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  • April 12th, 2019

IT’S A ROUGH LIFE

By Joel M. Vance

Back when I was still a kid (I had just become eligible for Medicare which, I thought I was going to need after that girl beat me half to death in a one-on-one basketball game—but more about that later), we poured a concrete basketball court and I carefully inscribed a high school distance three point arc, using a long string and a piece of chalk to mark the distance.

 

Then I carefully painted a black semi circle, a free-throw circle and free-throw line, and lanes. We were ready for homegrown basketball. Now, about that girl— it was a one-on-one challenge between me, and Charlotte Overby, a dear friend who as it turned out not only was athletic (and with the enviable and unusual guitar ability to play and sing a wonderful version of “Rocky Raccoon”) but who also was over infused with competitive fire and physicality that would’ve done credit to Charles Barkley in his prime.

 

The occasion was a party at our place in the country featuring beer, barbecue, and basketball. A crowd of friends gathered in lawn chairs along the sideline of our homegrown court to watch a show down challenge between the two of us. I figured I had all the advantage, first of home court, and second of using my basketball. Not to mention what would prove to be misplaced confidence in my round ball ability.

 

How could, I foolishly asked myself, I possibly lose to a mere slip of a girl? Charlotte had been active in college sports (soccer or volleyball or something other than, as I remembered, basketball). I had, on the other hand, been an avid basketball wannabe since the 1950s, when I gained a reputation as one of the most outstanding benchwarmers on one of the best teams Keytesville High School ever fielded. Or do you court, instead of field, a basketball team?  Ever since those halcyon days when I spent countless hours gathering splinters, I have lusted after that magic moment when I would be in the spotlight, the star of the game.

 

I fantasized about that moment when the coach would insert me into a seemingly lost cause game only to see me catch fire with a flurry of quicksilver drives to the basket, reverse layups, even an improbable tip in (at 5 foot eight I did well to touch the bottom of the net with the tips of my fingers).

 

I played on a town team when I was the sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger. The team mostly was composed of local high school coaches, including Gary Filbert, who had played at the University of Missouri, and until he died at the age of 81 in 2011, still competing in senior basketball games.  Gary  had more athletic ability in his crib than I ever did, but his ability to keep sinking three pointers as an octogenarian gave me hope.

 

Once I did get into a game, drove for a layup, and was undercut by some yahoo from whatever team we were playing. Today it would be a technical foul, two shots, and the ball out. All I got was two shots along with a sprained right wrist where I landed. Nothing daunted, I shot both free throws with my left hand and made both of them. It was a glowing moment.

 

 I played endless one-on-one games against son, Andy, and always won, perfecting my crossover drive, my behind the back dribble and layup with the left hand, my pull-up jumper—I had it all until the moment came, as it must to every over the hill jock, that humiliating instant when he goes up with the unstoppable jumper and the kid, grown improbably tall, smashes it right back in his face.

 

Andy developed a fall away jumpshot, much like the vintage Karl Malone who still is the second all-time NBA scoring leader, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Andy’s shot was unstoppable, and along with his Bill Russell timing on blocking my shots threatened to put an end to my competitive basketball career. No, let’s be honest— it pretty much did put an end to my competitive basketball career. And if that weren’t enough humiliation, I joined the YMCA and played shirts/skins games, mostly with flabby, out of shape middle-aged men, sprinkled with a handful of teenagers. And then one evening I faked a drive, stepped back and shot a three pointer which traveled about 6 inches before some agile young punk slapped it back at me hard enough that, if my mouth had been wide open, I would’ve needed surgery to remove it from my tonsils.

 

Back in prehistoric days when I was playing what we called boys basketball in high school, there was a rumor that girls played what they called “girls basketball” but that was only a rumor around Keytesville High School. We didn’t have a girls team— we had girls who were cheerleaders for us heroic boys—well, for  the starters anyway. Little did I know that my wife to be, Martha Lou, was actually playing girls basketball at Macon High School nearly 100 miles distant from me. They had uniforms and everything!

 

Girls basketball at KHS was confined to school hours . Julia Gaw, a year behind me in high school, says “ I think we played in Phys Ed and know we never played an outside game. Just during Phys Ed. I loved it and wish we could have had a real team.” So the Keytesville girls never got to experience a packed gym on Friday night, crammed with ardent Tiger fans, the entire gym enveloped in a fog of sweaty farmers, a day short of their weekly bath.

 

But Julia’s classmate, Norma Bowen remembers more—that there actually was a girls’ basketball team at KHS.  “The class of ’53 was first after years of not having a team,” Norma says.  “After reviewing the pictures I have, the girls’ basketball team was made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors, totaling 13 in all.  Mary Pat, Becky Jo and yours truly were the seniors.  All I remember is that center line and that actual play was not fun.  We wanted to play like the boys!  With their game we knew the rules.  I do remember we played one or two home games but do not recall playing away from home. I don’t think too many came to see us and definitely not “standing room only.’  Also,  the games were at night.”

 

And Mary Pat said this, “When we started we played in white shorts and T-shirts.  We finally got our uniforms before the Year Book pictures came out.  We played before the boys’ game so we could get the crowd warmed up.” And I won’t touch that comment with the proverbial 10 foot pole.

 

It was true—girls did play basketball in the 1950s, but it bore as much relationship to today’s girls basketball as fifth grade red rag football does to Alabama’s Crimson Tide versus almost anyone. I vaguely knew that North of us in a foreign land called Iowa, girls played basketball according to rules that made no sense. There were six girls on each team, separated by the court’s centerline, three on defense and, on the other side of the line, three on offense.

 

Defensive players were forbidden from crossing the center line and God and the rules forbade that a player could dribble the length of the court as is done today both by those of the male and the female persuasion. Apparently the girls’ rules were formulated by antediluvian men who thought they were protecting womanhood from the ravages of physical activity. Maybe the theory was that full-court basketball would result in some sort of reproductive cataclysm, causing damage to a woman’s ability to do what she was supposed to in the 1950s which was to have babies, stay barefoot (minus Converse sneakers, and spend her days in the kitchen preparing meals for her man.

 

Iowa was the beating heart of girls’ basketball and was, along with Oklahoma, the last state to abandon those 1950s girls’ basketball rules in favor of full-court, five players per side, basketball, just like the guys. Ironically enough, the University of Iowa’s women’s basketball team, recently eliminated my University of Missouri women’s basketball team from the NCAA tournament.

 

The end of girls’ basketball as girls’ basketball began in 1958 when the Office of Civil Rights considered banning six on six round ball but it wasn’t for 37 years that the last game under those rules went into the record books. Texas abandoned six on six in 1978, Iowa in 1993 and Oklahoma in 1995. For the record also the last shot ever taken in a six on six game was by the Pucola, Iowa Indians in the AA state championship game. They beat previously unbeaten Indianola before a crowd of 6500 at the state fair arena in Des Moines. That is 6500 more screaming fans that ever turned out to see a Keytesville High School girls game.

 

Bring on those full-court five on five headbanging, boys rules, cutthroat games! The girls have been liberated. It’s women’s basketball from here on out, and don’t you forget it. That center court line (think glass ceiling) had been shattered and never again, except for the 10 second rule, would be a barrier for women.

 

I watched the 2019 game when Iowa eliminated Missouri on television (something not available when I was decorating the Keytesville High  bench) and saw players (when do girl basketball players become woman basketball players?) do things with the ball that I never dreamed of being able to do— sink three pointers like Larry Bird, drive to the basket like Steph Curry, rebound ferociously and overall play like…. Briefly harking back to that challenge game between me and Charlotte Overby….like Charlotte Overby. There were collisions, floor burns, players limping off court with tendons snapping like bubblegum—all the mayhem associated with big time men’s basketball. Women basketball players had not only been liberated, but had been turned into frightening adversaries, not shy about inflicting serious damage.  Clearly, Charlotte was well before her time, as I was soon to find out.

 

So now we were met on the field of battle, Charlotte and me. We flipped a coin to see who would get first possession and I won. There was no strategy to my game plan. I would do what I had done hundreds of times before when Andy was a wee lad and I could beat him with ease. Surely, if I could put the moves on a seven-year-old boy, I could go easy on a mature woman, beat her with a flurry of enviable roundball ballet, with baffling moves and delicate shots and retire, undefeated amid the adulation of the courtside audience.

 

I dribbled the ball a couple of times, faked right, crossed over to my left and intended to drive in for a left-handed layup, a move that I tried one time in high school, only to have our coach quickly pull me from the game, demanding, “What the hell do you think you’re doing— you can’t even make them right-handed. What makes you think you can make them shooting left-handed?”

 

This time surely would be better (“don’t call me Shirley”), given the weight of my years of experience and countless hours of practice on my own basketball court. Unaccountably I found myself without the basketball. Charlotte not only had stolen the ball, but had planted an elbow in my rib cage that felt as if someone had fungoed me with a Louisville Slugger, Willie Mays model. She also had whirled to the basket, laid in a soft shot off the backboard, and led me two-zip.

 

I had always thought that girls were equipped with two elbows, much like me and the other boys. But apparently, beneath that feminine framework, was a bone structure constructed of reinforcing rod. I very much wanted to rub what I suspected was a blossoming bruise, but male pride reared its ugly head and I took the ball for my turn and cravenly faked a drive and when Charlotte instantly blocked my path, I launched a desperation three point shot that somehow went down. Me, up three-two.

 

Much of the rest of the game is a blur but I do remember glancing to the sidelines to see if my fan base was cheering me on, only to find that they seem to be talking among themselves, busily opening new beers, posing for photographs of each other. Those who were paying attention seemed to be chanting, “go, Char!” And similar supportive exhortations that did not contain my name.

 

It came down to the final possession, score tied. By now the concept of male superiority in what was supposed to be a masculine endeavor had pretty well been destroyed. I was exhausted, bruised and only foolish pride kept me from conceding or inventing some feeble excuse for fleeing to the beer container for relief. It was my ball, one last chance to avoid the inevitable—watching that winning bucket, as Charlotte, fresh as the proverbial daisy, blew past me for the game ender.

 

Breathing like the bull, just before the toreador plants the fatal sword, I faked feebly as if I were going to drive for the basket. Charlotte, perhaps out of respect for her elder, especially one so clearly outclassed, relaxed and gave me an opening and I launched a prayer both Heavenward and at the basket. Perhaps that Presence above, in Her compassion heard my plea and had pity. The ball bounced around, dropped through the net, and I had won the great challenge.

 

“Great game, Char,” I wheezed. “Let’s get our guitars and play “’Rocky Raccoon.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • April 5th, 2019

THE GREAT MISSOURI LION HUNT

By Joel M. Vance

 

                Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim survived many adventures as they rafted down the Mississippi River, but Mr. Twain, even at his most fervid, couldn’t have dreamed up an encounter with African lions on a river island.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Had Huck and Jim landed their rude craft on an island off Mississippi County in the Missouri Bootheel, in January, 1932, they might have run headlong into the King of Beasts–really.  The 1932-33 Bootheel African lion hunt stands as the most bizarre episode in Missouri’s hunting history

 

                It was the Perfect Brainstorm of a wealthy St. Louis businessman with an obsession over big game hunting and the money to make it happen.  Denver Wright Sr. (one of his nine children was Junior) made billfolds, belts and other leather sundries at two plants, one in St. Louis; the other in Doniphan.

