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  • September 14th, 2017

JUNIOR’S BIG BASS

By Joel M. Vance
The late A.J. (Junior) Samples of Cumming, Georgia, couldn’t remember his lines, couldn’t read cue cards, looked like 40 miles of bad road and couldn’t sing.
Hardly the star image.
But he did one thing better than anyone ever has and it made him famous. He told history’s greatest fish lie.
Junior became a star on the syndicated country television variety show “Hee Haw” because of a taped interview made in 1967 with Jim Morrison, then chief of information for the Georgia conservation department.
Junior claimed he had caught a world record largemouth bass from Georgia’s Lake Lanier, a sprawling impoundment just across the road from Cumming. The fish allegedly weighed 22 pounds, nine ounces. Every schoolboy knows the world record is 22 pounds, four ounces, caught in 1932 by George Perry from Montgomery Lake, Georgia.
It is the outdoor equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s streak of hitting in 56 straight games. Perry’s record has endured for more than 80 years and anyone who breaks it will have instant fame. The endorsements alone will bring a fortune. Junior Samples won fame and fortune even though his record claim was a flat-out lie.
Morrison interviewed Junior, a sprawling 300-pound heap of a man, on a front porch right out of Dogpatch. “It was Squalor Holler,” Morrison said. “The outhouse was in a corner of a stall in the barn. There were no screens on the windows and there was trash and garbage laying out in the weeds.”
Morrison had no trouble finding Junior. Cumming wasn’t much bigger than Junior anyway, and he was, if not a leading, at least a prominent citizen. “He was racin’ cars and runnin’ a liquor store,” Morrison says. Before that, Junior had run moonshine–it’s how he learned to drive a race car, another of his good ol’ boy careers.
Junior also fancied himself a carpenter. “Drivin’ nails,” he drawled. But he allowed–and here he paused as if he were trying to spit out a mouthful of cockleburs–that work had interfered with his fishing before he caught the record bass. “But it ain’t gonna no more!” he vowed fervently. “Ah’m gonna do a bonch uh fishin’!”
Junior’s interview was a masterpiece of misdirection. “He told it so convincingly I believed him,” Morrison said. Junior claimed he ate the world record bass. “Ah’s lookin’ fer sumpin tuh eat!” he declared. That would have invalidated his claim even if it had been true. But he told Morrison the fish had been weighed in several places around the lake.
He claimed he couldn’t remember where the fish was weighed. “Ah don’t know. Ah was dronk,” he drawled. “We weighed ‘im sommers and didn’t nobody dispute the word. Ah showed him all over the county. Ah reckon ah did. Ah think ah did. There’s plenty of people seed the feesh. Ah thought we weighed ‘im down at Joe Hansard’s but Grace said Harold said we didn’t weigh ‘im down there, so ah guess we didn’t weigh ‘im down there.”
Morrison remembered , “I drove him all around that lake looking for who weighed it. And the hell of it is, we found someone who said he’d seen the fish.”
Junior said he was fishing about a mile below Bald Ridge Marina (for those who dote on where-to information). “On a smerged (submerged) island.
“Ah dropped mah anchor rock there on the island and ah peetched my little outfit out, that li’l 33 out? Ah had some heavy equipment there in the boat an’ ah uz gonna put uh big lizard on them an’ git ready for uh big bass an’ ah just got one hooked an’ ah looked over there an’ seed my line a- stretchin’ out, a-straightenin’ out and I reached down and caught ‘im. When ah jerked him, ah thinks ah’m hung fer it dint go nowhere when ah jerked.”
The fight, though, was unspectacular. Junior knew better than to embellish a good lie so much it sounded like a lie. “Atter he come up and stood on that tail and shuck that head three or four times he jist turnt over on his side and ah just drug ‘im right on in,” Junior said.
He showed Morrison the head of the fish and the size of it astounded Morrison. Only a world record bass could have such a head…assuming the decomposing remains were those of a bass.
By the time Morrison saw the head, it was several days old and stinking. “It was light-colored for a bass, but I figured a largemouth bass after three or four days of rotting might get a little lighter colored,” Morrison said.
When Morrison returned to Atlanta, he woke up a fisheries biologist and showed him the fish head by the light of a flashlight–not exactly the best conditions for identification. The biologist said, “Jim, this is the finest bass that’s ever lived in the world.” That was verification enough for Morrison.
The next morning, Morrison ran into Aubrey Morris, a reporter for Atlanta radio station WSB and told him the story. Morris aired the story almost instantly. “The cat was out of the bag,” Morrison said. “Then a biologist who’d worked in saltwater said, ‘hell, Jim, that ain’t no bass, that’s a red grouper.”
Hoax or not, the tape was country funny and Morrison played it on a Game and Fish Department radio show twice, once right after it was made and about six months later. Each time, he was flooded with calls from people who were tickled by it. The second time, two of the callers represented record companies.
During the original interview, Junior said something that either is totally puzzling or that reveals he was thinking phonograph record months before anyone else. I didn’t think I had no record,” he says. “I knowed I had a record, but I didn’t think I did on the fish.” Did Junior Samples set out to create an entertainment career? Some who knew him think he was just canny enough to come up with such a scheme.
There are at least two stories on how Junior came to have the head of a grouper in north Georgia, a long way from the ocean. The one he told was that his brother saw the fish below a bridge, apparently tossed there. The brother cut off the head and had it in the back of a pickup truck at an auto race. “Someone asked who caught that big fish and Junior and his brother looked at each other,” Morrison said. “His brother didn’t want to claim it, so Junior said he caught it.”
The other story is that the two of them swiped the fish out of someone’s car and ate it, except for the head. Morrison photographed Junior with the fish head, even in comic poses with him wearing the head like a cap.
After the recording of Junior’s story appeared, Junior began to get invitations to entertain in country and western beer joints. By then no one cared if he could catch record fish or not. He could tell a world record fish story and that was good enough. Before long, there was a commercial version of the interview, along with other stories.
In 1969, Junior reached the summit, if it can be called that, of country entertainment. He joined “Hee Haw.” Junior mumbled and stumbled his way through scripts designed to be deliberately baffling. His charm was not that he read the jokes right, but that he read them wrong.
My late and dear friend Mitch Jayne played bass for the Dillards bluegrass band, the group that had a continuing role as the Darling family in the old Andy Griffith television show. Jayne was a writer and former teacher who was as far intellectually from Junior Samples as the Metropolitan Opera is from “Hee Haw.”
But he liked Junior.
“Junior said things funny,” Jayne recalled. “The stories just poured out and he always had his lower lip full of tobacco, so he kind of mushed his words.”
There was more to Junior Samples than a fat drunk whom everyone teased. He only looked stupid; he was country smart. He was canny enough to tell a huge lie and get knowledgeable people to believe it. “Junior had the quality of cupidity,” Jayne says. “He could take almost anything and turn it into money. He started out delivering moonshine on a bicycle. Picture that–this kid who probably weighed 300 pounds when he was 16 riding a bicycle loaded with hootch.”
For all his financial cunning, though, Junior missed a bet in the big bass story. He did claim he caught the fish on a “Zebbyco 33,” a free endorsement for Zebco, but said the fish hit on “a leetle bitty what (white) bellied sprang (spring) lizard.” Every lure manufacturer would have killed to be mentioned as the lure-of-choice.
Junior became famous enough that he was invited on “This Is Your Life,” the Ralph Edwards television show that allegedly surprised celebrities, then confronted them with people from their past.
Junior stayed in California with Mitch Jayne and his wife. Jayne recalled his few days as Junior’s host with fond horror. “The producers said, ‘you’ve got to keep him busy and keep him from going crazy,'” Jayne said. “I figured what’s a week? If I’d known what trouble Junior could be I wouldn’t have kept him a day.
“He got off the plane wearing bib overalls and a striped tee shirt. It’s all I ever saw him wear. He had a cardboard suitcase with two pairs of overalls and three or four pairs of underwear and that just about filled the thing. Later on, he gave us a pair of his overalls and we had a Christmas photo taken, my wife and I each in a leg.”
Jayne had just bought a station wagon. Junior, after warning Mitch’s wife in the back seat to “get outa the line of farr, li’l lady,” proceeded to spit tobacco juice out the window all the way to Jayne’s home.
Jayne discovered that his new wagon had what appeared to be a brown racing stripe its entire length. “It was like a flame job done by a drunk teenager. We like to never got it off.” Junior asked Mitch if he “lacked bald shreemp.” “It took me a while to decipher that one,” Jayne said. “He meant did I like boiled shrimp.” Jayne bought 10 pounds, found that was barely an appetizer for the massive moonshiner. Junior cooked the shrimp in the Jayne’s kitchen, then pitched the salty water in the back yard, almost instantly killing a huge chunk of the landlord’s cherished dichondra lawn.
Jayne was supposed to keep the Edwards show secret from Junior, but it became increasingly difficult because Junior kept trying to call home and no one was there.
That was because everyone he knew in Cumming was on a train (they were afraid of flying), headed to California for the show. Jayne said, “Junior was ready to jump on a plane to Cumming–he’d fly in anything. Junior wasn’t afraid of planes. Planes were afraid of Junior.”
Junior became increasingly agitated about being out of touch. Jayne, trying to keep Junior off the phone to Cumming, stayed on it himself, so after two days, Junior insisted on getting a motel room where he could use the phone to track down his wife, Grace. Junior suspected Grace was running around on him. “I told the manager to keep an eye on him because I had no idea what the man was going to do,” Jayne said. “The first thing he did was spit in the lobby fountain. Looked like a spittoon to him.”
Junior got drunk in the motel and called Mitch. “He said he was sure Grace had run off and he didn’t care. He said, ‘I’ll give her the house. I’ll give her the hogs!'”
Junior called back and claimed he had flown to “Lost Wages” (Las Vegas) and picked up a waitress on each arm. He wanted to say goodbye forever. “He said, ‘Meetch, we’ll meet again some ol’ day, but it’ll be in a damn different place!'”
Finally, the producers caved in and confessed to Junior that he was to be the subject of the show and allowed Grace to stay with him until showtime. “He didn’t like being fooled,” Jayne said. “‘Hayull, Meetch,’ he told me, ‘they coulda trusted me. Iffen they want a show, Ah’ll give ’em one.'” And as each person from his past was introduced, Junior hauled out a huge red handkerchief and bawled and blubbered into it, acting emotionally blown away. The show remains among the best-remembered.
Junior Samples had come full cycle–from tiny Cumming, Georgia, where he founded a career on an colorful con to national prominence, still gulling everyone.
Junior Samples died in 1983 of a heart attack in his beloved Cumming and he now is no more than a footnote in angling history and a fond memory for devoted fans of rustic tomfoolery.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • September 9th, 2017

