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  • Blog
  • January 17th, 2020

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’ GONE ON

By Joel M. Vance

 

Recently while surfing channels on television I stumbled— tripped and fell face forward is more like it— into a movie the likes of which I have never seen and, if I’m lucky, never will see again. It was a Western, I think, called “The Fastest Guitar Alive” starring, improbably, Roy Orbison.

 

While Roy Orbison is one of the greatest singers in history and a personal favorite, I never quite equated him with John Wayne when it comes to horse operas or, for that matter, even with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, a couple of other guitar slinging and singing ersatz cowboys. I lasted about 30 seconds with Cowboy Roy, watching the bad guy (predictably wearing a black hat) sneak up on a scantily clad young lady who was doing something in the bushes—this being a family type movie, I think she was getting ready to bathe in a nearby stream. The bad guy had evil intentions and when she spied him, she screamed like Fay Wray encountering King Kong for the first time.

 

Cowboy Roy was propped up against a tree, singing and playing his guitar when he heard what I suppose was his lady love threatened with ravage by Black Bart. Roy leaped to his feet, clutching the guitar by the neck as if it were a dead goose, and raced to the rescue. What was he going to do? Maybe beat the bad guy to death with his guitar, although that seems like more of a terrible fate for the musical instrument than it does for a bad actor (in deed as well as in acting prowess)., But our hero had a secret weapon which you ain’t gonna see in most movies. The bad guy dropped the imperiled damsel at which point Cowboy Roy slung the guitar neck forward and shot the hat off Black Bart with a gun concealed in the guitar neck!

 

I think it is entirely possible that this movie contributed to the fatal heart attack that Roy Orbison suffered some years later. It certainly didn’t do anything for my mental health, but it did spark my thinking about the origins—musical, not acting— of Orbison and his musical peers.

 

I’m fairly confident that that awful movie was the end of Roy Orbison’s cinematic career except for his ethereal voice singing the title song about “pretty woman” in the movie of the same name starring the delectable Julia Roberts. Another singing cowboy, Tex Ritter, also contributed a title song to a movie, “High Noon” starring the equally delectable Grace Kelly. Tex starred in many oaters and his voice was about 4 octaves lower than Orbison’s, but they both headed for musical fame in different directions—Orbison to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Ritter to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

As far as I know and hope, the Fastest Guitar was Roy Orbison’s only foray into the world of cinema, unlike his Sun Record stablemate, Elvis Presley, who made a whole covey of teen heartthrob schlock movies (more than 30). Even Johnny Cash, another Sun alumnus tiptoed in the cinematic waters not as dreadfully as Cowboy Roy, but working on it. Sun records! Created by the eccentric and erratic Sam Phillips, the tiny Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio spawned more musical geniuses than any other major record company ever.  In addition to Elvis, Sam Phillips corralled Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, BB King, and Johnny Cash as well as a host of other midrange rockabilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll artists.

 

Where  Sam Phillips and Sun Records is concerned I get a mental picture of a lion who, after an arduous hunt, has managed to kill his very own wildebeest only to have a band of hyenas and other scavengers, dart in and grab the juiciest pieces of Simba’s evening meal. That’s what the major record companies did to Sam. first, RCA Victor, paid him $45,000 for all rights to Elvis which, given the eventual earning power of the Pelvis was pennies. Johnny Cash went to Columbia and has sold an estimated 90 million records since. Both of them continue to make more money dead, than Phillips did when he was alive. Today Elvis alive and dead, has sold an estimated one billion records, making him the best-selling solo artist of all time.

 

Those are just two of the legendary musical artists who Phillips let get away and who made more money for other labels than Phillips ever could’ve imagined when he signed them for pennies. He had under contract the legendary Million-Dollar Quartet consisting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (the latter of whom was born in a shack, so poor that he couldn’t have afforded even a worn-out pair of blue suede shoes until he and Elvis both scored mega-hits with the song).

 

It has been 68 years since Philips first opened the doors of Sun Studios, inviting would be superstars to come and record. He didn’t talent scout— the many musical legends who recorded for him were walk ins, including Elvis who merely wanted to make a record for his mama. But Phillips heard something special in the North Mississippi hillbilly and when he heard Elvis and pick up musicians guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Bill Black fooling around with “That’s All Right, Mama”, a song which black artist Arthur Crudup had recorded in 1946 and had made popular in rhythm and blues circles, he got the trio to record what would become Elvis’s first megahit.

 

I was browsing in a Montgomery, Alabama, used record store in 1956 when I spotted a Sun record by Elvis. It was off a jukebox, but not heavily played and in good condition. I knew who Elvis was—I had heard him on the radio from the Shreveport, Louisiana, Jamboree, a minor league Grand Ol’ Opry which had spawned many a country music star. And I liked Elvis. So I bought the record for a few cents and, some years later, sold it for $350. It was Elvis’s first record and so little thought of that someone had pasted the B-side label on both sides, but had scratched out the wrong title and had handwritten in the correct name. Maybe Sam Phillips himself. At that time, Sun Records was such a tiny operation that it amounted to Phillips and a secretary.

 

That was a 78 RPM record, a format long since superseded by LPs, compact discs, and digital downloads—but to a collector of Presleyana, I suspect it now would be worth far more than what I thought at the time was a humongous windfall. At the time in my penurious young adult years, $350 was equivalent to Little Orphan Annie hooking up with Daddy Warbucks (and I have always wondered how daddy made his bucks—from the sound of it he might’ve been a munitions mogul selling weapons of war worldwide, a real role model for the moppet).

 

Sam Phillips continued to acquire billion-dollar talent and often frittered it away for the next 19 years. In 1959 he increased the size of the original tiny studio and in 1963 he (having invested in the Holiday Inn Hotel chain) started Holiday Inn records and then in 1969 sold Sun records to a fellow named Shelby Singleton. The sun, you might say set on Sun records but it rose again in 1985 when Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash reunited for a recording session titled “class of 55.” And then in 1987 the original Sun Records reopened as “Sun Studio,” which was as much a tourist destination as it was a business enterprise.

 

Rockabilly, under the new Sun label became a distant memory, superseded by artists like U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr, the latter being symbolic of the British invasion that largely spelled doom for those old-time rock billies. Since, there have been sporadic attempts to revive rockabilly, recorded at the modern Sun Studio. But, lacking a mad scientist in charge (would that be Doc or Sam?), and a DeLorean capable of hitting 88 mph in a lightning storm, the old magic remains just that—old.

 

The rockabilly icons are all gone now save one who seems to be eternal—but then they all thought that when they were riding high. The Million-Dollar Quartet is down to one now—Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, who still can pound out an increasingly feeble version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and who hobbles on stage like the old man he is.

 

Just recently another giant of rockabilly who never received any of the accolades that the million-dollar gang, the Sam Phillips refugees, the darlings of 1950s teenagers got. Sleepy La Beef died at 85, still rocking in up to 200 performances a year, but unknown except to a few like me who refuse to let go of our deep-seated love for the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to see Sleepy in performance ever since the first time I heard him on a record. He reached deep down into what apparently was a cavernous chest to belt out in a near basso profundo voice legendary songs from the vaults of early rock ‘n’ roll. Call it rockabilly which is what the critics came up with to describe music that was a combination of rock and hillbilly music. It wasn’t Fats Domino or Ray Charles but it was the white version of black music fused with up-tempo country. Sam Phillips said that if he could find a white singer who sounded black he could make a millon dollars. He thought he had that singer in Elvis, but it was RCA that made the million. Some listeners swore that Elvis was black when they first heard him until they saw him on various television shows (Milton Berle, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen, and finally, reluctantly, Ed Sullivan).

 

Not only did Sam Philips pioneer rockabilly; he was the producer of what is credited as the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentson, recorded early in March, 1951. It was recorded at Memphis Recording Service, the precursor of Sun Records. But the first record that I would consider rockabilly, at least at least the first one I remember hearing, was “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, who recorded the song in 1955. Berry died at 90 in 2017. He has been called “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.” He recorded his landmark on Chess records, not, Sun” which, by 1955, was well past the heyday of rockabilly. And he holds the distinction of being the only black rockabilly artist among an otherwise white group of rednecks. Perhaps in heaven he and Jackie Brentson can have a dragstrip race between Brentson’s Rocket 88 and Chuck’s V-8 Ford.

 

But…. Rockabilly historians generally credit Elvis’s “That’s All Right, Mama” as the first true rockabilly song. Berry actually swiped the music for “Maybelline” from the Western swing song “Ida Red” a staple of the repertoire of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Maybe we should give Wills the title of the first rockabilly?

 

Roots rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly line up almost exactly with my high school and college years. By 1960, the heyday of both had come and gone. The British invasion led by the Beatles took over and screaming guitars and screaming vocalists displaced the thumping pianos of Fats, little Richard, and Jerry Lee. In the ensuing years there were occasional flashbacks, but not many.  Woodstock, in 1969, is mostly remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s show stopping performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with many other performances by artists contemporary to the time—but a welcome (to me anyway) interruption was by Sha Na Na who probably confused the bulk of the half-million or so kids in attendance by bopping to ”At The Hop”.

 

It’s a sort of symbolic passing of the torch, or perhaps more appropriately an extinguishing of the torch. The recent passing of perhaps the last true rockabilly Sleepy la Beef, and a few days later the passing of the lyricist and leader of the modern rock group Rush Neil Peart exemplifies the truth that time moves on and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

 

When Marty McFly rode a DeLorean back to 1955 in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future”, it was to the tunes of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Penguins‘ “Earth Angel.” Jerry Lee became a fallen angel of rockabilly when he married his 13-year-old cousin, but he reinvented himself as a country singer with a definite rockabilly beat and even today sings what could be the anthem for that lost era “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano When I’m Gone?”

 

Who, indeed?

 

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  • Blog
  • January 10th, 2020

IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BIRD

By Joel M. Vance

 

A few million years ago at the dawn of civilization, when I was a callow youth in journalism school at the University of Missouri (as opposed to the callow old man I am today) we were assigned a “beat” which consisted of a square residential block in Columbia. The idea was we would timidly knock on doors and asked if the residents had any news to report.

 

One serendipitous day. I knocked on the door of a man who happened to be one of the wildlife professors at the University and he told me that a number of birds had been killed at the University’s television station, KOMU TV, the night before when a low cloud ceiling pushed the migrating birds into a collision course with the television station’s transmission tower. The story made the front page of the University newspaper, the Missourian, and I felt as puffed up with pride as if I had pulled off the scoop of the century.

 

Bird collisions with inanimate objects often result in avian mortality. In common with all other wild creatures, no bird dies in bed (unless, somehow, it happens to fly headlong into the headboard). We have a door leading onto our deck, with glass panes in it, where we have pasted the silhouette of a hawk. This is supposed to frighten small birds and discourage them from flying into the door with fatal results. Nevertheless, I have heard a small “bonk!”  And found a dazed bird lying outside the door, apparently unfazed by the hawk silhouette.

 

Ted Williams (not the ballplayer, but the major league environmental expose reporter) whose “Incite” column in “Audubon Magazine” for years has been the bête noire of those who would pollute or otherwise disgrace the world’s natural communities.  Ted often brings to light threats to the environment that are largely unknown or ignored.