 

                When he wasn’t holding up the pants of male America he was afire with the intrigue, glamour and danger of Dark Africa in the days when the Great White Hunter ruled and African safaris captured the imagination of everyone.  Frank Buck brought ‘em back alive and Denver Wright brought ‘em back dead….or wanted to.  Although Wright would go on to hunt worldwide and bag nearly every species of big game animal, the Missouri lion hunt was his first foray into the figurative jungle after animals far bigger than the biggest native Show-Me wildlife and ones that theoretically could kill him as easily as he could kill them.

 

                Yes, they were real lions, the kind that introduce movies from Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and no, they aren’t native to Missouri.  The plan was this: acquire a pair of lions, release them in what wilds remained in the Bootheel and hunt them down, African safari-style, with gunbearers, beaters and all the accoutrements of an Hemingway-esque outing. 

 

               Wright started big game hunting in 1932, coincidental with his Keystone Kops outing on an island in the Mississippi  River.  He had hunted Missouri’s indigenous game and apparently a few that aren’t, like moose, but Africa was his dream and, at that time, an unattainable one.  ”You can’t hunt big game in Missouri, so I decided to supply my own quarry. Just sort of bringing Africa to the United States,”  Wright said.  Later in life Wright said, “Some people wonder why a man takes a gun, goes into a steaming jungle, wades around in water for weeks, gets chewed up by bugs, doesn’t eat and is generally miserable—just to outsmart an animal.  Well, I sometimes wonder why some men meander around a golf course all day trying to outsmart a golf ball.”  Over the next two decades he traveled the world in search of big game—from polar bears in the Arctic to charging Cape buffalo in Africa. Ultimately he would visit 82 countries, often hunting, and would average two such trips a year.

 

                Wright was one of five children, born in 1889 in Providence, Kentucky.  He apprenticed at 17 to a Cape Girardeau shoemaker—his introduction to leather—and went to St. Louis, spent some time as a news “butcher” (peddler of newspapers) on a train, went to Atlanta for a while, eloped with a 14-year-old girl in 1911 (with whom he would have nine children) and moved to St. Louis permanently in 1918.

 

                  Ultimately he would have two profitable leather operations.  The one in Doniphan employed 300 people, which undoubtedly made it the biggest employer in the area.  Famed tennis player Helen Wills Moody wore a Wright products sun visor when she won at Wimbledon.  Wright became a licensed pilot at 58 and owned his own plane.  He was a police commissioner, school director and a deputy game warden in the days before Missouri’s conservation program became professionally-oriented (that happened in 1936 with a citizen-driven Constitutional amendment).

 

                     The January, 1933, hunt was the second of two tries.  The first, in October of 1932, involved two female lions he bought from a circus (the whole thing reeks of circus, as a matter of fact).  Wright planned to release those in Mississippi County but the sheriff, Jesse Jackson, was less than charmed at the idea of live African lions roaming his county.

 

                     Here’s how Time magazine described the first attempt: “Into the Ozark foothills in a truck went Denver M. Wright one day last week. With him beside the two young lions he had bought from a circus for $75, were two friends, a barber and a plumber. Somewhere in the hills were his two sons, lost. Behind him, horrified, was the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood, where he had long been respected as a manufacturer and a member of the school board. All around him was hostility. In Mississippi County waited a sheriff with an insanity warrant. In Cape Girardeau County waited 800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there. Over the rough roads of Scott County bounced the truck, stopping now and then while Hunter Wright begged shelter at a farm house. Always there was only one bed. ‘It’s making me look like an inhuman ogre,’” cried he.

 

                         While Time’s story captures the innately ludicrous nature of the outing, it was at odds with other stories (the part about the sons being lost, for example).  As a matter of fact one son, Charles, was a willing participant in the second hunt and applied the coup de grace to the first lion the Wright team encountered.  And it’s doubtful that Wright’s home town, Brentwood, cared much one way or another as long as the lions were released more than 100 miles south.

 

                       The first hunt was even sillier than the second.  It involved two young lionesses, a chicken dinner and a lost opportunity.  The 10-month old lionesses apparently were far less enchanted than Wright with the idea of a get-together in the brush.  They cowered in their cage and, as a reporter put it, “sulked.”  Wright’s hunting party released the two lions on a small island near Commerce Oct. 16 and repaired to Commerce for a chicken dinner.  When the hunting party returned to the island, they found lion tracks overlain with boot prints.  It was an “uh-oh” moment which became more suspicious when they found gouts of blood.  “Maybe somebody was hurt here,” Wright said hopefully.

 

                      Something was—the two lions had been shot by a fellow named Walter Wise, one cat lying down, the other just getting to its feet. Wise used a submachine gun borrowed by sheriff’s deputy Tom Hodgkiss.  The two finally ‘fessed up and returned the defunct lionesses later in the day.   The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, having fun with the whole thing, wrote, “So, the lionesses, poor, beaten creatures bought by Wright from a broken-down circus for a $15 drayage fee, had taken it, in a manner of speaking, lying down.”  That should have ended the harebrained scheme, but Wright was nothing if not persistent.  He bought two mature male lions from a north Missouri wild animal farm and set his sights on January for the next try.

 

                      Wright’s original plan was to release the lions on 20,000 wooded acres south of East Prairie, but the local citizenry, especially law enforcement personnel, started playing “What if?”  Especially, what if the lions somehow evaded Wright’s guns and got hungry?  What if the first hearty meal they happened on was some farmer’s prize bull?  Or the farmer?  A reporter for the East Prairie Eagle said, “Wright has been maligned, praised, complimented and criticized for organizing the hunt.  On the one hand a sly desire to see him prosecuted has been entertained.  His motive has been questioned.  His sportsmanship has been attacked.”

 

                       That’s a fair summary of the reaction from St. Louis descending to the Bootheel, with the antipathy swelling the farther south the safari went.  According to Time Magazine, folks in Cape Girardeau County were as grumpy as those in Mississippi County, recruiting “800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there.”  Time had a wonderful, well, time with the story   “Newshawks asked Hunter Wright if his lionesses were real. “’Well,’” said he, “’they look like lions, and they roar like lions, and they eat like lions. I guess they’re just lions.’” 

 

                      The hunt was plagued from the outset with weather—it rained almost constantly and the road to the river turned to slop.  The mighty hunters wound up pushing their vehicles out of one bog after another and finally enlisted a sympathetic farmer to pull them with his tractor.  The unnamed shipbuilder who put together the boat that ferried them to the island hunting ground apparently had fashioned a craft much like the African Queen, fittingly enough.  “A discarded automobile engine furnished the power,” George Conrad Nagel, who would be Wright’s eager chronicler, wrote.  “A discarded dish pan served to hold in place the stove pipe projecting through the top and acted as insulation against the deck catching fire.”

 

                      So far all the safari lacked was Humphrey Bogart covered with leeches. 

 

                     Everyone pitched in to drag the 800 pounds of lion ashore in their cage.  Instead of evolving from the ridiculous to the sublime, it evolved from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous.  “The first night was terrible,” Nagel wrote.  Not because of the accommodations, but the sudden change from modern conveniences, comfortable beds, steam heat, to an army cot in a tent on an island in the Mississippi River on a rainy night in January—one must experience it to appreciate how it feels.”  And the lions, no doubt just as uncomfortable as the hunters, persisted in roaring periodically through the night.  No one got much sleep.  When the lions were released they plowed through a four-strand barbed wire fence as if it were kite string.  That somewhat alarmed the hunting party which had hoped to rely on the fence to keep them safe during the night.

 

                    So, armed guards spent much time shining their flashlights into the trees and jumping at every sound.  Persistent rain glistened on the trees, looking in the light from lanterns much like the glowing eyes of ferocious lions.  “Throughout the 34 hours following their release from their cage Friday afternoon,” reported the Post-Dispatch, they [the lions] appeared utterly incapable of living up to the standard expected of hunted lions.  They refused to leave the vicinity of the camp, they gamboled before the bewildered members of the party, they insisted on howling through the hours of darkness when Wright’s retinue was already hard put to it to find dry spots under tents that failed to ward off the drenching rain.”

 

                        At one point all the accounts agree that many of the unarmed members of the hunting party took to the trees, including the mayor of East Prairie.  It wasn’t as if the lions were clawing at the trunks of the trees…but you never know.

 

                       The “hunt” was almost anticlimactic.  The several accounts vary, agreeing only that the two lions wound up dead.  Nagel’s admiring account said, “Without warning or a moment’s notice he [the first lion] rushed forward directly at Wright, who was nearest to him.  Wright quickly dropped to one knee.  There was a shot.”  Wright winged the lion which fled, seriously wounded.  Wright’s son Charles “finished the lion with a well aimed shot in the head,” said Nagel

 

                    The Post-Dispatch was far less breathless.  “One of the animals, less willing than the other, was wounded when it arose from its recumbent position as Wright and his three riflemen got too close.  It was finished off by Wright’s 14-year-old son Charles who shot it through the head as it lay on the mud at the water’s edge, bleeding from two body wounds.”

 

                    That left one lion and in Nagel’s account it died in mid-air from simultaneous shots from the two Wrights as it sprang at boatman Indian Joe Putnam who was poking it with a long stick.  Considering that the hunters had been throwing rocks and sticks at the lions for two days, cornering them at the end of the island with no escape route except back through the hunters, it’s no wonder the last lion made a break for it. 

 

                      The P-D had it this way: “The other got on its feet after it had been prodded by one ‘Indian Joe,’ a member of the party, and was promptly dispatched by Wright, his son, Ted Bennett of Dorena, Mo., and John Cliffy of East Prairie, who riddled the animal with rifle fire.”  That account sounds more like the end of Bonnie and Clyde than Hemingway on safari.

 

                      Quickly after the second hunt an obvious fan, George Conrad Nagel, published “The True Story of America’s Strangest Safari,” a 15-page booklet (which today lists for $600 in the rare book world).  The booklet is complete with photos of Wright and all the major participants in the hunt.  On the back page is an advertisement for “The Lure of the Beast,” a movie “with sound effects” of the hunt which, according to the booklet is “being publicly shown in various Motion Picture Theatres.”  If so it has vanished into the dusty vaults of forgotten celluloid—a Google search comes up empty.  Perhaps somewhere in the holdings of a library, museum or other repository there is a copy of this priceless comedy—one can only hope it still exists.

 

                      Nagel’s booklet conveniently makes no mention of the Capone-style execution of the lionesses.  Nagel says he is not an apologist or defender of Wright, but he is: “Wright merely did the unusual and reaped the pioneer’s crop of adverse criticism.”  He compares Wright to Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, not to mention Abraham Lincoln, all sons of Kentucky as was Wright. 

 

                      Denver Wright died in March, 1975, secure in the knowledge that he had organized and carried out the only African lion hunt in the history of Missouri…and without a doubt the only one that ever will be held. 

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  • Blog
  • March 28th, 2019

NAP TIME

By Joel M. Vance

 

It was 1948 and my parents and I had just moved from Chicago to Dalton Missouri, a flyspeck even on Chariton County which was and is a flyspeck on the Midwest map. Going from one of the nation’s most populous cities to a town of 250 (or 249 when the town drunk was sequestered in the county jail  was culture shock of the first magnitude.

