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  • Blog
  • October 16th, 2020

LESSON LEARNED

By Joel M. Vance

 

Once I took my Brittany, Flick to a fifth grade class, a first foray into the esoteric world of teaching. I thought I was a smash hit in front of the post toddler group until I got a batch of thank you notes that were mostly phrases like, “Thank you for bringing Flick to our class,” or, “We enjoyed having Flick come to our class.”

 

Obviously, my impact on the world of education was far less memorable than that of my dog. I should have had Flick with me on the eve of my initial teaching debut, a five-day writing workshop at Sterling College in northern Vermont.

 

Instead, I was terrified. My stomach was a roiling cauldron of acid indigestion, my mind awhirl with the certainty that the unknown that lay ahead of me for the next five days would be an abyss of abject failure and humiliation.

 

I would be teaching a class on writing, a subject that I had practiced for decades, but also a subject that is often described as “the loneliest profession there is” and not without good reason. Writers self  isolate themselves, cloaked in doubt and often in crushing despair. It is a practice of the mind, by its very nature uncertain and often frightening.

 

Trying to tell someone else how to write is like trying to tell someone how to ride a horse, without a horse, only far more daunting. It’s said that it was ridiculous for manager Miller Huggins, a pipsqueak of a guy, to try to tell Babe Ruth how to hit. With the writing, you either can or you can’t, you either do or you don’t.

 

I hiked down a gravel road off the campus of Sterling College, wondering why I had ever wanted to teach a writing workshop or anything else. I remembered a college course in economics, wondering  if the professor who exuded confidence and supreme knowledge in the esoteric workings of stocks, bonds, and the making of money, knew so damn much, why was he teaching about it rather than raking in the cash?

 

I paused alongside the country road and, while it was not a solution to my apprehension, it was a necessary comment on my mood. I threw up.

 

All of which is lead up to my blog theme— how do they do it? Teaching I mean? A teacher, to me, is the most sublime of God’s creations. Not only must the teacher have knowledge of the subject involved, but also the ability to convey that knowledge to an assortment of students of varying ability to absorb what they’re hearing and also to care one way or another about it. Teachers must have the patience of Job, the endurance of a marathoner and the charisma of a Broadway matinee idol.

 

Public education has long been driven by subtle divisions that complicate any semblance of a cohesive whole. Do we want public education or private education? Do we want religious versus nonsectarian education? Now we have an acknowledged battle between those who would teach history as it happened, ugly sores and all, or those who would continue to teach history sanitized and made palatable for those who don’t like to confront the ugliness that involved their forebears.

 

Do we erase the fundamental meaning of the Civil War, or do we celebrate both sides with monuments and historic episodes that glorify the people and events without revealing the ugly culture that created them?

 

Now we are faced with a medical conundrum. Do we essentially shut down the education system of the nation as a safety measure until there is a proved vaccine against coronavirus, or do we open schools to traditional norms and run the risk of infecting children? Or if we can minimize the risk to the kids by masking them and distancing them in classrooms, how does that translate to the potential for them carrying coronavirus home to their folks? How do you police kids once released from a more or less controlled classroom environment to where they become kids once again, highly likely to ignore viral threat?

 

All these are questions for which I have no answer and, as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else. My feeling is that it isn’t going to hurt the nation to shut down education for as long as it takes to ensure its safety, but that undoubtedly is a minority opinion when it comes to the politics involved.

 

It probably even is a minority opinion among teachers whose livelihood depends upon them being in the classroom and collecting their paychecks. An unemployed teacher is no asset to the national dedication to economic growth, individual productivity, or most importantly, to the educational growth of the nation’s student population.

 

Our grandson, Martin, and his wife, Alex, both are teachers of elementary school special needs students. Teaching behind plastic shields or through a laptop computer simply won’t do the job. Their students necessarily are hands on and without personal contact between teacher and student effective instruction is simply not going to happen.

 

Facing ridicule if not outright annihilation on the eve before my debut in front of a group of peers, I remembered the quote by George Bernard Shaw, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”. That quote has been a bur under the saddle of the teaching profession for more than 100 years, mostly because it ignores the underlying motivation for teaching.

 

Shaw could write, so he did. But for all I know he would have been the lousiest teacher ever to stand in front of a classroom and bore the socks off his students. I’ve had both. I am reminded of a professor of American history in college who had given the same lecture so often and for so many years that he might as well have been a Disney audio animatronic figure. Once, a student in the large class raised his hand and asked a question. The professor, his rote lecture derailed, grudgingly answered just short of flying into a rage.