FLY ME TO THE MOON

By Joel M. Vance

I have done considerable air travel. I’ve been up in the air many times—sometimes without benefit of an airplane. Once, I flew from New York to London and back again and found the two cities much alike. Lots of diesel fumes, lots of people and lots of taxicabs.
Only difference was that London cabs are big, black, boxy things and the drivers speak a form of English almost comprehensible. In New York cabs all are yellow and the drivers speak Farsi and tailgate the cab in front at about 40 miles an hour and a distance of six inches.
The only New York driver I’ve found who spoke English was from Brooklyn and leveled his curses as if he were back at Ebbets Field and Dem bums were down six runs in the eighth. He told me that he burned out a set of brakes on his Ford Crown Vic every two weeks.
The highlight of that England trip was en route to LaGuardia Airport when the bus driver got lost and we first took a scenic tour of what appeared to be the Mother of All Garbage Dumps before we wound up heading the wrong way on Fabled Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. “I don’t think this is the right way,” mumbled the bus driver, a statement with which an entire bus load of passengers totally agreed. Unless the bus company had a permit to drive across the Atlantic Ocean, we were in the wrong vehicle. But he finally managed to find a great big airport and we were off to London, the charming aroma of garbage lingering in our nostrils.
For a time my first airplane flight felt like it might be my last. Three of us took off in a light plane, as unsubstantial as the kind of paper airplanes we used to fold as kids out of an 8 x 10 sheet of typing paper. We were scouting for cornfields cut for silage, a wonderful place to hunt mourning doves.
The takeoff was uneventful, but the pilot soon was grasping at various levers and wheels as if seeing them for the first time, while I crouched fearfully in the rear seat, wondering if perhaps he got his pilot’s license through the mail, from one of those outfits that offers to make you a minister so you can perform weddings although not necessarily perform an airplane.
Came time to land the plane and that’s when things got interesting. The pilot increasingly became more physically active, grabbing this lever and that wheel while the plane caromed around the sky like an escapee from a pinball machine. “Do you think,” asked my other hunting buddy, who was functioning as the copilot although he had no more idea how to fly an airplane than I did, “you’ll be able to land this thing?” Words to hope to live by. “Never was the phrase “the miracle of flight” more appropriate. The Wright brothers were rolling in their graves. We hit the runway more or less in the right place and finally shuddered to a stop while I offered a prayer of thanks to Mr. Piper or Mr. Aztec or whoever it was who invented a plane that could survive being beaten like an unruly mustang
That was one of my less enchanting air trips but there was a time en route to Pierre, South Dakota , when the pilot announced that, because of high winds on the ground, we would instead fly to Rapid City and wait for the wind to die down in Pierre. So we did that and flew around for a while before the pilot, no doubt weary of over flying the Black Hills, told us he was going to head back to Pierre where “We will try to land this thing.” Very encouraging words. He descended to the Pierre airport to the point where it would be too late to abort and try again some other day when, in the words of pilots, weather conditions would be “severe clear.” The plane sailed like a thrown Frisbee and I expected to see a Labrador retriever or a border collie racing alongside trying to snag a wing as it went by.
I was sitting over the wing and saw it dip toward the runway as if the pilot were planning to dig potatoes. We dribbled down the runway like Steph Curry going full court for a layup, brakes and jet squalling and came to a shuddering stop. As we stepped out on the platform to clamber down to blissfully silent earth, a powerful gust of wind nearly lifted an old lady to Montana or eternity, whichever came first. The pilot standing in the doorway, looking enormously relieved, said, “Now you know why we get the big bucks for flying these things.” I think that’s known as gallows humor.
I’ve only been motion sick twice in my life. Once was in a small boat on Lake Michigan, fishing for salmon, when my boat mate produced a huge roll of summer sausage and asked if I wanted some. Until then I hadn’t paid attention to the rhythmic rocking of the boat in the waves, but then I did and wanted nothing more than to coat the entire surface of Lake Michigan with vomit.
My other bout with motion sickness was in a small plane flying to Saskatchewan, Canada, to fish, and my boss at the time insisted on giving me his ideas about some advertising copy I was going to write for him. The flight was rhythmically bumpy and while no one else seemed to be affected by the erratic motion, all I wanted to do was to vomit my toenails. I didn’t need a barf bag, I needed a 55 gallon drum, but throwing up in your boss’s lap is not recommended job security so I somehow managed to swallow my sorrow.
Far more entertaining than nausea was an encounter I saw between a flight attendant and a male passenger. She was very pretty and as she moved down the aisle she stopped at the seat just in front of me, and, with an expression that I later realized was stunned surprise, she exclaimed, “Hi! What a surprise!” I could see the back of the guy’s head as he jerked backward as if someone had tapped him sharply with a baseball bat on the brow. But I saw more clearly the profile of the girl sitting in the window seat next to him. Her expression was somewhat like that of a lover who has just been told that her guy is leaving her for another woman.
Instantly I realized the human drama that was playing out. The guy used to date the flight attendant and the present girl of the moment was seriously pissed off about it. I’m willing to bet she had no knowledge of the extent of this prior relationship, if she even knew about it. It was real life soap opera right in front of my delighted eyes. The flight attendant continued on down the aisle and on with her life, while the guy frantically tried to explain what had just happened to his girlfriend who wasn’t buying a bit of it. I’ll never know what happened with whom but I’d like to believe they all lived happily ever after. It was a real life version of “Days of Our Lives” only more fun.
My wife, Marty, has had both hips replaced, plus one shoulder. And she has a pacemaker. She is a walking mechanical marvel, so full of metal, that when she comes within 50 yards of an airport security checkpoint she sets off a symphony of alarm bells, whistles, sirens and buzzers. SWAT teams begin to lock and load. The last time she went through a security check, after having undergone more wanding than a magician’s assistant, she was asked to step into the scanning booth on two footprints where she was to place her feet. “Raise your arms and stand on the footprints,” she was told by a burly female security guard, who could’ve doubled for Marjorie Main in the old Tugboat Annie movies. Arms aloft and feet planted Marty did the only thing that seemed, to her, appropriate. She did a little Mr. Bojangles buck and wing, the humor of which was unappreciated by the dour Grinch and her compadres who are ever on the lookout for 82-year-old white Anglo Saxon Protestant terrorists.
Then there was the time even before Marty was studded with more metal than a Goth queen, that she set off the alarms because she had a pair of scissors in her purse. They were confiscated of course and as we walked away from the security gate, she grumbled, “Those were my favorite scissors. I’ve had them forever.” Then she opened her purse and took out a second pair of scissors and exclaimed, “Well, at least they didn’t get these!” While I frantically tried to pretend I’d never seen that woman before in my life.
Then there is the time that the plane I was flying on caught on fire. Actually, there was no fire, but the cabin filled with smoke. The man next to me said, “I don’t like this one damn bit.” I looked up from the book I was reading to behold a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which was not the book I was reading.
Either the crew was barbecuing (we were just over Memphis) or there was a problem you don’t want to enliven your flight. “Nothing to worry about, folks” the captain said cheerily. “A minor electrical problem. Will have it cleared out in a few minutes.” But a few minutes also is the amount of time it takes to plunge from 35,000 feet to the earth. I don’t know much about the mechanics of airplanes–what keeps them in the air– but I do know that there are many miles of electrical wire hidden within the fuselage, and that those wires, through the miracle of electricity, have a whole lot to do with the ability of that heavier than air machine to stay aloft.
The cabin cleared and after a half hour of anxious moments we landed safely in St. Louis–although well short of the terminal and surrounded by fire engines. We walked down steps to get to the tarmac and I didn’t get to slide down an escape slide, something I’ve always wanted to do, although only as a practice exercise, not because of the real thing. “I know where I’ll be tonight,” my seatmate said. “I’ll be in church!” The friendly skies are not always that friendly but I keep defying the laws of gravity and getting in various flying machines to get from here to there.
Who knows? One of these days I might find Amelia Earhart.