 

Few memories have survived those first days riding the school bus from Dalton to Keytesville, six miles away (although 30 miles on a long loop through the country), but one has endured painfully. It happened in the school gymnasium one night when some sadistic adult organized a boxing exhibition featuring eighth grade pugilists.

 

Heck, I knew all about boxing. I had heard Joe Louis’s title fights on the old upright Zenith radio in Chicago and knew about left jabs, uppercuts, and bobbing and weaving. Surely, even though I was scrawny, I could out quick some country bumpkin, land a few lightning jabs to the jaw, and have my hand held high by the referee. My euphoria lasted about 30 seconds because the country bumpkin apparently had not studied the pugilistic artistry of Gene Tunney and was, instead, a budding Jack Dempsey, the legendary Manassas Mauler who believed in beating opponents to a bloody pulp.

 

He pounded the snot out of me!

 

As memories go, it isn’t much except depressing, and the next couple of years before the 1940s came to an end were similarly forgettable. Possibly the most lasting memory of those two years was when our English teacher, a wizened old lady who had been teaching English since Chaucer was in elementary school, told us that a carousel, mentioned in a story we were reading, referred to a drunken bacchanalia. She pronounced it as carouse-el. The smartassed kid from Chicago raised his hand. “A carousel is a merry-go-round,” I said. Chaucer might have subscribed to her definition, but she didn’t subscribe to mine and she told me to shut up and be quiet. I refrained from pointing out that “shut up” and “be quiet” was redundant because by then even I was smart enough to realize that I was on what the other kids would have referred to as “Birdie’s shit list.”

 

Thus it was that I exited the eighth grade for high school and exited the 1940s for the decade which now, among the eight I’ve been around, is the most personally momentous. To sum it up, in the 1950s I traveled through high school, graduated, traveled through four years of college, graduated with a journalism degree, got my first salaried job, married, and became half of the parents of our first of five children. A whole lot of life experience to cram into 10 years.

 

I also spent six months active duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, learning to shoot antiquated antiaircraft guns at jet airplanes which were faster than the bullets we were supposed to launch at them. I had opted for six months active duty with six years in the reserves, as opposed to two years active duty, with four years reserve time and somehow among the graduates in ROTC (reserve officers training Corps) I got six months. The regular Army did not need troopers who were only going to be around for a short time so they taught us to shoot obsolete weapons and saved the more modern stuff (i.e. rockets) for the two year and more soldiers.

 

The Korean War ended a year after my high school graduation and thus I slipped through the crack between Korea and Vietnam (two members of our wedding party did go to Vietnam and both were seriously wounded in that needless debacle. By the time Vietnam became a matter of death over life for 50,000 young Americans I was in the National Guard and thus escaped having to spill blood for the country. It’s nothing to be proud of, a matter more of luck and timing rather than the conscientious objection of those who burned draft cards or fled to Canada. Most I can say is that I would have gone if called, but I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t have to.

 

The 1950s has been called many things, mostly describing a decade of hibernation when the country snoozed, and the president was a grandfatherly old man who seemed more like one of the guys who hung around the local coffee shop grousing about the lack of rain, and the incompetence of the government, instead of the man in charge of the country.

 

People soon forgot or overlooked the fact that Dwight Eisenhower had been the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces in Europe that ended the war against decency and he didn’t do it by being a doddering old man.  He was elected president in 1952 after having been courted by both parties. He finally came down on the side of the Republicans back in the days when Republicans often were middle-of-the-road moderates as politically different from today’s extremist ideologues as the moon is from the Pleiades.

 

By 1956 I was old enough to vote for the first time and I took great pleasure in casting my ballot for Mr. Eisenhower (no longer referred to as General Eisenhower, but only as Citizen Eisenhower), one of 30 and one half million voters who felt as I did that the old man had done a pretty damn good job for his first four years and deserved a second term. Ike won despite having suffered a serious heart attack in his first term, and despite sticking with tricky Dick as his running mate.

 

If there was a downside to Mr. Eisenhower, it was that he was saddled with Tricky Dick Nixon a, glowering and menacing politician who foreshadowed the radical right of today.  Tricky Dick had been a leader in the witchhunt for communists in the government, a political travesty spearheaded by the evil Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was the McCarthy hearings, televised in the mid-1950s that first tilted me toward the Democrats and to the liberal side of the political fence. It was impossible to watch the glowering Senator and his repulsive little sidekick Roy Cohn (who, ironically and appropriately, also later was a lawyer for today’s incarnation of McCarthy, Donald J Trump), and not imagine there was a better way to direct the country.

 

Politics in the dawning years of the 1950s was as remote from most of us callow teenagers as quantum physics. The only President for most of our lives had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt and when we thought president, we thought FDR. When he died and Harry Truman took over for the remainder of FDR’s fourth term and then unaccountably and unpredictably won reelection in 1948, Chariton County was confused, bemused and amused. The county was, and is, an admixture of Republicans and Democrats— mostly Democrats (to give you an idea of how confused Missouri was in 1956, it was the only state that went for Democrat Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower).

 

But even the Democrats were tentative when it came to the home boy in 1948, Harry S Truman. His blunt language and good old boy image left most Missouri Democrats defensive. His allegiance to Tom Pendergast, a powerbroker machine boss from Kansas City, left Democrats uneasy out in the heartland (i.e. Chariton County). The Republican minority labeled Truman a political hack and an embarrassment to the state, and the Democrats were mumbling “okay, he’s a crude bastard, but he’s our crude bastard”. When Harry threatened to lay knuckle bumps on Paul Hume, a music critic for the Washington Post, who had panned the singing of Truman’s daughter, Margaret (with good reason– she was no threat to replace Renata Tebaldi on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera) Republicans were overjoyed, and Democrats were embarrassed. Coarse or not, Truman could be deadly accurate with his profanity— he called Richard Nixon “a shifty eyed God damn liar.”

 

Harry Truman’s motto about accepting responsibility as president was “The buck stops here”. By contrast, Donald Trump’s motto seems to be “The buck stops in my bank account no matter who I have to cheat to get it”.

 

My college years, 1952 to graduation in 1956 are a jumble of memories, many involving trips to the beer joints favored by University of Missouri collegians— especially The Shack, one time hangout of Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, and Andy’s Corner, owned by two redhaired rowdy graduates of my high school, Keytesville.

 

Political considerations barely registered on me during my college years, including a course I took in political science mostly because I thought it would be easy (which it should have been). That the instructor was perhaps the dullest lecturer in four years didn’t exactly excite my interest in politics. He may have been a Democrat because, as far as I can remember, he never gave credit to Eisenhower for negotiating a truce in the Korean War, instituting the interstate highway system, or supporting the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling to end school segregation. I squeaked through the course with the lowest grade I got in any course en route to a diploma.

 

The highlight of college was meeting my wife, Marty, one time Macon high school cheerleader, queen of something or other, and perennial candidate as the most popular girl in her high school. As a confirmed GDI (those of us who abhorred frat rats and gloried in being God Damn Independents), I was entranced by the fact that Marty had first pledged and then abandoned the Tri-Delta sorority, and was living in a rooming house as a female GDI.

 

To quote Johnny and June Carter Cash in their anthem to romance “Jackson”: “We got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout.”  We blind dated in March got engaged in May and were married in September. Despite the fact that both sets of parents thought we were out of our barely post-adolescent minds, we’ve endured together for 62 years and counting and if there were any way to make that happen I’d opt for another 62 years.

 

The 1950s has been called a 10 year nap. It was the decade of conformity, the years after the tumult of World War II and before the even more tumultuous 1960s. Even my parents had spent a more dramatic decade as children of the roaring 20s. They were no strangers to speakeasies, living as they did in Chicago, the bullet riddled domain of Al Capone. By the 1930s and especially in the 1940s when I came along the country had tamed and was ready for a 10 year nap.

 

It was unspoken but expected that a young girl would marry, become a homemaker, and have children. Her spouse maybe would go to college, get a degree in something that fitted him for a salary paying job and he and his homemaker wife would buy a ranch style home, possibly in a suburb, and live out their lives. If a girl did go to college, it was to become a teacher. Those girls who didn’t go to college became beauticians. All in all, if you were a girl, it wasn’t much to look forward to but none of us knew any different.

 

Although Marty would’ve been a fine beautician, she would’ve been an even more inspirational teacher. Our parents were correct that she should have finished college, but we were young, impetuous, and immune from reality. That our marriage has worked for so long is mostly because of Marty’s forbearance and immense common sense. She has been the best teacher that five kids could have had and the proof of her teaching potential is that she has been a living example of how a good person can make the life of another person immeasurably better—the person, in this case being me even more than the five kids, because she didn’t have as much to work with.

 

Ten years later than 1950 I might have become a counterculture rebel, a disciple of Jack Kerouac, on the road, sucking on a joint and looking for trouble. Instead, the only joint I knew about was Andy’s Corner, a decrepit roadhouse south of the University of Missouri campus which served cheap beer and the only road adventure was getting there from my dorm and back again in someone else’s car— I didn’t have one and Marty and I would not have one until after we were married (we took a honeymoon trip to the Lake of the Ozarks in an Oldsmobile Super 88 borrowed from her father, the shop foreman for the Macon Oldsmobile dealer).

 

The decade of the 1950s occurred before most people living today were born and represent, at most, a chapter in their school history book, not a living experience. Maybe it was a 10 year nap. Maybe it was a decade when the country slumbered, largely without war without deprivation without any of the ills that seem to pervade the nation today. There were large problems that would surface in the 1960s and beyond and some would be somewhat solved, many still exist today.

 

It was the decade when the nation slept according to people who weren’t there. It was a decade when Marty and I lost innocence, the decade when we gained responsibility.

 

I think I’ll take a nap.

 

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  • March 22nd, 2019

LEMONADE WITH YOUR MACHINE GUN, SIR?

By Joel M. Vance

 

Just when you thought politics couldn’t get any crazier—wait, wait— it’s a waste of time to think that, because it’s a given that politics always will get crazier, especially in today’s environment where the political climate has heated up far more drastically than the actual weather climate.

 

For example the Texas House has passed a bill legalizing lemonade stands run by children. Thank God, we finally are saved from those streetcorner speakeasies run by shady five-year-old mobsters. And, the United States Secretary of State believes that it is possible that Donald J Trump has been sent by God to protect the Jewish people from their enemies— especially the Iranian menace. Now, if we can only get God to protect the American people from Donald Trump and idiots like Mike Pompeo we also might be saved.

 

 A Missouri legislator, Andrew McDaniel, a representative from the Missouri Bootheel, has introduced a bill which would require male Missourians between the ages of 18 and 34 to acquire within one year an AR 15. That this came on virtually the same day as a massacre of 50 New Zealand Muslims by a nutcase using an AR 15 is horrifying enough. Perhaps McDaniel meant the bill as an ironic joke, an attempt to spotlight the prevalence of automatic weapons in our guns saturated culture, but if it was a joke it was in poor taste to begin with and given the coincidence of it with the New Zealand massacre, it is a farcical disaster. If it wasn’t a joke, it’s a frightening reminder of just how bottomless the degradation of the political process has become.

 

McDaniel also introduced a companion bill to require all residents who are legally allowed to own a handgun and who are more than 21 years old buy and keep one. It even includes a tax credit to be used toward the purchase of the gun.  McDaniel claims that he intends the bill as a joke to call attention to what he considers too many government mandates. As a joke it ranks right up there with jokes about the Holocaust. The joke, if any, is that voters would be stupid enough to elect a clown like McDaniel.