 

One such is the threat to birds posed by the common house cat. Feral cats, those allowed to roam unchecked outdoors, kill more birds annually than nearly any other cause. We have two cats in our household— the operative word being “in”. Both are strictly confined to the house, never allowed out. They are members of the family, cherished and loved and, since our kids all are grown and on their own, the cats have become Marty’s and my de facto kids.

 

Except for Marty’s good graces, both today would be feral cats, intent on avian slaughter, rather than the coddled, cat chow munchingcreatures they are. Mama cat appeared one night at our back door (the one with the hawk silhouette pasted on it) underfed and overly pregnant. It was inevitable that Marty would feed this vagrant feline and that’s all it took for Mama Cat to settle herself in a convenient wicker basket on the deck and deliver five kittens. Ultimately, we kept one, a butterscotch colored female with more energy and curiosity than the other four. We found homes for two others and delivered two to the local animal shelter.

 

Mama and the long-haired kitten we named Fuzzy Butt have adapted well to in-house living and pose no threat to local birds. Not so, their uncounted millions of feral peers. Both are sexually defused so pose no risk of adding to the world’s puss population. They are, in short, cherished house pets, not threats to a bird population which, in many areas, is declining.

 

Why? He asked rhetorically. The reasons are several, with habitat loss the major one, but predation by feral cats ranks as the number one preventable cause of bird deaths. The Sibley bird guides are a standard reference for birdwatchers and also a good source of information on the causes of bird death. Habitat loss ranks number one but it’s not always the direct cause of avian fatality— think of it in human terms; when a tornado levels a neighborhood, many if not all the people simply move somewhere else. The same is true of birds, deprived of their habitat. That is, of course, if there is somewhere else for them to go. The sage grouse today is imperiled in the heart of its habitat, most of the state of Wyoming, by an exploding oil and gas exploration boom. Disruption of the bird’s nesting, feeding and roosting areas by oil and gas drilling is part of the problem, but also access roads and other disruption adds to it.

 

For a comprehensive discussion of the sage grouse situation, see Noppadol Paothong’s marvelous new book with wonderful and evocative writing by Kathy Love. The photographs will melt your heart and energize your mind toward helping to preserve this symbolic and direly threatened Western bird. (This beautiful book is $45 published by Laguna Wilderness Press, Box 5703, Laguna Beach, California 92652 – 0149–check it out@Lagunawildernesspress.com)

 

Sage grouse, as well as other avian species that are habitat specific, don’t have an alternative when their home turf is destroyed. My beloved bobwhite quail have been squeezed into tighter and tighter pockets of quail friendly habitat and their numbers have shrunk accordingly.  Mega-farms, fall plowing, intensive chemical drenching of the land with herbicides and pesticides all have conspired to make what was, in the glory years, a ten covey hunt into, if you’re lucky, maybe one covey– and you feel guilty about taking even one potential breeder out of that covey.

 

According to the Birdbrain in Chief, the alleged leader of the free world at least until he and his evil minions manage to eliminate freedom as we have known it for more than 200 years, a major culprit in bird mortality are wind turbines. Not even close. The aforementioned feral cats, according to Sibley, kill more than 500,000,000 birds annually. This compares with their estimate of 33,000 deaths by collision incidents involving the wind generators. My KOMU tower and its communication kinfolk account for at least 5,000,000 deaths and possibly as many as 50,000,000 annually. And, my hawk silhouette notwithstanding, collisions by birds with windows are estimated somewhere between 97 million to 976 million birds/year. 

 

“[Wind power] kills all the birds,” Trump told 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (who is at least in the running for being every bit as crazy as Trump). “Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

 

“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles,” Trump said. “You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles… They’re killing them by the hundreds.” Trump singled out Palm Springs, California, saying it had been absolutely destroyed by what he called the world’s ugliest wind farm, presumably one that has killed, in his words, hundreds of eagles. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that in the last 22 years Palm Springs wind towers have accounted for exactly two bald eagle deaths.

 

Another estimate is that wind turbines account for the deaths of between 140,000 and 368,000 birds annually, a figure substantially higher than the Sibley estimate but certainly far lower than Trump’s implied wholesale mortality. One estimate is that the number of birds killed by cell towers is 6.8 million and the total done in by glass building collisions is up to one billion each year. The point here is that no matter who is doing the estimates they are far lower than the fantastic claims spouted by Donald Trump, designed only to disparage alternative forms of energy in favor of his cherished oil, gas, and coal industries.

 

Trump also told Cain that solar and wind are “very, very expensive” and “not working on a large-scale.” And he criticized the way wind turbines look, calling the windmills in Palm Springs, California a “junkyard.” Someone should tell Trump about the threat from feral cats— he’d probably go on some sort of insane rant against cats and thereby alienate yet another substantial bloc of otherwise uncommitted voters.

 

The unfortunate truth is that no form of energy is without its inherent risks and downside. Carbon-based fuels spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an obvious (at least to the bulk of science and thinking people) cause of global warming. So-called clean energy (i.e. wind, solar and hydro) each have a downside— wind, giving Trump a teensy bit of credit, does contribute minimally to bird death, but more to disruption of habitat.  And, Trump fantasy notwithstanding, wind turbines do not cause cancer.

 

Dams kill fish, either by turbulence, or by creating low oxygen problems, plus they often result in downstream flooding and there is the habitat lost by the creation of a lake.  Solar energy has the same inherent problem as wind energy–the installations  occupy space and inevitably upset associated habitat by roads and other disruptive intrusions.

 

Nuclear energy is scary stuff. Russia’s Chernobyl proved that dramatically, as did Japan’s Fukushima disaster and as Three Mile Island nearly did to the United States. And then there is that atom bomb thing in 1945 and how do you dispose of all that radioactive goo?

 

So we have a Great Oz in the White House, living in an alternate reality served by what the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.” The simplest solution for today’s insatiable hunger for energy is to have fewer kids, keep more cats (indoors only), protect and encourage expanded wildlife habitat, and, in the words of an unknown political philosopher, “vote the bastards out.”

 

Werner and Lowe must have been anticipating future times when they wrote the lyrics to a song from the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” in 1959. The song was “They Call the Wind, Maria” and part of the lyrics graphically describes the Windbag in Chief:

 

I am a lost and lonely man/

without a star to guide me/

Maria blow my love to me/

I need my gal beside me.

 

Change Maria to Melania and need I say more?

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  • Blog
  • January 3rd, 2020

I’M NOT LION TO YAH!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Back in the 1970s there was a report of a mountain lion roaming the wilds of the Current River country in the Missouri Ozarks. Mike Milonski and Alan Brohn, both of whom would become assistant directors of the Missouri Conservation Department, mounted an expedition to prove or disprove the existence of the cat.

 

They didn’t have a visual sighting of the animal, but did find a paw print and made a plaster cast of it. Department wildlife biologists agreed that it certainly looked like a mountain lion track. But, echoing the prevailing philosophy of the day, they agreed that Missouri did not have wild mountain lions and if there was a cat present, it probably had been released there by someone possibly disenchanted with it as a pet. The prevailing philosophy for years was that if mountain lions existed in the Missouri wild, one would have been shot by a hunter or, at the very least, captured on a trail cam.

 

More than 30 years later, a motorist (perhaps driving a Mercury Cougar?) Killed a male mountain lion on Highway 54 between the state’s capital, Jefferson City, and Fulton, to the north. Blood tests proved that the cat indeed was a wild, not pet, animal, most likely having originated far to the west—perhaps in the Black Hills of South Dakota . No explanation as to how it came to be in Missouri, but young male animals, looking for territory of their own, often travel long distances to establish their own identity. Evidence that Missouri could and would play host to visiting mountain lions was reinforced when a second lion fell victim to one of Detroit’s finest on a highway in North Kansas City, and a third lion recently succumbed to automotive caticide after being hit by a car on Interstate 44.

 

These are widely divergent geographic locations which would indicate that mountain lions, being reclusive by nature, and while not widely exposed to public view, are indeed a statewide resident.

 

At least one female lion has been among the 74 confirmed mountain lion reports since 1994–and one female, among all those randy male lions certainly raises the possibility of young ones.  But there have been hundreds if not thousands of reported mountain lion sightings and it seems as if every other person who has spent any time in the outdoors claims to have seen a mountain lion—or at least knows someone who has. But what you see is not necessarily what you get. Over the years there have been many supposed sightings of black panthers which, I feel confident in saying, do not exist in the Missouri wild— and I further suspect that the family black Labrador retriever on walkabout has been responsible for most of them.

 

Some reports include having heard a lion screaming in the night. Not to discount them, but raccoons squalling, as they often do, could easily become the wail of a mountain lion to the ears of a listener.

 

Mountain lions, like wolves, spark an immediate and primal fear in people. Both are apex predators (kind of like people). Wolves have been the stuff of legend for hundreds of years, not to mention fairytales like the Big Bad Wolf (or in the case of Archie Campbell’s Spoonerised version of the three terrorized piggies, the Pee Little Thrigs). Every one of the very rare attacks by a mountain lion breeds immediate fear of being assaulted by a ravenous big cat in legions of outdoor enthusiasts. Statistically, any wilderness traveler stands a far better chance of being killed by lightning than he or she does being killed by either a timber wolf or a mountain lion. A mama grizzly bear with cubs is another story entirely but Missouri so far has avoided being invaded by grizzlies. Black bears could be a threat, especially with cubs, but again watch out for the lightning.

 

Not to discount the possibility of a mountain lion attack—last year a Colorado hiker strangled an 80 pound lion after it attacked him. And just recently Arizona wildlife officials shot three mountain lions who apparently had happened upon the body of someone who died in their territory and they scavenged the poor person’s remains. “We do not believe the lions attacked the individual who died there,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for Arizona Game and Fish. “An autopsy will tell us more. But our belief is they were eating the human remains after the fact.”

 

The ubiquitous presence of trail cameras nowadays is behind almost all the confirmed Missouri sightings— it’s hard to argue with a sharp photograph. It’s equally impossible to deny the evidence of a lion carcass, one of which is mounted in the Conservation Department’s Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.

 

Recently an alleged mountain lion sighting in the heart of Jefferson City dominated discussion on Facebook where the wilder the allegation, the more discussion, often heated and outlandish, proliferates. The sighting was atop a cliff face at the Menard’s store. A woman posted a video of an obvious cat of some sort walking along the top of the cliff, somewhat obscured by grass. She said it was a mountain lion.  The Conservation Department stationed someone at the top of the cliff with a cutout of a common cat and a mountain lion. What the woman had seen was, the Department said, a feral cat (and feral cats are responsible for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths every year).

 

There was an immediate firestorm of comments on Facebook from those who, mostly, claimed to have seen mountain lions to those who accused the Department of some sort of cover-up. Many claim that the Department has lied about the existence of mountain lions in the wild for years, although there is ample discussion about the animal on the Department’s website, and the prevailing official view is that yes, there are mountain lions in the Missouri wild, but no evidence of a breeding population.

 

There have been 74 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Missouri since 1994 amid thousands  of reported sightings, unconfirmed. Although the confirmed sightings are fewer than 1% of the total reported, the Conservation Department takes mountain lion sightings seriously enough to have formed a mountain lion response team in 1996 more than 20 years ago. And, the Department takes the presence of mountain lions in the state seriously enough to post instructions on its website about what to do if you encounter a lion, panther, catamount, puma (all names for the same critter).