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  • September 3rd, 2017

TRUMPIAN TRUMPETING

By Joel M. Vance

The news that Steve Bannon has been ousted from the White House, whether voluntarily or by a boot in the butt, is like finding that a great white shark has been patrolling the swimming beach where your kids play.
Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, that cesspool of faux media only matched by the equally noxious septic system, Fox News. Between the two of them they have managed to pollute the profession of journalism, perhaps fatally. No longer can we trust that what we’re hearing especially from those two is anywhere near the truth. When Donald Trump, the fake president, trumpets about” fake news” like an old rogue elephant terrorizing a native village with its blustering bellowing, he should be referring to Breitbart and Fox news, rather than the mainstream media outlets. If anyone knows about fake news, it’s our serial lying, woman groping, deadbeat president.
Bannon left behind at least two proto-Nazis in his wake, in the White House like a rusty old warship trailing garbage and sewage in its wake, so it wasn’t as if all the rats deserted the stinking ship of state. Although one of the Bannon acolytes quickly and frantically did flee the White House, possibly ahead of a posse. Trailing in Bannon’s noxious excrescence was Sebastian Gorka, a clownish figure at best, who famously wore a medal bestowed on him by an neo-Nazi group to Trump’s inauguration. The Exodus from the White House has come to resemble the kind of chaotic, clownish scramble often seen in the old Keystone Kops, comedies of yesteryear.
Gorka’s role in the White House was never clearly defined and it’s possible he was kept around for comic relief, a sort of court jester like Rigoletto. Although, as I remember, Rigoletto was responsible for the death of his own daughter, besides which he sang beautifully. It is possible Gorka will do his own singing to any of the several committees investigating Trump’s ties to Russia and Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. One can only hope. Predictably, Gorka has fled back to Breitbart along with Bannon.
Still slithering through the corridors of the White House is Stephen Miller a senior policy advisor to Trump (read that as pro-Nazi sympathizer.) Miller was mentored by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who is a poster child for the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Miller is a former aide to Jeff Sessions, the nation’s attorney general. Here is a quote for you by Spencer, “to be white is to be a striver, a crusader, and Explorer and a conqueror.” If that weren’t blatant enough, Spencer added “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
Give that man and all his devoted followers a white sheet, a cross and a gallon of gasoline with which to ignite it. So you have Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions, all espousing the kind of hateful rhetoric that defines those who oppose civil rights and common decency. Three men in a tub— too bad we can’t launch them out to sea. The only hope is that Miller will follow Bannon and Gorka, like a Norway rat sniffing on the trail of rotting garbage.
Bannon has the personality of a mob enforcer, the guy who shows up to demand protection money or he’ll break your leg or burn your shop down. He basically has already promised to burn the White House down if the occupants don’t bow to his political demands. He apparently has an enemies list of Trump Associates, a political hit list of those he wants to get rid of and he figures that he can do more damage outside the White House than he could within. I guess he figures that Trump is fully capable of destroying the presidency without his help, possibly the only conclusion he has that I agree with.
Some of the Trump coven has managed to hang on including Kellyanne Conway the wicked witch of the west wing, although you don’t hear much from her anymore. Perhaps she is busy brewing evil potions, with which to poison the body politic. If you see flying monkeys hovering over the White House, it’s time to head for the hills.
Kellyanne did make news of a sort, the only kind of news that she knows how to make, when she was interviewed by Pat Robertson (talk about hypocrisy heaped on hypocrisy) who asked her to describe Donald Trump’s most notable attribute and she replied, “humility.” I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour, a sort of bitter laugh combined with incipient nausea. Kellyanne deserves some sort of medal for unintentional irony.
There has been a parade of spokespersons at the media daily briefing rostrum, attempting to make sense of that which cannot be made sense of. Sean Spicer lurked in the bushes like an escapee from Laugh In, murmuring, “Very interesting!” and furnishing hilarious material for Saturday Night Live skits. Anthony Scaramucci lasted no longer than a hummingbird at a flower. Now we have Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of one time Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a devout Christian minister and the father of an equally devout Christian daughter, who somehow finds herself capable of defending a serial womanizer, profane serial criminal and when he can find the time to further demoralize the country, pretend to be the president of the United States. How can anyone who trumpets Christianity at the same time defend a person who is so devoutly unChristian as to almost define the term. Talk about hypocrisy.
Our criminal, mentally disturbed president famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Unfortunately, he probably is right, possibly the only time in his adult life that he has been right. If he is contemplating committing homicide on Fifth Avenue, I have a candidate for him. How about Joe Arpaio, the once, far from great Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. Trump pardoned him even though Sheriff Joe was convicted of a federal crime, and was awaiting sentencing.
Arpaio is a long time butt buddy of Trump’s, and was among the very first to lick his boots when he announced candidacy for the presidency. Arpaio has committed so many insults to the law he allegedly was upholding that it would take a book to list them. To add even more drama to this humorless comedy of errors, Arpaio has announced that he might mount a campaign against Republican senator Jeff Flake who has been critical both of him and his orange flavored mentor, the clown president. How can it get any more ludicrous than this? How do you suppose Huckabee Sanders will cover this fake out. The White House press release explaining the reasoning behind the Arpaio pardon made the brutal Sheriff sound like the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
After a three-hour quick stop in hurricane ravaged Texas during which the highlight for Trump was to stand on a step ladder and praise a small group of un-enthusiastic unaffected Texans, Trump never mentioned those who have died or been left homeless or otherwise been savaged and ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. But, hey, he has pledged to donate $1 million to hurricane recovery, although the source of the money, whether from him or, as is usually the case, from someone or some organization he can con out of it, is uncertain. I’m hardly waiting with bated breath for him to hand a stack of cash to needy folks in the Houston area out of his own pocket.
On his second visit to Houston four days later, Trump did some of the things he should have done the first time— high five a small boy, kiss a little girl, and hand out food at a disaster shelter. He did, he said, sense a whole lot of love and happiness in Houston. Yeah, it does seem like there would be a lot of love and happiness under 4 or five feet of water.
The Kardashians, hardly the epitome of a functional family, have pledged a half million dollars for relief and Dell technologies billionaire Michael Dell has pledged $36 million. So far Congress, which seems to be on perennial vacation, has not pledged a damn thing, although it’s kind of maybe going to do something.
Trump already has threatened to let the government shut down and default on its debts including money owed to retirees, Medicare recipients and others who rely on government checks. Hardly a person you can rely on to pay his debts. He is one who said that if the economy crashed, “You go back and say, hey guess what, the economy just crashed. I’m going to give you back half.” He also has called himself the king of debt. “Nobody knows that better than me. If things don’t work out, I renegotiate the debt. That’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing.”
So if the poor people of Houston are waiting for Trump to bail them out, they better be able to hold their breath underwater for a long time.

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  • August 26th, 2017

UP AGAINST THE WALL

By Joel M. Vance

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” And the wall got torn down and today a chunk of it stands in Fulton, Missouri, at the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, restored from having been bombed out in London by the Nazis during World War II. It stands as a memorial to the death of communist rule in East Germany. The Fulton restoration is where England’s great leader, Winston Churchill, equally famously declared that a wall was descending between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world— an Iron Curtain is what he called it. Now we have a leader of our own who’s calling for a wall that, in my mind, has disturbing echoes of what the Communists did in Europe and in Berlin.
Trump wants to shut us off from Mexico and shut the door on immigrants from any country that offends his sensibilities, if indeed he has any. There also is a growing call to tear down the monuments that are remembrances of the Civil War of 160 years ago that tore the country apart for five long years. Should we endorse the destruction of these statues that depict those who lost the Civil War? There is no doubt that the Confederate flag, a symbol of rebellion against the union, has no place in a world where the Stars & Stripes are the only national flag, but what about bronze figures of those who led the Confederacy?
Today’s president, Donald Trump, and his extreme right wing allies are as divisive today as any of the extreme states righters and Confederacy advocates of 160 years ago. The danger today is not that we try to erase the vestiges of the Confederacy, but that we let those old wounds reopen and continue to divide the country, possibly beyond repair. There is no doubt in my mind that Trump will go down in history as our worst president, assuming that he makes it through one term.
Unfortunately, even if Trump is impeached or quits, we will not gain much. Mike Pence is not much of an improvement. He just happens to be smarter than Trump (no great accomplishment) but he is in his own right, a danger to the country. When he recently compared Trump to Teddy Roosevelt as an example of a great president, I shuddered all over. There is as much difference between Trump and Roosevelt as between the other president Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Teddy was everything that Trump is not and to compare the two exhibits a profound hypocrisy that reveals the flawed human that Mike Pence is.
Even if the country dumps Trump, and somehow gets rid of Pence, the next in line is Paul Ryan. This would be a case of history repeating itself as when Nixon and Agnew both were sidelined leaving the honest, if bumbling Gerald Ford as the interim president. Ford was not much of a president but he was light years more preferable for the office than Paul Ryan would be.
Somehow the Democratic Party has to find spokespeople who can articulate the dire need for unity when the Republican Party and especially the extreme right seems dedicated to splitting the country apart, no matter the consequences. I don’t think Democrats have done a very good job so far of discovering the charismatic leader who can unite the people. It seems to take a national calamity to summon forth a leader with the ability to survive the catastrophe and unite the country behind him or her. George Washington was a product of our war for independence, Lincoln sprouted forth from the turmoil of the Civil War, FDR was the man for the job during the depression and World War Two.
I spend much time chewing over the question of whether or not we should erase Civil War monuments as a way to heal racial divide and I have mixed feelings about it. The problem is not statues of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but rather whether we are a nation divided by race, religion, ethnic background or any other contentious aspect of our community.
We have only to look at Missouri’s own history to discover the confusion that seems to be gripping the country today. Quantrill, perhaps the most sociopathic killer of the Civil War, a Confederate, is buried in a Missouri cemetery dedicated to the Confederate dead. And in my hometown of Keytesville we still celebrate Sterling Price day, dedicated to a Confederate general.
Yes, there is a statue of Price in the Keytesville city Park. Price’s plantation, Val Verde, was just south of Dalton, the town where I grew up. For some strange reason the county has honored me by naming a dead-end rural road Joel Vance Avenue. In a strange parallel the next road east, not a dead end, is Val Verde. I even was honored during Sterling Price day several years back as a distinguished citizen of Chariton County and got to ride in the back of an open convertible and wave at a less than adoring crowd. I didn’t feel that I was contributing in any way to racial disharmony nor did anyone else. Sterling Price day, in the minds of everyone, has no relation to anything except a chance for locals to get together and have fun. In yet another historical parallel, my great-grandfather, a Union militiaman, was captured by Price’s Army, paroled and sent home to do no further damage to the Confederacy (or, for that matter to the Union–he was a farm boy, not a soldier).
None of this has any bearing on today’s racial problems. Removing Price’s statue would do no more good toward ameliorating racial tension than would removing statues of Lee and Jackson, wherever they stand. History is fact and you can’t change fact by erasing it. The Taliban tried it by destroying cultural landmarks that can never be resurrected. While I don’t equate the removal of Confederate statues with the actions of the Taliban, there is an uncomfortable feeling of parallel. We should accept the warts of our historical panorama as well as its beautiful aspects. Our country is littered with actions that are unacceptable today— the treatment of Native Americans is every bit as repulsive as slavery.
The United States turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees during World War II, forcing them to return to almost certain extermination in Europe. And we interned American citizens, who just happened to be of Japanese origin, during that same war. Now, we are in danger of doing the same thing to, in many cases, immigrants from Mexico, or from other countries that Donald Trump deems a danger, for reasons that escape reason itself.
The Civil War was five years of national insanity which resulted in more American deaths than all the other wars in which the country has been involved combined. The brutality on both sides, North and South, is almost beyond belief. There should be shared shame within every state involved, and they must resolve never to let it happen again. Nothing about the Civil War is a cause for celebration. But neither, should we forget the long shadows cast by that detestable event in our history. Toppling monuments is a silly and ineffective way to remember the darkest spot of our history as a nation.
In Columbia, the Guitar house, one of only two remaining anti-bellum mansions in the county, was built by a Confederate Captain whose brother happened to be a Union general and who saved the home from being burned by the Union Army— but who also was a slave owner who felt that the Union was more important than secession. Robert E Lee was offered the command both of the Union and Confederate armies and came down on the side of his native Virginia. Many of the generals in the Civil War had been classmates as well as close friends at West Point and during their pre-Civil War army careers.
Early in his career, Sterling Price defended Mormons against prejudice and persecution by angry Missourians. But he also was a commander against Mexicans in the Mexican war and narrowly escaped punishment for continuing to fight after a treaty had been signed. Later still, he was governor of Missouri and reportedly a very good one. Originally, he opposed secession but took up arms against the Union when Union forces occupied the state. After the Confederates lost, Price remained unregenerate and took a ragtag remnant of his army to Mexico and offered his services to Emperor Maximilian— a curious finale to a military career which essentially started by fighting Mexicans and ended by volunteering to ally with them.
And we might consider that Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of the nation’s honored military dead, also was the home plantation of Robert E Lee. No one would seriously propose that we dig up all those honored dead and re-bury them in neutral territory, although Trump probably would if he thought it would gain him some points with his Ku Klux Klan supporters. The idea that by erasing history we can solve the problems of division within the country is futile. We need cross pollination of ideas and goodwill among both sides—liberal and conservative— before we can even begin to solve the underlying problems of job loss, crumbling infrastructure, shaky economy, unequal wealth, racial tension, and any other social problem that plagues the nation today.
All too often politicians on both sides merely smear salve on the problems rather than looking for the medications that cure the illness. I’ve long thought that we need a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, both of which were bipartisan programs that did much to solve so many of the problems created by the Great Depression. They gave jobs to people who needed them, they built infrastructure and other amenities of social good that exist to this day. If World War II had not come along to steal away all those eager young workers, perhaps those two programs still would be contributing to the common good.
Thank God we have young people (compared to me, everybody is young) who are thoughtful and able to articulate the problems that plague us and avoid the pitfalls of letting idiots like Trump and Limbaugh do their thinking for them. That’s not thinking anyway— that’s just obscenity in words of more than one syllable.
The adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it has never seemed more applicable than it does today. I just got a long article forwarded from Canada to an outdoor writer friend of mine about studies in Canada that indicate that chronic wasting disease, a terrible disease threat to antlered animals, possibly can be transmitted to human beings. It is invariably fatal to infected animals and could lie dormant in human beings for years.
A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits overpopulate their habitat they develop ulcers and die off. Perhaps the same thing could happen to humanity if CWD becomes endemic in humans and nature takes its course. Then the division between the extreme right and the extreme left politically wouldn’t mean a damn thing. Something to think about.
I don’t mean to be an alarmist. I don’t think we’re on the verge of another Civil War, nor do I think that humanity will be wiped out by chronic wasting disease. In any event it won’t happen in our lifetime. All we can do is to work toward solutions of the immediate problems not the potential ones. Wiping out the traces of history is not a solution, it’s just a feel-good aspirin toward the pain of social unrest.
Meanwhile I hope that Steve and those like him who don’t accept the superficial thinking of most politicians and, for that matter, the voting public, will continue to think and disseminate that thinking to others. If we all start putting our minds to it, maybe we can come up with some sort of communal agreement and start living what we like to call the American dream.