 

McDaniel, from Deering, is a Republican—no surprise there. He is or was a deputy sheriff in Pemiscot County and among his other duties in the Missouri legislature he is on the crime prevention and public safety committee. Doesn’t that make you want to sleep well tonight? Among bills he has introduced is one to designate July 20 as Mormon War Remembrance Day. The Mormon war, in case you want to look it up, was an1838 conflict between anti-Mormons and Mormon settlers in northwest Missouri which resulted in governor Lilburn Boggs issuing an executive order demanding the Mormons leave Missouri or be killed.

 

Perhaps we can expect Donald J Trump, the Executive Disorderer In Chief, to use Boggs’ precedent to issue an executive order mandating that all southern border immigrants immediately leave or be killed. Don’t count it out. Trump already is mumbling about authorizing volunteer border patrolees and there are no doubt are plenty of AR 15 toting militia types who would be more than willing to shoot a few Guatemalan or Ecuadoran refugees in the name of Ammurican values.  Statistics, which many equate to damn lies, indicate that almost 100% of hate crimes are committed by American citizens, not by immigrants, illegal or otherwise. The Hatemonger in Chief warns us that rapists and murderers and dope peddlers are invading the United States from the south. His words are eerily similar to those used by the New Zealand shooter in his so-called manifesto, posted online for all to read before he started pulling the trigger. When the president of the United States begins echoing a mass murderer, it’s way past time to worry about the health of the nation’s political system.

 

Understand, I am a gun owner, with a dozen of different gauges, calibers, and uses. I believe in the legitimate ownership of guns, both for hunting and for target shooting (which can be challenging and great fun). No one should object to a background check unless they have something to hide. No one should be able to buy a gun from other than a licensed gun dealer. I’m ambivalent about having to register guns, although along with everyone else, I have no quarrel with having to register my automobile. But gun registration does seem to be an intrusion into privacy, although if it proves helpful or useful in the prevention of gun related crime, I would have trouble arguing against it.

 

A few days ago the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Remington can be sued over how it markets the semi automatic that was used to kill 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. It seems to me that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent— why couldn’t you for example sue an auto manufacturer? Cars kill far more people than guns do. I suppose the argument is that cars are not manufactured with murder in mind whereas guns can be considered to have a purpose only to take life. Still, it’s a troubling court ruling and one, I’m sure, that makes gun manufacturers queasy.

 

Donald Trump, the White Nationalist Enabler in Chief, says that he doesn’t see any rise in white nationalism, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” he said. In other words, no big deal to Trump. On the other side of the world a deranged white nationalist said that Donald Trump is “a symbol of white identity and common purpose.” He added that he didn’t see Trump as a leader, an opinion that, whatever else anyone thinks of the nutcase, a thinking person can agree with.  He is not, in the traditional sense of the word, a leader— he is an agitator and if he leads in anything it is to urge the mob toward the gallows to lynch yet another innocent citizen. He leads by fear, not by hope, inspiration or aspiration. He leads in the same sense that the devil leads the gullible toward temptation and sin.

 

Trump is unlikely to outlive his description of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville a year ago as “very fine people” except in the narrow minds of his white supremacist followers. The New Zealand murderer also opined that “taxation is theft” and one is reminded that Donald Trump has done his level best to minimize his tax obligation by devaluing his assets at tax time, but also inflating them when he applies for bank loans, making himself at various times poor or rich depending on what he wants out of the situation.

 

The Missouri bill, one would hope, has absolutely no chance of passing— McDaniel himself admits it has no chance of passing.  It probably will not make it out of committee hearings. But the Missouri legislature, a cesspool of mentally challenged and unaccountably elected representatives, is capable of almost any legislative indignity.  After all they installed a bust of Rush Limbaugh, the epitome of hate incitement, among the fellow busts of deserving famous Missourians. Limbaugh predictably has reacted to the New Zealand shooting by suggesting that it was a liberal who did it in order to call attention to himself. He smirkingly qualified the idea by saying that it was “…. An ongoing theory that the shooter himself may in fact be a leftist who writes a manifesto and then goes out and performs the deed purposely to smear his political enemies, knowing he’s going to get shot in the process.” And then he dives right in by adding “You know you just can’t— you can’t immediately discount this. The left is this insane. They are this crazy.”

 

It’s tempting to say “No, Rush, you are this crazy.” But Rush is not crazy—he knows exactly what he’s doing which is to stir up the lynch mob to a killing frenzy. It’s what he does. It’s what Trump does. It’s what they do and they will keep doing it as long as they can get away with it.

 

They are the spiritual heirs of such historical rabble-rousers as the 1940s version of Rush Limbaugh, ordained priest Father Coghlan, who bombarded radio audiences with such quotes as “When we get through with the Jews in America,  they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” H.L. Mencken who was a bit of a demagogue himself, summed up demagoguery by saying “The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

To prove that Missouri’s legislators are not alone in their overwhelming ignorance, New Zealand senator Fraser Anning blamed not the mass murderer, but his victims saying, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” So, even New Zealand, an oasis of tranquility in a world of unease, has its spokesperson for racial and religious intolerance.

 

Let’s just take it as a given that this elected official is a dangerous nutcase and give thanks that he lives thousands of miles away from me and you. But he is symptomatic of far too many of those who supposedly represent the common good. We have a president who claims that we are being invaded by dangerous criminals from Central America and Mexico, many of whom are women and children, including babies in arms. It’s difficult to visualize a two-year-old toting an AR 15 intent on massacring defenseless southwestern citizens.

 

Sometime, if you’re in a mood to rub your nose in offal, check into Facebook and see some of the postings in response to such outrages as the Sandy Hook massacre. More than one anonymous cancer cell in the human gene pool has claimed that it never happened. And there were those who claimed that the brave student survivors of the Parkland high school bloodbath were paid actors. Already, there have been postings, in support of the New Zealand gunman, lauding him as some sort of defender of the right… The extreme far right where lurk the dangerous crackpots who are a danger, not just to their many and fantasy enemies, but to society in general.

 

I’ve always had a yen to visit New Zealand for its outdoor glory. It is from what I know as close to a pristine environment for an outdoor person as anywhere in the world, saved from exploitation by the mere fact that it is so far from anywhere else—protected by its very isolation from the inroads that have desecrated so much of the natural environment, for example, in the United States. (Today comes the news that the Trump administration plans to lay bare millions of acres of wildlife habitat for oil and gas exploration). Daily there are news stories about yet another erosion of environmental protection. If we thought James Watt and Anne Gorsuch were environmental threats (and they were), in the immortal words of Al Jolson, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Ryan Zinke was so egregiously corrupt as director of the Department of Interior that he was forced to resign but it only meant that Trump shuffled another environmental heathen into the post and nothing has changed. Nothing will change until the entire band of brigands is booted out into the obscurity they so richly deserve.

 

New Zealand has the kind of hunting and fishing that outdoor types daydream about, well aware that they never will afford to experience it. Some few blow their retirement budget on a dream trip so they can spend their retirement years in semi-poverty reliving the experience. Possibly a few people actually emigrate to New Zealand to live and hunt where there are no bag limits and, for example, you can hunt in national parks. It would be a fitting sort of justice if Fraser Anning were forced to emigrate to someplace, say, like Somalia, a Muslim country, where white folks in general and especially white nationalist types are not among the most popular immigrants.

 

And wouldn’t it be nice if he’d take Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump along with him?

 

 

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  • March 15th, 2019

CRUNCHING THE SWEET GRASS

By Joel M. Vance

          Is it singular ….or are they plural? 

            Doesn’t matter—just say, “I love molasses.  They’re good.  Er, it’s good.  Never mind, just pass ‘er here!”

 

            There are few kitchens left where molasses reside(s), fewer still where the country sweetener was home processed.  The first time I saw molasses being made was more than 40 years ago.  It was a steaming day in September and an antique molasses mill shuddered and groaned as it pressed the sap out of sorghum stalks.  A haze of insects hovered over the sap vat, occasionally falling into it to drown in bliss.

 

            Yes, your grandma’s molasses likely was part insect.  Yellowjackets were especially fond of the saccharine sap and often committed insectival suicide, doing a one and a half gainer into the burbling syrup.

 

            Technically sorghum is not molasses which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets…but trying convincing the farmer who has been making “sorghum molasses” just like his daddy and grandfather did.  Sweet sorghum is an introduced grass, brought here from Africa to extend sugar production farther north than sugar cane which grows only in warm climates.

 

            But the chemistry of sweet sorghum is such that it doesn’t crystallize into sugar so the sap from the stalks becomes a viscous syrup—sorghum molasses or, as Missourians are wont to say “’lasses.”  Making molasses has many similarities to making maple syrup.  First you start with a thin sap and you boil that until it reaches syrup consistency.

 

            Traditionally you’d pour sorghum syrup over fresh, hot cornbread or scratch biscuits (“scratch” biscuits are from raw materials and the term comes from historic boxing where a scratched line denoted the starting position at the beginning of a bout).  Sorghum-drizzled biscuits on a frosty November morning, coupled with country-cured ham and eggs still warm from a hen’s bosom is a country dish hard to beat. 

 

BASIL, BELL PEPPER AND JACK CHEESE CORNBREAD

            This comes from my friend Jim Low who loves to cook in a Dutch oven, another old-timey culinary exercise. 

Ingredients:

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped fresh basil (optional)

1¾ cups cornmeal

3 eggs

1¼ cups flour                                                 

1 tablespoon sugar

2 ounces diced red bell pepper                                  

1 tablespoon baking powder

1½ cups grated pepper jack cheese                            

 ½ teaspoon baking soda

1⅓ cups canned or frozen corn, drained                                

1½ teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, chilled and cubed                  

1½ cups buttermilk

1 pound bacon, fried & crumbled

 

Preparation:

            Melt one tablespoon butter and sauté onions until tender.  Set aside to cool.  In a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Add seven tablespoons of butter and rub into the flour/meal mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal.  In a small bowl, whisk milk and eggs together.  Add to dry ingredients and stir until blended.  Fold in cheese, corn, peppers, basil, bacon and onion.  Transfer to Dutch oven.  Bake in a 12-inch Dutch oven at 400° for 45 minutes. 

            The “Three Up / Three Down = 325 Degrees” Rule: For a 10” Dutch oven, you’d have 13 coals on top and 7 underneath. Some cooks prefer “two up / two down,” or 12 on top and 8 below. A good rule of thumb for the total number of coals or briquettes is to double the number of the oven size and then use the “three up / three down” principle.

            Oven Size Number of Coals

 

10”                12 – 13 on top with  8 -7 under

12”                14 – 15 on top with  10 –   9 under

14”           16 – 17 on top with  12 – 11 under

 

 

           Two briquettes provide 25 degrees of heat; add briquettes on top or bottom to adjust heat.  To estimate the temperature of your Dutch oven, use your open palm near the oven counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, ….” (a count of: 6 – 8 seconds = 250 – 300 degrees, a “slow” oven; 4 – 6 seconds = 350 – 375 degrees, a “moderate” oven; 2 – 3 seconds = 400+ degrees, a “quick” or “sharp” oven.  For baking bread, rolls, cakes, etc., use the “two-thirds” method. That is, work with heat on top and bottom for two-thirds of the cooking time, the remainder of the time with heat only on top to finish baking.