 

Statistically your chances of encountering a mountain lion and definitely your chance of being attacked by one, is less than your chance of being struck by lightning or savaged by an angry dog. According to wildlife experts,  fatal mountain lion attacks have averaged one in every 7 years since 1980 in the United States compared to lightning strikes that kill more than 80 people annually.

 

Yet, the Facebook comments on the alleged sighting in Jefferson City range from casual to hysterical.  One posited that the Conservation Department for reasons unknown is stocking mountain lions. Some years back one of the Western state conservation agencies  suffered allegations that it was parachuting mountain lions into the wild immediately before elk season to drive the game animals deep into the back country so they would be unavailable to hunters. Why the department would do this, considering that elk permits, are a substantial contribution to the department budget, is beyond reason—but then reason rarely stands in the forefront of those who endorse and pass along outlandish rumor.

 

In the case of the alleged Jefferson City mountain lion, the most outlandish accusation was that (given that Missouri is a solidly red Republican state) the lion was part of a stocking plot by the Democrats. No explanation given but I assume that the rumor monger believed the lions are programmed to eat Republicans. The local newspaper, resolutely conservative, has not reported the loss of any of its most ardent readers, some of whom regularly write letters to the editor endorsing whatever the current right-wing conspiracy theory happens to be.

 

As an aside, some years back in a location not far from Menard’s a black bear was treed at a time when Missouri conservationists believed that few if any black bears existed in the state. Black bears actually are featured on the official state symbol, and there now is what appears to be a fairly thriving population of the animals, especially in the Ozarks. They probably are the progeny of bears stocked in northern Arkansas which disrespected the border between the two states.

 

 Similarly, mountain lions have no geographical know how and can leap across a state line with one mighty bound.

 

By the time Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz produced their landmark book “The Wild Mammals of Missouri” the mountain lion was considered an extirpated species in the state. “By 1850 most had disappeared although during the next 75 years occasional individuals were reported in the southern part of the state,” they wrote. “The last one definitely recorded in Missouri was killed in 1927 in the Mississippi Low Land.” The two authors presciently predicted “Pumas are primarily predators of deer and since the deer population has increased greatly in Missouri in recent years, pumas may come back too.”

 

Charlie and Libby said “an adult puma can easily be distinguished from the bobcat.”  Although, apparently not from the feral house cat. Bobcats, although larger than a house cat, are certainly smaller than the mountain lion (puma) and are bobtailed, rather than featuring the readily identifiable long tail of a puma, panther et al. And, bobcats are considered a major predator of wild turkeys in North Missouri—not white tailed deer (or livestock, house pets, and small babies). And none of the cats are notorious for dining on human beings, although anyone who is ever tried to stuff a house cat inside a small carrier for a trip to the vet might disagree.

 

Perhaps it is significant that three of the 15 bronze sculptures created by Charlie Schwartz after his retirement from the department feature a mountain lion. It’s possible that Charlie never saw one of the big cats in person in the Missouri wild but there is no doubt he considered them a valuable subject of his wildlife art. Charlie shared with me an affinity for the unloved of Critterdom— I cherish number one of an edition of 25 of a Charlie Schwartz sculpture featuring a disdainful coyote casually peeing on a sprung leghold trap.

 

Do I believe the Jefferson City woman saw a mountain lion? Almost certainly not. Do I believe there are mountain lions in Missouri? Indisputably. Do I believe there is a breeding population? Possibly. Do I believe they pose a threat to hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts? No. What I do believe is that there  is indisputably a thriving population of people willing to believe the most bizarre rumors and post them on Facebook.

 

No mountain lions were harmed in the production of this blog.

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  • Blog
  • January 1st, 2020

HAVE I GOT A STORY FOR YOU!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Any book publisher will tell you that short story collections do not sell, so save your time and money by not submitting them for publication. Try telling that to James Michener whose short story collection “Tales From the South Pacific” became a bestseller, a Broadway musical, a movie, and a staple of repertory theaters across the country. Try telling it to Stephen King who, when he is not writing 600 page epic novels, turns his hand to short stories and often sees them turn into major motion pictures.

 

A short story is a novel squeezed into a few pages and is as different from a novel as a diamond is from a chunk of road gravel. The novelist can sprawl all over the place, travel down by ways and alleys, and explore ideas that occur incidental to the theme of the story the author is exploring. Conversely, the short story writer needs to hew to the line and avoid being sidetracked. Every word counts.

 

Short stories offer the reader a sharp, sometimes disconcerting, glimpse at life. Sometimes they leave the reader hanging (“The Lady or the Tiger”), letting the reader imagine his or her own finale. Sometimes, a short story contains possible hidden themes, offering different interpretations, depending on what the reader decides they mean. Often a story is just that— a good old tale told by a good storyteller where there are no hidden messages and the intent of the writer is nothing more ambitious than entertaining.

 

I grew up when popular magazines proliferated (even delivered Saturday Evening Posts for a few weeks when I wasn’t much bigger than the bag I carried, filled with that week’s issue. The exploits of Crunch and Des, Tugboat Annie, Horatio Hornblower, and the many other short story characters in the Post entertained and inspired me to want to write short stories.

 

I took a class in short story writing in college, taught by William Peden, a wonderful teacher who overlooked my clumsy and obvious attempt to write like J. D. Salinger, and who encouraged me to keep at it, graciously ignoring the fact that I was not and never will be J. D. Salinger.

 

I actually once published a short story in a literary magazine—one of those known-by-very-few-readers  magazines where you don’t get any money but you can leave the free copies which function as pay for your story on your coffee table, hoping that visitors will notice them and be suitably impressed by your literary accomplishment.

 

My first short story collection “Grandma and the Buck Deer” is directly inspired by the short stories of Jean Shepherd, who I heard telling them on late-night radio when I was in high school. He made a fortune when his stories were adapted into the wonderful movie “A Christmas Story” (narrated by him). Perhaps the same will happen to me. What the heck, there’s still time—after all, I’m only 85 years old.

 

Some of the best American writers ever specialized in short stories, too many to pick out individuals. Raymond Carver is noteworthy for wonderful slice of life tales, sometimes as short as a page or two. For fantasy writing, no one beats Ray Bradbury. Right up there with him are Roald Dahl and John Collier.

 

I cherish every story ever written by Thomas McGuane. His storytelling is straightforward and perhaps a reflection of his long experience as a screenwriter. His many novels and nonfiction are well worth your reading time, but his short stories stand out and make him one of the best of the contemporary short fiction creators.

 

Among the literary writers, the Nick Adams short stories of Ernest Hemingway are fine reads especially for anyone who hunts and fishes. William Faulkner took time out from his chronicles of Mississippi family drama to write “The Bear” and some other notable short stories, collected as a book titled “Go Down Moses”. Currently I am reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, a collection of mostly funny, sometimes fantastic tales. I’m alternating between that and E. L. Doctorow’s “Sweet Land Stories”.

 

Perhaps my favorite short story writer is Jim Harrison who died a year or so ago. He wrote voluminous poems as well as a number of memorable novels, but basically became the master of the novella— a cross between a very long short story and a very short novel—usually about 100 pages. Every one of them is a gem of wonderful writing. One “Legends of the Fall” became a movie and cemented Harrison’s reputation as one of the best writers in American history. His writing, like that of his close friend Tom McGuane, falls easily on the ear and the brain.

 

Here’s a few of my favorite short stories to spice up your new year.

 

A Sound of Thunder: of all Ray Bradbury’s many short stories this is the most memorable to me. And a word of advice— watch where you step or you might be dooming your relatives many generations in the future. If nothing else this story will give you a much greater appreciation of butterflies, which have enough problems in the present without considering what may have happened millions of years ago.

 

 

Broke back Mountain: Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story garnered eight Academy award nominations as a movie adaptation and probably should’ve won best picture. The story chronicled a gay relationship between two seasonal cowboys in the West. Annie Proulx writes sentences that are so perfect that after more than a half-century of writing for a living, they make me want to throw my word processor in the lake and get a job as a greeter at Walmart

 

A good man is hard to find: readers have been analyzing the theme and the underlying symbolism of the story ever since Flannery O’Connor wrote it. My take is that it dramatically illustrates the underlying truth of the statement “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Make of it what you will—good versus evil, God versus the devil, but remember that O’Connor herself was under a death sentence from disease and perhaps this is her bitter recognition of that.  A wonderful writer whom I don’t much like because her many layered stories confuse me and make me think, a dangerous affliction.

 

Why I Live at the P.O.: Eudora Welty is the finest of the Southern short story writers.  This delightful excursion into rural Mississippi is a combination of Hee Haw’s Culhane family and the dysfunctional family skits on the Carol Burnett show. I’ll swear I’ve known some of these people and Ms. Welty captures them for us memorably.

 

The Road to Tinkhamtown: if there is an aging grouse hunter who ever has followed an aging dog and who can read this story without puddling up, that man is not me—and I don’t want to hunt with him. Corey Ford’s short story in “Field and Stream” magazine is the greatest hunting story ever written.

 

The Open Window: H.H. Munro who wrote as Saki made it well worth five or 10 minutes of your time when you’re feeling grumpy and mad at the world to read this story and be delighted by the inventiveness of a irresistibly clever young con girl. We can only hope she grows up to be the Democratic Speaker of the House.

 

The Secret life of Walter Mitty: there’s a little bit of Mr. Mitty in everyone with any imagination. Every kid with a basketball imagines himself making the winning shot at the buzzer. I comfort myself often at night imagining myself invisible so I can invent endless ways to humiliate Donald Trump, including the use of a fart machine while he is debating with Democrat opponents in front of a national audience and close to a sensitive microphone. Thanks to James Thurber for bringing me and millions of other wannabes to life in fiction.

 

The Ransom of Red Chief: probably the inspiration for Dennis the Menace and the Home Alone movies, O. Henry’s 1907 “Saturday Evening Post” story is about the kidnapping of a 10-year-old boy by two men, who he drives absolutely nuts with his hyperactive antics to the point where they pay his father to take him back. Good story to read before you go on a long road trip with the kids in the back of the station wagon. It appeared as a segment in a movie titled “O. Henry’s Full House” starring Oscar Levant and Fred Allen as the two bedeviled kidnappers.

 

An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce survived the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War only to vanish years later amid revolutionary turmoil in Mexico but he left us with this eerie short story and also his definition of “I have a very good brain” Donald Trump   In his “Devil’s Dictionary” Bierce said: “Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.” Bierce’s Civil War story magnificently survived him. I hope we can do the same with Trump and his inappropriately self-described “very good brain”.

 

The Telltale Heart: it’s tough to pick a single Edgar Allen Poe story since there are so many but this one and the Cask of Amontillado stick out in my memory. Poe’s life was nearly as chaotic as his short stories, which probably explains why his imagination created some of the most memorable and spooky short fiction ever.

 

The most dangerous game: a short story, sometimes called the most popular short story ever written, with the same general theme as The Lady or the Tiger. Published in 1924 in “Collier’s” magazine it’s a good example that, at one time, the country benefited from short stories in popular magazines like “Colliers”, the “Saturday Evening Post”, and many others. Sadly, those magazines largely are gone and reader exposure to popular short stories has gone with them. F. Scott Fitzgerald, known as a literary novelist, made a good living off writing Post stories.