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  • August 16th, 2017

THE MADNESS OF THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

by Joel M.Vance
“I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was white Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists. This represents a turning point for the people of this country we are determined to take our country back we are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”
These are the words of David Duke former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, praising the president of the United States, Donald Trump, for standing up for the horrific actions by the Klan and its associated extreme right wing white supremacist bigots in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. The Klan originated as a group to defend Christian values. So did Nazism.
What Duke said couldn’t have been said any better by the bigoted, violent Klansmen of the 1960s and their ilk who were behind the killing of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the multiple lynchings of black men, the fire hosing of civil rights workers in Birmingham, Alabama, and the beatings and other violence directed at civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama.
And how did the schoolyard Bully in Chief respond to Duke’s tweets of support? “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the fake news media will never be satisfied. Truly bad people!” So in other words it was not the racists and violent demonstrators who were at fault but the news media for calling attention to what happened in Charlottesville. That’s our president in character and at his worst.
In 1927 Donald Trump’s father, Fred, was arrested for participating in a violent Ku Klux Klan rally in New York City. While it’s true that the sins of the father are not necessarily those of the son, there is also another old saying: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Over last weekend Donald Trump showed his true colors, primary of which is yellow for cowardice. First he revealed his true self by equating those who celebrated Nazi-ism and white supremacy with those who were there to decry such repulsive bigotry. Then, when the country reacted with revulsion, including many in his own Republican Party, Trump obviously gave in to pressure and gave a tepid rebuke, obviously scripted by his probably horrified advisors, and forced on him. Then there was his Sunday performance in a news conference that was as bizarre as it was revolting when he doubled down on his first reaction to the violence in Charlottesville by coming within a hair of endorsing the neo-Nazis who caused the death of one person directly and the indirect death of two law enforcement officials.
There is a seed deep within far too many white people that can be activated by the sick bile of the David Dukes of the country which always threatens to blossom into a poisonous flower of hatred. If it were not so, we would not have Donald Trump as the president of us all. Obviously, he got enough votes to be elected to the highest office in the land. Every one of those Trump voters shares in the blame and the shame of having elected as our president a person who represents the absolute worst of humanity. Name a disagreeable aspect of a human being and you can find it represented by Trump.
He almost certainly is a criminal unfortunately not yet caught by law enforcement. He is a bully, a womanizer, a cheat, a coward, a narcissistic fraud who is so transparently shallow and flawed that it baffling how he gets away with it and has for so long. It doesn’t say much for the rest of us that he epitomizes P.T. Barnum’s famous statement about the birth rate of suckers. Obviously too many have been born and too many of them went to the polls last November to vote for the King of Fools.
There lives a guy just down the road from us who writes periodic letters to the local newspaper a conservative rag that gives him a forum to vent his spleen. His source of information invariably is Breitbart News, the former leader of which is Steve Bannon, now Trump’s trusted advisor in the White House.
Bannon has plenty of despicable company in the White House. Two other Trump advisors are just as bad. Sebastion Gorka, a top counter-terrorism advisor for Trump, has been linked to a Hungarian Nazi group — the group claims he is a member and he wore a medal from the group to Trump’s inaugural ball. And there is Stephen Miller, who has been described as a former mentee of avowed neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who frequently appeals to white resentment with language from the Nazi playbook.
From the tenor of the local guy’s letters I suspect he would be an eager applicant for a job in a concentration camp. I don’t know him and I have no desire to make his acquaintance. The mere fact of his existence is disturbing, because it proves that among us are those who would decry and destroy all the values that we say we ascribe to. They are the ones who instigate violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, bringing chaos to places that usually celebrate tranquility and peace.
It’s not just white supremacy that works on the body politic like a cancer cell. There’s news that a 17-year-old brat vandalized a Holocaust memorial in Boston, the second time this summer the memorial has been vandalized. And the white supremacists in Charlottesville were carrying anti-semitic signs. Meeting hate with hate doesn’t solve the problem of hate but it’s difficult not to hate those who preach and practice violence against other human beings. Violence apparently is an inevitable aspect of the genetic code of man himself and impossible to eradicate. The best we can hope for is to temper our tendency to evil and deal with those who succumb to the temptation to commit evil to the full extent of the laws available.
Trump got elected by pandering to seething crowds of hate-filled rabble and encouraging them to chant, “lock her up” in reference to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The counter chant now should be “lock him up” in reference to Trump himself. It may happen, and it can’t happen soon enough, for this is a man who has the capacity and the authority to destroy the country that was created more than 200 years ago and has survived through catastrophe and calamity for those many years. But we have never seen a time so perilous and fraught with danger to what was created by our forefathers and what we hold so dear.
The party of Lincoln is beginning to realize that it has created a Frankensteinian monster, one that is out of control. Whether the Republicans will have the courage to do what is increasingly obvious- get rid of the scourge on the presidency- or not is iffy. It would take courage and the Republicans have shown a decided lack of that when it comes to doing the right thing. They’ve all too often chosen partisan politics over the greater good.
I worked for two years in Montgomery Alabama, for the Alabama Journal in the 1950s. And I got to see racial prejudice firsthand. Martin Luther King was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church at the time, a rising star among civil rights advocates but not yet the icon he would become. He had organized a bus boycott which lasted a year and nearly bankrupted the bus line and finally resulted in desegregation of the city buses and made Rosa Parks a household name. The violence and unrest of the 1960s was on the horizon but not yet present, yet Montgomery always had an undercurrent of racial unrest present like the humming of a high tension electrical line, the kind you don’t want to tamper with.
My home, Missouri, was not exactly an exemplar of racial integration, but it still was better than Alabama and they didn’t serve grits for breakfast. My hometown, Dalton, with barely 200 people, still was segregated with the white population on the front, lower side of a bluff which historically had been the bank of the Missouri River before that fickle river decided to change its bed to three miles south. The black population was on the top of the bluff and there was a vocational school there for African-Americans, patterned on the famed Tuskegee Institute. In delicious irony the 1993 Missouri River flood wiped out the lower part of Dalton’s white area and then someone bought the elevated Main Street and demolished every single building on it. Dalton now has a total population of 75 or fewer and is a virtual ghost town, haunted by the prejudice of yesteryear.
Black and white people mingled in the two grocery stores, but they did not socialize other than casually. It was the accepted mode of segregation, common in the Old South. And at that time the rising tide of integration was still somewhere over the horizon. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation of public schools, segregation still was de facto. Keytesville high school, where I graduated in 1952, refused to play in a basketball tournament that featured a team with black players. Our team was all white and it would be years before black students appeared in Keytesville classrooms and on the basketball floor.
Once, when we had first moved to Dalton from Chicago where I was born and raised, I came across several black youngsters dribbling a basketball and invited them to go with me down the street to the one-room school where there was an outdoor basket and a half court. Someone complained to my folks about their son playing ball with some black kids and my folks gently explained to me that we were in a different world and needed to play by different rules.
Between Dalton and Montgomery I built a powerful resentment against segregation in any form and now I resent the poisonous influence of the Trump administration which is so representative of the repressive state governments of the Old South. Trump’s top cop, Jeff Sessions, is a closet racist and he has sympathetic allies in a Republican Congress. Echoes of the 1950s are all over Washington. And echoes of the 1930s Nazi regime also are gusting through the administration like the bad effusions from a noxious garbage dump.
His supporters say that Trump is just being Trump when he hits back. “You hit him, he hits back” is the mantra of these deluded fools. In my view Donald Trump is a deadbeat, an unindicted criminal who should be locked away, if not in a prison, certainly in a facility for the mentally ill. He has debased the presidency, he has divided the country like the inciter of a lynch mob. He is a sociopath around whom, in his view, the world revolves. There is no wrong, no apology, no sense of shame in the man. If he does it, it is right in his convoluted and warped mind.
He has to be stopped by an all too often gutless Congress which wields the weapon of impeachment before he destroys the democracy that we cherish and, given his bellicose blustering toward North Korea Venezuela and, for that matter, the rest of the world, the country itself.

