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  • Blog
  • March 18th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It has always been just The Place, hardly an inspirational name like Shangri-La. It originally was 30 acres and we added 10 acres to it for a total of 40. If I could be sure that a family who would love these woods as much as I have for nearly half a century would acquire The Place after I’m gone and our family perhaps no longer goes to what we’ve always called The Place, I would mandate my ashes to be scattered throughout the woods, or perhaps on the overgrown gravesite of so many of our beloved Brittanies.

I can’t stand the thought of these cherished woods belonging to someone else because people these days are prone to buy a place in the country and strip it of the woods and brush that gave it character and turn it into a cityscape, precisely what they flee the city to escape. So, our family will hang on to The Place as long as it can and hope for the best, knowing that the best is The Place.

It was 1969 and we were looking for some acreage outside town where we could escape on weekends, holidays, or at times when life threatened to overwhelm us. We looked at possibilities as far as 50 miles from Jefferson City, but nothing spoke to us and said here is where you want to spend as much of your lives as possible until one evening the realtor who had sold us our house in town took me out to what had been his family’s retreat from the city and said, “Our boys are teenagers now and more interested in girls than coming out here, and I can’t get around as much as I used to, so I’d like to see this place go to someone who would appreciate it as much as we have.”

We parked at a closed gate and I saw a rough concrete block cabin which proved to be about as rustic as something you would see on National Geographic’s Life Below Zero (although it was summer and in the 90s and many hundreds of miles away from frontier Alaska). The cabin had a fireplace which offered minimal heat and no indoor facilities such as water and a toilet. There were rollaway beds where overnight visitors could sleep on mattresses every bit as comfortable as sleeping on a gravel road and a kitchenette for cooking on a World War II vintage electric stove.

We were at the top of a hill which sloped down to a one acre pond where there was a rickety dock. Across the pond was another hill forested with oak and hickory extending to the property line there was a small shed near the cabin, in which was a John Deere garden tractor which the realtor offered to me as part of the deal. The whole package, he said, could be mine for $12,800. Even in 1979 that was like being offered a nearly free ticket to heaven, and I exclaimed, “I don’t care what it costs. I’ll take it!” The Place was ours. Not exactly the wisest response to someone who is trying to sell you something, but he was a person of rare generosity and stood by his offer.

Since, The Place has afforded us an endless supply of firewood which now heats the cabin where there is a wood stove insert in the fireplace (and an indoor toilet and water and a hot shower). And for 21 years while we continued to live in Jefferson City, The Place fed our wood stove there. Our garden has produced years of vegetables and an endless population of red cedar trees has produced an annual Christmas tree for our living room, as well as logs for a sauna, support posts for our deck, for rail fences and other do-it-yourself projects.

A number of wild turkeys from the far ridge across the pond have graced our table at Thanksgiving. I’ve shot squirrels, and once managed to miss a nice buck, but did collect one on another family’s Place. Hundreds of bluegills have migrated up from the pond to form the foundation for countless fish fries. Huge channel catfish lurk near the dock waiting for us to throw fish food to them— but son Andy claims them as semi-pets and won’t let us keep them. He also has caught and returned eight pound bass to fight another day.

A mother raccoon and her babies once made nightly visits to our deck (built by sons Eddie and Andy) to help themselves to the black seeded sunflower seeds we put out for birds. She got so used to being spied on that I could open the door and talk to her and the kids. But after the many gray squirrels which also cherish the seeds destroyed my birdfeeders, I put a moratorium on supplying expensive sunflower food to other-than-birds and the raccoons now are on their own as are the squirrels. The squirrels still visit the deck to forage for scraps of vegetables and fruit that we put out there for them. The cat sits in the doorway and looks out at them, muttering curses and dire threats.

The two cats are housebound, because feral cats are the worst enemy of birds and, as much as I cherish our cats, I also cherish the birds, so I keep them strictly separated. Hummingbirds decorate the deck all summer, entertaining us with their incomparable aerobatics.

The deck overlooks the pond, which my wife Marty insists on calling “a lake,” but let’s face it, it is a pond. As a pond or a lake it has furnished fish us with fish, a place to swim in summer, a place to ice skate in winter, a place to watch such wildlife as visiting Canada geese, wood ducks, and even once a coot that apparently grew tired midair and fell out of the sky onto the dock.

Once, while sitting on the deck listening to 1950s rock ‘n roll, I saw what I took to be a UFO arcing across the night sky. It was a bright ball of light, too slow to be a meteorite, too fast to be an airplane or a satellite. “The truth is out there.” When I’m not distracted by alien visitors, I listen to the night creatures— a chuck will’s widow shouts its incessant challenge to the darkness and a pair of barred owls communicate across the dark woods. Bullfrogs grumble their virility at the pond edge. We’ve collected a few over the years for their delectable legs, but now I’d rather listen to them than eat them.

The deck would not be there except that in 1993 we decided town living was at an end. Since we bought The Place we had always intended to build our life dream home there, but until the five kids all were out of the city school system, we didn’t want to change their and our lifestyle. Now, two of the boys live on the 40 acres and take care of their elderly parents who, you might guess, are Marty and me.

There is a trail which circumnavigates The Place from the cabin, staying within the property line fence. It’s about 7/10 of a mile from the cabin back to the home of that we built in 1993. Now, son Andy lives in the cabin, and son Eddie lives about 200 feet farther along the trail in a beautiful home which he largely built himself.

On one stretch of the trail during the summer when the oaks are in full leaf they arch over the trail giving it a cathedral effect. You might say this is my church, but I don’t pray there, I just enjoy the peace and the demonstration of nature’s ability to create fine art and the soft touch of the landscape. Near the end of this stretch there once was a log. Before I retired I had a poster in my office reading “Sometimes I sits and thinks and other times I just sits.” My boss used to look disapprovingly at that poster but it perfectly described what I did at the old log which now has moldered into the forest floor, the way of all things in nature.

Once I sat on my log armed with a bow and arrow ostensibly to shoot at squirrels on the ground. But one incautious gray squirrel posed on a nearby oak and I couldn’t resist. I fired an arrow and like the old couplet which says “I shot an arrow into the air and where it fell I know not where” the arrow sailed into the great beyond but en route it neatly sliced the squirrel’s throat and the animal ran up the tree a few feet until it ran out of blood and fell to the ground.

I have shot several turkeys both on and just off the old trail and often have surprised deer crossing the trail, heading either onto or off The Place. Once a skunk and I met and cautiously passed by each other and went our separate ways. Just off the trail once I saw scratches high on a tree trunk and theorized that possibly they had been made by a black bear. I really doubt that we have had bears in our woods, but one never knows— there have been bears reported in the county, so who knows?

I have tried to naturalize the place. I planted ginseng, scattered among the graves of the dogs. There is a small group of white pine trees elsewhere in the woods, planted there by my best friend who has gone where the dogs have gone. They won’t last—white pines have a limited lifetime in our part of the country, but then also did my friend and the dogs. I planted loblolly pine seedlings on a bare bank of the pond to stabilize the soil and now they tower 100 feet above the shoreline. I planted 25 white pines near the cabin, but a helpful brother-in-law drove the John Deere like Mario Andretti and mowed them all down.

More successful was a planting of bald cypress seedlings in the boggy upper end of the pond where they thrived and now poke their bony knees from the soggy soil and, in the summertime, before they shed their lacey greenery, are a counterpoint to the loblollys. Some of the hundreds of tree and shrub seedlings I planted have thrived and others have served only as browse for rabbits and deer. That, too, is the way of nature.

Once, a deer waded into the pond, afflicted with bluetongue disease, and died there, perhaps in its final moments finding cool relief from the fatal fever. We hauled the carcass up to a remote spot on a glade at the far reach of the acreage and within days coyotes and vultures, carrion eaters, had reduced the reeking body to a heap of bones. That also is the way of nature.

There is a quarter acre bare spot near the cabin which might’ve been a pasture in the days of the old bachelors who supposedly pioneered The Place where I have established a mini tallgrass prairie. When we bought the place it was dominated by wasteland grasses of no value, but as the years progressed native tallgrass began to emerge, having lain dormant in the soil for decades. I started collecting seed to augment what already was there and once I pulled over along highway 36 in North Missouri and began stripping big bluestem and Indian grass seeds from plants along the right of way. A Highway Patrol car passed and I had a vision of trying to explain that I was collecting grass seed to a cop whose concept of grass equated to marijuana.

Fortunately, he continued on. Another time I was collecting rocks from another right-of-way when another patrol car did stop, and instead of offering to let me break rocks on a chain gang. the officer said, “There’s some really good ones over on highway M.” A kindred soul in law enforcement. Once we had butterfly weed, which is wonderful for pollinating insects, such as honeybees, which are in short supply, a worrisome trend which threatens the existence of many of the plants that we depend upon for food. Now, we are down to one surviving plant, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, among the millions that once populated the country, and which died in captivity many years ago. I’ve collected and scattered seed from purple coneflower, but so far they haven’t populated my Mini Prairie. More successful is purple gayfeather which envelops the tallgrass in a purple haze every summer.

When things get really crappy, which they do more often than not these days, and until the moment that a UFO sweeps down from the sky and I’m abducted by aliens, there is always The Place and a hike around the trail where I might surprise a deer or turkey or say a cautious hello to a skunk, and at the end of the trail I will feel renewed, at least for a little while

The green tongues of daffodils already are peeking out of the cold winter numbed ground and soon there will be spring beauties on the trail and later on May apples carpeting the forest floor. It will be another season, filled with promise, filled with hope and surprise.

Another season on The Place.

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  • Blog
  • March 10th, 2018


by Joel Vance

There is a sameness to their dingy charm, yet each has a personality, like a group of hobos squatted around a jungle camp fire, each with a story. The duck shacks I’ve been in over the years stretch the length of the migration route, but they all share common traits.

They have age on them, like most of the hunters who come there, although the grizzled hunters are careful to bring along some sprouts to learn what life really is all about. But there is no such thing as a “new” duck shack. If it’s hooked up to city water and sewage, chances are excellent it’s not a duck shack.

The dogs are a mix of gray muzzles and bumptious pups. Labrador retrievers are a given. They are the canine personification of the place and no matter how often the rare fastidious hunter mops there will remain a few muddy paw prints. The linoleum manufacturers should have offered a muddy print pattern 50 years ago, which is when the linoleum got laid in those shacks that don’t have worn bare wood flooring.

The last shack I visited had a pair of Labs, a chocolate lady of seven years with the manners of Queen Elizabeth, and a rowdy pup who, when we were out hunting, visited the trash bin in the kitchen and strewed an assortment of plates, coffee grounds, cans and bottles halfway across the kitchen and into the living room.

The shack’s proprietor, said, “That’s the third time he’s done it. You’d think he’d learn…or his owner would. I’m not mad at the dog, but the guy that owns the dog is gonna clean it up.” The pup hid out and the owner would have, except he was busy with a trash sack and a grim expression.