 

The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: I’m not sure we would be celebrating Mark Twain as America’s most famous writer today if it weren’t for this short story that jumpstarted (inadvertent pun) his long career. It’s a tall tale from his early days as a newspaperman in the Frontier West. Of course, you might say, that much of Twain’s stories were tall tales, amplified to novel length, but this one is pure campfire storytelling and is as much fun to read today as it was when I was a kid— and as it was when Twain wrote it more than a century ago.

 

The body: Stephen King occasionally takes time out from writing nuclear bomb size novels to write short stories. This one, Tom Sawyer for the 21st century, became the movie “Stand by Me”, which made a star of young River Phoenix who then proceeded to kill himself with drugs while still a teenager. It was, I guess, a fitting Stephen King like ending. In my mind, King is at his best when writing short stories.

 

Big Blonde: Dorothy Parker’s award-winning short story in the “New Yorker” was a sharp contrast to the usual picture of the wild, untamed life of the 1920s flapper— the party loving subject of the story is the antithesis of Zelda Fitzgerald, F Scott’s wife and the real life antithesis to Parker’s unhappy heroine. Zelda wound up a tragic mental case and Parker herself often was unhappy and far from the happy-go-lucky image she portrayed, much like the character in this most famous example of her short fiction. Once, my wife and I stayed at the Algonquin Hotel which hosted the famous Algonquin Round Table where Parker and other 1920s writers and famous characters gathered.   I hoped to soak up the atmosphere there— but aside from the hotel’s ever present lobby cat (probably not the same one from the 1920s) there was no ambience.

 

This is just a handful of short stories that have stuck in my memory for years. I have a deep and abiding love for short fiction and as far as those many publishers who say that short fiction doesn’t sell and therefore they won’t risk publishing it, I say the hell with them and the horse they rode in on.

 

Check out some of these writers and you might find that instead of burying yourself in a long novel you might also become an aficionado of the short story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • December 27th, 2019

GETTING CEREOUS

By Joel M. Vance

 

Political idiocy prevails.  I can’t say that it is comforting to know the 2019 exits with a flurry of political incidents that border on outright lunacy, but I also can’t say that it is surprising.

 

In my home state, Missouri, a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, has been hoisted back atop the Capitol after a year’s absence to be refurbished, buffed to an untarnished sheen not seen since she was installed atop the seat of state government, unsullied by the droppings of high flying birds (possibly commenting on the state of affairs in the legislative halls beneath her lofty perch where she symbolizes the importance of agriculture in the Show Me State) , after having been dulled by the inevitable tarnish of time.

 

Almost predictably, a state representative, almost predictably also a right wing Republican, objected to the presence of Ceres ’way up there, 230 feet above ground level, overlooking Jefferson City because she is a graven image. The outraged politician hails from the portion of the state often referred to as the Bible Belt.

 

State representative Mike Moon, an Ash Grove Republican, thundered “God commanded the Israelites to have no gods other than him.” He appealed plaintively to fellow Republican, Gov. Mike Parson, apparently channeling God’s word directly to the head of state, “do not make metal gods for yourselves. I am the Lord your God, Gov. Parson.  You and I have placed our trust in the same Lord, the God of the Bible. As such I appeal to your good judgment, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to direct the Capitol Commission to not return the false God Ceres, the Roman goddess, to the top of the Capitol dome.”

 

Although representative Moon seems to be in the camp of those afflicted by strange derangement during the full moon phase (i.e., werewolves and vampires) he may have a point—perhaps God, the real one, is less than enchanted by Ceres’ lofty position— she has been struck, mostly in the head, about 300 times by lightning since 1924.

 

Ceres stands 10’4” tall, weighs 1407 pounds and is constructed of bronze. She was grounded for a year, to spend time at the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, Inc., located in Forest Park, Illinois, a company which specializes in cosmetic treatment for items of historic significance. Dana Miller, chief clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives and a member of the Missouri State Capitol Commission, said “they call it laser ablation., conservation, not repair. So we’re conserving her.”

 

Apparently, Ceres was suffering from what you might call statuary zits. Although she is a bronze, she has a high copper content and when copper is exposed to weather, it can cause green freckles that tainted Ceres’ hair, body, outfit and base. Ms. Miller commented, “this coating that they’re putting on her will keep her looking good for a while. They didn’t even have to put a patina on her because she was so pretty,” she added.

 

So much for Missouri’s political hullabaloo over a statue. We’ll step over neighboring state Kentucky which already has its hands full with a political moon bat, not so much an obsession with graven images— Moscow Mitch McConnell, the Chinless Wonder who seems to feel that Donald Trump’s impeachment trial already is settled, perhaps in his hopeful imagination (and he hasn’t even been struck in the head by lightning once not to mention 300 times, even if he often acts like it). Throwing normal rules for jurors in a trial in the dumpster, McConnell has declared publicly that he has no impartiality and Trump is as pure as the driven slush.

 

However it is mandatory since 1849 according to the Kentucky State Constitution that every legislator, public officer, and lawyer must swear under oath that he or she has not fought a duel with deadly weapons. Presumably, Moscow Mitch has sworn that he has not engaged in duels—unless, of course, you count his mouth as a deadly weapon. Just you wait until Kentucky displays a statue or bust of a famous figure. I propose Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, but Moscow Mitch might be more inclined toward Vladimir Putin.

 

Let’s go another state south to Tennessee where a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest disgraces the state Capitol. Where General Robert E Lee has street creds as a historic warrior, revered to some extent by both sides for his role in what some unregenerate Southerners persist to this day in calling “The Late Unpleasantness.” By contrast Forrest was a sociopathic killer who, if he were living today, still would be a racist Ku Klux Klan stalwart and slavery defender. Forrest was a founder of the Klan. One might, if one were inclined toward the pun as a form of high humor, to call Nathan Bedford Forrest a “sheet head.”

 

The legislative proposal is to move the Forrest bust into the state Museum and (I swear, I am not making this up) replace it with a bust (and I don’t want to hear any giggles here) of Dolly Parton. Ms. Parton almost certainly is Tennessee’s most prominent citizen today and for the benefit of those who do not remember legendary episodes of the Johnny  Carson’s show, Ms. Parton once replied to an unspoken question by Carson by saying, “they are real!”

 

Lest you think that crazy state laws are the exclusive property of red states, especially those where people routinely eat grits as if they/it were actual food, Wisconsin, the home state of my mother, recently had a law proposed by State Sen. Glenn Grothman which would have required the state’s child abuse agency  to “emphasize” single parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.” A cosponsor, Don Pridemore, believes that spouses in abusive relationships should try to stay in them rather than divorce. Hang in there mama and ignore those bruises and broken bones— part of the price you pay for saying “I do.”

 

And far up in New Hampshire where the state motto is “live free or die,” a proposed law would have mandated that the cops would need a warrant before they could arrest someone for domestic violence. Quite possibly, the abusive husband could have shouted that slogan at his bleeding wife well before the cops came knocking at the door, legal paper in hand, responding belatedly to a “shots fired!” 911 call from the neighbors. Fortunately, the proposal died a-borning.

 

Nothing brings out the legislative indignation more than abortion. Had proposed laws been adopted (fortunately they died a- borning like that New Hampshire law), a doctor in Iowa performing an abortion could have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. And in Oklahoma, State Sen. Ralph Shortey wanted to ban “food or any product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses.” This is the stuff of which horror movies and state legislation is created. In Delaware and, again, in Oklahoma, bills (quite possibly intended as jokes) occupied otherwise blank sheets of paper proposing that “waste of sperm” constituted “an action against an unborn child.” All across the country, teenage boys, surreptitiously studying anatomy in pilfered copies of “Penthouse” shuddered in terror at the prospect of jail time and resolved never again to be masters of their own domain. Yeah, right.

 

For many years I rode a bicycle to and from work, a round trip of about 10 miles. The exercise, considering Jefferson City’s Missouri River hills, kept me in tip top shape and all I had to worry about was a passenger in a car pulling up beside me and spitting on me (which happened once–it was a young woman holding a baby in her arms). Not once in all those years did I, while pedaling, quaff a cold one, or sip a cooling gin and tonic, even on a steamy summer day. Yet a burgeoning trend in cycling, mostly west of Missouri, is riding on so-called “brew bikes.”

 

These contraptions are an expansion of the historic “bicycle built for two” except that they support up to about 10 revelers, all pedaling in unison, while they throw down adult beverages. The brew cycles originated in Tucson, Arizona, back in the late nineteen nineties, after having been invented by a Dutch company. They now are popular in Europe where a number of cities allow passengers to drink while cycling.

 

A fellow named Robert Mayer owns and operates the wonderfully named Arizona Party Bike and Pedal  Crawler out of Tucson. He modified his bikes to include lights, a stereo, and a motor power system—apparently for when the multiple riders get too drunk to operate pedals. If you’re in the market for a pedal crawler, the starting price is about $38,000. In addition to Tucson party bikes exist in Dallas, Nashville, and Philadelphia.

 

Drinking while operating a motorized vehicle is pretty well accepted now as a violation of law, but for where there is a will there’s a way— I am reminded of the story of Ol’ Possum, George Jones, the wonderful late country legend who, when deprived of his car keys, drove his garden tractor to town to buy some booze. But cycling while drinking and/or drunk apparently has confused the lawmakers to the extent that what regulations do exist are…. Well, confused.

 

Even though the reaction to propose legislation often prompts citizens to exclaim, “what the hell are they smoking!” That very subject offers a rich opportunity  for lawmakers hoping to make a name for themselves, no matter how risible the proposed law.

 

Along with abortion, legislation over marijuana takes up an inordinate amount of time while, often, necessary legislation concerning public education, healthcare, and other apparently non-pressing issues languish. In a rare display of bipartisanship Republican Senators. Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke, and Democratic Senators Alan Cranston and Gaylord Nelson once proposed decriminalizing marijuana. But the issue still resounds in the halls of government nationwide and it is still illegal in most areas to go one toke over the line. The latest issue is a brand-new form of reefer madness— vaping with marijuana infused electronic cigarettes. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

 

While it isn’t proposed  legislative  language, the following quote from the nation’s Blowhard in Chief, the know it all who almost daily turns the English language into gibberish, could easily be the model for the next inane if not absolutely insane legislation to waste the time of the nation’s elected representatives. Here is Trump letting us all know how much he knows about wind energy generation:

 

“We’ll have an economy based on wind. I never understood wind. You know, I know windmills very much. I’ve studied it better than anybody. I know it’s very expensive. They’re made in China and Germany mostly — very few made here, almost none. But they’re manufactured tremendous — if you’re into this — tremendous fumes. Gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint — fumes are spewing into the air. Right? Spewing. Whether it’s in China, Germany, it’s going into the air. It’s our air, their air, everything — right? So they make these things and then they put them up.”