 

Just across campus however I was taking introductory French and the professor, Ward Dorrance, was the best teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. He was a fine writer as well, and not only could he write, he did. But it was teaching where he thrived best. He clearly enjoyed each day’s appearance in front of us. For him, it was a performance and he performed brilliantly. For a bunch of Missouri hicks, as far removed from the boulevards of Paris as you could get, teaching French was a hurdle which Dr. Dorrance jumped with humor and patience.

 

And, as is all too often the case with administrative politics, he was forced to resign because he was gay in an era when being gay in Missouri not only was frowned upon but was downright illegal. They should’ve fired the history professor, not the real teacher.

 

I don’t know the motivation behind the history teacher’s choice of profession, but in the case of most teachers I think they are in a classroom because that’s where they want to be more than any place on earth.

 

Back in antediluvian days all too often becoming a teacher for women was one of the few choices they had for a profession outside of being barefoot and in the kitchen. They could become teachers or they could become beauticians. High schools, including mine, taught home economics as assiduously as they taught shop or other profession destined for those who wanted to work with their hands, wrestle farm animals to the ground for castration or otherwise stay where they had grown up.

 

Gradually, teaching became a profession rather than a way to escape domestic drudgery. It became a calling, a noble lifestyle, respected. Unfortunately it mostly is recompensed as meagerly as is the calling to be a writer. Both teacher and writer are destined to be among those who “do” but not for the monetary reward.

 

Our oldest daughter, Carrie, is a case study in a teacher for whom there should be a statue somewhere as magnificent as the one welcoming immigrants to the country, the one with the torch.

 

She decided early on to become a teacher and she was a teacher for the next 30 years to retirement. As rocky roads go, it had some downright boulders in the path. Her first teaching assignment as a student was on a Minnesota Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students against setting fires…. Inside the building.

 

Her first  post graduate teaching job was to motivate a high risk high school class exemplified on television in the show “Welcome Back, Kotter”  Kotter was a teacher trying to influence a class composed of rowdy boys known as sweat hogs. It took an inventive teacher to maintain interest among those students who were basically on their last go around. Carrie would take her sweat hogs on a field trip to some educational venue by promising them a stop at McDonald’s or the equivalent on the way home. Dangling a carrot before the fractious horse.

 

Subsequently she migrated to a modern high school as an English teacher with students who were typical, rather than fire starters or sweat hogs. Even now, some years after her retirement, she gets comments from long-ago students who were influenced by her and remember her as the best they ever had. George Bernard Shaw may have been a great writer, but he apparently never knew a Carrie Vance DeValk or he wouldn’t have written “Man and Superman.”

 

I managed to get through that first awful day in Vermont, somehow holding the class attention without resorting to dramatics such as throwing up–guaranteed to grab the attention if not the interest of the students, but hardly a moment to inspire them to improved  writing.

 

Somehow, I survived that day and the next four and like the old joke about the guy who keeps hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops I went back 14 more years.  At least once in every session the tiny perverse imp in my brain screamed at me, “Why are you here! What makes you think you have any right to be here?”

 

By ironic coincidence, Carrie, was in the final class that I taught. She had gotten a grant from her high school to attend a writing workshop and not only chose mine, but chose my class to attend. The tiny ever questioning brain imp asked his usual question, but when I saw Carrie the answer came to me.

 

Here was a teacher on the verge of retirement after nearly 30 years of trying to have an impact on the lives and development of countless young people, who still was trying to better herself as a teacher (although with me as an inspiration, I was the Miller Huggins speaking batting wisdom to Babe Ruth). Dedication. A never ending effort to be a better teacher. An underpaid, underappreciated influence on the lives of people young and old.

 

Simply enough, teachers are leaders—leaders who guide us as human beings to a better place in life, if only we listen and learn. For every one of the history duds who fail at this task, there are thousands of inspired and inspirational teachers who make us better human beings. It’s not enough for us to show up and watch the clock, waiting for the bell to ring; it’s up to us as a society to appreciate what teachers do, to pay them appropriately, support them and remember them for their priceless gift of knowledge in the years to come.

 

I can only be grateful that there are teachers in my past who have influenced me and that there are teachers in my family who now inspire me. I couldn’t have taught Babe Ruth to hit either but someone did and that’s how history is made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • October 8th, 2020

GOING HOME

                            By Joel M. Vance

 

        Feathers of snow brushed the window with angel caress and the old man smiled at the peace of it.  The large flakes fell soundlessly in a still night, clean and airy messengers of a bright tomorrow.