           Preheating the oven for 10 minutes with the lid on will help prevent sticking.

 

Charcoal Placement

 

            Under the oven, space the coals evenly around the outer edge of the

oven with only one or two coals in the center.  On the lid, again, space

the coals evenly around the

outer edge with a couple of coals on each side of the handle. 

 

            Another country dish, especially during World War Two when sugar was rationed, is moonshine—white lightnin’ to George Jones fans. I don’t have a recipe for that, but once did smell a jar of white lightnin’ offered as evidence in a trial I was covering for the Montgomery, Alabama, Journal and the smell alone nearly knocked me on my butt. I don’t know if the active ingredient was sorghum or not but neither the judge nor I was inclined to find out. As a matter of fact he told the defendant, “The worst punishment I could think of would be to make you drink it.”

 

            Related to milo, a more familiar Missouri crop, sweet sorghum is one of two varieties raised in the Show-Me State: sweet and grain.  Audrain County where I used to work is the state’s top producer of grain sorghum with 1.3 million pounds in 2007, well ahead of second place New Madrid in the Bootheel.  Other producers are scattered all over the state: Livingston, Mississippi, Callaway, Boone, Jasper, Shelby, Pemiscot and Monroe.

 

            In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri ranked seventh nationally in grain sorghum production, behind No. 1 Kansas (twice as much as second place Texas), Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma.  Those states produce virtually all the sorghum raised in the country.

 

          But those figures are for what you feed to cows, not hungry families.  Sweet sorghum is the source of syrup and also, if researchers at the University of Missouri have their way, a source of biofuel.  The drawback is the tall grass’s intolerance for cold weather.  Gene Stevens, an agronomist with the University Extension Service in Portageville, says, “It can yield as much ethanol as corn with less nitrogen and water; returns nutrients to the soil; and uses less energy in the ethanol production process.”

 

          The problem with sweet sorghum for biofuel is mechanical—equipment to harvest and process the stalks efficiently.  “The infrastructure for corn already is in place,” Stevens says.  Sweet sorghum has about four times the energy yield of an equivalent amount of corn, the current sweetheart plant of the ethanol industry.  It produces about eight units of energy for each unit used to produce it—in other words, a very energy-efficient source of fuel. 

 

          The current drawback, of course, is that there’s a whole lot more corn than there is sweet sorghum—that and the fact that corn has a much wider range than does sorghum.  Unless machinery can be invented or developed to do to sorghum what a cornpicker does to corn, the dream of a sorghum-fueled car may not pay off.  Just have to keep eating sorghum ‘lasses instead…..

 

          Today few farmers still mill and bottle their own sorghum ‘lasses, but one communal farm in northeast Missouri has thrived on it as a cash crop.  Sandhill Farm describes itself as “an egalitarian intentional community.”  It has been in existence since 1974 and is a remnant of hippie counterculture. The farm’s web site sandhillfarm.org has photos and information about the plant and syrup making process, as well as the other products raised and offered by the commune.

 

          A quart of sorghum went for $11 when it was available, making the 800-gallon/year crop worth more than $35,000.  It has been Sandhill Farms biggest single income source but currently it is\are unavailable through at least 2019.  Completely organic, Sandhill Farm sorghum avoided whatever perils lurk within processed sugar and had been widely available in Missouri supermarkets. The gathering and processing had become a social event (as traditional sorghum millings were), with friends and neighbors gathering to help out.

 

          Sorghum processing is labor-intensive.  The stalks in the field have to be beheaded and stripped of leaves.  Then they’re cut with a machete (what oldtimers call a corn knife) and left to cure in the field—the starches in the stalk convert to sugar over several days of curing. The cured stalks go through a mill or press which squeezes the juice into a vat which then is cooked down to syrup consistency, bottled and sold or used at the Farm. 

 

            Sorghum is African in origin, considered one of the top five cereal grains in the world, along with wheat,  It came to this country via slaves in the early 1600s and has been a source of country sweetener since the mid-1800s. Sweet sorghum is hardy and grows in environments hostile to other row crops especially hot and dry areas. The ability to endure harsh conditions makes it far more viable as a source of biofuel than corn— anyone who has driven by a cornfield in fierce summer weather and seen the plants spikey and burned brown by the harsh sun knows what drought can do to corn crop.  Sweet sorghum also needs less water than corn and less fertilizer.

 

          Sweet sorghum and grain sorghum are two different crops. Grain sorghum, far more common, is grown on an estimated 100 million acres worldwide.  Many confuse molasses from sweet sorghum with the molasses made from sugar cane an entirely different sweet syrup.  Sugar cane goes through three boilings to arrive at what is known as blackstrap molasses which is considered a health food. And while it may be good for you, blackstrap molasses is a far cry from the more agreeable flavor of sweet sorghum molasses.

 

            At its peak early in the last century the country produced 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup annually, but now the figure is a million gallons, most in southern states—Missouri is not among the eight leaders, although Iowa is.  Texas and Florida are warm enough that farmers can raise two crops a year and sweet sorghum is such an agreeable crop that the first crop actually seeds the second, a self renewal almost unique in today’s intensive agriculture.

 

          Having said all this about sorghum lasses, I have to confess that I don’t much like it (them) and when it comes time to decorate a biscuit, whether made from scratch or from a can that you bang on the edge of a counter until it explodes, I use honey. Honey has medicinal uses also. I recall from my croupy days as a sickly little kid my mother mixing honey with a little bourbon whiskey as a throat soother.

 

         It may have been a folk remedy, not endorsed by the American Medical Association, but I no longer suffer from croup.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • March 8th, 2019

HUNTING FOR YESTERDAY

 

 By Joel M. Vance

7

                It was the noon break from an unsuccessful pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on a camp stove.

 

                This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cutbanks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of my tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.

 

                Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.

 

                I used my spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a Tyrannosaurus relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.

 

                And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.

 

                A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a watermelon.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps rifle bullet or possibly even earlier to a Sioux hunter’s arrow.

 

                Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, it was the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871. 

 

                But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear the path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.  A stampeding herd of bison would instantly reduce a new barbed wire fence to a rancher’s bad dream.

 

                By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow and arrow or perhaps from a single shot trade musket.  At least in that case it would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of a European interloper who left it to rot.

 

                But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.

 

                As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.

 

                No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.

 

                Charlie held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  The artist in Charlie appreciated props (he once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.

 

                I mostly forgot about the skull, back in the reality of work and far from the gully  where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me a watercolor painting.  The painting is of our skull in a snowdrift with a sprig of dormant prairie grass poking through an eye socket.  Cold weather seemed to trigger the artistic impulse in Charlie. After another snowstorm he came in the office with a chalk drawing of a woolly mammoth which he had captioned “the new Ice Age dawns”.

 

                The framed bison painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.  The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”

 

                Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  From millions, market hunters and thrill shooters nearly wiped them out.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.

 

                For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as the thrill shooters of the bison.  Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that pioneers slaughtered in numbers to rival the tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.

 

                Now there are 18 states with declining populations of greater prairie chickens, but Kansas is tops among six states with a population sizable enough to be hunted.   I hunted prairie chickens for more than 20 years, off and on, until I finally killed one in north-central Kansas.  It smacked of shooting one of the last bison and having done it, I’ll stick to hunting pheasants from here on out.

 

               As a sporting outing, it was far from other prairie hunts I’ve taken where bagging a bird involved walking endless miles. It was more in the spirit of European driven pheasant shoots where gunners are stationed comfortably armed while beaters flush birds—normally pheasants— over them and they take passing shots. That’s basically what I was doing, minus the beaters and an obliging servant to load my gun for me. I stood beside a telephone pole waiting for an influx of prairie chickens coming to feed near dusk. They sailed over the distant swales, visible hundreds of yards away, heading for the field where I lurked.

 

                  Prairie chickens fly far swifter than they appear to be doing. I missed several shots before I finally connected and watched with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness as the bird catapulted into the crop stubble 30 yards from me. I picked it up, smoothed its feathers, and realized that my decades long  quest was ended. Even though it was a trophy long sought after, I gave no consideration to having it mounted because to me a mounted bird no matter how dramatic the acquisition is no more than an artificial representation of the real thing and no more than something else to collect dust. Better to admire my memories than some stuffed creature.

 

                Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves.  Once Kansas entered into the pheasant war, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks just below South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.

 

                 Bison did not become extinct and exist today in carefully managed herds, but no longer do they roam freely across the diminishing stretches of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie. The estimate is there are some half-million bison in North America, up from a low of an estimated 1000 animals in the late 1800s. That is less than one percent of the population that existed when the first wagon trains rumbled across the Western states.

 

                I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.

 

                And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull

 

                It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.

-30-

 

 

 

 

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  • March 1st, 2019

no fish were harmed in the writing of this blog

By Joel M. Vance

 

The great movie “A River Runs Through It” was on television the other night and, as usual, I had to watch it. But, as usual, I waited for the closing credits in order to yell at the television set when the disclaimer at the very end popped onto the screen “No fish were harmed or killed in the making of this movie.”

 

“What’s the matter with you people!” I screamed, amid a flurry of epithets. “What if Jesus, instead of feeding the multitude with the loaves and fishes, had caught and released the fish, leaving only loaves?” According to Matthew in the Bible Jesus fed a multitude of 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Ignoring the fact that they must’ve been awfully big fish, Jesus also said and according also to Matthew, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

 

Today, the politically correct mantra—not according to either Jesus or Matthew— is “catch and release”. It’s considered the sporting thing to do. And even if the honorably stupid disclaimer in “A River” were not enough, the producers felt obligated to add that Norman MacLean, the author of the book from which the movie was made, and his family ate the fish they caught, but that today’s fly fisherman release the fish they hook and land.

 

As I was simmering down from my outrage at the movie’s disclaimer, I remembered the words of Norm Strung, my late friend, mentor, and hero who lived on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, a trout stream outside Bozeman, Montana. Norm once invited me to fish in his little stream for brook trout. I said something about whether I should release the fish I caught and Norm said, “keep ‘em. We eat ‘em.” And keep them I did, and we ate them. They were delicious.

 

I have nothing against the concept of catch and release, except when it is carried to the extreme. We are predator animals and fish are prey. Fish constitute the healthiest wild food available to us predators and there is nothing more agreeable to the human digestive system than a fish diet. Ignore for a moment, the reality that all too often fish are contaminated by human waste product and therefore are not as healthy as fish that have not been poisoned by mercury, pollution or any of the myriad contaminants with which we have adulterated the natural world.

 

Understand, I have no quarrel with the concept of catch and release. There are circumstances under which not keeping fish to eat is admirable and necessary. If a fish population is imperiled there is an obvious need to conserve. Years ago, my wife, Marty, and I rafted the Grand Canyon and fished along the way. Somebody hooked a humpback chub on a fly. It’s an endangered species, not really an edible fish anyway, and we immediately released it. But a teenager on the trip caught a large rainbow trout and Norm Strung (the very same eat ‘em Strung) baked the fish at our gravel bar campsite that night and we all shared in eating it and no one gave passing thought to the idea that the proud kid should have released the fish. It was delicious.