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  • August 7th, 2017

RIGHTING WRONGS

By Joel M. Vance
Now that O.J. Simpson has sprinted back into the headlines and soon will be free to rob and kill again if he so chooses, perhaps it’s time to right a sports wrong that took place almost a century ago.
It’s way past time for the sport of baseball to grow up and induct Shoeless Joe Jackson into the Hall of Fame. Banned for life and prohibited from induction into the Hall forever, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport has been stuffed into history’s dustbin far too long.
Simpson may have spent years in jail for robbery, and escaped conviction for killing his ex-wife and her friend, but Jackson was convicted by society on dubious grounds and apparently will suffer eternal disgrace rather than a few years in prison before returning to the golf course.
And while the sports world is at it, how about recognizing Pete Rose’s unparalleled contribution to baseball as its alltime hit leader and also add him to the roster of Hall of Fame inductees?
Let’s look at Shoeless Joe first. He was accused of being one of the co-conspirators of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who conspired to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, forever after to be known as the Black Sox. There is no doubt that the Sox indeed did throw the series, for a few thousand dollars each from gamblers who presumably made many more thousands of dollars betting against the Sox, in the knowledge that there was no way they could lose.
But evidence suggests that Shoeless Joe was more a victim than he was a perpetrator. At worst, he failed to report the conspiracy among his teammates, but he himself could not have performed more valiantly for his team in the seven games of the series.
Shoeless Joe was one of the most dominant players in the early years of the modern era of baseball. He earned his nickname when he played one game in his stockings because a new pair of cleats hurt his feet. Joe Jackson was the illiterate son of a South Carolina sharecropper who started working 12 hours a day when he was six or seven years old. Professional baseball for him was salvation.
All evidence indicates, if not proves, that he had minimal involvement in the White Sox scandal. But he was banned for life from baseball by the flinty old autocrat, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and subsequent baseball commissioners and the fusty Baseball Writers of America have failed to make a wrong right. If Shoeless Joe Jackson did commit a sin it was one of omission not commission.
Shoeless Joe’s performance, not only for his entire major league career, but in the World Series where he was accused, is peerless and compared to all the rest of baseball, including those now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, he stands out. Consider this: Shoeless Joe Jackson still has the third highest lifetime batting average in major league history. For his 12 year major league career he batted .356 and had almost 1,800 hits. The Sporting News, the long time voice of major league baseball, ranks Shoeless Joe among the hundred top players of all time.
Shoeless Joe maintained his innocence from 1919 to his death in 1951. According to him and according to evidence, he refused the offered $5,000 bribe to throw the Series two different times. He tried to tell White Sox owner Charles Comiskey about the conspiracy but Comiskey, a notoriousy mean and grouchy old tyrant, refused to meet with him. Shoeless Joe couldn’t afford a lawyer so the team’s lawyer represented him in and allegedly got him drunk to admit his role in the plot. The other seven conspirators all said Jackson was not part of the plot and that they only used his name to give credibility to their scheme.
If Jackson did conspire to throw the series he didn’t do a very good job of it. He got 12 hits in the series a record that stood until 1964. He played errorless ball in left field and threw a man out at the plate. He was by far the outstanding player for either team in that infamous World Series.
Now, as to Pete Rose, the player known as Charlie Hustle, who starred for the Cincinnati Reds, ironically the team that played against the Black Sox in 1919.
There is no denying what Rose did on two counts. He got more hits than any major league player in the history of the game 4,258, eclipsing Ty Cobb’s 4,191 which had seemed destined to stand forever. But there also is no denying that Pete Rose bet on baseball games, thus earning the enmity of the baseball writers and slamming the door to the Hall of Fame against him if not forever, at least to this day. Rose’s defense was that he only bet on his own team to win, not to lose. But gambling whether on your own team or not, is, thanks to the black Sox, a fatal sin.
Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame credentials are unassailable. He won three World Series rings, three batting titles, was the most valuable player once, won two gold glove fielding awards, was the rookie of the year and made 17 All-Star appearances. He also had a lifetime batting average of .303. But.. He bet on baseball, an unpardonable sin since 1919. In 1991 the Hall of Fame voted to ban those who had been ruled permanently ineligible. Finally, in 2004, Rose admitted that he had bet on his team to win but not to lose (one investigator believes that Rose did bet against the Reds while managing them). Rose now is 75 years old and his Hall of Fame fate rests in the hands of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
The baseball Hall of Fame began in 1936 with the induction of five players, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. The Hall’s Museum opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 where it is today. Of the original five, all of whom were notable for their excellence, both Cobb and Ruth have seen their signature accomplishments eclipsed— Cobb’s total career hits and Babe Ruth’s 60 home run season. Both record-setting performances were considered unbeatable forever, but it didn’t work out that way.
While we are writing the baseball Hall of Fame wrongs, let’s open that door to Roger Maris, who is more than a half century overdue for inclusion into the hall of immortals. What did he do? Well, according to the so-called baseball experts, he had the audacity to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 with 61 in 1961, a record that had stood for 37 years. He had a 12 year career in the major leagues, appeared in seven World Series and was a consecutive two time American League most valuable player and a seven-time All-Star as well as being a gold glove outfielder. He even has had a postage stamp issued in his honor. But he is not in the baseball Hall of Fame.
He committed two sins, according to the grumpy old baseball writers. He broke the Babe’s record, and he did it while playing with and vying for the top home run leadership with Mickey Mantle, who, along with Ruth and Joe DiMaggio constitutes the holy Trinity of Yankee baseball history. Forget the fact that Maris was a two-time American League most valuable player, that he played for two different World Series winning teams, one in each league, and that there are players with a lesser lifetime batting achievements who have made it into the hall.
What he got out of his historic achievement was abuse, even from Yankee fans who booed him the closer he got to breaking the home run record. What he got instead was an asterisk in the record book since it took him 162 games, as opposed to the 154 played in Ruth’s time. Maris’s sin was that he was not Ruth or Mickey Mantle. The more home runs he had, the closer he got to the Ruth record, the more withdrawn he became from the fans and, more importantly, the baseball writers who hold the key to the door of the Hall of Fame. He had 58 home runs within the Babe’s era 154 games, and 59 at the end of the 154 games, but it took until the final game of the extended season, number 162, to hit the last two home runs to reach the magic 61st.
There are two baseball statistics that likely will last into eternity. One is the 1941 streak of 56 games straight in which Joe DiMaggio hit safely. DiMaggio, rightly a Hall of Famer, was untouched by scandal, even if he was married briefly to Marilyn Monroe. The other notable statistic, likely to stand forever is the 31 games won by Denny McLain in 1968. McLain was 31-6 that year, and in today’s baseball where pitchers rarely go a complete-game much less win 20 or more games in a season, his 31 wins likely will endure forever. Not so his reputation which was marred by a conviction for racketeering, extortion, and drug possession for which he served time in prison. Ironically, the last batter McLain faced in his 11 year major league career was Pete Rose.
So, there you have it—the right and wrong of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Pete Rose is a coin flip as far as I’m concerned. His baseball career was unparalleled but he has been less than admirable in his personal life. Denny McLain is a no-no. He could have been the greatest pitcher in history but he booted it all away after one incredible season by unpardonable personal behavior. No place for him in the Hall of Fame.
But Roger Maris and Shoeless Joe Jackson are an entirely different story. Both are long overdue for admission, with apologies from the Baseball Writers of America, for their ill-treatment. But I don’t have a vote and no one among the members of the Writers Association cares one little bit about what I think.
All I have is an opinion.

