trout went down the rapids so fast that all I could do was hang on. It was like hooking a passing Peterbilt. Then the line went slack again. By now it was after midnight and cold. But still the fish hit, always with that awesome splash in the black night. And still I couldn’t hold them.

Finally I closed my hand over the mouse after perhaps eight or nine hard strikes….and felt the hook broken off just behind the barb. I could hook them, but the moment they got the right angle they came loose.

The hook came from Herter’s, the Minnesota outdoor store, which possibly explains why Herter’s is out of business today. John didn’t mean to but he rubbed salt in my wound by saying it was the best fishing night on the river that year. It was 3 a.m. before I slid under the covers, cold, fishless and exhausted. I dreamed fitfully about noisy strikes and leaping trout and a hair mouse as big as something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

I have no photos of the big fish on the Brule, nothing really to show for the long night.

Nothing, that is, except a deer hair mouse that hangs over my desk on the broken bend of a Herter’s hook……

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  • Blog
  • June 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

When Jeff Sessions the grinning troll stands at the podium and says that the Bible mandates that it’s all right for United States immigration enforcement agents to forcibly drag children in diapers away from their parents and sequester them in a converted Walmart store where their prison wardens are forbidden to touch them no matter how hard they weep for their parents, even the most hardened heart has to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Sessions is ugly and what he spouts as justification for the actions of our government is beyond ugly- it is cruelty personified by a racist and authoritarian regime that more closely represents the early days of Adolf Hitler than it does anything we have suffered in our 250 years of history as a Republic.

This demon-eared twerp, afterbirth from the most egregious days of Southern segregation, is a visible symbol of the innately cruel and uncaring person who is his bloated boss, Donald J Trump, known in this household as the biggest political mistake in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, in too many American households the knowledge has not yet seeped in that this is an evil, sociopathic monster who has no normal human characteristics.

He acknowledges none of the wrongs he is perpetrating and maintains that the only right is what he wants. He shows it every day in every way. He fawns over those ruthless despots of other regimes and brags that he wants “his” subjects to bow to him as those automatons in North Korea do to their porky despotic ruler. I have news for him. We are not subjects, asshole, we are citizens of a Republic where supposedly we wisely choose our leaders.

The United States often has blotted its copybook over the 2 ½ centuries of its existence but seldom have we gone as far against the democratic grain as we now are doing. Only with slave families did we disrupt the household and separate children from their parents. Even as we interned Japanese-American families during World War II—an unpardonable offense— we allowed families to stay together. Even on the long march where the Cherokee Indians were forcibly evicted from their Carolina homeland and were forced hundreds of miles to a desolate reservation in Oklahoma territory , they went as families. Even as we similarly evicted other Native Americans from their ancestral lands to often inhospitable reservations, they retained their family identities. Even as we turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and sent them back to be killed in concentration camps, they went as families.

Those were egregious acts of cruelty which should forever stand as examples of national shame and for which we can never make total amends. The best we can do is to remember these acts of violence against humanity and try not to repeat them. But, unfortunately, we not only are repeating the worst of them right now, we aren’t even making a good attempt to stop it before it gets any worse.

Now the Trumpites seize families at our country’s southern border, separate parents and their children, send the parents to prison, and send the children to tent cities in the desert under blazing temperatures, wondering how they are now better off than they were when endemic death and desolation in their home countries forced them to head North to what they believed would be a better life.

We have a craven Republican Congress whose most notable achievement is to kowtow to Trump’s every un-American (and demented) demand and a feeble Democrat opposition party so ineffectual as to make the word “opposition” meaningless. Shovel in the Supreme Court with a conservative five to four majority which is agreeable to approve state laws designed to deprive legitimate voters from their right to cast a ballot.

Renowned actor Robert De Niro summed up what should be universal outrage when he dropped an F bomb on Trump at the Tony awards show. He got a standing ovation. But the problem is that no matter how little free speech remains (and if Trump has his way there won’t be any before long) De Niro’s one finger salute to Trump may prompt a negative reaction. First of all it will just make the Trumpites even more fiercely dedicated to dismantling civil society than they already are, and secondly it prompts even more coverage of the outrageous lies that Trump routinely tells— and it’s an unfortunate truism that the more you lie about something the more it becomes believed by the gullible.