 

For me the highlight of the “River runs” movie was near the end when the Brad Pitt character is fly fishing, hooks a mammoth rainbow trout, manages to hang onto it as he is washed through a series of rapids, and returns triumphantly holding it up, to show his father and brother. The balletic symmetry of the fly line as he lays out a long cast is beauty to behold. It even was the illustration for the movie’s promotional posters.

 

But Brad Pitt had nothing to do with that memorable cast. It was dubbed in by Jason Borger, the son of famed fly angler Gary Borger. Brad Pitt may be able to charm the ladies, but Jason Borger charms the fish. Anyway, I have been a fly fisherman since my teenage years when my father, for some reason, (a lifelong angler, he tended toward casting reels armed with 20 pound test braided line) acquired a Shakespeare fiberglass fly rod and a desire to learn how to use it.

 

Fiberglass long since has been supplanted by carbon fibers and other exotic materials far superior to fragile fiberglass. Traditionally, anglers used split bamboo rods that today cost more than the national debt and now are far more suited to museums than they are to rough handling on blue ribbon trout streams. You are most likely to see an angler armed with a bamboo fly rod gently releasing the fish he hooks and also using barbless hooks to boot.

 

I learned to fly fish after a fashion, using that fiberglass pole that had all the resiliency of a reinforcing rod. Let’s say that over the years more than 90% of the fish I have caught have been bluegills or other sunfish or occasionally largemouth bass. That is my father’s legacy. There is a photo of him on the shore of the Macon Lake with his fiberglass rod pitching a popping bug to the edge of the shoreline weed bed. He was fishing for bluegills. I came to trout late in life and with better equipment but bluegills remain my favorite fish, both on the end of a fly leader and sizzling in a frying pan.

 

It’s not difficult for me to catch and release trout because I’m not overly fond of them for eating. Salmon, however, are a fish of a different flesh color and one of my long held dreams is to fly fish for salmon in Arctic waters where they proliferate. I have caught salmon but always on casting rod and reel. I did fish for Atlantic salmon in Maine on one of the legendary salmon rivers there where anglers sit on bankside benches like substitutes on an athletic team waiting to go into action. The active angler has a certain amount of time to fish before returning to the end of the bench and the first substitute angler jumps into action. My time in the water, while it was exhilarating, was fruitless—although I did see a silvery fish leap clear of the water in midstream, a sight to set my sweetbreads thumping.

 

And I did partake of a glorious Atlantic salmon dinner at the home of Jim and Sylvia Bashline who had caught the fish during one of their many trips to Canadian salmon waters. Jim invited me to loft a fly into the fabled trout waters of Spruce Creek, a few feet from their home in Pennsylvania and I made one cast. A hefty trout (Jim scattered food on his stretch of stream which did tend to keep the trout at home) smashed into the fly at the end of Jim’s borrowed rod and, as if I were setting the hook in a 12 pound channel cat, I snapped the fly off. “Well,” said Jim, “Time for a before dinner cocktail.” And that was the end of my fly fishing on one of the fabled chalk streams beloved by equally fabled angling writers. Back to bluegills for me.

 

Fly fishing can become as complicated as quantum physics if you let it. My dad was content to learn enough about it to place a popping bug delicately enough to tempt a bluegill (and there is nothing delicate about bluegill fishing–a bluegill in the mood will hit anything thrown in the water short of a concrete block). But the Salmonid family angler can become so consumed with the arcane aspects of the sport that he or she will learn enough Latin insect names as to become qualified to conduct a Catholic mass.

 

My guru along those lines is the late John Voelker (whose pen name was Robert Traver), a wonderful writer and author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout angler from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as a Yooper) whose advice on choosing a fly was that he invariably used “a little bitty brown thing.” That attitude puts a hex on Hexagenia and the myriad of other Latin names for insects. Limit me to one all purpose fly, from bluegills to tarpon and I’ll choose a woolly bugger. The most delightful variation of this universal bug imitation is the charmingly named Bitch Creek nymph.

 

Once I spent an entire day drifting the Madison River casting a Bitch Creek nymph, letting the current carry it theoretically past thousands of trophy trout. I caught exactly one fish–a whitefish with a mouth turned down, looking remarkably like a muddy Missouri River sucker. If only I had one of those little bitty brown things!

 

Some trout anglers claim you only need a number 12 Adams while others swear by a Royal Coachman as the go-to fly of choice. My late friend, lefty Kreh, possibly the greatest fisherman in history, invented what has come to be called Lefty ‘s Deceiver, a fly so versatile it will catch everything (including, in my case, my right earlobe).

 

All these flies have one thing in common.  They have hooks. Some purists use barbless hooks which allow easier catch and release than barbed ones. And that brings us back to “A River Runs Through It” (the movie, not the book) which the producers in their wimpy disclaimer were quick to assure us did not use hooks in the fishing scenes; instead they carefully tied fishing line to the lower lip of the supposedly hooked trout under the watchful supervision of the Humane Society.

 

Obviously us fish eating anglers have been doing it all wrong. Instead of using a fly line tipped with a barbed hook, we could have been learning to lasso fish.  So, in a sort of piscatorial rodeo, we could cast a lovely fly line over a feeding trophy trout, gently tighten the loop around its lower jaw, carefully (without in any way injuring the fish or offending the Humane Society) play it to the net, admire its sleek symmetry, murmur an apology to Norman MacLean, and offer an uplifted middle finger to the Humane Society.

 

And then take the fish home and eat ‘im.

 

 

 

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  • February 22nd, 2019

WATCH WHERE YOU STEP

By Joel M. Vance

Leave it to science fiction to predict what’s in store for us. Ray Bradbury, the finest of all science fiction writers, summed it up in a short story written in 1952 about time travel. “The Sound of Thunder” appeared in Collier’s magazine— which perhaps prophetically is a magazine that has gone extinct.

 

The short story is set late in 2055, not so long from the present day, but quite a while distant from 1952. In the story a hunter pays $10,000 (which, if I compare it to the $2800 we paid for a brand-new Ford station wagon in the 1960s, today would probably be $40,000 or more. The $10,000 the hunter paid probably translates to upwards of $100,000 now. Anyway, the fee allowed him to join a hunting party to go back in time to the age of the dinosaurs in hopes of bagging a Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

In Bradbury’s 2055, time travel has become possible. While that probably will not actually happen, what does happen in the short story seems more and more likely in today’s chaotic world. Before they leave 2055, the hunters discuss a recent presidential election where a fascist oriented candidate has lost to a moderate (are we getting some chilly vibes here?).

 

The hunters discuss what has come to be known as the “butterfly effect.” What would happen, they wonder, if some tiny event from so long ago were changed so that its infinitesimal echoes would magnify over the centuries to unimaginable consequences in today’s world?

 

Sure enough, the hunter protagonist of the story steps on a butterfly in the late Cretaceous and when he returns to the present he finds that the fascist dictator has won the election and the country is in chaos. Is it possible that someone has gone back in time to the late Cretaceous, stepped on a butterfly, and so we have Donald J Trump as our president, a would-be dictator every bit in the mold of Bradbury’s spooky story?

 

Trump doesn’t even have to go back to the Cretaceous to step on butterflies— he’s doing it as we speak. As part of his insane compulsion to build a 2000 mile wall between us and Mexico regardless of how damaging it is to the country, to the environment, and to the eons to come, one small segment of his idiot plan is to disrupt and basically destroy the National Butterfly Refuge.

 

Butterflies are pollinators, one of the most necessary insects to carry pollen from plant to plant, ensuring that those plants will endure and in many cases, provide food for humanity. Without pollinators, notably bees and butterflies, plant life is imperiled and without plant life we are without food. It is the modern day example of Bradbury’s thesis— alter one tiny aspect of the environment and risk dire consequences down the line.

 

Ecologist Barry Commoner summed it up succinctly  “Everything is connected to everything else.” Step on butterflies, whether in the Cretaceous or right now, and you run the risk of future chaos. While chaos theory is as difficult for a nonscientific type like me to understand as is thermodynamics or balancing my checkbook, I can understand that one small change in a system can result in large differences later on— one theoretical example is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas. Or stepping on one butterfly while dinosaur hunting in the late Cretaceous can result in Donald Trump being elected president.

 

Obviously, no one knows what an infinitesimal change today will result in eons in the future and none of us will be around to see it. But we already are seeing the results of climate change, no matter how vociferously Trump and his clueless allies deny there is such a change. Dramatic swings in weather are already upon us, probably the result of centuries of burning fossil fuel and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s not just from burning coal but also from the exhausts of millions of vehicles and from the clearing of forests (which also decimates the resident insect population).

 

And if there is any lingering doubt that the Trump administration is the worst threat to the environment  in modern history, comes the word that the Environmental Protection Agency (why don’t we just rename it the Environmental Destruction Agency?) has given approval to allow spraying of sulfoxaflor, a highly toxic pesticide to bees, on 16 million acres of cropland in 18 states— on crops that are highly attractive to bees. The EPA terms this an “emergency”. That seems to be the buzzword today for any stupid and destructive action by the government. If you want to do something that figures to be highly unpopular and damaging to boot, call it an emergency and to hell with the consequences and, for that matter to hell with human health and happiness.

 

None of those conditions existed in the late Cretaceous and, for that matter, mostly didn’t exist a few short centuries ago. Yet, we are seeing dramatic changes in world climate and the bulk of scientific thought is that it will only get worse unless we do something quickly—and by quickly they mean right now not when push comes to shove. Human tendency to kick the can down the road no longer is a viable chickening out for the problems that face us.

 

It’s well documented that climate change has caused widespread decline in the biomass of insects in many study areas throughout the world. In simpler terms, bugs are vanishing. Not just bugs, but mammals as well— human activity has resulted in the last 50 years alone for a decline of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish by an average of 60%.  One telling test about the decline of insects alone is easy enough for you to run the next time you go for a summer evening drive. Compare how many bugs smash into the windshield with how many you saw a decade or two ago. Not only are you actively killing bugs by running into them with the front end of the car but you also are contributing to their overall decline by the exhaust from the butt end of the car.

 

The National butterfly Center is a 100 acre refuge in South Texas along the Mexican border that is imperiled by Trump’s unnecessary and idiotic border wall that would separate 70% of the Center from its headquarters. It is far more than a symbolic refuge for threatened insects— it is a way station for migrating birds as well as butterflies in the Central Flyway. It was set aside specifically for threatened and endangered species and eliminating or imperiling its existence, which the wall would do, would, among other catastrophes create flooding to all property (which is privately owned) up to 2 miles behind the wall.

 

The center is the creation of the North American Butterfly Association, a nonprofit organization which is dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. It was established in 1993 and now has nearly 5000 members in 30 chapters across the United States. It runs butterfly counts in Canada, the United States and Mexico, similar to bird counts and other wildlife surveys that keep tabs on the health of countless wild creatures. Without such counts, conservationists are basically operating in the dark.

 

While the Butterfly Association primarily concentrates on Monarch butterflies, it can take credit for preserving the Royal Fritillary butterfly and saving the Miami Blue which is known from only one colony at Key West in Monroe County, Florida. These once were thriving insect species, now nearly extinct. If the Monarchs are next to go, where does that leave humanity? Is it the butterfly effect sooner than later?