Almost all true duck shacks are decorated with photographs, mostly taken many years ago and gone sepia with age. Generally several hunters group around the tailgate of a 1950s Chevrolet or Ford pickup (those were the choices then) on which rests a lineup of dead geese or ducks. They all are young and smiling–the hunters, not the waterfowl.

I remember one shack in particular. An old, old man sat on his throne, a creaking rocking chair. He was king of the shack. His name was Wayne Steinbeck and he had lived on Yellow Creek, just across a muddy ditch from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, since the refuge began in 1945…and years before that.

He had bought his cabin and 80 acres for $1,600 in 1927. The 11,000-acre Refuge began 10 years later and hunters swarmed to the land around it. Today you couldn’t afford any acreage if you were Donald Trump. It was a shack with personality. A cracked pintail call, trailing a darkened leather lanyard lay on a shelf, alongside a photo, curling and brown, of some hunters with a bag of ducks and self-conscious grins.

There were framed pictures taken from the calendars of shotshell manufacturers or clipped from outdoor magazines, pictures of ducks settling in to decoys or Canada geese gliding toward frosty corn stubble. Most of it wasn’t great art; some of it wasn’t even very good art, but it fit the mood of the shack and it was not chosen for artistic value but because the artist had triggered a cherished memory, had evoked a sweet morning from the past when good friends hunted together.

Steinbeck buried two dogs beneath the pin oaks, one a mix of Lab and Chesapeake Bay Retriever. They were his friends for more than 20 years. There is a tribute to Raz, the first of them, written by Steinbeck in 1965 in blank verse and few poems by anyone could evoke more feeling:

“We was pals 15 yrs what a pal and always a friend put to sleep at Marceline a.m.Tumor in jaw getting hard hearing And eyes getting bad Buried up at Marceline dug up the next day Made a box for him and I had him brought Back to his home Don’t disturb ever How you miss em”

The shack smelled of turnips because Steinbeck loved the awful vegetables and invariably fixed a mess of them for visitors. If there was an upside to that for a visiting hunter confronted with turnips for lunch, it was that Steinbeck was nearly blind and could not see how much the finicky hunters ate.

It certainly was not an upside that he had gone blind because he loved the sunrise and the Canada geese that set their wings for his decoys in the fields bordering the refuge. He loved to see the pecan trees bordering the muddy road into his shack and he even loved the occasional high water that flooded the road and isolated him for days at a time in his shack. He had plenty of turnips.

He still was hunting when he was 85, his vision dimming. When he hit his 90s he’d lost his vision, but not his love of the old shack…or of turnips as I found when I revisited him. They stank up the shack but actually tasted pretty good at lunch. Maybe it was that I shot a Canada goose that morning and anything would have tasted good. Or maybe I was getting more tolerant.

I went back once more in 1980. Wayne Steinbeck had died at 93 and I paused at the dogs’ grave site and at the cabin where decoys were stacked on the porch. The rocker was empty. Maybe somewhere Steinbeck and his dogs are reunited in a place where all hunters have keen eyesight and all dogs are young. Maybe even today at the sound of Canada geese disturbing the still, cold, star-shot winter nights there is the ghostly thump of a sturdy tail within the old shack.

That was a sweet, sad shack. Not so the Milonski farmhouse a couple miles away as the duck flies. Mike Milonski was a bear of a man who came from a family of bears. He was Polish and proud of it. He never met a stranger. His staff, first when he was chief of the Missouri Conservation Department’s Wildlife Division, and later as an assistant director, loved him. Once a prominent woman anti-hunter came to town to protest something or other and Mike greeted her with a hug and a booming welcome and you could see her (and her protest) melt.

He did it with everyone. He was a natural in an often unnatural world. He could lace his conversation with cusswords and it was so in character that no one noticed. His shack, a shambling two-story farmhouse on the west border of Swan Lake, was, like Mike, shaggy and filled with rough edges.
The Milonski farmhouse, even though it was big and two-story, was a shack and it was a rare treat to hunt there, although occasionally hazardous. The place had stoves that were as dangerous as playing soccer with bottles of nitroglycerine. The propane cookstove was in an added-on alcove which, fortunately, had thin outside walls. A friend once tried to light it to cook supper and the stove exploded, blowing him through the wall into the back yard. They got a new stove, but my buddy gave up eating hot food.

I was there when the heating stove began leaking oil until there were puddles of it everywhere. We managed to get it shut down and spent the night shivering, both from cold and from the fear that someone would strike a spark.

But this was an explosive shack on the edge of Paradise. Swan Lake Refuge topped out at about 180,000 Canada geese each year, and ducks swarmed to a pit blind in a crop field across a drainage ditch from the shack.

The only problem was that Milonski, who gave up being afraid of anything long before, would load a miniscule boat with several dozen decoys, several hunters, a couple of massive Labs, shotguns and possibly the defective kitchen stove and cross this deep, dank moat in the pitch black of pre-dawn, water lapping at the gunwales.

I crouched in the boat, feeling as heavy as a tugboat anchor, just waiting for the boat to flip. Swimming in December isn’t my idea of sport. Shooting geese and ducks is and it was worth a frightening trip on the Titanic to get to the pit blind and wait for the sun to rise. You could hear the roosted geese shouting to each other by the thousands.

The Milonski house featured sagging double-decker bunk beds that creaked and groaned in the night, much as did most of the hunters who tossed fitfully in them. There were photos on the wall, one I remember of a revered lady biologist riding the shoulders of some brawny hunter, waving a beer bottle. Another featured a Conservation Department commissioner caught on the throne. He was saluting the camera with an obscene gesture.

One hunter wrote a song called “Up In Mike’s Place” which had the tag line, “There’s gonna be a party up at Mike’s Place.” Few duck shacks have their own anthem. Mike’s place had what amounted to a revolving door, open to kings and peasants alike. One of the peasants, I once fell for the world’s oldest gag. “Here’s a Polish duck call,” Mike said, handing me a horn shaped like a French horn. “Blow real hard!”

Since Mike was Polish, I didn’t associate it with the infamous Polish jokes and dutifully blew hard…and a cloud of talcum powder erupted in my face, choking me and clogging my eyes. “Geez,” Mike said. “I never thought you’d go for it.”

One day Winston Milonski, Mike’s wife, left on vacation with some other women and got no more than 15 miles from home before she was in a terrible accident which nearly crippled her. She recovered, but the Milonskis decided that life was too short and unpredictable to waste on bureaucracy. Mike, by then, was an assistant director at the Conservation Department, maybe in line to get the head job.

But he chucked it in and they moved to Florida, coming back to Missouri only when the waterfowl season opened. Winston had cut Mike’s hair their whole married life, but she went on strike and he began to look like a big ol’ lion, except his roar was laughter, not menace.

Mike’s place rolled on and so did Mike until he caught what he thought was a case of the flu. It didn’t get better and finally he grudgingly gave in and saw a doctor. The news was awful. Mike came home to Mike’s place and sat on the porch and watched the sun set over the Grand River, watched the geese setting their wings as they roosted over the canal in the corn stubble fields.
And there he died.

Duck shacks have a commonality and the heating system seems to be part of it. One I remember featured a furnace in a dank cellar reached through a trap door. If the furnace had been able to talk, it would have said, “Thermostat? What’s that?” The only temperatures it recognized were Polar and Seventh Level of Hell.

And it groaned in the night as if there were doomed souls chained below us. If you stay in a place that has a quietly efficient furnace and a working thermostat, it probably is a lodge, not a shack. Check the corners of the rooms–if they’re clean it’s a lodge; if they have duck feathers and indefinable substances windrowed out of the reach of a worn broom…it’s a shack.

I hunted a legendary duck lake in Mississippi. Gadwalls and mallards dropped through a break in the flooded cypress trees and we shot until we limited. It was the hunt you imagine when you’re about to fall asleep on a sagging cot in a duck shack.

But I stayed in a casino hotel with gold elevator doors, a bed big enough for an NFL pulling guard, a bathroom with fresh bars of soap every day and a flat screen television that actually got more than one channel showing Lawrence Welk reruns.

My late, loved buddy Spence Turner wasn’t there to drop his sweaty socks on the kitchen table beside my sandwich, sink into a battered chair and groan, “God, that feels good!”
As a hunt it was great; as an experience it lacked something.

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  • Blog
  • March 4th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It was perched on a telephone wire alongside a county highway at dusk on a chilly January evening, a kestrel or sparrowhawk if you prefer, and it occurred to me it has been a long time since I saw one. Once, the sight of a sparrowhawk perched along the right-of-way of any rural highway in my part of the United States was as common as that of any wild creature.

You would see them hovering above the grass on the right-of-way or sitting on a fence post or on a power line, waiting to pounce on supper— perhaps an incautious vole or field mouse or grasshopper. Kestrels are the smallest of the hawks, elegant little birds as charming as any existing member of the airborne kingdom.

Yet, the kestrel population has declined by 50% in the past few decades, victimized by factors that, as yet, are not publicized enough to cause alarm in the general populace, the way hard pesticides did when Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” brought to light the peril facing the American bald eagle, the nation’s symbol. Agricultural chemicals, used to get rid of insect pests plaguing farm crops also caused thinning in the eggs of eagles which resulted in a decline of reproductive success so severe that the birds were threatened with extinction.

You won’t find the kestrel portrayed on coins or other symbols of the nation, but does that make the little bird any less desirable in the natural world than the bald eagle? Chances are the same factor that nearly doomed the bald Eagle is a major factor causing such an alarming decline in the population of sparrowhawks— agricultural chemicals. Though hard pesticides like DDT have been banned for many years, the agricultural community still sprays crops with, possibly, less hazardous chemicals— but they still cover agricultural crops with substances that decimate the food source of many citizens of our natural world.

What research has been done on the decline of sparrowhawks is sketchy. In fact agricultural chemicals are not the only possible culprit in the decline. One theory is that predation by Cooper’s Hawks on their smaller relatives is a contributing factor. If so, bullying is not endemic only to human beings—little birds get picked on as well as little kids, although apparently with more dire consequences.

Researchers think that even the stress of living in close quarters with human beings may be a contributing factor. God knows, humans closely packed become freaked out. A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits become overpopulated they act just like human beings: “they develop ulcers and they die,” he said. No one has checked to see if sparrowhawks are candidates for Maalox.

Carson’s book caused a sensation and a reaction so enormous that the hard pesticides, the worst of the malefactors, were banned for use in agriculture. Slowly, the eagle population, rebounded and today the national bird no longer is threatened by becoming another passenger pigeon, a sorry testament to man’s inhumanity to nature. We killed off some of nature’s once prominent citizens. Is the kestrel also on man’s hit list?