 

There you go, wisdom from the top–talk about fumes spewing into the air!  We can always be thankful that they got Ceres back where she belongs atop the Missouri State Capitol before Trump mandated that she be tossed in the scrapheap and a statue of him in all his golden glory be installed in her place. On the other hand, maybe a few hundred lightning strikes to the head might knock some sense into him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • December 19th, 2019

NORTHERN LIGHTS

By Joel M. Vance

 

“Merry Christmas!” Harvey Mirella muttered to himself, his mood as bleak as the cold moonlight filtering through the snow shrouded pines. The headlights dipped and dug at the snowbanks, briefly trapped a snowshoe hare faintly outlined by its shadow—white on white.

 

It was Christmas Eve and Harvey was on his way to the county seat to get his son out of jail in time for the boy’s  seventeenth birthday.  His wife was in tears at home, her tattered face incongruous amid the glitter of the Christmas decorations. The boy, Brad, was a late child, born on Christmas morning, when Harvey was 40 years old.

 

Harvey Mirella was impatient with the boy, who always had seemed clumsy and slow, unable to fit in. The boy was dreamy, intent on aimless study of leaves and grass, not books. Harvey didn’t see how Brad could make it in real life and this bitter Christmas Eve mission was proof of it.

 

Harvey hated his resentment, but he had been right about the kid— bad seed or some chemical insufficiency. Something.  Sheriff calling at near midnight to tell him his kid had been caught breaking and entering. Harvey gritted his teeth anger heating his face. Once he had felt blessed with a Christmas baby. Not now. Just another punk juvenile delinquent. His juvenile delinquent.

 

Brad had been sitting in a pickup and was fumbling for the keys when the police car pulled alongside. The town marshal flashed his light on Brad’s white face, knew with a cop’s certain instinct that there was more here than a kid out with a sixpack. He motioned for Brad to roll down the window, his breath fogging in the cold Wisconsin night.

 

“What’s going on here?” he asked.

 

He could smell the beer, but the acrid smell of fear was just as strong. Brad started telling him some story about getting stuck and trying to get out, volunteering much more information than he asked for— a certain sign the kid was hiding something. He made Brad get out, noticed he weaved from the beer. He flashed the light inside the truck cab, saw unopened candy bars, packages of potato chips and other snacks.

 

It didn’t take much deduction to associate the broken window of the gas station with the items in the truck and with a terrified youngster. Punk kid, the marshal thought sourly, comparing Brad with his own boy who had starred for the high school basketball team and then had been killed in Vietnam.

 

“Punk kid breaking into a gas station,” the marshal said. He pushed the boy, now numb with fatigue and fear, none too gently into the detention center. “Sit down!” He commanded roughly. Brad collapsed into a hard chair in the small entry area, his face white and frightened.

 

The marshal and the center custodian went back into a cramped office. The custodian, who knew what had happened to the marshal’s son said, “Don’t be too hard on him, eh?  It’s not the end of the world. He’s pretty scared.”

 

“He oughta be,” the marshal said. “If he was a year older, he’d be lookin’ at prison. Probably get off with a pat on the back and the next time he’ll be carryin’ a gun.”

 

The center custodian was a gentle person, who had survived his own wild childhood.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” the custodian said. “Not a criminal, no. Scared kid got some beer and did something dumb.  Probably never do anything wrong again. Didn’t you ever do something wrong and not get caught?”

 

“Not like this,” the marshal said.

 

Harvey passed the city limits sign. He knew where the juvenile attention center was. “Juvenile attention!” What a laugh! Like they were doing the kid some favor. Why not call it what it was. A jail, a lockup for punk kids. Like Brad. Harvey parked the car behind the attention center. He felt old and tired.

 

His wife had been asleep when the phone rang, her dream one of danger and fear. Later she wondered if the fright of her dream began on the first ring of the phone or if she actually had experienced a premonition. She threw back the covers, raced into the hall to answer the persistent ringing phone, her eyes wide, but her mind still trying to shed the confusion of sleep.

 

“Yes!” She said. The news made her go numb with shock. Her lips stiff, asking meaningless questions. The official voice was patient, dispassionate. He’d broken bad news—far worse than this—too many times to a parent and it always was the same. Shock, fright, outrage, sometimes from the fathers, poorly thought out questions, sometimes self recrimination.

 

She put down the phone her mind a jumble of frightened bird thoughts, fluttering in confusion.  Nothing like this ever had happened. She knew she shouldn’t have let him go out on Christmas Eve. He belonged at home, with his family. But he had promised to be home early. “You can’t keep them locked in the cradle until they’re grown,” she told Harvey as he growled and finally gave in.

 

She leaned weakly against the wall. She had to tell Harvey. He had heard the phone ring, but not until she’d already moved to answer it. He’d been tired from a long day at the Cozy Cup, the café he ran down town in Birch Lake, and was heavily asleep when the call came. He lost his sense of time and missed the note of alarm in his wife’s voice, heard only the murmur of the conversation.

 

Then she switched on the bedroom light and he knew something terrible had happened from her face, pitted by desolation. “That was the Sheriff’s office. They say Brad broke into a filling station and stole some things.” He shouted foolish questions at her, groaned with misery. How he hated what the boy had done to him.

 

Brad was sick and confused. The beer had worn off, leaving him only a dull headache, a leaden fatigue. He knew what would happen when his father found out about this. He hated himself, hated his parents for being there to receive and hurt and condemn.

 

“Common sense!” His father had shouted, the last time he been in a scrape—nothing major; he’d gotten some beer and drunk it and driven to see his girlfriend and on the way he ran in the ditch and split his lip. “Common sense! You don’t have a lick of it! What makes you do such things!” He didn’t know. If he knew he wouldn’t do them. The beer eased the ache that was always there, a part of him.  Then he was as good as anybody, as big as the biggest. He could cope with anything. He could be happy. He drank beer with the guys and told jokes and everyone laughed and he felt warm and wanted. “Hey man what you in for?” It was some scuzzy kid, looking about half wired.

 

Brad shrugged. “I got caught in possession,” the kid said. “You deal?”

 

“I don’t do drugs,” Brad said.

 

“Hey man, you smell like a brewery,” he said. “They say alcohol is a drug, you dig?”

 

“What’s gonna happen now?” Brad asked.

 

“Ah, you probably get off with a kiss on the ear,” the kid said “what you get picked up for— dropping a sixpack?”

 

“Breaking into a filling station,” Brad said.

 

Hey, wow!” Said the scuzzy one with respect. “That’s heavy, man! They probably gonna stick you away for a hundred years!”

 

Brad looked at him with fright. He realized he had been counting on his father to get it all straightened out so he could go home where it was warm and familiar and it would be another bad memory. He felt his punishment was in the terror of getting caught and dragged behind bars. That this desolation could be more permanent had not occurred to him. The marshal, growled, “you better enjoy this luck, kid. It’s about run out. Next time I see you here, you ain’t gonna be a minor.”

 

After Harvey had signed the paperwork, the marshal said, “you can have him. He’ll probably get a slap on the wrist and a kiss from the juvenile judge.” The marshal looked at Harvey as if measuring how much of Brad’s guilt could be assigned to his parent. Harvey was stiff with his anger. He moved jerkily across the parking lot to the car. He slammed the door on his side, making no effort to help his son. Brad barely got the car door closed before Harvey stepped on the gas, shooting forward, the tire spinning briefly on the snowpacked parking lot.

 

Harvey thought of a dozen bitter questions, rejecting them all, finally shouted, “why!” He pounded on the steering wheel. “Why!” He glared at the silent boy beside him. “I wish you’d been born a girl,” he muttered sourly. Brad looked out the window at the bright winter night. “I wish I had never been born at all,” he said softly.

 

Harvey realized Christmas music still was playing on the car radio. “Thanks for the Christmas present,” he said sarcastically. He looked at the boy in the wash of moonlight through the windshield and saw tears glistening on Brad’s face

 

Once they had watched the flair of northern lights when Brad was six years old and he had seen tears on the little boy’s face—tears of helpless joy. His heart had swelled, so filled with love that he thought he would burst. But that was then. It was after midnight. Brad was an adult in the eyes of the law, now, a year older…. And it was Christmas day.

 

Harvey felt the tire blow, a sagging and sudden thumping. He immediately slowed and let the car drift to the roadside. It crunched to a halt in the softer snow. Another frustration, but Harvey realized he was drained of anger. He knew only a cloying fatigue.

 

“You could maybe help out a little bit,” he said tartly, looking at the boy. The Christmas music was clear in the suddenly silent night. “Change the tire. Do something constructive for once in your life.” Brad nodded, his head down. He opened the door, felt the sharp bite of the cold, and stepped out into the snow, his boots crunching.

 

Harvey unlocked the trunk. He stood back, watching the boy. Brad wrestled the spare tire out, the cold of the metal and rubber numbing his hands. He shivered, put his hands under his armpits to warm them.“Come on!” Harvey said. “We haven’t got all night!” Brad felt a flare of anger, but it died quickly. He tried to make his stiffening hands work with the icy tools.

 

The lights blinded both of them and they squinted awkwardly into the glare. Where had the pickup come from? They heard nothing. “So you got dem flat?” The voice was rich with a meaty Swenski accent. The pickup truck’s door creaked and clunked as a man got out. Probably some Scandahoovian potato farmer heading home full of Christmas beer. The figure was indistinct in the haze of the truck lights. Harvey glimpsed overalls, broad powerful peasant hands.

 

“Looks like dat boy’s doin’ all right,” said the farmer. Harvey looked at Brad struggling with the heavy tire and felt unfamiliar compassion. The car radio was playing “Silent Night.” For all its familiarity, it fit the calm quiet of the cold winter night. Harvey remembered, with a sudden ache in his throat, other Christmases when Brad was little and innocent, a chubby baby.

 

“So, den, you need some help?” The Svenski asked.

 

“Thanks for stopping,” Harvey said. “I guess we’ll get going all right.”

 

“Everything’s going to be all right,” said the farmer “this is Christmas, sure. Dem troubles we got, dey ain’t nuttin.”

 

“Maybe not for you,” Harvey growled.

 

“For me most of all,” the man said. “You know dis is a time ven God’s son vas born? I’ve been looking at that fine boy you got an’ tink ain’t it good to have a son.”

 

“They’re trouble,” Harvey said, the dull ache of his anger pulsing again.

 

“De’re joy too, you gif them a chance,” the farmer said. “Look dem lights is comin, you betcha!”

 

Harvey looked to the north, where the farmer pointed. There was nothing but a lacework of stars. Brad finished with the tire and straightened. Harvey started to turn toward the farmer to say he saw nothing when the  first flare lit the horizon.

 

The northern sky pulsed with light. In seconds the entire sky filled with veils of surging light, throbbing with a fierce majesty. The northern lights strode from horizon to horizon like a parade of angels. There were shimmering robes of pearly light, fountains of fire. They swelled and bloomed soundlessly. They were so immense, so grand that neither he nor Brad felt the cold, though there was no heat in the lights. As abruptly as they had come, the lights ebbed. They faded to a dull fire on the horizon and the winter stars shone again.

 

Harvey found he was weeping.

 

The farmer had vanished. How had the old guy known the lights would flare? Who was he? Harvey turned to the boy who was pale faced in the moonlight. The boy, now a man, yet also was a six-year-old, wet eyed with wonder.

 

“Brad….” He didn’t know what to say. He held out his arms to his son and Brad stepped into them. Wordlessly they held each other. “Brad, I love you,” Harvey said. “I always have.”