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  • July 30th, 2017

BYGONE DAYS

By Joel M. Vance

When I was 16 I began to write my autobiography on an antique Underwood typewriter that belonged to my parents. It had a worn-out ribbon that forced me to attack the keys as if I were killing noxious bugs. The period key punched tiny holes in the paper so that if you held it to the light it looked like a piano roll.
But had that code been played on an old player piano the tune would have been Bill Robinson’s famous song from the 1920s “Nobody.” (“I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no how….”) After a few pages of family background, gleaned from a Chariton County history written in the late 1800s, I discovered that I had nothing more to write.
I was living with my parents in a 17-room former railroad hotel, dating to the 1800s, that had no running water and an outhouse up the hill. The only water was from a cistern, located directly downhill from the outhouse. You could almost see the virulent microbes doing the Australian crawl, shouting, “Come on in. The water’s lethal!”
Consequently my father bummed drinking water from his sharecropper farmers who no doubt wondered about the business acumen of someone who needed to beg water from his tenants.
This would appear to be the underpinnings for an autobiography in the Horatio Alger mode, perhaps titled “Up From Poverty.” (or maybe “Up The Hill From Poverty” if I were to write about the outhouse). Since I was starved for writing material (and I was), you’d think I could bring a tear to the reader’s eye with an account of trudging up the hill in the dead of winter, the bitter wind biting through my thin hand-me-down, insufficient coat, my eyes stinging with tears, to relieve myself of a thin gruel of beans.
But I don’t recall ever eating bean gruel, thin or otherwise. We did have bean soup with home-made cornbread which, contrary to the description of gruel as it is known, is about as close to Heaven as you can get without dying. You chunk the beans full of chopped bacon and you slather the cornbread with butter and honey. Or we did, anyway.
We had plenty to eat and if our clothing looked as if it were direct ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog it’s because it was. My father was part owner of nearly 1,000 acres in Missouri and more than 600 in Kansas. The Kansas place, right out of an old Gunsmoke episode even had a couple of producing oil wells on it, creaking their endless metallic lullaby to the cruising coyotes and the prairie wind. So there was money coming in, occasionally a tad quicker than it went out.
The money mostly went into paying off the land debt, not into a modern toilet (although sometimes that amounts to the same thing). We were land poor in the classic sense. Our car was barely post-World War Two, bought when my parents were flush middle-class urbanites. But it gradually was rusting toward oblivion. Given that life in Dalton, Missouri, was as close to a rural backwater as you can get without becoming a hermit, I felt I was rusting toward oblivion, too.
My parents had uprooted themselves from a middle-class life in Chicago in 1947. My father, a perfume oils salesman, had been offered a promotion to the New York office of his firm which also had offices in France. My mother and I did not want to move even farther from our roots–hers in northern Wisconsin; mine on southside Chicago six blocks from a Lake Michigan beach and five blocks from a library. That covered every desire I had at age 12, not having discovered sex yet except in the academic sense
I don’t think my father was entirely happy about the promotion either, since he hailed from a hard rock farm in Missouri and since his major investment was in another Missouri farm. In New York he would be even farther from the nexus of his investment. Chicago was one thing—he’d been there since the 1920s–but New York was another planet and one that seemed, to Midwesterners, hostile and frightening.
So my father resigned the job he had held for more than 20 years and poured both himself and his accumulated resources into the farm he, his brother and a partner were struggling to buy. That partner, Larry Pillsbury, was a loose cannon who never met a bargain he could resist. He was held in check until he made a trip to Missouri to scope out their investment and couldn’t resist buying (1) a sawmill and; (2) a 17-room former railroad hotel in Dalton, Missouri, a town with an indifferent past and no obvious future.
Ultimately my father disposed of the sawmill, but no one in his right mind would have bought the Dalton Hotel. I’m sure my father looked for someone both insane and with money but failed to find one. So we moved into the hotel in 1947 and lived there through my high school years. I was 13 when we moved in and a college freshman when they moved outside of Macon, setting the stage for what would become the love of my life.
Aside from the dubious romance of living in a ramshackle hotel with two adults and a small dog, my life lacked Dickensian hardship. Instead of Angela’s ashes, I hauled clinkers from the rusty furnace in the hotel basement that most resembled something out of Friday the 13th. Freddie Kruger would have felt right at home in the dank catacomb that housed the furnace. The hotel, built from the timbers of a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River several miles south of Dalton in the 1800s, creaked and moaned day and night, perhaps reliving the moment when the boat it had been blew up and sank. The dog occasionally would stare at a corner of a room and growl.
My secret life was no more interesting than that of the most naive farm boy, of which there were many, and a whole lot less interesting than those few who dated ewes on the sly. Dalton, as a hotbed of vice, was on a par with a Sunday school picnic chaperoned by two dozen grim-faced members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. There were no bars and only a few girls past puberty, none of whom exhibited the loose morals of the Thorne Smith novels I was fond of reading. Not that I would have known a loose girl if I saw one.
Once I invited the only girl in Dalton my age to come by and pick up some books my parents had finished.
I had stashed a copy of Mickey Spillane’s My Gun Is Quick which had, for the time, an erotic scene and the cover alone, showing a buxom blonde shedding her dress in front of Mike Hammer, was enough to make me break out with facial blemishes. I could have recited the smoking passages verbatim, so many times had I read them. I suspected my gun would be quicker than Hammer’s.
I planned to invite her in for a Coke and somehow work the conversation around to Spillane’s steamy prose and when she evinced an interest in reading it, open the book to a telling page, then lean over her shoulder, breathing hotly into her shell-like ear as she became increasingly aroused.
Then we would engage in…whatever it was Mike Hammer engaged in after that blonde finished disrobing (although as I remember he shot her in the stomach and she died with a look of disbelief on her face).
The time for my assignation came and went. The object of my lust didn’t show up, then or at any other time. I disgustedly threw my robe over a chair, hid the Spillane book again, put on a pair of cutoff blue jeans, and went down the street to shoot some basketball goals at the town’s one-room school. It was the equivalent of what the Boy Scout manual once recommended for runaway libido—taking a cold hip bath, advice which may account for a decline in interest among teenagers for the Boy Scout movement.
While my peers were consorting with loose girls (or so I imagined, although I suspect most of them were slopping hogs and shoveling soybeans), I crouched over the venerable Underwood in my loft atelier (which was the former lobby of the former railroad hotel) and adopted what I hoped was the look of a Left Bank expatriate from the Jazz Age, lacking only a trim mustache and Brilliantined hair (my whiskers were embarrassingly sparse and my hair stuck up oddly, cowlicked like that of a mixed parentage dog and was immune to Brilliantine or anything short of Super Glue which hadn’t yet been invented). I listened to scratchy 78 r.p.m. recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and imagined myself to be Thorne Smith.
Smith was an alcoholic novelist of the Roaring Twenties whose heroes and heroines alternated between getting drunk and getting laid–two situations which, as a hormonally-supercharged teenager in Dalton, Missouri, I not only craved, but aspired to as Moses aspired to Heaven. Moses and I had differing views of what Heaven would be. I was equipped with a surfeit of pheromones. I wafted them on the Chariton County breezes like a barnstorming pilot scattering propaganda leaflets–but somehow they never settled upon the nubile objects of my thwarted lust or if they did they were dismissed as just more Chariton County bottomland dust.
Lack of success never seemed to blunt my lofty ambitions. I just knew that someday I would become the boulevardier of my daydreams, seducing voluptuous beauties, lionized in the literary salons. Meanwhile I detasseled seed corn for fifty cents an hour, 10 hours a day in searing summer heat, and wrote ripoffs of Robert Benchley’s humor and J.D. Salinger’s short stories.
I knew I would go to the University of Missouri Journalism School, one of the nation’s best and most respected. I would become a tough newspaperman like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and, even more pertinently, Hildy Johnson, the hero of their play “Front Page.” I would cover executions and maybe snap forbidden photos of the moment of death with a hidden camera, the way a New York Post photographer had done in the ribald Roaring Twenties.
The dream and the reality were quite different. A few years later, working as a reporter on the Montgomery Alabama Journal, the managing editor asked me if I wanted to cover an execution. By then I had realized that violent death, even that sanctioned by the state, wasn’t something I wanted to experience.
“Jesus H. Christ, no!” I exclaimed, shuddering. I was doing business reporting and the most exciting stories I wrote were about new washing machines on sale at the local appliance store. It wasn’t exciting, but I didn’t have to watch someone writhing as they shot seven amps of electricity through his head. I had lost my enthusiasm for witnessing the final spasms of anyone, convicted killer or not. The childhood romance of blood and thunder had given way to the bloody realization of life and death.
When I was a 10-year-old in World War Two falling dead dramatically during our neighborhood war games was pure fun. You could gain peer admiration by sprawling recklessly under a hail of make-believe lead. We vaguely knew that older boys were dying around the globe from real bullets, but death was a fuzzy concept that meant nothing in our sunny Chicago neighborhood.
In memory the sun shines and the neighborhood gathered at the Victory Gardens adjacent to our apartment buildings on Prairie Avenue, and we had a picnic. Once, at one of those get-togethers, a teenage girl bent over for something and I looked down the gape of her blouse and saw my first female breasts, unfettered by a brassiere. It’s the kind of memory that sticks with you. War was pretty much fun.
By the time I graduated from high school, war play had been replaced by the reality of Korea and an almost certain 1-A draft status. Since visiting Korea never had been part of my career plan, even when the country was not at war, my choice was easy. I either went to college or Korea. College was scary, but Korea was even moreso. Korea was a long way from Dalton and, as far as I could tell, no North Koreans or Chinese Communists were creeping up the Dalton Bottoms, intent on capturing Steiman’s Orchard.
I had drunk less than a case of beer and enjoyed it only because it was forbidden, not because I liked the taste. I was a virgin and the only titillating secret I could have revealed in a tell-all memoir was that I smoked–probably not much of a secret, since I was hopeless at evasion, along with most everything else. In fact I set fire to the family car with a cigarette and lied about it so unconvincingly that my parents merely shook their heads and hoped for the best.
I was sipping a Coke at a roadhouse in Keytesville (one of the few places in central Missouri where an underage kid couldn’t buy a beer) when a fellow came in and said, “Did you know your car is on fire?” It was said casually, as if he had accepted that I’d probably intentionally set the car on fire so it could smolder while I had a Coke with my buddies.
It took a moment to register that the car my father had, no doubt with serious misgivings, entrusted to me for the evening was at that moment being consumed by flames. Horror paralyzed me for a moment and then I sprinted out the door and beheld the family Ford filled with smoke. Someone, probably me, had flipped a cigarette out the window and it had blown back in and burned a baseball-sized hole in the rear seat.
I had a seven-mile drive to think of a believable lie. Unfortunately there were none. This was well before the days of international terrorism and, even had there been Middle Eastern arsonists, they wouldn’t have been at Bon’s Place in Keytesville, Missouri, looking to set fire to an automobile already well on its way to the salvage yard . The family dog, the usual passenger in the car, for all her faults, could not be blamed for incendiary indiscretion.
So I went home, reeking of cigarette smoke, to tell my parents that there was an inexplicable problem with the upholstery in the Ford. I explained that somehow the rear seat had caught on fire. I hoped vaguely that they would conclude that spontaneous combustion was more common in 1947 Fords than they had any reason to believe.
“Were you smoking?” my mother asked.
“No!” I quavered, lying as unconvincingly as a war criminal. They knew better, but my parents did not like confrontation and let me get away with it. The Ford was pretty well shot by then anyway. They covered the hole with an old blanket and the family dog snuggled in, as content as she had been when the seat was whole.
Given my paucity of imagination regarding the smoldering Ford, it’s a wonder I even considered being a writer, especially one of fiction, where imagination is a prerequisite.
I had it in mind that I either would go to New York and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table, nevermind that it had been dropkicked into history a couple of decades earlier, or I would emigrate to Paris to become part of the Left Bank counterculture, nevermind that it also had fragmented about the time I was born.
Yes, these were the ambitions of a Dalton, Missouri, youngster with a stockpile of imagination and nowhere to spend it. Reality was corn and beans endlessly roaring down the spouts of the Dalton Elevator across the street from the rickety hotel and dust swirling in the eddy of grain trucks going to and from the elevator and my father trying to be the seigneur of a thousand acres of Chariton County bottomland, while begging water from his tenant farmers.

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  • Blog
  • July 24th, 2017