Researchers simply don’t know the reasons behind the decline but lay the blame on pesticides as one primary cause— not a bad surmise, since pesticides are both omnipresent and responsible for the decline of many of nature’s citizens. Think Monarch butterflies, honeybees and other useful creatures. Aside from blaming the decline on predation by Cooper’s Hawks, which seems to me to be doubtful at best, others say competition for nest sites from starlings is responsible. Starlings, of course, are an introduced bird, originally stocked by people who wanted to establish creatures mentioned by Shakespeare. How well that silly experiment succeeded is evidenced every evening when massive flocks of starlings go to roost, but whether they compete with kestrels is mere supposition.

Agrichemical voices are loud ones in the halls of legislation and the chances of ridding the world of dangerous chemicals, used to ensure ample crops is likely impossible. The question is, how do you reconcile the need for corn and soybeans with the need to see a kestrel perched on a telephone wire? Generally, and sadly, the answer is that, whatever the needs of nature’s citizens, they come in second to the perceived needs of human beings. It’s the old case of everyone is equal— but some things are more equal than others.

It’s likely that clean farming deserves at least some blame for the kestrel decline. The practice of skimming the landscape of groundcover to favor farming practices certainly has a deleterious effect on wildlife and it makes sense that the absence of grass cover where kestrels hover on the hunt has an effect on their ability to pounce on supper.

It takes overwhelming public outrage to reverse what all too often is irreversible damage to the natural world and so far that outrage is not reached to the world of the sparrowhawk. We have yet to become incensed by the decline of the honeybee, an insect which pollinates much of the food that we eat and without which pollination we face an agricultural Armageddon. But that’s a long way in the future, if at all, and we can let some future generation worry about it— or at least that’s the laissez-faire attitude that we always have adopted when science warns us of danger just over the horizon. Think climate change, for example.

Not to be the chicken who cried “the sky is falling” but it’s difficult to ignore signs of planetary decline. An estimated third of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying—the first time in the history of the world as we know it that an entire ecosystem is threatened with extinction. The health of the world’s oceans, which constitute the bulk of our universe, are at risk. Glaciers are shrinking, the polar ice cap is shrinking, the polar bear population is shrinking. Where does it end? Is the sky falling? Maybe not, but something is looming above us and it’s not good. The more we refuse to learn to live with the natural world, the more we are doomed to destroy it.

Once, years ago, we played host to a pair of sparrowhawks for a couple of weeks. The birds had been taken from the nest by some well-meaning but misinformed citizen and had been confiscated by the conservation department and were part of the department’s live animal exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. But they needed a home until they could become self-sufficient in the wild and I volunteered to play daddy as long as necessary.

They were obviously only days from full flight and I wondered if they would be able to make their way in the natural world, but after all that is the way of the wild—sink or swim. Either you survive or you don’t. I banked on the birds’ natural instinct to kill to survive and hoped that instinct would kick in and save them. It was late summer, so there was an abundance of insect life and other prey that, if they would allow their heritage to rule, would provide them with the food they needed before cold weather came.

They were caged when I brought them home but we opened the cage and let them free to do as they pleased. They perched on the railing of our back porch and I caught grasshoppers for them, chilled the insects in the refrigerator until they were slow enough for the little birds to catch, and the kestrels eagerly pounced on them. I supplemented live food with hamburger and the birds thrived on their McDonald’s diet for a week or so and then they began to make tentative flights off the railing and into the world they were intended for. Gradually their returns to the table I set for them became fewer and fewer, and one day they were gone and I never saw them again. Long live, beautiful little birds—you brightened my life for a moment in time.

It’s appropriate to call the little hawk the American kestrel because approximately one third of the world population of kestrels are found in North America. According to the breeding Bird Survey kestrels are on the decline in many areas but indications are that the population actually is increasing in the central part of the United States, giving the lie to my feeling that kestrels are on the decline where I live.

But kestrels for all their visibility are hard birds to study. They’re always on the move and the only way to get a definitive handle on species viability is by long term studies, using modern tools such as banded birds, computer modeling, coupled with human eyesight. And that combination over the long haul does not exist as yet, leading to a murky picture of the future for the American kestrel.
In the absence of whatever factors limit kestrel population, the birds should have the ability to repopulate quickly.

A mated pair will incubate from 4 to 7 eggs for a month and the hatched chicks will be fledged and ready to fly in another month. Assuming a high survival rate, kestrels could quickly replenish a depressed population. That’s the way creatures with low survival rates manage to maintain healthy numbers, such as quail, doves and wild turkeys who lose many youngsters, but make up for the losses with high egg production.

Meanwhile, when the lonely gray days of winter fade to the heat of summer, I’m hoping that a trip down a gravel road will afford me the sight of several kestrels perched or hovering alongside the highway. The hot summer sun not only will warm my body,it will warm my soul.

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  • Blog
  • February 23rd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There is an ultraconservative website called Townhall Daily which I check periodically just to get my anger quotient up. Reading any of the columnist postings is guaranteed to raise my anger quotient exponentially.
Recently, a column by Michelle Malkin, a regular of the right wing media outlets, really lit my fuse. Here is one paragraph of what she wrote: “Pubescents are fueled by hormones and dopamine and pizza and Sonic shakes. They’re fickle and fragile and fierce and forgetful. They hate you. They love you. They need you. They ignore you. They know everything. They know nothing. All in the span of 10 seconds. I know. I have two of them. If you’re lucky, they’ve only Googled ‘Should I eat Tide pods?’ or ‘What happens if I snort Ramen powder?’ and not actually attempted the latest social media stunt challenges. But that’s what kids do. Because they’re kids.”
I suspect that a normal teenager, reading her description of a normal teenager, would react by saying, “Thank God I’m not one of her two kids!” If that truly is her opinion of an average teenager, she deserves not to be thought of as Mother of the Year, but as Mother From Hell.
Malkin unsurprisingly is the darling of the right wing media, a syndicated columnist a contributor to Fox News and a frequent guest on the Sean Hannity show as well as Fox and Friends. I find it difficult to believe that Malkin, given the often demonstrated antipathy toward women of Fox News and its various sexual predators, would associate herself with such a misogynistic and demeaning band of male chauvinists, but she obviously thinks more of them than she does of teenagers.
Her jeremiad against teenagers was the result of teenager anger reacting to the school shooting in Florida and came simultaneous with a march on the state capital by survivors from that horrendous shooting rampage at the Parkland high school which took the lives of 17 of those fickle and fragile and fierce and forgetful pubescents. Those “know nothing” teenagers were, for some reason, upset about the lack of common sense gun restrictions which enabled a mentally derailed 19-year-old to legally buy an assault rifle which he used to gun down 17 non gun bearing teenagers. Perhaps he was the teenager whom Ms. Malkin was thinking of when she described her concept of the typical teenager. “….their moral agency and cognitive abilities are far from fully developed,” she wrote. “Most are in no position to change the world when they can’t even remember to change their own bedsheets.”
Enough of Ms. Malkin. Let her crawl back into bed with her gun toting, right wing, bedsheet wearing compadres where they can compare notes on just how depraved today’s teenagers are, and how they all will grow up to be liberal enemies. How dare they dream to change the world for the better! The little bastards!
Give me five each of today’s congressmen from both parties—make them the leaders of their respective parties in Congress— and pit them against any ten of the hundred or more teenage survivors of the Florida high school massacre who traveled to the state capital pleading for sensible gun regulation and ask them what it is they stand for. Do you think the two groups would measure up in cognitive ability and moral agency and a dream to change the world for the better? I’d put my money on the kids. Give them 10 years of adult development, if things continue to deteriorate in our country and they may be just as morally bankrupt as today’s leaders, but I would hope there will be a revival of the teenage rebelliousness of the 1960s when it was the youth of the country that brought change, not the mudstuck adult leadership.
The images of high school students, angry but incredibly articulate expressing their outrage, their trauma and their cry for sensible gun legislation, as they protested in the halls of the Florida capital were moving and if they fail to impress the legislators and kick them to action, it would be a graphic reflection of the indifference of today’s politicians to the concerns of the nation and its unraveling moral fiber. Almost predictably, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been named A+ by the National Rifle Association, first refused to meet with the protesting students because he was “too busy”.
Country Joe declaimed in song, “hell no, I won’t go!” And teenagers burned their draft cards, and their outrage against our involvement in a bloody and useless war in Vietnam finally pushed Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, to realize that, as a country, we had royally screwed up. Instead of 17, it was more than 50,000 youngsters who paid with their lives to bring about fundamental change in the country, but the point was that young people made the difference. It could happen again if youthful anger continues to spread and grow until Congress is forced by the weight of that anger to take action against senseless slaughter in schools, clubs and other public places. It was the angry, sometimes violent, actions of a young America, pushed too far, by the irrational behavior of adults who brought about social change in the country. Perhaps Martin Luther King was the spokesperson for young black youth which forced meaningful civil rights legislation, but it was their voice speaking as much as his.
And it wasn’t homicidal anger like that of the mentally ill shooter in Florida, but an anger that demanded that the adult population of the country come to its senses and quit acting like spoiled and unruly infants having a national tantrum.
Malkin (okay, one more reference to her and then we will purge her like a bad clam) also takes a shot at Common Core, the education system that is reviled both by the conservative right, and the generally liberal leaning professional education left.
Adopted in one form or another by 45 of the 50 states, Common Core basically is a system of standards that schools must live up to or face penalties. Standard tests serve as guidelines for student achievement. On the surface the idea sounds like a good one. Lord knows, the education system needs stimulation. The United States lags behind other countries in student achievement and the reasons are varied and many.
But the prime arguments against Common Core are two: One is that the concept of one size fits all is fundamentally flawed. People are not stamped from cookie cutters and what applies to one, does not apply to the next. The other argument that seems to me to make eminent sense is that all schools are not created equal. Factor in the money available to pay good teachers, the social structure of the student body and the local society, as well as other factors which divide schools into high achievers and those not as progressive, you have a system which does not equate to the ideal envisioned by Common Core.
Further, the emphasis on mathematics and language skills, while necessary and admirable,, tends to sideline such studies as art and music, which may not mean much in the conservative world of business and hard-core economics. But I happen to feel that art and music and such touchy-feely sidelines in the educational spectrum are important in creating total human beings rather than pragmatic machines marching through life in lockstep.
By mandating that teacher achievement and value is measured by their ability to teach to a test score inevitably stifles creativity and initiative on the part of the teacher. The whole concept of Common Core is flawed. Set the standards too high and they are unreachable. Set them too low so that every student reaches them and you run the risk of creating a society of worker bees.
Every classroom is an amalgam of bright students and dull ones, those with ambition, those without. The challenge to a teacher is somehow to touch all these levels of enthusiasm not only with knowledge of a given subject but also with a desire in the student to learn more as well as an appreciation of having learned something.
Slapping a standard test in front of a kid and saying “you need to pass this or we’re all screwed” is no way to run an educational system. Weed out the bad teachers and pay good ones what they deserve, allowing them the initiative to teach, and inevitably the educational system will improve without the need for standardized testing that does nothing more than cramp a given teacher’s initiative and put pressure on him or her to force-feed certain subject areas at the expense of the total package.
The traumatized Florida students had barely finished their eloquent pleas for the politicians to do something about sane gun regulations when the conspiracy madmen—and Michelle Malkin aside, they all are men— were busy posting social media rants claiming that the students were paid actors. At the risk of being accused of being a conspiracy theorist myself, I suspect the grimy hand of Vladimir Putin and his henchpeople being involved in the social media tweetstorm against the high school students. These are people who should be denied the right, Second Amendment or not, to buy assault weapons—you know, mentally ill. Except, as gun regulations now exist, mentally ill people are unfortunately able to buy and use assault weapons.
You can always count on Bill O’Reilly to say something inflammatory and stupid and he tweeted this: ”The big question is: should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases? “
To which Nicole, an articulate teenager responded thusly: “The same people that said 13 and 14 year olds were perfectly mature enough to date Roy Moore are now saying 17 and 18 year olds are too immature to have opinions on gun control.”
Bill O’Reilly and his odious ilk notwithstanding, the country’s youngsters are angry, pushed too far. Fired up, they have changed the country before, and I pray they can do it again. Go kids! This is not high school sports— this is the real big game–your future– and yours to win.