 

“I love you too, dad,” Brad said. “I always have.”

 

In silence they headed toward the Birch Lake and Christmas morning.

 

 

 

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  • December 13th, 2019

GRETA AND THE GRINCH

By Joel M. Vance

I suppose you could call it a bonus blog if you’re charitably inclined but it is the first time in more than 350 posts on this website that I have posted two in one week. Rather than a bonus, I suspect it is more in the nature of a spillover of bile, like a bubble of stomach acid, belched after a heavily spiced taco salad. Possibly, before I finish writing this, the United States House of Representatives will have passed two resolutions of impeachment against Donald J Trump, sending his eventual fate to a right-wing dominated Senate which will fall in line and declare him as pure as the driven slush, rather than the playground bully he actually is.

 

The description of the quintessential bully ((and it almost always is a he) is one who picks on the weak and defenseless. Donald J Trump the presidential Pretender in Chief, is that bully. But he is so abysmally ignorant that he doesn’t have the mental capacity to carefully pick his targets so they can’t fight back.

 

If you recall the moment in “the Christmas story” when Ralphie has had enough from the bully Scut Farkus and totally loses control in a maniacal outburst which finds him pummeling the bloody nosed Scut, screaming four letter words, learned from his furnace fighting father.

 

Trump doesn’t have enough sense to realize that he is running the same risk as Scut Farkus when he verbally assaults a 16-year-old Swedish teenage girl who has more integrity in her little finger than Trump does in his whole corpulent carcass. In fact, he has no integrity anywhere in that bloated tub of guts that resembles nothing so much as it does a puff possum two steaming July days after it has been run over on the highway.

 

If Trump thought he was singling out a weak and defenseless person on whom to vent his inane pique at her having been picked as Time Magazine’s person of the year rather than him (an honor which he has long lusted after, so much that he created a fictitious Time cover with his photograph on it—a spooky demonstration of insanity), he was laughably wrong.

 

Greta Thunberg is as far from being weak and defenseless as moral strength and integrity are from Donald Trump. Weak? How about a kid on a crusade, sitting day after day in front of the Swedish Parliament, lobbying for action on global warming? Through her strength of purpose and her unyielding dedication, she has won well-deserved admiration worldwide and has organized a youth movement dedicated to forcing those in power to address climate change, the most urgent threat to global integrity.

 

Defenseless? Her defense is truth, the best defense of all.  She doesn’t need to stand toe to toe with the likes of Donald Trump and punch him out, although I suspect a couple of whacks in his flabby gut would have him groveling on the ground like Scut Farkus, shrieking for mercy.  Ms. Thunberg quickly responded to Trump through his favorite medium of communication, Twitter, by tweeting “if anyone thinks that what I and the science are saying is advocating for a political view–that says more about that person than about me. That being said some are certainly failing more than others.”

 

She went on to amplify her philosophy by saying “I’m sometimes called political but I’ve never supported any political party, politician or ideology. I communicate the science and the risks of failing to act on it. And the fact is that the politics needed don’t exist today, neither to the right left nor center.”

 

Trump has had a remarkable and incomprehensible ability to evade responsibility for any of the destructive actions and statements he has made since he was inexplicably elected president of the United States. But just perhaps he has gone one step too far in attacking a 16-year-old environmental crusader who has the admiration and respect of anyone with a smidgen more than half a brain.

 

Trump has carried on an inexplicable vendetta against Ms. Thunberg for some time (and I suspect childish jealousy is a major part of the explanation) since she gained recognition after she confronted world leaders at the United Nations climate change conference. The Swedish teenager verbally flayed world leaders discussing a warming planet and how to avert disaster with a blistering speech. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire—because it is.”

 

She has been castigated for her views about the need to immediately address climate change, not just by the president of the United States, but by right-wing commentators and others whose primary claim to fame is that they are awful human beings. Even Fox News, as low blow oriented as it often is, was forced to apologize for right-wing guest Michael Knowles calling Ms. Thunberg “mentally ill” a day after her United Nations talk. Ms. Thunberg deals with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism characterized by, among other symptoms, difficulty in dealing with social situations—think of the immense courage it takes for someone with that problem to take an assortment of world leaders to task for their inability to deal with climate crisis.

 

After her United Nations talk, Trump snidely tweeted “she seemed like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Ms. Thunberg immediately updated her Twitter biography with subtle sarcasm, saying she was “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” Trump wasn’t about to let up on his bitter resentment after the Time Magazine honor, immediately tweeting “Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”

 

Greta immediately responded by again updating her biography on Twitter by saying she is “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old-fashioned movie with a friend.” Take that, fat man. Trump, the Dolt in Chief has no chance of winning this word duel with a person infinitely smarter and more articulate than he is.

 

Our daughter, Carrie, who has been an environmental champion from cradle onward, spent several decades as a high school English teacher, doing her best to shepherd teenagers toward responsible adulthood. With what I hope is pardonable parental pride, and taking no credit for her development as a person deeply concerned with the health of the planet—especially, its natural resource integrity— I was not surprised when she reacted on Facebook after Trump tweeted his inexcusable assault on Ms. Thunberg. She posted on Facebook, “I just can’t let this one slide. Donald Trump, president of the United States and husband of anti-cyber bullying crusader Milania Trump, spent his Thursday morning cyber bullying a teenage girl.  So sad.” I sense a bit of sarcasm there since Trump is fond of ending his tweets about something he doesn’t like (which is almost everything) with the comment “so sad.”

 

Someone who spends much of his time venting in choleric rage with insane tirades against a whirlwind of reactions to his erratic life suggesting that a sincere, much admired teenage girl needs to deal with anger management is so ludicrous it would be funny if it weren’t so aggravating. No point in telling Trump he should deal with his own anger management. It would just make him angry.

 

Trump’s entire philosophy of life is based on anger. He thrives on it, fuels his self image with it, and energizes his debased base by appealing to their latent rage about what ever— their lack of intelligence, their lack of achievement in life, their lack of success at winning the lottery, the failure of their sports team to win, their failure in who knows what? It’s called lynch mob mentality and it has been the weapon of choice for those who would rule by terror since the first barely human bully crawled out of a cave, armed with a club and a handful of rocks, bent on subduing his weaker peers.  The idea is that if you can’t beat them, whip up a mob and have it do the dirty work, especially if you’re too cowardly to attempt it yourself.

 

In an absolutely insane reaction to Time’s selection of Ms. Thunberg as person of the year, the Trump   reelection campaign committee issued a photo of the Time cover with Trump’s head superimposed on Greta’s body. If this is not paranoia not to mention cyber bullying in its most crude and despicable form, then nothing is.

 

One reactive comment to Trump’s idiotic attack on Ms. Thunberg pretty well sums it up: “Greta, take it from me when you rattle cages you will get haters. Keep fighting for what you believe is right. You don’t owe your critics a damn thing.”

 

The late-night comedians, have been feasting on Trump and his slavish supporters. Trevor Noah perhaps summed it up better than any by saying “she’s 16, so she is used to handling temper tantrums from immature boys.”

 

So let’s boil it down in conclusion. Trump always is going to be the petulant bully picking on whomever he feels is too weak to fight back and he always will make the mistake of picking on people who are stronger than he thinks they are and who will put him down like the Scut Farkus he is.

 

Go Ralphie! Er…. Greta!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • December 12th, 2019

TOILET THOUGHTS

By Joel M. Vance

A petition signed by 350 psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals claims that President Donald Trump’s mental health is deteriorating rapidly “We are convinced that, as the time of possible impeachment approaches, Donald Trump has the real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation,” said Drs. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist, Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler, and John Zinner, a psychiatrist at George Washington University.

 

I’ve posted it before, but it’s worth repeating the Mayo Clinic definition of a sociopath: “Disregard for right and wrong, Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others, Being callous, cynical and disrespectful of others, Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or personal pleasure, Arrogance, a sense of superiority and being extremely opinionated, Recurring problems with the law, including criminal behavior, Repeatedly violating the rights of others through intimidation and dishonesty, Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead, Hostility, significant irritability, agitation, aggression or violence, Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others, Unnecessary risk-taking or dangerous behavior with no regard for the safety of self or others, Poor or abusive relationships, Failure to consider the negative consequences of behavior or learn from them, Being consistently irresponsible and repeatedly failing to fulfill work or financial obligations.”

 

Do we see a description here of someone we have grown to observe and loath through the past three plus years? Did the Mayo folks put a clinical microscope on the Sociopath in Chief and write a description based on what they saw? It’s one thing to laugh at a person who complains about not having enough water to flush his golden toilet; it’s quite another to be saddled with a sociopathic president—actually, it’s downright terrifying.

 

There is an old country saying about people with erratic mental behavior, namely that so-and-so is “crazy as a shit house rat.” The little house out back, referred to, is a relic of the past, celebrated in song by Billy Ed Wheeler. “They passed an ordinance in the town/they said we’d have to tear it down/that little shack out back so dear to me.” Unfortunately, the only applicable ordinance that can relegate Donald Trump to the status of former president is the Constitution of the United States which outlines conditions for his removal from office. The fact that 250 mental health professionals say he’s nuts, and his own rambling and goofy statements about almost everything , amply demonstrate the truth of their conclusion, isn’t enough to send him scurrying from the White House like a rat from the little house out back.

 

(The song in question is the “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back” written by Wheeler in the nineteen sixties and sung by him and the wonderful Bobby Bare—two guys who, like me, spent part of their  childhood combating droning yellowjackets and reading the Sears and Roebuck catalog.)

 

Small people with a similar mental development to Donald J Trump used to chant “rain rain go away/come again some other day!” At least kids in olden times knew how to deal with unwanted water. Trump is bumfuzzled by that stuff called rain. “For the most part you have many states where they have so much water, it comes down— it’s called rain. They don’t know what to do with it.” This indicates to me that the average kindergarten child, faced with a rainy day, has a firmer grip on reality than does the president of the United States.

 

Trump’s comments on water came recently at a meeting with small business owners in which he railed at the recommendations for water conservation, passed during the George HW Bush administration which, according to the Fat Boy in Chief, present a toilet difficulty that has him confused. By now, anyone who is paying attention to the confused and largely incoherent ravings of the tangerine colored Idiot in Chief, knows that (I’m talking about Donald J Trump) the Clown in Chief maintains that water conservation makes it necessary to flush the toilet 10 to 15 times a day to make everything go away. Would that it were so easy to flush away Trump and his supporters— I would gladly sacrifice precious water to make that happen.

 

Actually, water conservation in toilets limits capacity of the reservoir to a gallon and a half which, if the toilet is operating correctly, will flush all the stuff to an appropriate waste management system. The reservoir then refills automatically to the correct level. But then Trump, not qualified even to be a plumber’s helper, wouldn’t know that.

 

Trump also complained that low flow water conservation appliances limit the water available from faucets for handwashing to a trickle. “You turn on the faucet and you don’t get any water. They take a shower of water come dripping out. Just dripping out, very quietly dripping out.” The answer, Trump maintains, is to loose his environmental regulation-gutting attack dogs. “We have a situation where we’re looking very strongly at sinks and showers and other elements of bathrooms where you turn the faucet on— and areas where there is a tremendous amount of water, where the water rushes out to sea because you could never handle it, and you don’t get any water.” If you are able to decipher this incoherent statement, more power to you, but to me it is merely one more example of Trump being Trump—which is to say the equivalent of turning a 4-year-old loose in a room full of conservationists with a live hand grenade.