         He sat in the sagging old leather chair that had been his since he was a bright young banker…what, a half-century ago?  First it went with the rich furnishings in his home; later it was demoted (his wife thought of it that way–he considered it a promotion) to the duck shack where he now sat.

        Not a shack, really, but a well-appointed cabin which reflected both foresight and the money to take advantage of it.  He had sensed the time would come when it would be difficult and expensive to duck hunt. So he bought the cabin and the shallow lake with its wild rice and marsh grass for what then was a pretty penny, now was a song, compared to what it would cost to replace it. They’d worked on it over the years, he and his cronies.  They roofed it and paneled the inside, installed plumbing, added two bedrooms and a full bath.  Now he was the only one left.  They all were gone, even his wife who had died a year before.  And he was old and tired and there was soft snow falling.  He’d always hated involved goodbyes, preferring a wink or a tap on the arm or a quick hug.      

        He touched a tarnished trap shooting trophy, let his fingers rest on a photograph of all of them in front of the original shack.  Maybe taken the first weekend they started transforming it into a home.

        He looked at the faded stain on the carpeting, right by the large Thermopane window that faced the lake.  He remembered how it got there.  Jack Stevens was cleaning his gun one afternoon after a fruitless morning hunt.  “Good Godalmighty, would you look there!” he shouted.  As he leaped out of his chair, the gun barrel knocked over a bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent which soaked unnoticed into the new carpeting.

        All of them had raced to the window to watch as a flock of at least a hundred mallards sank into the lake, just off the point where the water was shallow.  It was a migration flight, tired and ready to spend the night.  They knew there would be a royal shoot at dawn the next morning, with the promise of more ducks moving in ahead of the glowering Canadian front that edged the horizon in black.

        Jack Stevens was the first to go.  Killed instantly in South Dakota en route to a pheasant hunt.  Hit a big rooster pheasant head-on, lost control of the car and tumbled into a deep ditch.  The highway patrol found the rooster dead in his lap and him dead in the car.

      They’d started a tradition the night they got the news.  The old man brought a bottle of Remy-Martin cognac and they ceremoniously drank it, each remembering Jack and laughing about the irony of his death.  “Hell of a note when the goddam birds start fighting back,” John Howard grumbled.

        The old man considered the cognac in the snifter in his hand.  Now forbidden, of course.  Every God damn good thing in life is bad for you.  Life is hazardous to your health.  “Here’s to you, Jack,” he said.  “And John Howard, you can stick it in your ear.”  He savored a sip of the fiery liquor, felt it burn its way down.  The pain caused him to gasp and cough.

        He squinted through the glass, relishing the lovely, rich color. The firelight filled the snifter with golden jewels.  “Fire’s going down,” he said to himself.  He smiled to himself.  “Both in me and the fireplace.  Best put on another log or two.”  Groaning, he levered himself out of the chair and hobbled toward the wood bin at the side of the old brick fireplace.  He ran his hand over one of the bricks. They’d come from the last brick street in Birch Lake, pried up to make way for an impersonal asphalt with no more character than a television commercial.  Like everything else, faceless and without character.

        He steadied himself against the fireplace, pitched a couple of oak billets on the fire and prodded at it with an old, sharp-pointed poker.  The fire spat restlessly, sparking and grumbling, and settled into a brighter, hotter flame.

        The old man straightened, feeling the pinch of his years here and there.  A keen pain in one knee.  “Fell on the goddam ice right out in front of the cabin,” he said aloud.  “Remember?”  He waited for the unseen old friends to nod.  Oh, sure, they weren’t really there.  All dead.  All but him.  But they were there in the memories he had of them, and their photos tacked here and there, most turned sepia with the years.

        “Ice skating, for God’s sake,” he snorted.  “Bunch of old fools all full of scotch on a winter night cold enough to freeze the balls off a snooker table.”  They’d been playing hockey with a beer can for a puck and dead branches for sticks and he sprinted down the ice with muzzy bravado and tripped over a forgotten duck decoy, frozen in the ice.  Landed right on that knee and the sharp agony sickened him.  Figured he’d broken it, but a half-hour and another scotch and water later he scored an impressive goal with a shot right between Fred and Harry and John Robert.