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  • February 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Once again there has been a massacre shooting in a school by a mentally disturbed youngster with an assault weapon he legally obtained. There is something wrong with this picture. The anti-gun legislation folks immediately blamed the shooting on mental illness and appeared to place much of the blame on the inability or failure of acquaintances and others to report the potential for danger posed by the shooter. It was the old refrain of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

There are several fallacies in this approach, one of which is that with no exceptions anyone who commits mass murder has to be mentally askew, but to approach the problem of wholesale slaughter with an assault weapon by claiming that the shooter is mentally ill and that’s the sole reason for the incident is both stating the obvious and missing the point. Completely sane people don’t commit mass murders. And yes, guns do kill people, but without guns people are unable to shoot other people.
The point behind every one of the all too frequent massacres of innocent people is that those most responsible for finding some way to end the carnage have abdicated their obvious responsibility to do so. Congress resolutely refuses to pass sensible gun restrictions, mumbling, “It’s too soon to talk about it,” and “Let’s wait until all the facts are in” and similar meaningless locutions. It’s not too soon and the facts are in. It’s way past time to get serious about stopping the bloodshed.

I am a gun owner with a dozen guns which I use for hunting and I would oppose anyone demanding that I turn them in or otherwise stop using them for their intended purposes, none of which involve shooting other people. Guns belong in hunting, in shooting sports, and in gun collecting. There is no justification for what amounts to weapons of mass destruction to be acquired by potentially homicidal people. The proposition that the Second Amendment to the Constitution is untouchable is a flawed one.
Remember that the Constitution is a continually evolving document. If it were not we still would have slavery, women would not be able to vote, and you couldn’t stop at the corner bar for a bump and a Bud.
The Second Amendment was created in a time when the only guns were single shot flintlocks and the only people they likely would be used against were soldiers of his Majesty’s British Army and the occasional aggressive indigenous Indian tribes. None of the founding fathers envisioned a time when teenagers, not old enough to buy a beer, could legally acquire an assault rifle and an extended magazine, capable of firing 30 or 40 bullets per minute.
The National Rifle Association deserves much of the blame, abetted by craven congresspeople who do their bidding for whatever reason— probably because the NRA kicks in big dollar donations toward the reelection of those who will do their bidding.

I have been a lifelong hunter and, as I said, currently own a dozen guns, both shotguns and rifles. I mostly am an upland bird hunter as well as an ardent waterfowler. I’ve killed several deer and, aside from my first love of quail hunting, I worship hunting wild turkeys on the chilly ridges of spring. Most of my guns have come to me through ways that would be illegal were proposed changes to gun regulations enacted. I inherited several from my father. I bought several others from friends. I also bought my most cherished shotgun, a 1913 grade 3 LC Smith double barrel at a gun show. I suspect none of these people had federal firearms licenses but I also suspect that common sense would grandfather in the possession of firearms acquired in these ways and before any legislation became effective.

Although Ronald Reagan often is regarded as the ultimate conservative president, don’t forget that Democrat Jimmy Carter was the most ardent hunter among recent presidents, since fabled Teddy Roosevelt chased game all over the world. Reagan’s eldest son Michael has become a spokesperson for conservatives and recently wrote: “Instead of the federal government raising my gas tax 12 cents a gallon and pretending it’s going to be used to fix our highways, why not use the money to hire guards for our schools – and give them guns they know how to use.” I think Reagan has been seeing too many of daddy’s shoot-‘em-up Westerns and would like to see the country revert to a Wild West mentality where everyone is looking for an excuse for a Travis Walk shoot out on Main Street. Instead of using gas tax money to fix the highway infrastructure we can revert all highways to dirt and gravel, adding to the Wild West ambience.
Our daughter, grandson, and two granddaughters-in-law all are teachers and none of the three has any desire to be packing heat in a classroom . I would venture to say that the vast majority of teachers in the country chose their profession with the desire to stand in a classroom and teach young people, not to stand in a classroom as an armed guard.

I know an outdoor communicator who once had the audacity to write that an AR 15 (the gun most commonly used to commit mass murder) is not really a hunting gun and he saw no reason that it should be in the hands of anyone. Overnight the wrath of the gun lobby fell on him like 10 tons of lead bullets and he lost virtually his entire source of income. He was fired by a major magazine, lost a television show, and probably other outlets for his talents. In an attempt to make amends, he even went hunting with an AR 15 with Ted Nugent, the wild man of rock ‘n roll, whose philosophy of “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” is about as far removed from the ethical concept of hunting—at least, as I feel it, and as those I hunt with feel it— as you can get and still call it hunting. Measuring the success of a hunt by the size of the gutpile or the weight of the game bag is simply not what hunting is all about.
Anyone who has a glorious day in the field and complains because he or she didn’t get a limit has totally missed the point and might just as well be at home. And anyone who kills a living creature from a quail to a bull elk and doesn’t feel at least a pang of regret has lost a few points off his or her moral compass.
The point of the story about my acquaintance, obviously, is that you don’t tempt the might of the anti-gun regulation crowd without risking retribution. That’s the position that Congress is in where many of its leading members, those in a position to dictate legislation, are heavily supported by money from the NRA. For the record, the most heavily supported Congressman by the NRA is the otherwise eminently admirable Senator John McCain. My own Senator, Roy Blunt, who in my opinion is not worthy to carry John McCain’s luggage, is third on the list of the NRA supportees.
I ask, reasonably enough I think, what is wrong with outlawing assault weapons, cop killer bullets, and any other armament-associated paraphernalia that has no purpose other than warfare? Why not close the gaping loopholes in the sale of guns at gun shows? What’s wrong with background checks and prohibiting the possession of firearms by convicted criminals, the mentally afflicted, and those who fire up warning rockets via social media that they may become a danger to society?

I think it’s a damn shame that society has come to a point where we discuss the viability of arming teachers in the classroom, have to pass students through security checkpoints and treat each other as if we were only seconds away from yet another bloody shooting. We have come a long and discouraging way from the days when I was a kid and you could take a gun to school because you were going rabbit hunting after class. Merle Haggard famously said that they didn’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee Oklahoma, but they didn’t shoot each other there either. Mass murder has become so commonplace that it barely makes lasting headlines anymore and each gruesome story is only good for a few days until the next one, and the inevitable reaction, calling for gun regulations, is even more ephemeral than the bloody story that inspired it.

Now, in the interest of full and complete disclosure, I will admit to a long time bias against the NRA for two reasons. Take what you will from it and feel free revile me as, I suspect, many of the Association members would.

I have been a member of the NRA two different times— the first when I was a young hunter who believed in the prevailing philosophy of the organization at the time which was to emphasize gun safety and the training of youngsters in safe gun handling. There was little if any politicizing by the NRA then and I believed (and still do) in the necessity of encouraging young hunters and teaching them to use guns responsibly and safely.
The second time I joined the NRA was after they rewarded me with a back page column in The American Hunter, one of their publications. It was fun to write about hunting outings, but the column lasted only a few months and they dropped me without explanation. That was an editorial prerogative and while it hurt, it was their choice to pick and choose a back page columnist. The axiom among outdoor columnists is that “nothing is forever.” The vagaries of communication are such that Audubon Magazine also dropped me as a columnist after a couple of years making me possibly the only outdoor writer in history to have been canned both by the extreme right and the extreme left of outdoor communication.

But it wasn’t getting fired as a columnist for the NRA that bugs me to this day— it is that they owe me $500 which I never will see. At the time the NRA was a supporting member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. I won an NRA-sponsored writing contest on small game hunting for which the top award was $500. The NRA had signed a contract guaranteeing money for the honorees in the contest. But OWAA and the NRA got in a fuss over what should have been a minor controversy, which resulted in about a third of the OWAA membership quitting the group, as did the NRA, taking its money (and mine) along with it.
So the whole point of this column in your minds may amount to sour grapes, not worth your consideration. But perhaps the next time there is a mass shooting somewhere in the country (and there will be) at least think about what I’ve said. Get off the case of a bumbling FBI and get on the case of a disastrously bumbling Congress and demand constructive action rather than disastrous inaction.

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  • February 13th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have a suggestion for Donald J Trump, the Parademaster in Chief of the United States. When he orders the military might of the United States to parade past his personal reviewing stand, no doubt at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, he can by presidential decree,(something that he favors over the rule of law) order the massed troops to wear specially designed uniforms for the occasion.
They will, of course, have been designed by Ivanka, Trump’s daughter, who continues to profit lavishly from her sprawling fashion empire and her associated close contact with the presidential father. Souvenir copies of the new uniforms after the parade will be on sale for ridiculously inflated prices through her many outlets. This uniform will consist of golfing shorts (it promising to be a very hot day in Washington DC) and a top commonly called a “wife beater.” This is a T-shirt with no sleeves.
Given the caveman lifestyle of Trump and his various aides and supporters in recent weeks, a wife beater T-shirt seems to be appropriate as the uniform of the day.
For those female members of the military the T-shirt of course will be wet to appease the drooling tastes of the Trump entourage, those who only see females of the species as targets, whether of physical, emotional, or some other deviant form of abuse. Higher ranking officers, especially those accused of insensitive remarks toward or treatment of female military personnel would be required to wear tutus. I look forward to seeing Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly wearing a tutu, even though he’s retired from the active military, although not from making insensitive gender remarks and if he doesn’t get fired in the next few days.
The wife beaters could be decorated in front with a picture of Trump and the slogan “Make America White Again” prominent above it. The back could be adorned with the logos of organizations that persist in supporting Trump, despite the mountain of evidence that he is a fraud— think Breitbart, Fox News, and others of the extreme right (and don’t forget the Ku Klux Klan).
That the wife beater should be the official new uniform of the military should come as no surprise to anyone who has read a news story in the last five minutes. Anymore, the news is not who has been accused of spousal or other abuse of women, but who hasn’t. But in Trump world, which more and more resembles Oz or some other fantasy world, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” now translates “to innocent because Donald J Trump says so.” Remember, the Defender in Chief said that Roy Moore, the Alabama deviant and ardent Trump supporter, claimed he was innocent even though there was an avalanche of evidence to the contrary. Thus we should have ignored the evidence, and accepted Trump’s claim that Moore was a good candidate for the United States Senate
And in case you haven’t been watching the news in the last five minutes, the saga of Trump and his now disgraced top aide Rob Porter is symptomatic of the whole Trump versus woman saga. Porter, in case you didn’t know, has been accused by two former wives of spousal abuse and also by a former girlfriend. One former wife exhibited a black eye she says Porter gave her, and the other once obtained a police restraining order against him.