The whole Trump presidency is a fabric of lies, routinely documented by the media. But he counters by calling reported and proved falsehoods “fake news” and stoutly maintains that the news media is the greatest enemy of the United States, a statement which on its face is so outrageous that anyone who believes it, or endorses it, is almost by definition an enemy himself or herself of all that we purport to stand for.

“If you’re smuggling a child then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably as required by law,” said Jeff Sessions that freaky little creep that masquerades as the Attorney. General of the United States. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” This sleazy little moron who looks remarkably like Alfred E Neuman the half witted caricature from Mad Comics, can’t even speak grammatically.

Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly was touted as someone who might bring a voice of reason to today’s chaotic circus in the White House. Instead he has bought into the strategy of holding children hostage so that the Democrats will cave in and agree to build Trump’s stupid border wall in return for which the separated families might be reunited. I don’t hold out hope that the Democrats won’t cave in— humanitarian instinct may force them to, but it will be taxpayers who foot the bill for that moronic wall and for the Army of storm troopers who will be needed to maintain it.

Former first lady Laura Bush had this to say “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history.”

Those Trump voters of limited intelligence may conceivably remember that Laura Bush is married to George W. Bush, a Republican president and not one of those Democrats whom Trump blames for the family separation crisis on our southern border. Parenthetically speaking, is there any Trump voter who is not of limited intelligence?

Another little factoid for those cretins who believe Trump’s lies: Trump attacked Germany’s immigration policies, claiming that crime is up in that country (because of immigration) when in fact crime is at a 25 year low. No wonder Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently fixed Trump with a glare which should have turned him in into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Ms. Merkel is only one leader of a number of countries who once were our staunch allies who now think that the United States is a beleaguered and staggering country run by a hapless clown.

In a six-week period, just over one month, nearly 2000 children have been separated from their parents by the immigration authorities. Nothing sums it up better than a photograph taken by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer John Moore. The photograph shows a two-year-old child crying helplessly as she looked up at her mother who was being searched by a US customs and border patrol agent. “I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself,” said Moore. Moments later the border cops put the child and mother into a van with a group of other undocumented migrants and took them to a processing center. No one knows whether the mother and child were separated, but given the continuing trend it’s a good bet they were.

Moore talked briefly with the mother who said she was from Honduras and had been traveling for a full month and was exhausted. Just the kind of helpless mother and child that Donald J Trump and his heartless followers enjoy picking on.

Cameras have been banned by the border Nazis so there’s no footage of the chain-link cages that the kids are been stuffed into but there is an audio recording where you can hear children rending your heart with sobs, calling for their mother and father amid which can be heard one of the ICE thugs commenting, “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What’s missing is a conductor.” That guy probably drowns kittens as a hobby, especially if they are the cherished pets of small children. Anyone who can listen to that recording without tearing up should be down on the border terrorizing infants.

Even Trump’s own First Lady, Melania, weighed in on the zero-tolerance policy of her awful husband, the serial Abuser in Chief. In a tepid comment on the family separation she said through her communications director Stephanie Griffin, “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart. Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Notice that is not a direct quote from Melania Trump but instead comes from the same office that has spawned such luminaries as Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hardly a biting commentary on the order of the scathing one delivered by Laura Bush— more a timid way to say the same thing that the creepy wizened gnome Sessions said.

By contrast, several other past first ladies have echoed the sharp indignation that should be inflaming every citizen of this country. Michelle Obama retweeted Laura Bush’s fiery outrage, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter also declared their ire and said what should be said by anyone with an ounce of compassion. These women speak for every woman in the country and especially they speak for the mothers of those seeking asylum in this country who can’t speak for themselves.

Perhaps this parade of outraged first ladies is a symbol of what will bring an end to what now is the most reprehensible act of cowardice and cruelty yet devised by Donald Trump and his heartless hit squad. These angered eminent women echo the famous phrase from Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network who implored people to stick their heads out the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If the nation’s women voters and younger voters turn out in record numbers in November they are more than adequate
to oust the cowardly Republican majority from the House and Senate and bring enough pressure to bear on the many investigations into the Trump administration’s misdeeds that, one would hope, Donald J Trump would be forced to get the hell out of the White House and out of our lives forever.

And he can take the insipid Melania with him.

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