        He remembered John Robert Hansen’s funeral.  The elegiac music, far more pompous than the rotund, jolly Hansen ever had been, filled the church.  John Robert looked like a refugee from Madame Tussaud’s museum.  Whatever had been the man was gone; what remained was a joke effigy. 

        The minister prattled on and the old man remembered the time John Robert had laced the scrambled eggs with a powerful laxative.  It was a harsh, windswept morning and every duck north of Birch Lake to Canada chose that day to migrate.  They poured into the marsh in waves and one by one the cramped hunters fled to the duck shack to relieve their roiling guts while John Robert wheezed and chortled and shot ducks right and left.

        When they passed by the coffin to pay homage to the undertaker’s skill at flummery, the old man slipped a 16-gauge shell under John Robert’s stiff, cold hand.  He winked at the icon in the fancy coffin, and moved on to a different part of his life.

        “We had us a hell of a hunt that day, remember?” he asked of the frayed hearth rug.  Jet used to lie there, his flat tail whacking the floor with the sound of a splitting maul attacking a dense wood chunk. Jet now lay on the knoll above the bluebill point, amid the pines where he could see the ducks incoming from the north.  See…hell, the dog was dead.  “Maudlin, old man,” he said to himself.  “Crying over dead dogs and dead friends.  Happens when you get old and crippled up.  Can’t remember whether you went to the bathroom or not, but you remember a useless duck hunt 40 years ago.  Old man.”

        He picked up a mallard call, carved by an old game warden down in Iowa.  It was art work, and it also had built-in magic that lured ducks when no other call would.  He pursed his lips, put the call to his mouth, took a deep breath, then muttered a feeding chuckle, quiet even in the cabin, reluctant to disturb the soft silence.

        A sudden anger grabbed him.  “What is this, a God damn church!”  He limped to the door, flung it open and stepped to the porch and the cold bit instantly at him.  He put the call to his mouth and trumpeted a challenging hail call, as loud and harsh as he could make it.  “Hey, ducks!  You hear that, you sons of bitches!”

        Shivering uncontrollably, he stumbled back inside and slammed the door.  He leaned against it, weak now, his defiance drained.  “Hell with you,” he muttered to no one.  He took another ragged, deep breath and moved across the room and replaced the call on the fireplace mantle. Another sip of cognac, another gasp. 

        He touched a scarred duck decoy on the mantel, feeling the heat from the fire through his pant leg.  “Bet you don’t remember the last time you were in the water,” he said.  “Well, I do.  You and about a half dozen of your littermates were in a tow sack up on Steen Lake and Fred Corbin set you out while I got the gear into the blind. 

        “We spent two days that summer building that damn blind and didn’t shoot a half-dozen ducks out of it.  Maybe you were the one the pike pulled under.  Remember–you started bobbing around and we couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Turned out there was a hammer-handle northern tangled up in your anchor line?”  The old man backed away from the heat, and the blank eye of the decoy.

        “You probably weren’t the one anyway,” the old man muttered.  He still didn’t like the curtains, but his wife had made them. They were woman’s curtains, airy and mincing, not what the cabin called for.  But she had made them.  Doris.  She understood.  Once he had forgotten their anniversary which inconveniently fell in the middle of duck season.

        He and the boys went to the cabin and had a hell of a poker game, and getting up was the toughest thing since the Army…but the ducks were flying and the shooting was fine.  Afterward, they popped a bottle of bourbon and he came home pretty well lit.

      “Hey!” he bellowed, though Doris was only a couple of feet away.  “What a hell of a day!”  For only an instant her face showed hurt and loneliness, and then she was happy for him, excited over the ducks he’d dropped in the kitchen.  But he knew, oh, yes, he knew.  He knew because she was wearing her best dress and he remembered he’d promised to take her to the Country Club for dinner.

        “I forgot,” he said, holding her.  “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

        “It’s all right,” she said.   “We’ll do it another time.”  But they both knew another time wouldn’t be this time.  It was a small wound, quickly scabbed and healed over.  He tried to share the cabin with Doris, but she spent little time there.  Once after a party they made love in front of the flickering fire, but it was tentative and unsatisfying.  The glass-eyed decoy on the mantle glowered and the photographs on the wall were silent critics.  It was his place.  And the curtains couldn’t change that.

        Fred wasted, eaten by cancer.  It took more than a year, all of them fooling themselves, but not each other.  Fred hunted a final time, a month before he died.  They watched him uncomfortably.  He was thin as Death, and as old in the face as driftwood.  No ducks flew and no one fired.  It was a bad hunt and they all wanted so much that it be a good one for him, because they knew he would not come again.