Trump’s response to these allegations which everyone in his or her right mind believes, was this tweet: “people’s lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused— life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?” In this as in other cases where men have been accused by women of abuse, Trump took the side of the man against the woman, trying to throw doubt upon the accusations and minimizing if not outright denying their accuracy. Of course, considering he has been accused by at least 19 women of unwanted sexual advances, and paid a porn star $130,000 to keep her mouth shut about their mutual diddling, whether it was consensual or not, one has to, well, consider the source.
And he and his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, with or without a tutu, knew about the allegations against Porter months before they surfaced, thanks to investigative reporting, and the First Amendment, which still exists despite all the administration efforts to eliminate it. They did nothing. Even after Porter resigned, both Trump and Kelly were quick to praise their disgraced former colleague for what a wonderful job he had done, and how hard he had worked, somehow failing to mention the reason he no longer was the president’s right-hand man was that he was a spousal abuser. They conveniently did not mention the spouses involved. It’s kind of like praising an armed robber as a good family man, simply trying to provide for his children, without mentioning the victim he shot six times.
It is inconceivable to me that any woman in the United States of America would have voted for this misogynistic jerk, and would continue to support him, given the mounting avalanche of information about his inability not only to serve in the office of president, but to function as a decent human being. Don’t these women remember Trump’s famous caught-on-tape comments before the election about his ability to do anything he wanted with a woman up to and including grabbing her by the crotch? I suspect even Tammy Wynette would have trouble standing by her man, if the man were Donald J Trump.
Even some of the most prominent women still supporting Trump seem to be terminally confused. Kellyanne Conway, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, issued a strongly worded statement in support of Porter after the allegations broke in the news media, but then a few days later told Jake Tapper on CNN “I have no reason not to believe the women.” Neither does anyone else, not tied to Trump’s coattails. Since, she has been silent, perhaps reconsidering her betrayal of abused women everywhere.
In another incredible tangle of alliances right out of Days of Our Lives, Kelly’s defense of Rob Porter after the accusations surfaced, apparently was at least partly crafted by another female Trump supporter and aide Hope Hicks, who is the current girlfriend of Rob Porter.
One wonders where Melania, Donald Trump’s third wife, stands amid all this hullabaloo. She has been conspicuously silent and the most notable female in the Trump orbit has been his daughter, about whom he once notoriously said he would date if she weren’t his daughter, and asked the reigning Miss America if she didn’t think Ivanka was “hot.” While it may or might not be true, it certainly in the realm of possibility given the overall web of spousal and sexual abuse surrounding Donald Trump, his first wife, Ivana, claimed in a book that her husband had raped her. She later backtracked some and now cannot amplify correct or otherwise shed light on what she originally said because she signed a nondisclosure agreement. She is Ivanka’s mother.
I suspect Trump was busy watching Fox news and missed the whole thing but I watched with awe, joy and pride as 17-year-old Chloe Kim won an Olympic gold medal in the women’s snowboard half pipe, and, wrapped in the American flag hugged her parents and teammates. It brought a tear to my eye. Born in the United States, Chloe Kim is a citizen and I immediately checked her family to make sure that her parents, immigrants from South Korea (hear that, Trump, you arrogant xenophobic blockhead) are, indeed, citizens of the United States who shouldn’t have to fear that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement will swoop down like the American Gestapo they rapidly are becoming and deport them back to Korea.
Chloe Kim’s father, a retired engineer, is quoted as saying, “it’s just great because it’s kind of the American dream, American dream come true. It’s a land of opportunity. Why not?”
David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker magazine, recently wrote something worth quoting, and I hope I’m not abusing the idea of fair use by repeating him. It so perfectly sums up the situation with Trump and women that, if I am overusing Mr. Remnick’s words, I apologize. Here’s what Remnick said: “He “(Trump) diverts attention from his own encyclopedic record of miserable behavior toward women by casting doubt on the accusers. This is a neat trick, yet hardly original. It has come to the point where even Trump’s closest aides know that a reckoning is coming. It’s not going to be okay.”
Chloe Kim isn’t old enough to vote yet, but she will be, and the future of the nation is in the grit and intelligence of her and women like her who refuse to put up with bloated and predatory old white men like Donald Trump. As David Remnick says, “a reckoning is coming”. Meanwhile, the sight of petite Chloe Kim wrapped in the American flag waiting to have a gold medal draped around her neck will continue to warm my heart for a long time to come.

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  • February 8th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1932 there was an animated movie short called “I Love a Parade” which featured a parade of sideshow acts including the wild boy, the rubber man, Siamese twin pigs, a tattooed man, a hula dancing hippo, and an Indian snake charmer, all marching to the title tune, written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.
Appropriately enough, this was a Looney Tunes cartoon, and now we have come to the 2018 version, launched by our own Looney Tunes president Donald J Trump. The ironies pile, one upon the other, like episodes from a fever dream. If you are a fan of the television show M.A.S.H, you might recall the first appearance of Harry Morgan, who would become the beloved Col. Potter in later episodes. It was a guest appearance before he became the M.A.S.H commander and he portrayed a mentally ill general who sang a snippet of “I Love a Parade” as part of his crazy persona.
One can visualize our 71-year-old commander in chief, who is developmentally going on four years old, stamping his feet and crying, “I want a parade! And if I don’t get one, I’m going to hold my breath until I die!” Parents universally recognize this emotional explosion as the Terrible Twos, except that Trump has spent 69 years trapped in his two year old’s tantrum phase— or at least as it’s displayed for the public to see. Apparently he is prone to screaming fits of anger when things don’t go the way he wants them to. We are being ruled by a grade school bully mentality, complicated by aberrant mental short-circuits. Just the kind of guy you want running the country.

Our grandson teaches developmentally troubled youngsters who often have outbursts of anger as a result of emotional and mental aberrations, and who are capable of inflicting physical harm on anyone who gets in their way. Much of the behavior of these elementary school children closely resembles that of the president of the United States, except that they don’t have their fingers on the nuclear button and the authority to order military action against anyone who pisses them off.
So we have a president of the United States, now calling for a parade which, according to him, would be to celebrate the nation’s military might— but anyone who’s been watching him for more than a day or so realizes it would be a parade to honor him. One military official who, understandably enough, didn’t want to be identified, quoted Trump as saying “I want a parade like the one in France,” referring to a Bastille Day parade Trump witnessed in France a couple of months back when he allegedly also told the president of France, “we’re going to have to try and copy it.”
There certainly is nothing wrong with honoring the nation’s military, which is underfunded and understrength most of the time. We went into World War II woefully unprepared for it, and had to play catch up for a long time before the military was ready for the horrific battles that it encountered. That was because we were complacent and satisfied with an outdated military.
But you don’t win wars with parades and you don’t scare the enemy off by showing off. The idea of a parade of military might which would cost, according to some estimates, millions of dollars to mount, would not in any way enhance the military preparedness of the country. Why not instead pour those millions of dollars into the making of a better armed, better paid, and more modern military, ready for whatever might come?
We currently are engaged in the longest war in the nation’s history in Afghanistan, we are running bombing missions in seven different countries, and periodically engage in brushfire skirmishes in other areas of the world. And yet all our crazy president can think of in military terms is to have a parade in his honor. We already have an Armistice Day, originally to celebrate the end of World War I, the (war to end all wars” (pause for a chuckle here), which now is designated as Veterans’ Day. We have Memorial Day, which often is used as a chance to visit and decorate the graves of those who have given their lives in defense of the country. We also celebrate the Fourth of July when we celebrate our gaining independence from England.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Mortimer Snerd alter ego, press secretary said “a military parade would highlight and show the pride in our military.” And Trump said, “people don’t know what great warriors they are in France but when you see that and you see all the victories, it was a tremendous saying,” in reference to a Bastille Day parade he witnessed in France a couple of months back.
It wasn’t too long ago (2003) that people in this country were changing the name of French fries to freedom fries, when Republican Congressman Bob Ney renamed them on the menu in three congressional cafeterias because of France’s opposition to our proposed invasion of Iraq. The French and then were not great warriors; they were frog eating bastards who hate the United States. Three years later when it became obvious that the invasion was a big mistake, freedom fries once more became French fries. Perhaps Trump now envisions himself as a modern-day Napoleon, master of conquering armies and worthy of great parades and universal adulation. Study history— Napoleon’s dreams of grandeur didn’t turn out all that well.
The insanity of the Trump parade idea is a mixture of political Looney Tunes, a lunatic commander, and a parody of the often filmed parades ordered by such world luminaries as Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and the late Adolf Hitler. Let’s pray that Trump doesn’t demand that his parading troops march in lockstep or goose step. One never knows what the deranged nutcase is thinking in the largely empty space between his ears.
Trump’s preference is to have a parade on July 4 the date on which we commemorate the independence of the nation and is as much a tribute to democratic government as it is to anything—and our government has evolved over the last 250 years as a two-party system which today means Republicans and Democrats. Yet, rather than celebrating a two-party system, Trump said that the Democrat reaction to his State of the Union speech was treasonous and that the Democrats were traitors to the country.
I must admit that my antipathy toward military parades dates back many years to a hot summer day at camp Ripley, Minnesota, where the 35th division of the Missouri National Guard was due to pass in review. I was scheduled to march in that parade, one of many who if they had their druthers, would have opted to head for the nearest watering hole in the nearest town—Brainerd or Little Falls or anywhere but Camp Ripley. I managed to convince our battalion commander that, as a representative of the local newspaper, and as the de facto public information officer of the battalion it was my duty to prowl the sidelines, as it were, much as I did during local football games, and report on the parade as a news story.
As a scam it was much in the tradition of Hawkeye Pierce, and it worked. While many hundreds of other sweating soldiers stood in the blazing sun and solemnly marched past the reviewing stand, I prowled amid the dignitaries who included former Pres. Harry Truman (a veteran of the 35th division and a real president, as opposed to the one we have now, and who also was a combat veteran of World War I) and I took photographs which dutifully appeared in the local newspaper.
I really rather doubt that July 4 in Washington DC would be any cooler than Camp Ripley Minnesota, and that the many soldiers involved in Trump’s parade would be any more comfortable than the poor troops of that long ago exhibition of Minnesota military might. Pres. Truman who had his share of miserable trench conditions in World War I visibly radiated sympathy for the miserable soldiers parading past the reviewing stand. He knew bullshit when he saw it, instead of practicing it like the present president of golden hair and leaden intellect. Trump, of course, never served in the military, having received several deferments because of what he claimed were bone spurs. He and one of his most ardent sycophants, the right wing mouth that roared, Rush Limbaugh, both avoided military service because of dubious health claims, which doesn’t seem to stop either one from frequent golf games.
Since Donald Trump gets all giggly over the idea of a parade I have a plan for him. Rather than activating United States Army to march down Fifth Avenue in his honor, he could make use of an existing parade. Every Thanksgiving, the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is in New York City, Trump’s hometown.
Why not commission a giant float to be included in the Macy’s parade? It could be a gigantic representation of Trump’s head. What could be more appropriate than a massive gasbag, filled with hot air? He could join Snoopy and Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters as they float along the famed Fifth Avenue, right past Trump Tower, the president’s glittering monument to excess and personal glorification. Trump could stand on a specially built balcony on the façade of the tower, passing benediction on the crowd below and posing belligerently like Benito Mussolini. Not exactly the Pope, another Italian personage, but what the heck you go with what you got.
Many thousands of fawning New Yorkers could gather to worship the drifting gasbag and official photographers could take photographs that Trump later could claim as evidence that it was the largest crowd ever to witness a parade and the greatest parade in the history of the universe. He could brag that even God couldn’t mount a more spectacular parade and Sarah Huckabee Sanders could drool at the daily press briefing that once again the president is vindicated, dissolved of all the scurrilous things that those awful Democrats have been saying about him.