 

The Orange Julius in Chief also took the occasion to unload on energy efficient light bulbs. He maintains that they are unflattering to his noble visage. “They got rid of the lightbulb that people got used to.” He said. “The new bulb is many times more expensive. And I hate to say it, it doesn’t make you look as good. Of course, being a vain person, that’s a very important to me. It gives you an orange look. I don’t want an orange look.” Sorry, Jocko, too late.

 

The mistake we all are making is focusing on the inanities of Trump, the ludicrous statements that give the late-night comedians more material that they can use, while ignoring the statements and actions Trump makes and takes that have dire implications for the future of the country.

 

His dismissal of climate change as a hoax, his cozying up to the world’s most despicable dictators, his overall ignorance of diplomacy, his dismantling of environmental regulations (some of the best of which—clean water, clean air, the Environmental Protection Agency— were established by a Republican administration), his assaults on progressive programs such as Social Security and Medicare, all conspire to define a person who cares little about the requirements of his office.

 

While he was nattering about not having enough water to soak his stubby little fingers, he also was chatting cozily with the Russian Foreign Minister at the very moment the United States House of Representatives was poised to impeach his porky ass. While any thinking environmentalists will ridicule his stupid statements about water conservation, light bulbs and his big brain, the United States Senate, dominated by Republicans, almost certainly will quickly exonerate Trump and as the environmentalists mourn, Vladimir Putin will rejoice.

 

Daniel Larison, senior editor at The American Conservative magazine, not exactly a liberal publication, had this to say about impeaching Trump, “Members of the House have been given a simple test of their fidelity to the Constitution. Are they enablers of presidential abuse of power and corruption, or will they do what their oaths of office require of them and hold a corrupt president in check?”

 

Saddest of all, a third of the voting population of the United States is depressingly likely to reelect Trump and give the other two thirds of thinking people the agony of four more years of him and his evil acolytes dismantling the foundation of the Republic. Make no mistake about it— this man is a dangerous demagogue and a would-be dictator. He is mentally unbalanced and unmoved by common decency.

 

Anyone who posts on Facebook is inviting vilification of the type usually reserved for restroom walls, and that includes me. A woman named Marly Borup recently posted a spirited defense of Trump and all that he represents. Her Facebook photo shows her cradling a humongous walleye, proving that she is far and away a better angler than I am. But I have to question whether or not she has studied Donald Trump’s history with women, and if so, how she could, in all conscience, defend the Groper in Chief. Trump is far beyond the most misogynistic human ever to occupy the White House— he brags about it, preening like a stud horse in a stable full of fillies. Regardless of what he considers himself, he is not the dream guy of most women’s dreams. He is the nightmare. Apparently he believes not only can he shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it; he also can molest any woman who captures his fantasy and be  absolved if not lauded for wrongdoing by his sheepbrained faithful.

 

Marly generated some negative feedback for her comments endorsing Trump and it’s entirely possible I will get the same for mine. So be it. As  Rhett Butler so succinctly put it to Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

 

Try this for a reality check: take the statement below into the bathroom where you can speak resonantly against the hard tiled walls, as if you were declaiming to an ardent Trump rally audience. Be sure you don’t let the children hear you, especially the words, because child-abuse is a crime. Read the words aloud and listen carefully to what you are saying.

 

Going way back to the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Trump said “you know what else they say about my people? The polls they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

 

I hope that the Secret Service doesn’t loan out any of its sidearms to the person whom they are pledged to protect, especially if that person is likely to run into Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Adam Schiff on Fifth Avenue.

 

After you finish your bathroom aria, repress your revulsion and reenter the world of reality.

 

And don’t forget to flush 15 times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • December 5th, 2019

MY TURN TO VENT

By Joel M. Vance

 

I may have lost a long time friend a little while ago when I posted a response to a Facebook post by him that I took objection to. I hope not, but I’m sure that I would be ticked off if someone ate my lunch for saying something intended to be inspirational.

 

My friend (and I hope he still is) is perfectly free to say whatever he wants. But then, so am I. Here is where we diverged: “I’m going to vent here,” he posted on Facebook. “I believe we all have the right to worship as we please, but I also know that our country, the United States of America was founded on Christian principles.” I could not agree more with his opinion that we have the right to worship as we please. Certainly, no argument there.

 

But the rant went on to claim that the Today Show had edited out a reference to Jesus Christ by the widow of a Navy Seal killed in Libya who, when asked how she wanted her children to remember their father, said “by his love for Christ.” The rant, supposedly written by my friend, went on to say “I hope every Christian or every person that believes in God who is offended will copy this and paste it to their status.”

 

I simply did not believe that the network would do such a thing and checked with the website Snopes.com about the accuracy. I further Googled the incident and found a number of references to it, all of which said that the attribution is false. Truth or Fiction.com says “we found the video on that page to be in its complete and unedited form.”

 

What’s even more distressing about the whole thing is that the supposed incident took place in an interview by Matt Lauer, the discredited and fired anchor of the Today Show, which occurred in 2012–seven years ago. This rumor has been floating around for seven years, being repeated time and again and all it took me was about two minutes to check it out and find out it’s bull hockey.

 

Furthermore, I have seen the “rant” by my friend, word for word, before, posted by someone else. If anyone wants to make a case that we are threatened as a society, let them rant instead about the virulent dissemination through social media of totally false and damaging information. It should be common knowledge by now that Russia and other outlets hostile to our national interest are flooding Facebook and the like with false postings, intended to corrupt our national mindset. The credulous believe that crap and won’t take the time to check it out for accuracy.

 

The bottom line is that my friend’s rant (which he did not write) could’ve been disproved by a couple of minutes of fact checking.

 

More than 100 people, including some of the best friends I’ve had in life, endorsed this rant with an “amen!”. Only Al Agnew, one of the nation’s finest wildlife artists, said what should have been said by all “I get so sick and tired and fearful for this country when stuff like this that probably is just spread to further divide us and is taken to be true (and current) by so many people without questioning it. Whether or not Russia or another enemy is generating stuff like this, it couldn’t be more perfectly designed to weaken the country.”

 

Here is what the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  Let’s first examine the second clause of that priceless amendment to the framework of our society—freedom of speech

 

Does the right of freedom of speech mean that freedom extends to speaking falsehoods? Especially if the dissemination of phony information is intended to mislead and persuade people to believe something that is harmful to the common good?

 

As a nearly lifelong reporter, I’ve had it drilled into me from day one in journalism school that you don’t report dubious allegations without checking them for accuracy. Far too many people tend to believe the worst, no matter the source. This is especially true when it comes to sensitive subjects like—in this case— religion or politics.

 

We have become a nation afflicted by lying, in danger of oblivion through falsehood. Somehow we managed to elect a president who has been documented telling more than 13,000 lies since his regrettable election. Nazi Germany was a society that relied heavily on the dissemination of lies and Joseph Goebbels , a master propagandist, was Hitler’s weapon of choice when it came to deceiving. And he did it without the benefit of Facebook or Twitter or any other social medium that today is a platform for launching bullshit bombs. We have tried our best since World War II to ban the horror of nuclear bombs; how about working to ban the present threat of the bullshit bomb?

 

Some years ago, another friend, a Marine veteran, seriously wounded in Vietnam, started a discussion group of fellow Marines on the Internet. I had no qualifications for being among the group, not being a Marine (my buddy allowed me in, calling me a “cannon cocker” because of my artillery status) and not having been in combat. But this was the dawn of the troll when monstrous whoppers began to get passed along as truth and after it happened a few times, I jumped in with a suggestion that the person who had posted the misinformation instead check it out with Snopes.com or Truth or Fiction.com before letting the pixels fly.

 

After I had rubbed it in a few times, I began to see notes that said the poster had checked one of the fact checking websites before posting. Since, I have called out more than a few people for posting phony statements on the Internet and will continue to do so until—possibly— I have no friends left and will be universally vilified as a grumpy old bastard (and I will be the first to declare that that is an absolutely true description).

 

Let’s just look for a while at what the founding fathers of the nation actually said about religion. There must be a reason that religion plays such a prominent part of the very first amendment to the Constitution, the document that lays the framework for our existence as a democratic nation.

 

A nation founded on Christianity? “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from the shores the ceaseless drive that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” So said James Madison, known by all as the Father of the Constitution. Or how about this one? “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” So said John Adams, the second president of the United States.

 

And Mr. Madison again, “I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, and showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

 

And Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had this to say among many other statements about separation of church and state “the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

 

The First Amendment does not say that we are not a Christian nation— it merely says that the government has no business dictating what religion we should practice or how. I have no quarrel with money stating that we trust in God and also no problem with saying that we are one nation under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. But what God? That, I think, is the meaning of the First Amendment— that we are as humans free to pick our own God and worship accordingly.

 

Men (And It’s Mostly Men) have been killing each other in the name of a God virtually since the dawn of humanity. And each of these justifications for death and destruction claim that it is the will of their God that they are enforcing. The gods vary, but almost all religions believe in either a single God, or a combination of divinities. If one were somehow to eliminate the cruelty and devastation wrought in the name of religion and boil down what I believe to be the essential meaning of religion it is the Golden rule. If everyone truly believed in and practiced that simple statement of faith, evil would be vanquished forever.  It’s usually interpreted as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” How could anything be simpler?

 

The concept of the Golden rule existed centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a fundamental principle in every religion that has existed almost since the dawn of humanity—even including Wicca, the practice of “good”witchcraft.

 

I’m not a regular churchgoer and probably destined for hell or whatever ultimate destination awaits he who has been largely indifferent to religious dedication throughout life. I was baptized Methodist as a teenager in the Dalton Methodist Church which no longer exists—I think it became the victim of a fire years ago. And its replacement recently became the victim of a Missouri River flood. One can read into this any religious meaning you want.

 

One religious experience does stick out in my mind and has for years, recurring in my memory time and again. It took place on a sunny Sunday in a wooded clearing on Auvasse Creek. My National Guard unit was on a weekend drill on an accommodating farmer’s land alongside the creek south of Mexico, the location of our Guard armory. We had set up a headquarters battery camp there, just as we would in an actual field location, a practical exercise.

 

We offered a Sunday nondenominational service, conducted by the local Methodist minister, a friend of our family who had visited my wife Marty and me in the hospital after our first daughter’s birth where we celebrated the blessed event together with a simple prayer.

 

There, in a natural setting, blessed by the beauty of nature, Bob simply talked. No fire and brimstone sermon, no proselyting for the Methodists or any other belief set. He just talked. It was about the tranquility of our spot in nature on that Sunday morning, about the harmony and peace of what we were experiencing. There was no splashing of holy water, no munching on wafers, no exhorting of the necessity to cast out devils. Just a thoroughly decent human being sharing a moment of mutual grace. He did, at that quiet moment, do unto others what he would have them do unto him. I can’t speak for the rest of the weekend warriors, but what he said (and perhaps as important what he didn’t have to say) has stuck with me for decades.