        “Life isn’t fair,” the old man said to the rug, half-expecting to hear the answering thump of the Lab’s tail.  “He should have gotten a good hunt that day.”  As usual, they gathered the night of Fred’s funeral and killed a fifth of Jack Black and remembered the time Fred had been relieving himself when ducks suddenly appeared.  They hissed at him to hunker down and while he was squatted awkwardly, someone dropped a greenhead.  The big Lab, Penny, blasted out of the blind and clipped Fred as neatly as an NFL linebacker, plunging him face first into his own mess.

        Drunk they were remembering it, sure, but there was an emotional cathartic that had nothing to do with the liquor.  They laughed and felt the friendship flow, one to the other, and it was almost as if Fred weren’t gone forever.

        The circle of survivors grew smaller.  The night only he and Harry Olson were left, he couldn’t remember laughing, though both of them got drunk.  What he did remember was throwing the empty fifth of Jack Daniels far out into the water where its splash caused a spasm across the smooth, silvery path the moon had painted on the lake.  The cold, thin ripples looked like fear personified and he cried out in terror and fled back to the fireplace.

        When Harry died, the old man killed half a fifth and found himself weeping for the time that was gone.  Then his wife was gone as swiftly as Indian summer.  A stroke that cleaved the other half of his life from him as neatly as the stroke of a keen ax.  It was as if both halves of his life had vanished, leaving only a thin membrane of himself in the middle.  A fragile membrane, desiccating in the sharp wind of time. 

        That was twelve months before.  He could cling to Birch Lake, hobbling to the coffee shop every morning to exchange meaningless chatter with people he scarcely knew, or he could move to the one place that held his finest memories.

        He moved into the shack the day after his wife’s funeral.  What fit from their home, he installed; what didn’t he sold.  The house in town went to a couple from The Cities.  And the old man lived on, comfortably, his savings more than adequate for his needs.  And he waited to die, for what was the point of living?

        The sharp ache of his wife’s absence was less distinct in the shack.  Sometimes he could be almost happy.  Once, when an early summer wind soughed through the green wild rice shoots and rattled the loose shutter at the west side of the building, he sat on the verandah and watched a hen mallard shepherd her ducklings across the shallow bay in front of the cabin. 

        It seemed there was a continuance of life that made sense.  “Where have they all gone?” he said aloud and the alarmed hen fussed her youngsters into the concealing vegetation.  “Old fool man,” he grumbled.  “Silly old bastard.”

        But he felt emptied, as if somehow he’d been tipped up and all the lives that he shared, all the active love and friendship, had been poured out of him, leaving only an insufficient film of memories clinging to the inside.  He felt the familiar, bleak fear.

        The cognac was hot in his gut and sour acid rose from its ferment.  His bones ached, with the cold that lived with him always, with the yellowed brittleness of their years.  He was tired, so tired, and alone.

        But he hobbled slowly around the old shack, touching this icon and that.  He had a premonition.  The wind had picked up and the snow tapped more imperatively at the window.  It was as if there were someone waiting for him in the night, growing more impatient the longer he delayed.

        He stopped before a photo of the whole group of them, taken back in the 1950s.  Beginning to go to middle age, they were–some balding, some with pot guts, but still unbent by the years, not yet leaning into the invisible wind of old age.  “Silly bastards,” he murmured affectionately.  Fred had his eyes closed.  Never was known to have had a photo taken with his eyes open, though you couldn’t get him to go to bed at night.  Maybe he only closed his eyes for photographs.

        Well, it was time.

        The old man poked at the fire and put the screen in front of it. Never do to burn the house down.  He had a nephew who would inherit, no sense leaving him a pile of ashes, including those of his uncle.

        He made sure the lock was secure on the gun safe.  Bunch of goddam vultures would be in and they’d home in on an unsecured gun like flies on offal.  He felt curiously at peace.  The old fear of death was gone and he sat on the edge of the bed, tired and even sleepy, his muscles loose with fatigue.  The cognac fire, like that in the fireplace, had dulled to a comfortable glow.

        He lay back in the bed and let his eyes drift shut.  There were a few thoughts of the old days, glittering shards of duck hunts and fireside friends, of old dogs, and whispering wings creaking past overhead in the thick dark before the dawn.

        Then there was nothing.