Of course there is the distinct possibility, that no one would show up and that someone would take lying photographs of empty streets and even the Snoopy float would show the beloved beagle snarling like a wolverine in a foothold trap.
It’s a thought….

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  • Blog
  • February 4th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I couldn’t make this up if I tried, not that anyone more articulate than a second grader would want to. Below is a direct quote from the president of the United States, the person an uncomfortably large portion of the voting public elected to be the leader of the free world.
If you can read this quote with a straight face and without gagging, more power to you. With this incoherent babble, Donald J Trump has proved that not only is he a threat to the country, to democracy, and possibly to the world, he is a demonstrable enemy of the English language.
Okay, here goes:

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.“

And there you have it. Any comment would be superfluous. It stands alone, like a dung heap, of tortured syntax, fractured language, and the outpouring of a diseased mind. This is stream of consciousness rambling like the overflow from a sewage treatment plant. I didn’t make that quote up, the Democrats didn’t make it up, Hillary Clinton didn’t make it up and neither did any of the perceived enemies that seem to plague Donald Trump’s paranoiac mind. It is a direct transcription of a filmed verbal eruption by the Clown Prince of politics.
They used to make fun of Dwight Eisenhower’s sometimes awkward locutions, and the malapropisms of George W. Bush, but compared to them Donald Trump is Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, great orators of the past. Dr. Martin Luther King doubtless is spinning in his grave. Sure, no president is immune from occasional spoken gaffes but Donald Trump has taken the verbal fart to an art form, composed of equal parts self-aggrandizement, shameless bragging, outright lies, and utterly nonsensical babbling.
Just as he has, unfortunately, elevated the presidency of the United States to a kind of sick joke, a daily example of silliness that, in comparison, makes the Three Stooges look like the three wise men of biblical fame.
Just as television viewers of America’s Funniest Home Videos laugh slightly cruelly when some poor sap lands crotch first on a railing while attempting some silly stunt, thankful that it wasn’t us it happened to, we should be laughing at the clown antics of the pretend president, but the penalties for treating his daily bungling as laughable are not funny— they’re terrifying. Trump spends much of his time engaging in “mine is bigger than yours” bragging, which might be funny if he were only talking about his stubby fingers, not about using one of those fingers on the nuclear button.
Trump has managed to gather about him a band of sycophants whose dedication to the Republican Party transcends their dedication to morality or the good of the nation. I can’t help but hope, although I don’t believe it, that at night in the dark of the moon they don’t huddle in their respective beds cringing with shame, wondering what indignity the great leader will heap upon them when the sun comes up.
You saw Paul Ryan and Mike Spence flanking him on the podium as he made his state of the union address, their faces set in a rictus of approval as he made one outrageous statement after another. And Trump had the audacity to criticize the Democrats after his speech during which he vowed to dismantle democracy as we know it for not applauding him. That would be like applauding at a public hanging.
The recent collision between a trainload of Republican Congressman and their families and a garbage truck in West Virginia is filled with bitter irony. The Internet is rife with comments from folks who are understandably reluctant to make jokes about the ironic nature of the collision— a train full of garbage politicians colliding with a garbage truck. And there is nothing funny about an accident which takes the lives of innocent people– predictably enough, some of the more insane conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Democrats planted the garbage truck on the tracks.
From the outset you have to wonder about the motives of the Republicans who feel it necessary to flee from their duties as congresspeople on a chartered train headed for one of the most exclusive and expensive resorts in the nation while, at the same time, they trumpet their dedication to putting more money in the pockets of the nation’s poor and disadvantaged. There is nothing wrong with a retreat, per se, to regroup and brainstorm and seek to find solutions for the many problems that plague the country. But retreats seldom include families and you have to wonder about the necessity of doing it at a place dedicated to luxury for the moneyed class.
It would be nice to know that the Republican congresspeople, instead of blowing big bucks on a luxury vacation, thanks to the generosity of their billionaire donors, would instead make individual retreats to their congressional districts to visit with their constituents and find out what in the hell is going on in the real world.
But the almost Shakespearean tragic aspects of the incident are impossible to ignore once you know the whole story. Many years ago during the height of the Cold War, the administration had a secret bunker constructed beneath the Greenbrier Resort, the destination of the ill-fated Republican train.
The idea was that, if the Soviet Union launched a ballistic missile toward the United States, Congress would load up in a special train and head to the bunker under the Greenbrier, and continue the business of the nation beneath tons of steel and concrete, living in Spartan conditions, sleeping in double-decker bunk beds, and eating freeze-dried survival rations out of cans.
The bunker cost about $14 million to build, which translates into more than $100 million today. The idea was improbable enough in the 1950s when advance warning of an incoming missile might have given Congress hours to escape; now it is even more ludicrous when the warning time is only minutes.
The mental picture of some of the more corpulent politicians who would’ve been involved again raises the specter of Shakespeare— the beefy specter of Sir John Falstaff trying to fit himself into a sagging bunk bed and eating shit on a shingle is impossible to ignore (that’s what the military universally calls chipped beef on toast).
After the fall of the Soviet Union my dear friend Ted Gup, a protégé of Bob Woodward, the Washington Post investigative reporter who, with Carl Bernstein, exposed the Watergate mess and brought down Richard Nixon, blew the whistle in print on the existence of the Greenbrier bunker. Ted was vacationing and stopped at the Greenbrier for lunch and out of curiosity followed through on hints of the then still secret bunker, which had long outlasted any significance. He broke the story in the Washington Post and that was the end of the bunker as a refuge for threatened Congressman in a national missile crisis. Even today, when the bunker has become a tourist attraction rather than a necessity, Ted’s expose incurs snarls of outrage from the bunker tour guides. Possibly the loss of government funding for bunker maintenance has something to do with the outrage, more than any perceived threat to national security.
If Kim Jong Un ever does launch a missile at the United States the usefulness of the Greenbrier bunker is long since done with. The entire idea of a special train, leaving Washington, with the nation’s lawmakers aboard, ahead of an incoming missile, was ludicrous to begin with, and a typical legislative waste of money. Today, the bunker, is a tourist attraction which, for thirty dollars, you can tour, and then return to reality for a gourmet lunch, or, if you happen to be a Republican Congressman, a super expensive vacation. Instead of escaping an incoming ballistic missile, you will be escaping your duties as a representative of the people.
The more Donald J Trump, the pit master of presidential politics, trumpets about “fake news” the more he energizes the nation’s investigative reporters to shovel aside the manure that he spreads so carelessly and expose the truth beneath. Nixon didn’t get away with it and given the dogged persistence of the Washington Post and the New York Times and others who believe in a free press and truth in government, Trump won’t either.
Trump’s concept of a free press is one that flatters him endlessly, and probably is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and has as its most notable spokesperson Sean Hannity or any of the various hand puppets on Fox News and Friends. Trump’s Benito Mussolini-like visage crying feebly “fake news!” To any story that he doesn’t like grows increasingly unbelievable, one would hope, even to his most ardent backers. The truth has an undeniable ring to it like that of fine crystal as opposed to cheap plastic. Whether the truth will out remains to be seen in the coming months as one election after another pits truth tellers against the lying toadies of the Trump administration.

And, we can only hope that the Robert Mueller investigation will result in prison sentences, if not the ouster in disgrace of the seedy band of rascals that has insinuated itself into and corrupted the nation’s more than two century long system of democratic government.