 

At the risk of being a spoilsport let me correct a story which has been current on Facebook and elsewhere for some time, namely that Mr. Rogers, the beloved host of his long time television show for adoring youngsters and sentimental oldsters, now being lovingly portrayed in a biopic by Tom Hanks, was not either a decorated Navy Seal in World War II, nor a sniper with many kills to his credit. Fred Rogers never served in the military. Likewise, Captain Kangaroo although a Marine did not earn a Navy Cross for service in World War II, and did not serve in combat at Iwo Jima with actor Lee Marvin, a fellow Marine.

 

For the record, Marvin was an authentic hero but was not wounded at Iwo Jima, rather at Saipan. But at least these falsehoods involving Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers are harmless and feel good unlike most of the internet whoppers that fundamentally are cruel, damaging, and hurtful.

 

So, that’s my rant, and take it for what it’s worth. If I’ve offended my friend and those who agree with him, I guess I can live with it. My bottom line objection is that perhaps the most dangerous threat to our democracy today is believing falsities promulgated by devious or stupidly credulous folks, rather than taking time to check the facts, and sticking to the truth.

 

So, as almost any holy leader in any religion ever known to man would say, “go with God.”

 

 

 

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  • November 29th, 2019

MOVIE MANIA

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was born when sound on film was only a few years old. It was a stunning moment for most ardent moviegoers when Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” became audible. But by the time I was old enough to plunk down my quarter or whatever it took to get into the theater, sound was omnipresent in movies and the silent era essentially was ended.

 

Except— I still will watch most or all of “The General” with Buster Keaton in glorious silent black and white if only to see the comic genius and the absolutely incredible and dangerous stunts that Keaton performed himself.

 

I recoiled in delicious terror when Dr. Frankenstein’s monster loomed on the silver screen or Count Dracula batted at the windows in the form of a huge bat. In company with legions of puny adolescents, I subsisted on the soul food of a movie addicted tot—Necco wafers and, especially, (nevermind today’s staple of the moviegoer, popcorn) the greatest of all cinematic junk foods, Milk Duds. All over the nation, dentists were rejoicing and booking their next Caribbean vacation.

 

All this is prelude to listing my 10 favorite movies of all time—those films that I will see time and again. Homage, thanks, and deep appreciation goes to Ted Turner, creator of the TCM channel (Turner classic movies) where we can indulge in nostalgia. And a list of 10 favorites is bound to exclude somebody else’s favorite 10 and possibly even lead to barroom fights.

 

But since I rarely visit barrooms anymore and never was inclined to fisticuffs where I would be rapidly reduced from inclined to reclined, these are mine and feel free to disagree.  There are countless movies that I will watch again either all or part of. Who can resist being lured into any of the “Star Wars” “or “Indiana Jones” movies? And I never miss a rerun of “A Shot in the Dark” with Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Clouseau. Monty Python movies are a drug as addictive as heroin.

 

I quickly can name three of my top five movies and all three star Humphrey Bogart, who on the face of it (and him) seems an unlikely Hollywood idol. He wasn’t very good-looking, only in a rough shod way, but he starred in three movies that I will watch every time they appear. In two of the three he was a scrungy character, far removed from a matinee idol. They don’t come any scrungier than Fred T Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or Charlie Alnutt in “The African Queen.” Only in “Casablanca” did Bogart portray a character with any kind of panache.

 

The pairing of Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” was a marriage made in Hollywood heaven. Director John Huston was a fan of filming on location and the actors in the movie suffered as a result of the hardships they endured in Africa. Bogart’s revulsion when he surfaced from repairing the Queen covered with leeches was not realistic acting— he was revolted. The leeches were real.

 

Orson Welles movie “Citizen Kane” consistently is voted the best film of all time but I beg to differ. How many people remember any lines from that movie other than Welles whispering “rosebud”, the name of his treasured childhood sled as he eases into eternity. But you can quote lines from “Casablanca” endlessly. Or at least I can. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And, of course, “you know what I want to hear. You played it for her, you can play it for me!” And he didn’t say “play it again Sam.”

 

That’s one of two lines that most people get wrong, along with Mae West saying to Cary Grant in the 1933 film “She Done Him Wrong”, “why don’t you come up and see me sometime.” (She actually said “why don’t you come up sometime “n see me?” And, in “treasure of the Sierra Madre” the grimy bandit did not say “we don’t need no stinking badges!” There was no “stinking” except for the obviously smelly bandit himself.? What he actually said was “We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

 

There are two moments in my favorite movies that are guaranteed to make me puddle up. One is when Marian the librarian in “The Music Man” sings “good night my someone, good night my love.” We were fortunate enough to see the musical on Broadway in revival with Craig Bierko as Professor Harold Hill, the role that Robert Preston created and against whom all others will be measured. Bierko was wonderful, but when Marian sang her hopeful ballad to the night sky, I was choked up and wiping my eyes, just as I do every time the movie plays on TCM. Most fans of Meredith Willson’s wonderful musical probably don’t realize that the melody of “good night” actually is the same melody as “76 trombones,” the most upbeat and boisterous tune of the entire musical, drastically slowed down.

 

The other tearjerker for me is at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Scout, the precocious (and precious) Mary Badham as Scout looks beyond the people who are tending to her after she is rescued from being assaulted by the movie’s villainous Bob Ewell and sees someone behind the door. She says softly, “Hey, Boo” to Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, her reclusive rescuer. Once again, the old softy in me turns me into weepy mush.

 

Ms. Badham spoke at the Columbia public library once and signed my copy of Harper Lee’s book, and talked about her experiences making the movie when she was seven years old. She loved Gregory Peck, who played her character’s father Atticus Finch, and revered him the rest of his life. And she was frightened by James Anderson, Who played Bob Ewell, the evil drunk bad guy. “He stayed in character all the time and I was terrified of him” she said.

 

I will not read “Go Set a Watchman” Harper Lee’s posthumous prequel to “Mockingbird.” Apparently, it portrays Atticus as a racially prejudiced southern white man before his enlightened days as the defender of a black man wrongly accused of rape. I want to remember the Atticus of “Mockingbird” and the saintly Atticus of the movie, so movingly portrayed by Gregory Peck. I had far too much exposure to white middle to upper class southern men with bigoted mindsets when I lived for a time in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama—and, for that matter, in the Missouri of the same time period.

 

Another of my top 10 is “Anatomy of a Murder.” I love it for a variety of reasons. First of all it is, in my mind, the greatest courtroom drama in cinematic history. And it stars Jimmy Stewart, among the greatest actors of all time, invariably involved in fascinating dramas. The dialogue sparkles and it is worth watching if only to see Joseph Welch as the wry, homespun, funny and lovable judge. Welch in real life was famous for destroying the evil Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy when he was a counsel for the Army when McCarthy, as insane and destructive as any Congressman in history (until now) accused the Army of being infested with communists. With weary resignation Welch said to the glowering senator and his ferret faced sidekick Roy Cohn, later to become one of Donald Trump’s infamous legal beagles, “Senator, at long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy shriveled like a slug on a hot sidewalk and soon oozed into history, drunk and disgraced.

 

It’s tough to pick “Anatomy” as my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie because I also have watched “Rear Window” many times and also the movie that Stewart himself listed as his favorite of the many he starred in “Harvey.”  It’s hard not to watch a movie about a gentle, eccentric man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot rabbit. And how can anyone not watch, again and again, “Rear Window” a movie costarring Grace Kelly?  I can offer as a defense the idea of “irresistible impulse” which was the winning defense that Jimmy used to get a not guilty verdict in “Anatomy.”

 

I once had a chance to meet John Voelker, the real name of Robert Traver, a Michigan Supreme Court judge who wrote the book “Anatomy of a Murder.” Like a fool, I didn’t travel to the Upper Peninsula where Voelker lived in a home that he said was “bought and paid for by Anatomy of a Murder.” Voelker was an ardent trout fisherman and maybe we could have gone fishing together, using his favorite fly which he called “a little bitty brown thing.” And we could have shared one of the beers that he would stash in a cold spring hole while he fished, with which to cap off the day.

 

There is one other musical among my top 10. “Singing in the Rain” is absolutely stuffed with charming dance routines, topped off by Gene Kelly dancing his way down a rainsoaked street, while singing the title song. Costar Debbie Reynolds said Kelly was so demanding in their rehearsals that her feet bled. Add in Donald O’Connor’s show stopping “make ‘em laugh!” frenzy and who could ask for anything more?

 

The biggest trouble with Alfred Hitchcock movies is picking out which one you like the best and, for purposes of this list, which one you would watch over and over. It’s a tossup for me between “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.” Some opt for “Psycho” and others for “Vertigo.” And then there’s “the Man Who Knew Too Much” with the assassin waiting for the cymbal clap to fire the fatal bullet. Hitchcock knew how to draw out the suspense to the point where you want to scream “for God’s sake, watch out!” As many times as I’ve seen it, the scene where Grace Kelly is in the killer’s apartment and you see the burly killer Raymond Burr walking toward the door into his apartment, the tension is like an over tightened guitar string—will it snap or not, even though you know it won’t. But who can resist Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint capering over Washington’s nose (or was it Lincoln’s nose?) on Mount Rushmore, pursued by the killer Martin Landau?

 

As a nearly lifelong ardent canoeist, not to mention a nearly lifelong guitar player, I can’t resist revisiting “Deliverance” every time it broadcasts. I figure that Ronny Cox, taking a pristine Martin guitar unprotected on a canoe trip down a wild, rapid filled river, deserved to get shot. And there is an unavoidable quiver of recognition when the four canoeists run afoul of a pair of depraved backwoods types, remembering my own encounter on the Niangua River with a guy that came out of the bushes wearing a pistol. As it turned out, he was harmless, in a weird way, but I was extremely happy to see the rest of our canoeing party show up, even though none of them was packing a bow and arrow.

 

George Lucas wasn’t thinking of my generation when he made “American Graffiti” but there is no film ever that captured the spirit of the 1950s as thoroughly as did that film—even though the timeframe supposedly was the 1960s. We didn’t cruise the strip in Keytesville because there was no strip (main street was about two blocks long), but the songs were the songs of my teenagerhood, as were the tentative tiptoes into adulthood experienced by the picture perfect cast. No other movie comes close to capturing that era, except for “The Last Picture Show,” where the grimy small, failing Texas town is far closer to the reality of Keytesville than was “Graffiti’s” more urban setting.

 

There is one other movie involving kids that has to be on the list because almost everyone on earth has seen it at least once and most at least twice and many others countless times, including me— it also has a memorable line which every boy over 70 years old is able to quote: ”you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”The movie, of course, is “A Christmas Story.” Ralphie’s lust for a Red Ryder BB gun was universal when I was Ralphie’s age and though the red spot has faded with time, I once suffered a pellet wound about a quarter inch below my right eye when a fellow adolescent plinked me during a session of wargames that would have resulted in the confiscation of my Red Ryder, had my mother known about it.

 

Merry Christmas and, God willing, you won’t get bunny slippers from Aunt What’sherface.

 

I gave some thought to leaving my number 10 favorite movie blank so you could fill in your own choice but then I thought of the ideal movie to wind it up. Those who have seen the movie will know what I mean and those who haven’t are in for a wonderful treat. As the unlikely hero of “The Big Lebowski” says:

 

The dude abides…..

 

 

 

 

 

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