        The sunlight was brittle against his eyes when he opened them the next morning.  He smacked at a sour apple taste in his mouth and felt the mean ache of a minor hangover.  He hadn’t died after all.

      “Goddam old fool,” he groaned, prying himself out of the bed, stiff as a victim of the rack.  He sat numbed.  Fate’s pranks at work.  He’d been so sure. 

        One way or another, there had to be an end to mourning and to fear.  And death, the easy out, had been denied him.  Maybe he’d get a Lab pup and start working it in the spring.

        “Well,” he said to whatever invisible dog was in residence today. “We go on, I guess.”  And he got up to fix breakfast and figure out what to do with his day.

 

                              -30-

 

 

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  • Blog
  • October 1st, 2020

DEBATE DEATH AND TAXES

By Joel. Vance

 

Benjamin Franklin said the only two inevitabilities are death and taxes. We found out in the last few days that Donald Trump has figured out a way to cheat on the tax part of that and, given his gluttony for an hamberders and cofefe diet without so far paying the ultimate penalty for unhealthy eating, maybe he’s on the way to cheating the Grim Reaper as well.

 

Although, according to Waylon Jennings, the only two things in life that make it worth living are “guitars that tune good and firm feeling women.” Trump has solved the woman part, sometimes with force or by paying for them, but as far as I know he can’t play squat on the guitar.

 

Maybe that only works in Luckenbach, Texas.

 

For those who live by Biblical wisdom, the quote “the truth will set you free” is from the book of John (8. 32, in case you want to check it out). The evangelical right, disciples dedicated to “the truth” as Donald J Trump defines it, would do well to refer back to the good book, given the headline of the day.

 

By now, anyone in the United States who has access to print media, television, radio, or any other means of mass communication, should know that the New York Times has revealed the highlights of the last couple of decades of Donald J Trump’s tax returns and it doesn’t look good for the Orange Liemaster.

 

The truth as the Times reveals it, differs greatly from the words John quotes Jesus as saying. Instead of setting Trump free, the words of the Times reporting may very well plant Trump’s pudgy posterior in a jail cell.

 

Where the Times got its information, so carefully concealed by Trump for years, will never be revealed by the good journalists who work at the newspaper known as “The Gray Lady” in the world of journalism. Trump may unleash his battalion of lawyers on the news folk, threatening lawsuits, jail time, and for all I know summary execution, but I believe that the intrepid news hawks would rather spend time in jail so that Trump does the same. Trump may have stuffed the judiciary with like-minded puppets who may well sentence New York Times reporters to jail for refusal to reveal their sources, but you don’t get to be a New York Times investigative reporter by ratting out your informants.

 

Trump has repeatedly described the New York Times as “a failing newspaper”.  The times debuted in 1851 and has long  been considered as “the nation’s newspaper”. The newspaper has won 130 Pulitzer prizes, more than any other newspaper and is ranked third in the United States in circulation—hardly a failing enterprise. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump’s empire which has a number of properties in financial trouble and others that already have gone bankrupt. Donald Trump doesn’t live in a glass home; he lives in the White House which is not glass, but he still should not be chunking rocks.

 

There’s an old saying in newspaper circles that you shouldn’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Donald Trump is finding that out the hard way.

 

Each almost daily scandal falling like a hammer blow on the Trump regime, seems like it should be a fatal blow, but so far the Liar in Chief has dodged a lethal whack and now we are within a few days of the most perilous election in the history of the nation. If the revelations in the Times expose don’t sink the creaking ship of nation launched by Fat Donnie four years ago, I fear that nothing will.

 

Of all the revelations in the Times story, the fact that Trump paid only $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017, less than almost any American taxpayer, while simultaneously bragging about his enormous wealth (and living sumptuously on borrowed money and the taxpayer dollar) should piss off even the most ardent Trump devotee who chipped in considerably more to the Internal Revenue Service in that same time frame.

 

Trump, predictably, labeled the story as “fake news” but so far he has scrupulously avoided revealing even one page of his form 1040 return from the years in question which would either disprove the Times story or, more likely, reveal Trump for the tax scammer he is.

 

In 1956, for a modest investment (modest was all we could afford), new wife, Marty, and I invested in a set of haircutting implements—electric clippers and a set of plastic attachments. Since, she and more lately our youngest daughter, Amy, have functioned as my barber. I feel somewhat guilty for having deprived a multitude of barbers over the years of income (my last barbershop investment was about two bucks) but I don’t think what we have saved for the past 64 years has significantly impacted the GDP. Certainly not as dramatically as Trump’s deduction of $70,000 for hairstyling.