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  • Blog
  • January 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

My Uncle Al wasn’t imaginative enough to nickname the pike—calling it Scarface, for example. To him it was just “that goddam fish!” but he was obsessed by it.
It was a northern pike he had hooked and lost twice, a pike of a size not seen by him or any other Birch Lake angler in many years, certainly not in his considerable lifetime. It was an anomaly, a throwback to the pioneer days before Birch Lake was invaded by armies of modern anglers, armed with the fishing industry’s latest technological weapons.
Pike of that size in the early days had to worry about a few Ojibwas with rudimentary spears or, somewhat later, a few white anglers with Tru Temper steel rods, Pflueger Supreme reels and braided line that often was rotten enough to break with a sharp tug.
The big northern sulled in the weedbeds around Penny Island and had a whitish scar running across its forehead, perhaps from a gaff that missed or from who knows what. Maybe even a fish spear just missing through a hole chopped in the thick ice during the winter.
It had been there for a long time, gaining length and weight and the scars of battle. Al figured it would run upwards of 35 pounds and, while he made a fair sideline income from guiding tourist-anglers, he carefully avoided guiding them anywhere near the haunts of the big fish.
He didn’t want anyone catching that fish but him. Fortunately for Al the day had passed when the trophy anglers invaded the lake. Virtually all of today’s fisherpeople, including the ones Al guided, were after bluegills and lake perch, small fish in abundance. Rarely did anyone venture through the Narrows into the wide part of the lake where Penny Island crouched almost unnoticed.
The monster pike lurked around a weedbed on the far side of the tiny island. Al would approach the weedbed with the caution of an errant husband sneaking to an assignation—fearful that an alert fellow angler would ferret out his secret and beat him to the huge fish. Not that it would be easy, even if you knew where the mighty fish lay. Trophy fish don’t get that way by being dumb.
But in one of his rare generous moments Al took the Methodist minister fishing on a Saturday afternoon, figuring to earn some afterlife points which anyone who knew him would agree that he needed. In the spirit of Christian charity (and because he figured the minister was not much of an angler), he drifted near the Penny Island weedbeds. And, wouldn’t you know it, on the good reverend’s very first cast there was a brutal strike and the Holy Rod bowed as if in genuflection.
“Got a big one!” cried the minister, reeling furiously as the fish bore toward the boat, intent on sawing itself off on any sharp protrusion.
As the big fish circled the stern of the inelegantly-nicknamed Birch Lake Bitch, Al saw the telltale white scar on the big fish’s head and realized that his personal Holy Grail was about to come home to Jesus, not to him. Heaven can wait, he told himself grimly as he surreptitiously reached down with his filet knife and sliced the line just above the leader. “Ah, geez, reverend!” he exclaimed. “He cut the line on the motor! Hell…I mean, heck of a bum deal!”
The minister, to his credit, did not say any of the things Al would have said in similar circumstances, murmuring only, “Ah, well, the Lord moves in mysterious and sometimes painful ways. Perhaps I wanted it too much.”
His sermon the next day concerned the sin of coveting. Al, in the very back of the church more out of curiosity (and a niggling sense of shame) listened as the preacher cautioned against breaking the Tenth Commandment and Al substituted “catch” for “covet” and added “fish” to “neighbor’s wife, house, male servant and ass.” He glanced up as he left the church and murmured, “Sorry.”
It was a week later when retribution, whether divine or not, visited Al in the Bluegill Bar. He had gone fishing early in the afternoon and near sunset he hooked into a nice northern near Snake Island. It proved to be the biggest pike of the season, a 15-pounder—far from his scarfaced obsession, but a nice pike nonetheless and one worth showing off at the Bluegill Bar. Al figured bragging up his fish before he took it home and filleted it was worth a few free beers from his bar rag buddies.
The Bluegill was an old building faced with lake rocks that looked more like glacial till than a building front. The heavy wooden door bore the patina of a quarter century of winters and summers and the abrasions of a zillion thirsty patrons. The interior was dimly lit and so were most of the people inside.
When Al brought his pike inside the buzz stopped instantly, save for the oompah stomp of Frankie Yankovic on the jukebox. “Holy hammers, Al!” boomed one of his grizzly compadres. “Hell of a fish! That calls for a brew!” Of course virtually anything called for a brew at the Bluegill, but Al had been right that the northern was worth some free Bruenig’s Lager. Even Olaf Swenson, the bartender, bought him one on the house.
Some time later, warmed by the glow from four Bruenig’s, Al made the mistake of his life, not that he hadn’t made more than the average share of big mistakes to that point. But no previous error would prove as dream-shattering as what happened after he agreed to guide the beefy loudmouth tourist in the ridiculous shirt and baggy shorts.
“You the guy that caught that big fish!” The booming voice belonged to a large, fleshy man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts that looked big enough to hold a circus in. He was the antithesis of anybody Al normally would have wanted to socialize with. But Al was flush with good humor created by the fish and the beer. At that moment he was unusually benevolent and he smiled and nodded.
“Hell of a fish,” man said. He plopped down in a chair, uninvited, and said, “Name’s Brewster Mulligan. We got a bet over there,” he said, nodding toward a table with several other obvious tourist types. “They bet me I can’t catch a pike worth bragging about. You ever guide?”
Al began to nod yes, squinted at the sweating, florid foreigner, had second thoughts and was poised to say no when Mulligan added, “I’d pay you a gob to take me out. I just wanna rub them guys’ noses in it. Tell you what, we got a hundred bucks bet that I can’t catch a pike as big as that one you just brought in…and I’ll split it with you if you can put me on a big northern.”
The mention of fifty dollars tied Al’s tongue. He was congenitally short of funds. And his usual guiding rate was $25 a day. The fat guy was offering double pay. Al’s bar tab, always looming, was approaching the point where Olaf would demand payment or cut off his Bruenig’s pipeline, an event not to be contemplated. It was a no brainer.
“Ain’t no guarantees,” Al said.
“I don’t buy anything without a guarantee,” Mulligan said. “Bad business.” It sounded like a joke, but Mulligan didn’t laugh. He frowned, sweating in the thick beer and smoke atmosphere of the Bluegill Bar. Once again Al had second thoughts but the appearance of another bottle of Bruenig’s, sweating and cold, eased his concern.
They shook on it—the large man’s sweaty, soft palm, and Al’s horny old hand. Al wiped his hand on his overalls. They would meet in the morning at the town dock where Al moored his ancient wooden boat.
The beefy man said, “You can call me Mr. Mulligan, now that you’re working for me.” It sounded like a joke, but Al heard a hard note in the man’s voice that made him once again wish he’d turned the guy down. But a deal’s a deal and fifty bucks is roughly 3.5 cases of Bruenig’s Lager.
The next morning was overcast with enough breeze to stir the lake surface. Al was gassing his old Johnson outboard when Mulligan appeared, hauling a casting rod and a tacklebox the size of a boxcar. He threw both in the boat and said, “Let’s get this show on the road. I got a buffalo-sized hangover and I don’t need a bunch of crap.” He pulled a pint of Old Forester from his pocket, blew like a spavined horse and uncapped it. The glugging sound the booze made as he chugged from it was audible in the back of the Bitch where Al fiddled with the outboard.
Great way to start the day, Al thought. Nice guy. Al’s geriatric outboard coughed a few times, but then it had had a catarrhal condition for years. They set out and Al trolled along Birch Lake’s shoreline for a while, but knew that the shallows across the lake held more promise for a pike angler. And the money was more or less conditional on Mulligan catching a bragging size (and bet-winning size) northern.
The Bitch wallowed across the main body of the lake toward Snake Island. “This is where I caught that pike last week,” he said. Mulligan snarled his reel almost hopelessly on his first cast.
“Goddam it!” he yelled. “If you’d get the damn boat where it oughta be that wouldn’ta happened!” He picked fretfully at the mess and then threw the rod in disgust toward Al. “Here,” he snarled. “I’m payin’ you—you fix it!” Al, glowering but silent, mindful of his guide’s fee, pulled endless loops from the buggered reel.
Finally he managed to free the tangles and reel the line tight to the spool. He tightened the drag slightly and handed it back to Mulligan who was busy knocking back another slug from his pint. Al noticed that the formerly full pint was about half gone. Either he had taken a long time to free the reel or the guy was a speed drinker. Al wouldn’t have minded a belt himself, but he would rather give up drinking than beg for a bump from a human moose flop like this guy.
“Gotta keep your thumb on it or she’ll backlash every time,” Al said, as mildly as he could, although he wanted to jam the rod, reel and all, where the sun rarely if ever shined.
“Yeah, right,” Mulligan muttered. “You just keep the boat where it oughta be and I’ll take care of the fishing.” He took another hefty hit from his pint and wiped a meaty hand across his mouth. “Don’t need no hick tellin’ me how to fish,” Al heard Mulligan mutter and he took a deep breath and thought of a phrase he had heard on the “Law and Order” television show—“justifiable homicide.”
Al maneuvered the boat along the shore, nursing the five-horse Johnson like a conductor’s baton. Mulligan’s next cast overshot the shoreline by five yards and nailed an overhanging birch tree. Mulligan hauled on the rod like a man possessed. “Come loose you rotten son….!” he snarled. With a muted pop and hiss the line parted and the rod sprang to attention. Fifty feet away the red-and-white Dardevle swayed in the birch tree. “Well, if that isn’t the goddamndist….you got too damn close to the bank, dammit!”
Al was increasingly less mindful of his guide’s fee and more mindful of the penalty for premeditated murder. Still, he figured a jury of Birch Lakers, given the circumstances, would not only exonerate him, but set him up at the Bluegill Bar for ridding the world of a nuisance. He sighed and vowed to guide only women, mousy little men and kids from now on.
They were drifting across the narrows toward Penny Island, but Uncle Al figured this guy couldn’t even hit the water with a bad cast, much less a good one. Mulligan had opened his mammoth tacklebox, and slipped the trays wide out, exposing more lures than Al had seen in his lifetime.
Mulligan picked out a River Runt, bristling with treble hooks, and a new steel leader. He tied the leader on and snapped the Runt to it. Meanwhile, Al drifted with the current which would take him around the end of Penny Island and toward the lee shore where, perhaps Mulligan could cast into weedy shallows without hooking himself, Al or a passing airplane.
The antique Johnson outboard coughed, sputtered and died. Wavelets slapped against the boat. As Al bent over his tubercular old outboard, Mulligan resumed slopping awkward casts toward Penny Island.
“Holy Jesus!” Mulligan shouted. “I got one!” Al looked up from the defunct outboard and with the prescience born of a lifetime of fishing knew instantly that Mulligan had hooked his scarfaced fish. He instantly fumbled for his filet knife. If he couldn’t cut the line somehow, he was halfway prepared to use the knife on Mulligan. The idea that this obnoxious outlander could steal his trophy was unimaginable.
But there would be no surreptitious cutting of the line this time—Mulligan did the unthinkable.
As the huge fish made a dive to go under the boat, Mulligan countered with a mighty heave that brought the fish out of the water like a Polaris missile…and into the boat, filled with pike rage. The fish landed in Mulligan’s lap and thrashed demonically, teeth and treble hooks flashing.
Mulligan howled and fell over backward into his open tacklebox. Al watched horrified as his client screamed in pain, a 35-pound northern clubbing his vital parts in front and a confusion of sharp hooks assaulting his backside. “Get him off me!” Mulligan screamed. Al had subdued many an active northern, but not one this big and not one this active. He wanted no part of it.
Mulligan managed to push the fish into the bow of the boat long enough to squirm around and reach in the tacklebox. Al noticed that his butt bristled with lures, all with one or more hooks imbedded in Mulligan’s ample flesh. Mulligan came out with a .45 caliber pistol and before Al could shout a warning, emptied the gun into the pike…and the Bitch, which began spouting water from a half-dozen holes in its bottom.
Quiet returned to Birch Lake. Mulligan sprawled across the bow seat groaning in pain, his multi-hooked butt in the air. The dead pike lay in the bow which gradually was filling with water. “Jesus!” Al breathed, wishing he could emulate the Savior and hike to town atop the waves, leaving the whole mess behind.
It took more than a half hour of improvising stoppers for the bullet holes and bailing before the Bitch once again was seaworthy. Mulligan spent the entire time cursing Al, the boat, the fish and his rotten luck. Somehow the entire episode had become Al’s fault. “If you’da done your job…shoulda known better than goin’ with some hick….get these goddam hooks outa me….what the hell’s the matter with you!” And so on.
Al began to regret that Mulligan had emptied the gun because it left no bullets for him to use on the loudmouth. He gave Mulligan a mirthless grin, looking remarkably like the toothy pike. “You got your big fish,” he said between clenched teeth. “What’s your complaint?”
“Damned if I’m gonna pay for this!” Mulligan yelled.
Al sat back in the stern and said, “Fine—you can walk home then.”
Mulligan pointed the empty pistol at Al, then realized he was out of ammo, made as if to lunge toward Al and howled in pain as the myriad Pikie Minnows, River Runts, Dardevles and Bass-Orenos reminded him of their presence. “Just get me to a doctor!” he snarled, turning to hug the seat in front of him.
Al snapped his grimy fingers. “Money,” he said. There was a long moment of standoff until Mulligan realized that he couldn’t win. “Here!” he snarled, painfully extracting his billfold. “Take your goddam money!”
Al tried to hit every wavelet en route to the Town Dock, each time jarring Mulligan who was folded frontward over the bow seat, his looming backside pointed toward Al. Al eased the boat to the dock and tied it off. “I’ll go get somebody to take you up to the doc,” he said.
“You better hurry or I’m gonna sue your ass!” Mulligan snarled. “Worthless old bastard!”
Al gimped up Main Street to the Bluegill Bar and pushed through the creaking door into the dim interior. There were only a couple of grizzled potato farmers, moodily nursing longneck Bruenig’s Lagers. Dust motes swirled in the hazy sunlight filtering through the dirty windows. The geriatric ceiling fan squeaked rhythmically as it stirred the stale, beer-flavored air in the bar.
“Gimme a draw and a shot,” Al said to Olaf Swenson. He plopped down on a barstool and rubbed at his stubbly jaw. “Jesus, what a day!” he growled.
He threw back the shot and followed it with a gulp of beer. He brooded over the empty shot glass. “How about can I use your phone?” he asked. Olaf set the bar phone in front of him and Al looked at it with sour distaste, as if he thought it might bite.
“You got a hot date, Al?” Olaf asked. “Or tryin’ to get one?”
Al thought of the lost pike, the slob who had stolen his fish, the man now sprawled over the bow seat of the Birch Lake Bitch with a covey of treble hooks buried in his ample butt, the trophy pike drying and dull in front of him. It was a mental picture that brought a momentary frisson of pleasure to Al’s otherwise glum mood.
But then Al realized he likely never would see a live fish as big and as desirable as the one the loudmouthed stranger had stolen from him and that blackened his mood once more. “You gonna use the phone, Al?” Olaf asked.
“No big hurry,” Al said, knocking back the rest of his beer. “Gimme another shot and a beer. I got all the time in the world.”