MISSOURI–QUICK DRAW CAPITAL OF THE COUNTRY

By Joel M. Vance

In school, I l learned that my home, Missouri, became a state in 1820, along with many other facts of history that in no way have changed or illuminated my life. But what they didn’t teach me was that Missouri through the years, has produced or been host to a legion of legendary bad boys and girls.
Maybe it’s appropriate to take a look back through history, this being the hundredth anniversary of the end of the James and Younger brothers gang. Cole Younger last of the surviving brothers of that infamous clan cashed in his chips in 1916, after a long life of brigandry. Allegedly, he was perforated some 17 times during the during the gang’s ill-fated assault on Northfield, Minnesota.
Proving that Missouri’s production of bad people was not limited to guys, a trio of Missouri bred women broke the glass barrier in outlawry. Martha Jane Canary was not a songbird unless you count a soiled dove as a songbird. A native of Princeton in north central Missouri, she wound up as a hooker in Deadwood, South Dakota, enamored of Wild Bill Hickok, who got his start as a shootist by gunning down a guy on the Springfield square in Southwest Missouri. He also wound up planted in Deadwood after an equally unsavory character put a bullet in the back of his head, during a poker game. Wild Bill was holding pairs of aces and eights, forever after to be known as dead man’s hand.
One biographical note about Martha Jane known as Calamity Jane, described her as comely. But photographs pretty much portray her as being as ugly as 40 miles of bad road. She wore men’s clothing and it would have been hard to tell her from the rowdies she hung around with. She was a part-time whore and it doesn’t say much for the sensibilities of her clientele that she even had a clientele. She swore she was married to wild Bill, who in his wildest days probably never considered marrying a worn out whore, considering that he already was married.
Calamity was one of several Missouri bred bad ladies, and of the group probably the most innocuous. Far worse was Belle Starr, native of Carthage in southwest Missouri who was a gun totin’, rootin’ tootin’ authentic outlaw. There is a studio portrait of Ms. Starr, which presumably is the way she wanted to be remembered. She’s holding a pistol in one hand and another tucked into a shoulder holster . Not a woman to be trifled with. Although, according to rumor, she and Cole Younger did trifle to the point where she bore him a child, although Younger denied that.
She wasn’t without love, however. She married an uncle of Cole Younger’s for three weeks and finally married a Cherokee Indian, Sam Starr, who ultimately was killed in a gunfight. Belle did nine months for stealing horses and wound up the last several years of her life having affairs with various men, including the infamous Cherokee Indian, Blue Duck., who is most famous as the baddest of the bad men in Larry McMurtry’s Western saga, Lonesome Dove.
The old saying is that, “those who live by the gun, died by the gun.” It’s true in Belle Starr’s case, although no one knows who was on the other end of the gun that killed her. She was in Oklahoma at the time and would have been 41 years old two days after a person unknown nailed her with a shotgun. Typically she had been fooling around with a couple of guys and the story is that one of them took umbrage at her flirtation and shot her when she stopped to give her a horse a drink. (Of water, not booze).
Speaking of bad ladies who enjoyed being photographed wearing guns, there was Bonnie Parker, not a Missourian but a tourist, who celebrated her visits to Missouri by engaging in shootouts with the police, first in Joplin, later in Platte City. At the end in company with her boyfriend Clyde Barrow, she would be shot to doll rags on a Louisiana rural road. She and Clyde and their gang had a hide out in Joplin and after they escaped the Joplin hideout, following a violent gun battle where they killed a couple of cops, police found a roll of undeveloped film which included a photograph of Bonnie smoking a cigar and carrying a pistol. However, both were born in Texas and were only in Missouri to hide out from the law and practice shooting Missourians.
After the Joplin shoot out they migrated north to Platte City where they once again attracted the attention of police and engaged in another violent shootout. Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, received what proved to be a mortal head wound. It was the beginning of the end for the Parker/Barrow gang, and on May 3 23rd, 1934, a posse of lawmen shot Bonnie and Clyde at least 25 times each.
Compared to Bonnie Parker and Belle Starr, Calamity Jane was nothing more than a outlaw groupie, whose main desire was to be not only married to, but buried with Wild Bill Hickok, at least one of which ambitions she realized. Today, their graves are side-by-side in Deadwood, although it is questionable whether either one of them actually is buried there. Tourists love this seedy love story, however.
As disreputable as Jane, Belle, and Bonnie were perhaps the most fearsome of the Missouri connected ladies was Zerelda James, the mother of Jesse and Frank. She comes across as a grouchy old dragon with the disposition of a dyspeptic badger.
Actually James was the name of her first of three husbands, ironically an evangelical minister who, after the birth of their fourth child together (Frank was the first, the second died as an infant, Jesse was the third, and a daughter Susan was the final child) took off for California to preach to gold miners. He died there and his grave site is unknown.
Meanwhile, Zerelda married a second man who didn’t like Frank and Jesse, not hard to understand, given their subsequent homicidal history, and she left him when he was thrown by a horse and broke his neck.
The third marriage was to Dr. Reuben Samuel with whom she had four more children. After Jesse was murdered by “that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard” Zerelda had him buried in her front yard near Kearney, Missouri, and made money by selling pebbles from the grave to tourists, along with rusty guns that she bought here and there and which she claimed had belonged to Jesse.
Now to the distaff side. It seems like every time parents in 19th century Missouri had more than one male child the brothers became outlaws. Think of the Jameses. The Youngers. The Daltons. The Fords.
Take them in order. We all know what happened to Jesse after a lifetime of psychopathic murder, starting with his involvement in the Civil War as a bushwhacker, belonging to the William Clarke Quantrill gang which seemed to specialize in killing residents of Kansas. Quantrill tutored both the James boys and the Youngers in the art of murder which they carried on into their postwar careers.
The barbarity of the Quantrill band and that of his subsequent understudy Bloody Bill Anderson is almost beyond belief. It was Quantrill who led the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, where his outlaw band slaughtered an estimated 180 men and boys and left the town in ruins.
Later on, Quantrill’s acolyte, Bloody Bill Anderson and his merry band shot and killed 22 Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri, leaving one man alive to tell the tale. The story is that Arch Clement, a complete psychopath, lined up several Union soldiers and fired a bullet into the first one to see how many he could kill with one shot. Little Arch as he was known, prone to scalp the Union soldiers he killed. Fortunately he only lived to be 20 years old before he was gunned down in Lexington, Missouri.
Regardless, slaughters was typical of the senseless brutality of the guerrillas and if anyone is upset today about the removal of Confederate monuments around the country, consider that Quantrill is buried at the Confederate Soldiers Memorial in Higginsville, Missouri, a state historic site.
Neither Quantrill or Anderson survived the Civil War. Both died by bullet, Quantrill by a bullet in the back at Louisville, Kentucky, and Anderson by a bullet behind the ear at Albany, Missouri. Both men were in their 20s when they bought the farm. Not so most of the James and Younger brothers, who survived the war and took their finely honed skills for mayhem into the wonderful world of crime.
There were 14 Younger children, a considerable pool from which to choose criminals. But it was John, one of the youngest, who was the first to die. Too young for the Civil War, he stayed home with Bob, to take care of their mother. After the war when his older brothers had formed the James and Younger gang, he eagerly joined up. In 1874, only 23 years old, he and brother Jim engaged in a shoot out with a deputy and a couple of Pinkerton private eyes and John lost.
That left Cole, Bob, and Jim to ride north with Frank and Jesse James to seek fame and fortune in Northfield, Minnesota, a lovely town which, today, is far more hospitable to tourists than it was September 7, 1876, when the gang tried to rob the local bank. They managed to kill the bank teller and an innocent bystander before the townspeople rallied and started shooting back. All three Youngers were wounded and later captured, but the James boys managed to escape and make it back to Missouri.
Bob died of tuberculosis in prison, Jim survived to 1901 when he was paroled and committed suicide a year later. Cole soldiered on. With his three other brothers shot up and shut up and shot dead only Cole was left. While the Younger brothers were decimated the family connections continued. Their aunt was the mother of what became the infamous Dalton Brothers gang.
The Dalton brothers hailed from Jackson County, Missouri, and had an outlaw career that was short-lived, as were they. Ambitious types, they decided to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas, not far from the Missouri border. The oldest brother Frank actually was a deputy US marshal, a law man. Younger brothers, Grat, Bob, and Emmett started out as law officers, but decided that crime paid better, a fatal mistake as it turned out.
They robbed several trains in Indian territory and then, inspired by the exploits of the James gang, decided to relieve Coffeyville of its bank assets. They wore fake beards, like something out of a silent movie comedy, but still were recognized by somebody in town and by the time they hit the two banks the townspeople, like those in Northfield , were armed and angry. Grat and Bob Dalton and another gang member all wound up dead and Emmett somehow survived 23 bullet wounds. After being pardoned he wound up in California as a real estate agent and movie actor.
Proving that experience is not necessarily the best teacher, another brother, Bill Dalton continued on a life of crime and wound up being killed by a posse near Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1894 two years after his brothers bit the dust.
The last of the so-called outlaw moms was Arizona Barker, mother of Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. Known as Ma Barker, she has gone down in history as the matriarch and brains of an outlaw band, but apparently she was more of a confused and incompetent old lady whose major misstep was that she gave aid and comfort to her nefarious kids. The boys started as early as 1910 when Herman not only committed highway robbery, but ran over a kid while trying to make a getaway.
Herman committed suicide in 1927 the only one of the Barker boys who offered a public service. It’s astonishing and certainly no tribute to law enforcement that the other brothers repeatedly were arrested for violent crimes and subsequently released from prison to rob and kill again. Fred and Ma were gunned down by the FBI Florida in 1935. Arthur made it to 1939 when he was killed trying to escape from Alcatraz prison. Lloyd served in World War II and actually got a good conduct medal, but didn’t do so well on the home front— his wife killed him.
Thus ended the era of the family hangs. But Missouri was not done with bad guys and girls.
There was Vivienne Chase, who was associated with several robbers and also involved in a famous kidnapping and who was found dead in a car in 1935, of course in Kansas City, one of Missouri’s murder capitals. Then there was Stella Dixon wife of Benny who helped him rob a bank in South Dakota. Benny was killed by the FBI in St. Louis and Stella made out better than most of the molls of the era— she only got 10 years in the pen.
Esther Farmer was married to Herbert Allen “Deafy” Farmer. Both were involved in an infamous plot to free Frank “Jelly” Nash in January, 1935. The result was a wild shootout at Kansas City’s Union Station allegedly involving one of the greats of the era’s gangsters, Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd was in Missouri at the time but there is much doubt as to whether he actually was involved in the shoot out which resulted in the murder of four law enforcement officers and Jelly himself.
Innocent or not, Floyd was living on borrowed time as were all of these gangster guys and gals. After a long life of crime involving murder and bank robbery and prison time, Pretty Boy was tracked to Wellsville, Ohio, where local police and the FBI gunned him down. Although there have been many criminals and crimes since the wild 1930s, none has approached the wild West atmosphere of Missouri for that three quarters-plus of a century between about 1860 and 1940.
Popular literature, movies and television have attempted to glamorize many of these historic outlaws, but the fact is they all were sociopathic criminals, not worthy of praise or remembrance. None were modern Robin Hoods— they were just hoods and almost to a man or woman they got exactly what they deserved which was a fatal bullet.

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  • Blog
  • July 16th, 2017