 

I’m a great believer in taking any legitimate deduction to minimize my income tax obligation (and in the last several years as a retiree on low fixed income I have been exempt from income tax), but I paid up for many years and never once have I felt paying my share of taxes was an onerous duty. Sure, everyone bitches about having to pay taxes, but without them we would be in chaos. They pay for the cops, the firefighters, the roads we ride on and so many other necessary national housekeeping chores that no tax, no nation.

 

At the same time Trump has been cheating on taxes and paying either nothing or a pitiful pittance, he has stuck the American taxpayers for millions to play golf. His trips to Mar-a-Lago alone have cost an estimated $64,000,000 Trump brags that he has donated his $400,000 a year salary to charity, but as of October last year he had cost taxpayers an estimated $109,000,000 to finance his golf trips, equivalent to 278 years worth of presidential salary.

 

You’d think the sheer bulk of scandal would sink the Trump ship like the Titanic, but his faithful following allows for an infinite variety of misdeed without calling the Orange Menace to account. The evangelical right, Bibles in hand (one hopes right side up) should be outraged but Mike Huckabee, father of one time and gratefully faded into the background Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said this about Trump’s income tax hijinks, “so what. I didn’t elect him to be my tax accountant.” No, Mikey, you elected him to be the president and accountable for his actions. Apparently, you and your fellow evangelicals consider him to be without shame or blame. Is this a Christian attitude? I ask in the interest of one who is confused about what is morality and what is not.

 

Donald Trump has told 20,000 plus lies in his four years in office and each one of those falsehoods is a blot on the presidency and an insult to our democratic republic.  There is a reason that the first amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech because good people believe that the truth will out and without the freedom to speak it people like Trump can ignore truth more than 20,000 times until truth becomes a faded memory.

 

Thanks to the New York Times using words of truth, backed by the First Amendment, we now know that what Trump has tried so desperately to conceal more than 20,000 times is a despicable smokescreen to obscure his criminality, his inhumanity and his insult to all that we say we believe in.

 

Where does his loyalty lie? Certainly not with those who did not vote for him but more tellingly not even with those who did. I suspect most of the ardent right wing MAGA types (and why does my computer insist on typing “maggot” instead of MAGA?), those who have jobs other than inciting violence against peaceful protesters, and who pay income tax, paid more to the IRS in 2017 that Trump did. Have they no shame, no sense of being betrayed? Or are they content to foment violence?

 

We have two daughters who are priceless, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to list them as nearly $750,000 deductions on an income tax form. Trump has no problem doing so with Ivanka who has a job as “special advisor” with duties so indefinable as to seem nonexistent. She and her equally useless husband Jared Kushner both are drains on the national economy, banking money that otherwise could be used for good causes, none of which bears the Trump name.

 

Trump has collected money from business interests in foreign countries since he was inaugurated, a situation as far as I know unique among presidents. The Times did not find any income from Russian interests, but Trump is on the hook for more than $400,000,000 in loans due to unknown lenders within the next four years. One of a suspicious nature might conclude that whoever holds the mortgage will have considerable influence over the actions of the guy who benefits from this largesse.

 

There is a strong indication that a good bit of his loan obligation is from Russian deposits in Deutsche Bank which has in turn loaned money to Trump that other banks would not. As dumb as I am about finance that situation reeks about as much as $400,000,000 worth of Limburger cheese.

 

Maybe he will decide to stiff his suspiciously generous donors the way he has stiffed countless others in his business dealings. I wonder how Vladimir Putin will feel if Duplicitous Donnie says, “oh, by the way I’m kinda short now—I’ll pay you when I drain a few more bucks from the US treasury. By the way, can you spare a few billion to tide me over?”

 

Written last night just before the first of three debates between Joe Biden and Trump:

 

Tonight Trump and contender Joe Biden debate for the first time. I don’t plan to watch—neither my psychological nor my physiological health needs the stress involved. I think there’s a good documentary on venomous snakes on the National Geographic channel, so I can get my fill of slithering menace there, rather than watching Trump coil and strike on the debate stage.

 

A while later:

 

I relented at the last moment and switched over to the debate broadcast and watched about 15 seconds Trump was bloviating, ignoring decorum, ignoring moderator Chris Wallace, common sense and spouting toxic nonsense, so I quickly turned to National Geographic where unfortunately the subject was crocodiles whose gaping mouths and belligerent attitude was too reminiscent of Trump so I switched to “Life Below Zero” where featured character Sue Aikens is nearly as paranoid as Demented Donnie, and is convinced that every large predator north  of the Arctic Circle is stalking her. Once again she escaped the perceived menace of wolverines, although in one brief shot, a ground squirrel appeared threatening.