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  • January 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance
They call it acrophobia. And no, that’s not fear of acros. It’s fear of heights, of being up high. And more specifically of being up high and falling. If you have seen the Mel Brooks movie “High Anxiety” and laughed at the Mel Brooks character when he is petrified by being in an elevator with an exposed window overlooking the hotel far below, you’ll know how I felt on the elevator that lifted me to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Somehow they forgot to build an elevator with enclosed walls and also one where you have the option of not getting in the thing in the first place.
Or how I felt peering through the open door leading to a tiny cat walk around the very top of the dome on the Missouri state capitol. Or how I felt on top of a mule on a petrifyingly narrow trail leading out of the Grand Canyon, the only thing between me and what appeared to be a 2000 foot plunge into the abyss was the assurance of the mule wrangler that “They don’t want to fall off the edge either.”
Yeah, well I’d rather hear it directly from the mule. Putting your life in the hooves of a mule strains the idea of trust to the extreme. I happen to believe that most mules are smarter than most humans anyway, but that doesn’t mean that I want to trust my life to one in a moment of blind panic— leave the blind panic to me, not to the mule.
Fear of heights is an acquired phobia according to the psychologists. They say that babies only instinctively are afraid of falling and loud noises, not of snakes or high places or other common fears. Give a baby a diamondback rattlesnake and it will chew on it like a Binky. Certainly, that Grand Canyon mule, had no apparent fear of heights. Going by the name of Streak, an ominous sounding name if ever there was one for a large and legendarily independent four-legged creature, she persisted in walking on the outside edge of the trail which was only mule wide to begin with, occasionally kicking a rock over the edge.
Once we negotiated a hairpin turn in the trail where she performed a three-quarter back and fill move, like a long distance trucker negotiating a difficult turn. For a brief and dizzying moment I opened my eyes only to see an abyss the likes of which I never hope to see again. Worse, there was a wind blowing and I had the panicky feeling that I was Dorothy in that Kansas farmhouse about to be swept by a tornado into God knows where. My late friend, Norm Strung, was on the mule directly behind me and said, “ I know you’re apprehensive, but you really should see this wonderful view.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, clutching the pommel of the saddle with one hand and the mule’s mane with the other. You couldn’t have pulled me loose with another team of mules.
According to one definition of acrophobia, it is an irrational fear of heights. I’ll quibble with that— standing on a precipice with your feet hanging over the edge teetering precariously and being utterly terrified strikes me as the absolute epitome of rationality. The word itself derives from Greek meaning summit and phobia. I take that to mean a fear of being on top. Donald Trump should acquire a whole lot of acrophobia and get down to the bottom where he belongs, preferably under the rock from which he crawled. Acrophobia also is called vertigo but apparently there is a semantic difference between the two. Supposedly, vertigo is that feeling of imbalance and even an irrational feeling that you want to jump, while acrophobia is infinitely preferring to be down low rather than up high.
I don’t know how or when I acquired my fear of heights but perhaps it was the sight of my uncle Roy Finnell scampering about in the lofty rafters of his rickety tobacco barn arranging sticks of newly cut tobacco for drying. I do recall that my father was unnerved by the sight of his brother-in-law acting like a member of the Wallenda family on the high wire and perhaps his poorly hidden panic transferred itself to me like flu germs. However, our daughter Carrie, shares some of my phobia— she and I both scooted on our rear ends down the rickety stairs from the top of the Missouri state capitol to firmer ground, but she also skis fearlessly and hikes precipitous mountain trails where mountain goats get the whim-whams.
I also have what I guess I could call political acrophobia—a fear of politicians in high places. For example, I am terrified of Donald J Trump. I have a feeling that’s a phobia that I share with most of the voting population of the United States and, I also feel, that if he continues in office much longer it will be a universal terror. I think Trump has what you could call acrophobial backspin, a fear of being exposed in high places, something that his many accomplices in high crimes and misdemeanors could make reality. One can only hope.
There is a 2015 movie titled “The Wire” about a tight rope walker named Phillipe Pettit who, on the afternoon of August 6, 1974, walked 130 feet on a galvanized steel wire between the then unfinished World Trade Centers in New York City. Pettit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth 1350 feet above the ground, while hundreds if not thousands of awed New Yorkers waited far below, probably holding their breath, for the moment he would lose his balance and fall.
He never did, but watching the movie even while sitting comfortably on a couch (holding tightly to the armrest) I got super whim-whams, something that never did bother Pettit, who walked back and forth from one side to the other while New York City police pleaded with him to come back to safety, probably wishing they could just shoot him off the wire and get it over with. Pettit even laid down on the wire at one point, and told the world later “I was not scared because it was a precise thing. I was dying of happiness”. Meanwhile, watching the movie, I was dying of terror.
His feat was analogous to my uncle treading the rafters in the tobacco barn, only more than 1200 feet higher up. I’m not saying Uncle Finney might not have been able to walk the cable balanced by a tobacco stick instead of a long pole, but I think maybe even that would have daunted him—and not much did.
So afraid of heights am I that I cannot look up at the St. Louis Gateway Arch from its base without feeling faint and losing my balance, a clear case of vertigo. I tried it once and everything turned to water inside my body and I thought I was going to fall over on my back. So far I have resisted the urge to travel to the top of the Arch and look out–far stronger is the urge not to do it.
Is there a cure for acrophobia, other than leaping off a cliff 2000 feet to jagged rocks below, which falls into the category of “a permanent solution”? Behavioral psychologists claim that you can cure a phobia by gradual exposure to it, conditioning yourself as it were to accept the fear and overcome it. Sounds good in theory, but when your fear of heights extends to a feeling of despair two rungs up on a ladder it’s going to take more than minimal exposure to heights to induce me to scale the side of the Empire State building like King Kong, never mind batting down airplanes that are shooting at me.
This is a Pavlovian approach to solving problems. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who conditioned dogs to salivate at a certain sound. You probably could condition me to salivate at the sight of a ribeye steak but I doubt that even playing early Elvis Presley would incline me to teeter at the edge of a precipice.
Recently, a friend emailed me about her time skiing at a nearby Idaho ski mountain and instantly my mind filled with acrophobic angst, remembering back to my time skiing in Colorado. Many years ago Marty and I were chaperones of a YMCA ski trip and I found myself trapped on a lift for the first time with a teenage twerpette who seemed not to realize that we were suspended, apparently thousands of feet above solid ground, perched on a flimsy lawn chair seemingly fastened only by a length of 20 pound test monofilament fishing line. “Isn’t this fun!” She chortled rocking the chair, which sent me into spasms of terror. “I’ll take your word for it,” I muttered through clenched teeth, once again transported to the saddle of that suicidal mule on the Kaibab trail.
“We’ll be at the top soon,” she trilled. I didn’t want to be at the top—I wanted to be at the bottom where there were lots of alcoholic drinks. But we did reach the top, and I spilled off the chairlift and sprawled in a tangle of skis and poles in front of a crowd of skiers who regarded me with amused contempt. The twerpette helped me up and I shakily followed her to the edge of what seemed to be a precipice on the order of the North face of the Eiger. Many vertical miles below me I could see Steamboat Village.
The twerpette, all of 15 years old, looked pityingly at me and said “do you need help getting down, Mr. Vance?”
“No, you go on ahead,” I said in a squeaky voice that sounded much like that of Barney Fife, “I’ll just check my bindings or something.” And she sailed over the edge like Lindsey Vonn and vanished in a spray of snow while I stood there petrified wondering if somehow I could spend the rest of my life there, supplied occasionally with food and, especially, strong drink.
It took several eons of unremitting terror but I finally got to the end of the run in a series of panicky fits and starts, looking like someone fighting off a swarm of African bees. Charitable memory has mercifully erased the details of that perilous descent down the mountain, but there were no scouts for the US Olympic downhill racing team waiting to sign me up. There was, however, a bistro with calming libations where I spent much of the remaining time on the trip.
So I trundle on down life’s highway, preferably one with no hills, and without friends in high places to smooth out the bumps in the road. As far as I’m concerned any friends I might have had in high places can just stay there.

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