PRESIDENTIAL DOGS

By Joel M. Vance

I suppose there is some interest in what the President intends to do about the Mideast, education, Social Security and health, but what I want to know is where’s the news about Dog One, the Presidential Dog?
Although why would Donald Trump need a dog when he already has a pit bull named Steve Bannon and a yappy little rat terrier named Sean Spicer. Every time I see KellyAnne Conway, a line from the television show Hill Street Blues pops into my mind. One of the cops, Andy Renko, when told that he was being assigned a police dog, grumbled “probably stick me with some ugly old bitch.” Don’t know why that bit of dialogue stuck in my mind–possibly for use many years later.
Presidential dogs have been traditional and a subject of interest for a long, long time, although I have a pleasant daydream of a large and incontinent Great Dane continuously watering the furniture in Trump’s private apartment in Trump Tower. In my daydream the dog also has persistent diarrhea. Did you hear squat (speaking of doggie diarrhea) during the campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton about the necessity for a first dog? Just didn’t happen. Instead, the two candidates were occupied taking pot shots at each other and ignoring one of life’s most important questions that that of the love and unquestioned loyalty of the dog to its master. Of course you can get that from Bannon and Spicer but who the hell would want to? Give me a dog any time.
The Obama family followed in the tradition of installing a first dog by adding a Portuguese water dog in 2009, named Bo. In 2013 they added Sunny, Bo’s little sister. There are no rumors of a Trump dog, but a Rottweiler with an attitude would seem appropriate.
George W. Bush had two dogs, a Scotty (shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Fala) and Spot, son of Millie, the White House dog when the first George Bush was President but you almost never heard anything about them.
Where was the news about the George W. Bush First Dog(s) during two campaigns or about the dogs belonging to the next president? In all the months of campaign rhetoric not one of the many contenders mentioned his dog. This is a nation of dog lovers and, as one who is owned by several Brittanies, I wanted to know everything about the candidates’ canine companions.
Few White Houses have been without a First Dog. Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks which got entirely too much publicity until the press tired of writing about a cat, but his dog, Buddy, a Labrador retriever, rarely was mentioned. Buddy, a tremendously handsome chocolate Lab, was killed by a car in 2000
The first First Dog belonged to Maria Monroe, daughter of President James (1817-1825) who also was the first child in the White House and the first to be married there (at 17). The dog was a spaniel of some sort, but she probably did not hunt behind it, presidential daughters not being noted for upland hunting enthusiasm.
Not all presidents have had dogs. Benjamin Harrison had a goat named His Whiskers, which tells you quite a bit about Benjamin Harrison. Once the goat ran away, down Pennsylvania Avenue, pulling a cart containing the President’s grandson, Benny. Mr. Harrison chased the cart and the press had fun with it.
Obviously something is missing from politics today, at least at the presidential level. When was the last time you saw the president chasing a goat cart down Pennsylvania Avenue?
Another example of how things have changed is the story, possibly true, of a small boy who sneaked onto the White House grounds and was fishing for goldfish in a pond when King Tut, a German shepherd belonging to Herbert Hoover, grabbed the kid by the seat of his pants and held him until the gardener showed up.
Today you’d have a dozen Secret Service agents, a hovering gunship, a SWAT team and a detachment of Green Berets all over any little kid who even looked through the fence at the goldfish pond.
As you might expect, Theodore Roosevelt, the first and greatest of the conservation-minded, outdoor-loving presidents, had a virtual zoo in the White House, including six children. All the kids, by accounts as wild as Mr. Roosevelt’s legendary charge up San Juan Hill, had ponies and lizards and rats and squirrels and even bears (a garter snake was named Emily Spinach because it was green and they had a friend named Emily).
For all Mr. Roosevelt’s hunting proclivities, apparently none of his menagerie was a hunting dog. He probably had so many that they weren’t worth mentioning. He did have a bull terrier, Pete, who was banished from the White House after he ripped the britches of the French ambassador.
Barbara Bush, wife of the first Bush president, actually ghost-wrote Millie’s Book, their springer spaniel’s autobiography, which earned more than one million dollars in royalties which Mrs. Bush donated to a foundation to endorse literacy (in people, not dogs). Mr. Bush Sr., in a moment of election year pique, was reported to have said of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.”
Caroline Kennedy’s dog, Pushinka, was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev and no doubt had the most thorough vet exam in history to make sure the dog was not implanted with listening devices. I can imagine the dog whispering into a paw-implanted transmitter, “Boss, the guy really does mean get those missiles out of Cuba!”
George Washington started the tradition of presidential pooches. He raised and hunted foxhounds. Mr. Washington kept his dogs in a kennel, not in the presidential home. Not so the Reagans who invited Lucky, an 85-pound sheepdog, given to Mr. Reagan by a March of Dimes poster child, into the White House. But Lucky, belying his name, used to drag Mrs. Reagan around as if she were a chew toy and he also misbehaved on the White House carpets.
Mrs. Reagan was less tolerant of such misbehavior than Mrs. Bush would be with Millie, so Lucky soon found himself far from the hustle and bustle of Washington, banished to the Reagan ranch in California. His successor was a King Charles spaniel who, presumably, scratched at the door when necessary, and heeled properly on leash.
Franklin Roosevelt’s black Scottie Fala was photographed almost as much as was the president. Fala was a shameless camera hound and once tried to crash an inaugural parade by jumping in the car seat that Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House, was supposed to occupy.
Mr. Roosevelt, who loved his little dog (he once sent a destroyer back for Fala after the pup had been left behind on the Aleutian Islands), no doubt would have preferred Fala to the dour Speaker, but politics is politics and Mr. Rayburn got his seat back.
Another Scottie was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s shared gift to his alleged mistress, Kay Sommersby, during World War Two. The dog’s name was Telek, a combination of Telegraph Cottage, an English retreat for the future president, and the name Kay.
The most scandalous event involving a presidential dog was when Lyndon Johnson picked one of his two beagles up by the ears, igniting the outrage of dog lovers everywhere (his choice of names was somewhat less than inspirational: he called them Him and Her). Presidents, being politicians, know the value of being considered dog lovers and Mr. Johnson was a consummate politician, but he stumbled badly with the ear-pulling incident. “Those Republicans are really bashing me about picking those darned dogs up by the ears,” he grumbled to his vice-president Hubert Humphrey.
There possibly were other issues involved in Mr. Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, but Beaglegate certainly didn’t gain him any swing votes.
Mr. Johnson also had a mutt, found at a Texas gas station, who would howl duets with the President in the Oval Office. There are photos of the two of them with their mouths open, heads lifted in song. That must have been almost as inspiring as watching Benjamin Harrison chase his goat.
Harry Truman defended his fellow Democrat over the ear-lift incident: “What the hell are the critics complaining about. That’s how you handle hounds.”
Mr. Truman also said, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.” But Mr. Truman did not follow his own advice (or maybe did not want a friend in politics). He didn’t have a dog (he was given a cocker spaniel as First Dog, but decided not to keep it). Calvin Coolidge said, “Any man who doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want them around shouldn’t be in the White House.”
Only once has a dog become intimately involved in presidential politics, other than as an attractive accessory and that was when vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, hounded (sorry for the dog pun) by allegations that rich backers were supporting him a luxurious lifestyle, made what became known as the Checkers speech in which he cried poor, using as an example his wife’s plain Republican cloth coat and emotionally defended accepting the gift of a cocker spaniel, which his daughter Tricia named Checkers.
“Regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Mr. Nixon declared. And Mr. Nixon remained on the ticket and Checkers became a presidential dog.
Jimmy Carter is a longtime quail hunter, but his presidential dog was only part bird dog–a springer spaniel, mixed with genuine alley mutt. Gerald Ford, a golfer, not a hunter, did own a hunting dog, a golden retriever named Liberty, who whelped in the White House (one puppy later became a Guide Dog for the blind).
So, presidential dogs have abounded (and bounded) and Trump unfortunately might realize there is great publicity value in fondling the soft ears of a loving dog while evading pointed questions from nosy reporters (just don’t use the dog’s ears as a handle).
The other hand, I fear that Trump actually will get a dog and as the old saying goes” that’s a fate that I wouldn’t wish upon a dog.” If Congress, the courts, and public opinion don’t bring justice to the political nightmare of the Addams family we are now enduring, perhaps the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can bring some justice to the junkyard dog’s life that Trump and his dysfunctional unreality show has inflicted on the country.

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  • July 8th, 2017

THE CIRCUS IS IN TOWN

By Joel M. Vance

Bill Clark has been my cherished friend for nearly 60 years. I’ve told many people that he is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met. Bill lives in Columbia, Missouri, and has done more for Columbia and Boone County and, for that matter, central Missouri, than anyone I can think of.
Bill recently was driving along in his ancient Toyota Camry festooned with liberal bumper stickers, and several hundred thousand miles on the odometer, when he stopped fully at a stop sign then turned right. Next thing he knew there was a police car behind him lights flashing. Bill obediently pulled over, and then, thinking that the cop was after someone behind him, continued on through a green light.
Next thing he knew the siren went on behind him and once again he pulled over. This time the stop was for real. A pair of Boone County deputies accused him of making an illegal turn by not having signaled his right turn after a stop. Now all of you raise your hands if you ever have done the same thing.
I spent 21 years with the Missouri conservation department and often worked with the conservation agents who are, at the bottom line, Cops. They are law enforcement officers authorized to do the same job as deputies, highway patrolmen or other law enforcement types. I saw them engaged in encounters with civilians many times and always was impressed with how professional and empathetic they were with those they dealt with. They all possessed that most necessary attribute of a good law enforcement officer— common sense. Once again, raise your hands if you’ve ever been pulled over by a patrolman for a minor infraction and, instead of getting a ticket, you got a warning and were sent on your way.
Not so in this case Bill got a ticket. Then he made the mistake of writing a column for the Columbia Tribune which has been his forum since the 1950s. He has written thousands of columns for insufficient pay and probably is the best-known person in the city and County. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. Bill supports the arts more than any single human in the city. There are few concerts plays or other art endeavors that he misses. He also organizes and emcees a series of musical events at the Boone County Historical Society and fills the auditorium every time. He has a fitness gym that rarely if ever has broken even but is open to those who want to improve their physical health. He has organized speed walking races and for many years ran a nationwide weightlifting competition among prisons (obviously, by mail).
For the record, Bill Clark is active in the Unitarian church, a Korean War veteran, an ardent conservationist who has with his small band of fellow birdwatchers visited more than 1000 conservation areas on weekly birding trips, has, with his wife of more than a half-century, Dolores, raised five children all of whom are praiseworthy— one a former Peace Corps worker, another a network television scriptwriter, another a software developer and on and on. Bill has never smoked nor has he ever had a drink of alcohol. He was a champion for minority civil rights long before there was any nationwide push for such reforms— before Martin Luther King, before marches on Selma, Alabama, before southern colleges ever thought of having black players or, heaven forbid, black coaches.
Also for the record the comments on his situation posted on the Internet are frightening. Overwhelmingly, they support what the deputies did which is okay—apparently the deputies played it by the book and were professional although why they didn’t simply issue a warning and let the situation deflate is debatable. But most of the comments are downright horrifying. One suggested the police simply should have shot Bill. Many were profanely abusive and many seem to equate that what Bill did was because he’s a liberal and therefore an un-American whiner who doesn’t deserve to drive and should’ve been jailed. The lynch mob reaction was a microcosm of what’s wrong with the country and why we have a president elected by the very type of proto-Nazis who would suggest shooting a man for a minor traffic violation.
What Bill did was a minor transgression blown out of proportion. My question for the Columbia Tribune is don’t they have an editor who vets Bill’s column? His inappropriate comments on the Sheriff’s Department should’ve been stopped before they ever got in print. And my question for the Sheriff’s Department is why turn this into a major brouhaha instead of just sitting down with Bill and the editorial staff of the Columbia Tribune and settling the whole thing quietly without turning it into a media circus and a forum for all the nutcases to vent their odious spleen?
Bill will apologize in print as he should and, one would hope, be reinstated to his voice in the newspaper. He is not a crusading, muckraking newsman, nor is he Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, exposing corruption and perfidy in high places. He’s a guy who for decades has been cataloguing the humanity of his home town with humor, compassion, and a great love for the place where he lives.
This incident is symptomatic of the malady infecting the whole country. We have a president decrying “fake news” and “the lying press” nearly every day in an attempt to distract the world from realizing that he is a lousy president with nothing to brag about and much to hide. The good people of Columbia should rally in defense of this good man who has given so much to the community for so little in return, but who also has not asked for any return.
Who to blame here? Bill for committing a minor traffic violation and then mouthing off to the cops? The cops for not de-escalating the incident? Bill for writing an inflammatory column? The newspaper for not defusing the column before it ran? The Sheriff for throwing gasoline on the fire by responding to the column? But most of the blame should accrue to the segment of the population that seized on the incident to heap abuse on Bill. And also some to me for not allowing the entire thing to sink into the mud where it belongs.
On the other hand we have a constitutional guarantee of a free press in the United States and without that guarantee we are no better than Russia or any other totalitarian regime. Remember, when the press is muzzled, whether you agree with what the press says or not, freedom likewise is muzzled.

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