 

Yet, even as I write this, Trump’s bulldozers, like Hitler’s Panzer tanks invading Poland, are moving in to the Butterfly Center grounds preparing to turn it into a lifeless no man’s land. The Butterfly Center immediately filed for a restraining order to stop the border Nazis from cutting down trees, ripping out fencing, widening roads and other activities detrimental to the purpose of the Center. A judge threw out their motion essentially granting the immigration intruders the authority to do what they damn well please. Among judge Richard Leon’s reasoning was that the refuge is “an open field” which would seem to be the very description of what is needed for a butterfly refuge.

 

Federal judge Richard Leon is a George W. Bush appointee.  He is a former attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service—the very folks who are bent upon destroying the Butterfly Refuge, literally clearing the way for Trump’s wall. Among Leon’s previous curious rulings is one blocking the Food and Drug Administration from stopping the importation of e-cigarettes which have become an epidemic problem among young people.  Enough said about the judicial climate today in Trump’s world of environmental destruction.

 

We have a mini tallgrass prairie of perhaps a quarter acre which I rescued from a wasteland of broom sedge and purple top, both plants of land too poor to support much of any value. Within a few years, big bluestem grass began to appear—apparently the seeds had lain dormant for who knows how long? I added some seed collected from remnant tallgrass patches and now have Indian grass to complement the big bluestem. And I collected seeds from purple gayfeather and now have a glorious blooming crop that annually attracts butterflies of all kinds. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, but for some reason that has dwindled to a single plant. I need to plant milkweed, the favored plant of Monarch butterflies and without which the Monarch is threatened with extinction.

 

Google milkweed sources and you’ll find many outlets for both seeds and plants– americanmeadows.com is one source for both, dedicated to the native plants found (or once found) on America’s native prairies.  I would love to see my mini prairie alive with butterfly weed and common milkweed— and also alive with the incomparable bloom of butterflies.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote another prophetic book “Fahrenheit 451” which is the temperature at which books ignite. In his book a future society had taken charge and confiscated all books and were burning them—which, if you remember your unpleasant history, is how the Hitler regime treated books it deemed subversive. Bradbury’s fragile underground population preserved books by memorizing them word for word and passing them from generation to generation.

 

Books today all too often are sensationalized accounts of some less than responsible citizen’s misdeeds but they sell in the millions and then quickly suffer the equivalent of Bradbury’s book burning— they are remaindered and forgotten. But the written word still is the major means of communicating ideas in a lasting way. Spoken media, whether television or radio, is almost as quickly forgotten as it is spoken. The written word has the potential of lasting forever.

 

But only if we can keep the Trumps of the world and their would be dictator brethren from sending the written word into oblivion, along with the insects which modern civilization seems so dedicated to eliminating. Without caring people, insects (and words to champion their right to exist), the world may come to a pass where none of the three of us any longer exists.

 

 

 

 

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  • February 15th, 2019

STOP THE PRESS!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The University of Missouri journalism school dates to 1908, the first such school in the world. The first building housing the fledgling J-School dates to 1919 and became Neff Hall, named for the father of Ward Neff who gave money to build it. A second building adjacent to Neff Hall is named for Walter Williams, the first Dean of the journalism school.

 

By the time I got to the journalism school in 1954, my junior year in college (the first two years having been spent in such meaningless classes as algebra— which I would never learn if I spent 100 years in the class— and American history— which I already knew nearly as well as the boring lecturer who taught it) J school consisted of the two buildings (Neff and Williams) separated by an arch, guarded by two concrete lions.

 

The legend was that the lions would roar if a virgin ever passed through the arch. Although I passed through that arch many times en route to class, I never heard a peep out of those iconic felines, though I was eminently qualified to spark them into action.

 

Every beginning news person was required to take “The history and principles of journalism” course taught by the school’s longtime Dean, Frank Luther Mott. I was in the final class taught by Dean Mott, by then a professor emeritus. The textbook was his and I still have it and it still makes interesting reading. Dean Mott has long since gone to a corner of heaven inhabited by defunct news men and instead of listening to harp music throughout eternity, they are serenaded by the clatter of Linotype machines and the roar of a rotary press, music to the ears of print guys.

 

By taking Dean Mott’s course, I escaped the threat of what happened to the late Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. The University brags about Walker as a distinguished alum. Some years back I wrote a fan letter to him, one J-Schooler to another. Walker wrote back, “I was kicked out of J-School. I had just returned from four years in the Army during World War II and had become editor of the Show Me Magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and I had an office in the J-School.”

 

Mott called Walker into his office and said that he saw by Walker’s records that he had not taken the history and principles of journalism course and Walker said “I was too busy saving the world for democracy, Sir” and Mott screamed at him to get out of the office and the next day Walker’s office was locked and he was out of the school. During my four years at the University, the Show Me Magazine, a humor publication, was more often shut down for making fun of the administration then it was actually being published— so Walker was ahead of his time as a J-School student and instead carved out a career making fun of the Army, rather than Dean Frank Luther Mott.

 

 The J-School newsroom in those days was a noisy place populated by neophyte journalists armed with clacking manual typewriters. The only computer that any of us knew about was Eniac, a 30 ton machine that took up a whole room in a government facility somewhere and did laboriously about what it takes a modern hand held computer microseconds to do on a chip the size of your little fingernail.

 

Instead, we labored over manual typewriters that predated by decades the electric typewriter and which were barely more practical than a quill pen and a piece of paper.  The typewriters were Remingtons and Underwoods. Possibly the more affluent of students had portable typewriters like the one used by famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle during World War Two. The desk models weighed as much as a baby elephant.  You didn’t carry one of them to cover a local meeting; instead you had a reporter’s notebook and, if like me you didn’t take shorthand, you struggled to scribble down notes on what was happening and hoped to be able to read them later while writing your story.

 

I was lucky enough to have an Underwood that had belonged to my mother and father and which dated to the 1920s. The only maintenance it ever got was a ribbon change when the letters on the paper got so dim they were barely readable and I ran the risk of wrath from Dale Spencer the J-School professor/copy editor who had a tongue as biting as the sting of a mule driver’s whip.

 

The luckless student in whatever the course was that included a session on the copy desk prayed that he or she would bask in the benevolent presence of anyone other than Spencer. When Spencer’s glowering presence dominated the copy desk we approached writing a headline as if it were a coiled rattlesnake. Once, however, I wrote a headline for a one paragraph wire story about how a prison convict had escaped by hiding in an empty soap barrel. Inspiration struck! “Con in soap barrel/makes clean break” I slid the headline timorously in front of Spencer and waited an eternity for his reaction. I think I saw the corner of his mouth twitch briefly and he spiked the headline. (Copy spikes were lethal looking pieces of equipment, a metal base topped with a long, sharp stiletto-like spear on which you would slap stories and headlines ready for the Linotype machines— you ran the risk of impaling yourself, a sort of Jesus like mutilation.)

 

We wrote copy, the now archaic term for how one constructs a news story for the press, on flimsy paper backed with a sheet of carbon paper which, in turn, was backed with an even more flimsy second sheet that served as the backup copy. Make a mistake and you either X-ed it out or painted over the mistake with White Out, an extinct substance which came in a little bottle, equipped with a tiny applicator brush like something you would use (well, not me anyway) to apply eyeliner.

 

Once spiked, your copy went through a mysterious process which resulted ultimately in it appearing in that day’s Columbia Missourian, the daily newspaper printed by the school of journalism in competition with the Columbia Tribune the city’s family-owned commercial newspaper. We had the advantage of an unpaid reporting staff; they had the advantage of professionals who knew what they were doing.

 

Today the Missourian still is published by the University but the Tribune has, like so many other one time family-owned operations, become a cog in a conglomerate, sold out of the family to a faceless corporate entity. The fate of the Tribune is symptomatic of what has happened to the newspaper business in the last few decades. The “local” newspaper of yesteryear today is more likely to have corporate headquarters far from the town it supposedly represents. This is not a good thing.

 

The erosion of the nation’s print media starts at the top with a socio-pathetic president for whom the nation’s legitimate press is “the enemy of the people” and to whom any story he does not like is “fake news.” If he were to have his way, any news media with which he disagrees would be eliminated, leaving only regime-approved news sources. And this is the very definition of a totalitarian society. Once you get rid of the truth tellers, all that is left is a dictatorship.

 

General Joe Hooker, one of Abraham Lincoln’s best officers, got in trouble with his boss when he said that what the Union needed was a dictator. That earned him a tongue lashing from Mr. Lincoln, who understood democracy and how it operates better than just about any of his Republican descendants, today in positions of political power.

 

But equally as malicious a threat to the printed word is the gobbling up of the nation’s small dailies by corporate conglomerates to whom the backbone of such newspapers— local news— is a foreign concept. The local newspaper for 200 years or more has been the source of a community’s daily identity.

 

The newspaper I worked a decade for was family-owned for a century by the White family. The first Robert M White, back in the 1870s, apparently had at least one fistfight with an irate subscriber and the concept of horse whipping the editor occasionally  substituted for dissatisfaction with news coverage. I think maybe a good old whuppin’ might soothe everyone’s feelings better than the half-baked and often half witted letters to the editor which litter the op-ed pages of today’s newspapers.

 

Corporate giants have swooped down on the newspaper industry and the family-owned dynasties of yesteryear are vanishing. Even the Washington Post whose team of investigative reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) brought down the pernicious president Richard Nixon, no longer is family-owned. Instead, it is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.  The Washington Examiner, Donald Trump’s Trojan horse in the print media world, is trying to destroy Bezos’ reputation because Trump doesn’t like the Post’s reporting of his nefarious dealings.

 

Trump may have picked a fight with the wrong guy because the Amazon-owning zillionaire has vowed to spend what it takes to whup up on the Examiner and by extension, quite possibly pull off another Nixon coup de grace. Maybe print media is not quite dead and the concept of horse whipping those who abuse the public trust likewise still exists in modernized form.

 

My old newspaper today is a cog in a conglomerate machine and one of the first actions it took after its takeover of the paper was to fire the sports editor— the job I had for 10 years. Maybe that colors my feelings about corporate ownership of small-town dailies, but such personnel decisions all too often are made by bean counters far removed from the community their newspaper is supposed to serve.

 

For a semester in J-School, my beat was the school board. Unfortunately for me, the board met at the north end of the city and I lived at the south end. I had no car and in order to cover school board meetings I had to hike the length of the city, scribble my notes, hike back to the dormitory, write my story on my antique Underwood in what Frank Sinatra called “the wee small hours of the morning”, turn my copy in virtually at daybreak to a well rested Dale Spencer and then trudge wearily to the first class of the day.

 

Today’s reporter can dictate his story to a smart phone, using voice recognition software, download it remotely to a computer where mysterious things happen electronically and the result is a pristine column on that day’s Columbia Missourian. No more wearying hikes to cover school board meetings, wee small hours laboring over a clackety Underwood. It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days, but they weren’t. Technology has made today’s news gathering and reporting a cakewalk by comparison. But the dark downside is the erosion of a free and unfettered press and that is a dark side best exemplified by what happened to Rod Smith.

 

Our local television station sold out to a large corporation and one of its first acts was to fire Rod Smith who had covered sports locally for the station since his high school days, the television version of an old time shoes-on-the pavement reporter. There was an immediate and virulent blowback from the community and the bean counters hastily reconsidered and rehired Rod. In a classic in your face moment Rod recently has been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Chalk one tiny win up for the good guys.

 

The last refuge for local news is the weekly newspaper, too small to attract the attention of the great white sharks of conglomeration, where you still can read about family reunions and bowling scores. It may also be the last refuge for hilarious typographical errors. Every old print guy collected such gaffes and passed them along to fellow news men (often over beer) to general hilarity. They were funny only if you had not been responsible for them. When I was at the Alabama Journal we lived in the eternal fear of any story or headline concerning Fort Rucker. Once, so I was told, a society story in the Sunday edition of the paper referred to a prominent society girl who was having a coming-out party as “A classy young lass” only the Linotype operator dropped the L in the last word. The story goes that the entire newspaper staff spent several hours roaming the streets of Montgomery collecting papers off people’s lawns and sidewalks before they woke up and read the society page.

 

My favorite such story which may be apocryphal—but who cares— concerns two Missouri Ozark towns that actually exist–Licking and Halfway The headline in a local paper supposedly read “Licking Girl to Marry Halfway Man”.

 

Once, when I was in high school, the local weekly newspaper transposed parts of two stories, one an obituary, the other a report of the activities of a social club. The obituary ended interestingly “At the end of the evening, Sally Smith organized games and a wonderful time was had by all attending.”

 

Perhaps, at the bitter end of the nation’s print media, if such a dire fate awaits the profession that I cherish, the last struggling little weekly newspaper will publish an obituary for the voice of democracy and those who now call for an end to what they disparage can organize games and have a wonderful time by all attending.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • February 7th, 2019

LOVE AFFAIR

By Joel M. Vance

Bobby Bare said it best in a Shell Silverstein song “This guitar is for sale.” The song, sad enough in itself, hits home to me, although my guitar is not for sale and never will be. But my picking days are ended, thanks to the after effects of a stroke, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome which have combined to stiffen my left hand and made it impossible for me to dance around the fretboard the way I used to (well, try to anyway).

 

                “This guitar is for sale/I’ll let her go cheap.”

 

That’s what Bobby Bare sang, except I wouldn’t let her go for $1 million. She is a part of me as much as my heart. I worked detasseling seed corn for $.50 an hour, 10 hours a day during one of the hottest summers in modern times to earn the money to pay for her. “She” is a 1950 mahogany topped C. .F. Martin 00 17 guitar.

 

The Godfather of jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt, made do with two fingers on his left hand, the other two having been burned and disfigured in a house fire and missing two fingers didn’t stop him from being one of the greatest guitar players in history, but missing the use of all four of my left hand fingers prevents me from being even the palest shadow of a Django. I am not and never was and never would be a Django. But even Django could not have played one-handed although he came close.  There is no such thing as a one-handed guitar player. Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for the left hand only for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I so it is possible to play at least one piece on the piano with one hand. You even can play major league baseball with one hand. Pete Gray lost his right arm in a childhood accident but played in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns. Not possible with the guitar–it’s strictly a two-handed operation.

 

                “Just touch her once gently/and she’ll take you on home.”

 

 My little guitar has always been a refuge for me when things got gloomy and blue. I could take my little Martin 00 17, bought in 1951 for $60, go off by myself and serenade anything or anyone who wanted to listen (which usually was, at maximum, a disinterested dog).

 

The sense of accomplishment and the thrill of conquest when I got something right amid the six strings was every bit as pleasing as calling in and killing a trophy gobbler in the spring. I couldn’t take a cool lick home and eat it or brag about it in the coffee shop the way I could with the trophy gobbler (because no one cared), but the thrill of the chase and the accomplishment was there and I could enjoy it over and over again, something not possible with the gobbler.

 

The 00 17 is small, of a size that they used to call “parlor guitar,” meaning that it was not a lusty loud instrument suitable for auditoriums, but rather one for playing in the front room and that was good when applied to my little Martin because often that’s where I played it—sitting on the couch while the family eddied about the house doing household things. What I was playing and singing was for me fairly obviously, because no one seemed to be overwhelmed by my talent. Bill Monroe put a rattlesnake rattle inside his fabled Gibson F5 mandolin to sweeten the sound. There is nothing inside my baby Martin except dust and I don’t think it needs sound sweetening— especially if it takes rectal amputation of a rattlesnake to get it.

 

                “She’s won me some ladies/with her sweet lovin’ songs.”

 

Twice did the little Martin and I entrance a lady with sweet lovein’ songs. The first time happened in 1956 in El Paso, Texas, where I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss. Several young married couples occupied an apartment complex on Fort Boulevard and one of the couples, Reid and Lois Hanmer had a daughter, Shelley. Shelley was two years old, blonde and impossibly cute and I used to serenade her on the apartment complex lawn. There is a photograph of me singing to Shelley as we sit facing each other and she obviously was hugely enjoying the experience. She was my little groupie and I know how Elvis must have felt when girls squealed and shrieked at his singing— although Shelley never squealed or shrieked. She just listened and enjoyed when she wasn’t playing with ants in the grass or watching planes flying overhead from El Paso’s Air Force base.

 

I acquired another groupie a few years later. I sat on the stoop of our house and the five-year-old daughter of a neighbor would toddle across the street and listen to me singing. Her name was Jessica and I teased her by asking “is that spelled with two essicas?” My clumsy attempt at humor was miles over her head, as was my singing—she was mostly interested in chatting tirelessly. Even my spirited rendition of the gruesome ditty “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” failed to interrupt her stream of consciousness gossiping. Too bad—it was one of my better attention getters.

 

Once I handed Bobby Bare my copy of his inspirationally named, but wonderful long play album “Bare” for an autograph and he laughed and softly sang “This guitar is for sale.” Apparently, the song was as memorable to him as it was to me.

 

                “If you think she looks weary,/you’ve been readin’ our mail.”

 

Like me the little Martin has suffered the scrapes and bumps of time. The bridge pins became so worn and brittle they had to be replaced. The tuning knobs likewise wore down and the machine heads and knobs were replaced and, not too long after I got her, I managed to knock a hole in the lower bout on the corner of a dresser, an injury that caused me to break into tears. The wound was invisible to anyone in front of the guitar, but I knew it was there like an open sore that never heals. One day I read a for sale item in the local paper advertising a Martin guitar for sale and I jumped on it immediately.

 

                “So please treat her kindly./Keep her out of the rain.”

 

The guitar turned out to be the bastard child of a Martin and a Gibson— it had a Martin body and a Gibson neck and it cost me all of $15. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t sound as sweet as my little Martin and it became my float trip guitar so I didn’t have to risk the Martin in the rain or the river.  I could sleep with it in the tent, and keep it out of the rain and the river. My little Martin stayed home, safe. The Mar-Gib was no collector’s item— but as the illegitimate child of a Martin it had value. Then a savior appeared in the form of a luthier who offered to fix the hole in the little Martin in exchange for the Mar-Gib. Not only did he fix the hole but he leveled the frets, installed new bridge pins and tuners. Thus, cosmetically restored, the Martin was once again virtually the same as it had been factory new.

 

                “She’ll tell you sad stories/’bout junkyards and jails.”

 

Closest I came to a brush with the law was in college.  Thinking to become the next rhythm and blues sensation, I bought and installed a pickup on the sound hole of the little Martin and then realized that I had no amplifier to plug into. One night Stan Krueger and I invaded the music building, him with his harmonica and me with my ready-to-boogie Martin. We found an amplifier and proceeded to re-create BB King and Little Walter and found that instead of a howling mob of rabid fans we had a less than appreciative audience the next day with the Dean of Students who informed us that any further attempts to bring the Mississippi Delta to the University of Missouri campus would result in us being former students of the University of Missouri. I pitched the pickup which had done nothing more for the world of music than leave a few scuff marks on the guitar’s sound hole and once more became a parlor picker well out of sight of the Dean of Students.

 

So I’ve stayed out of jails and largely out of junkyards although some years later I was heading south on Highway 63 when I passed a yard sale (not a junkyard) and caught, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of guitar cases leaning against a table of for-sale items. I burned rubber and did a U-turn that would’ve done credit to a highway patrolman involved in a high-speed chase (and possibly could have landed me in the aforementioned jail) and made it back to the sale in time to close the deal on a mahogany topped Martin D 15 guitar that the man selling it described as his “Willie Nelson guitar” because it had a hole knocked in the lower bout. Anyone who is a Willie Nelson fan knows that Willie plays a Martin classical guitar with a hole worn in the top from decades of being battered by guitar picks. So I now owned two Martin mahogany topped guitars that had been identically wounded in combat. It was as, as Yogi Berra was fond of saying “déjà vu all over again.”

 

Lacking the appearance of an angel in the luthier form, I fixed the hole myself with a scrap of mahogany from my workshop. The D 15 had cost me, on sale, approximately six times as much as its smaller cousin had in 1951–inflation personified. My repair didn’t look as pretty as a professional job would have, but I didn’t have a Mar-Gib to trade for the work and I wasn’t about to offer my little baby in trade.

 

I now had two Martin guitars, one more than I was able to confidently play, but there’s something about the Martin mystique that has been around since 1833 and which has captured the affections of countless entertainers over the years

 

                “She knows every sad song/that Hank ever wrote.”

 

Hank Williams played a Martin guitar and while I don’t know every song he wrote, I know several of them. Unable to cure my addiction to Martins, I splurged for a 1970 Martin D 35 in a moment of profligate insanity and today it’s on a stand, side-by-side with the baby Martin, like a protective big brother, as equally unplayable by me as is my baby, thanks to the buggered up left-hand.

 

David Gilmour, guitarist for Pink Floyd, will auction off more than 120 of his enormous guitar collection with the money going to charitable causes. Included in the legendary collection is a 1969 Martin D 35 that is expected to bring as much as $20,000. The entire sale probably will top $1 million— maybe more. I doubt that my D 35 is a $20,000 guitar.  But I did try to sell it several years ago and no one wanted to pay the price I was asking so I retrieved it and it has joined its two family members among musical instruments that I can’t play anymore.

 

My baby Martin and I have traveled all over the country, not as minstrels but because it and I are fond of retreating to a quiet place to sing the blues when they come calling.  Aside from the occasional two-year-old blonde, no one much cares when I sing the sad ballads of yesteryear. I can still sing “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” even if I can’t hit any hot licks to punctuate the poignant ode. But singing a cappella without the support of my baby Martin is as unsatisfying as a diet consisting wholly of broccoli.

.

 

                “If you got the dough buddy, take her and go.”

 

I could be persuaded to sell the D 35 and the D 15 to someone with the dough.  I’m willing to part with them for my price. You won’t see them at a yard sale.  But the baby Martin, unlike its big brothers, is not for sale and never will be. It has my sweat impregnated in the timeworn fibers of its mahogany top and body. It is as much a part of me as my heart and, if there is such a thing, my soul.

 

                “It’s funny you askin’/ I never gave her a name.”

 

She’s just my baby Martin and, for all I know, she may not even be a female— she may be a guy guitar, but there is in her softly rounded contours a feminine beauty. The relationship of this little guitar with me is nearly a lifelong one, a love affair that never ends. We know each other so well. We learned “The Wildwood Flower” together and have sung it to the stars and the full moon and to the dark night. It has chased the blues and soothed the hurts that come with life.

 

If there is any justice, one night when things are gloomy, my hand miraculously will be limber again and I will sit on our deck with the little Martin and play and sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and a flash of lightning will send us on our way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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