 

 In the memorable words of Lieut. Frank Drebin in the comedy movie “The Naked Gun” as the world is exploding behind him, cars are crashing, a fuel tanker is blazing and a crowd is gawking, “nothing to see here folks! Nothing to see here!”

 

Nothing to see on television either, so I went to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • September 25th, 2020

DECK REVERIE

By Joel M. Vance

 

Few Americans have earned the distinction of being instantly recognized by their initials. There was FDR, LBJ, JFK and RFK, MLK, and now RBG. All are gone, all representing the best that America has had to offer the world. We mourn them and wonder if ever there will be triple digit replacements for them.

 

I suspect , a side note, the only chance Donald J Trump has to go down in history with a triple digit memory is as “that SOB”.

 

It is a glorious, sunny September day with the first hint of fall in the air and on the still green leaves as I sit on our deck and wonder. It is a day to revel in the miracle of nature and to let the tranquility of the changing season and the still soothing comfort of midafternoon sunshine soak in. It was a hard blow emotionally to hear that Ms. Ginsburg had lost her valiant battle against death and to hear the insidious campaign by the Republican Party to replace her ahead of the November 3 election. Don’t tell me that the hard right Trumpers were not rooting for the Grim Reaper. Did not Donald issue a list of possible replacements for RBG the week before her death? Is he not gloating now, culling the list for the worst possible candidate for America, and the best for his megalomaniacal fantasies?

 

All I can do is pray for a political miracle that not only will voters defeat the Orange Menace, but also take down his vulnerable lackeys in the Senate and return the hope of sanity to the nation. And be grateful to sit here on my deck on a soft late summer day, at the edge of autumn and let the sounds and sights of my little corner of paradise soothe the aches and pains of reality.

 

The barred owls are gossiping, one which has not mastered the gargle at the end of its hooted question calls from the trees between the pond dam and the road, and the other, deeper voiced and probably the male of the pair, immediately answers from somewhere in the woods North of the house.

 

An industrious woodpecker (I can’t see it quite clearly enough to identify the species, but it’s small and relentlessly probing along tree branches) diverts my attention from the owls and a hummingbird, possibly the last summer time visitor to stoke its tiny furnace for the long trip south, darts behind my head to the feeder.

 

This deck, attached to the front of the house overlooking the pond has been a spot for meditation, reading, sun soaking and occasional naps for 27 years since we built the home on 30 acres (since expanded to 40) in 1993.

 

It has been a good growing year with the right amount of rain to keep green things green all summer long, as opposed to the nearly inevitable Missouri period of drought that browns everything and makes lawn mowing a thing of the past. All the trees and other vegetation still is green, except that I see the tinge of fall color peeping along the edges of the verdant dogwood leaves. If we get rain between now and mid October the towering oaks in front of the deck and those across the pond will turn a rich red. Already the walnut tree leaves are beginning to patter down and the hulled nuts will not be far behind.

 

I used to collect walnuts, lay them out in a line on the gravel road, drive over them several times with our pickup, gather the gooey crushed hulls in a five gallon bucket with holes drilled at the bottom for drainage, strip down to the bare minimum and spray them with a power washer. The result was clean,  walnut shells and a grateful nut gatherer looking like a refugee from a coal mine explosion. In the dead of winter, the nuts having dried sufficiently, I would watch television lay a brick in my lap hold a nut down with my left hand and whack it with a hammer until it cracked, then pick the kernel out. It was a laborious but somehow soothing experience, kind of like sitting on my deck with my mind aimlessly idling in neutral.

 

You could call the walnuts the fruits of my labor on these 40 acres, except that the trees already were here, save for four that I planted as seedlings almost 50 years ago. Two of the four did not survive, but two did and they now are towering nut producing adults. They both are children of a Conservation Department effort many years ago to collect nuts from wild walnut trees deemed exceptional by Department foresters. My forester friend Gene Brunk used to prune the Supertrees with a .22 caliber rifle shooting Supernuts down like the vintage Annie Oakley. Then the sprouts would be cultivated at the Department nursery and sold. Another friend, Don Woolridge, the Department photographer at the time, gave me the four sprouts that I planted. I consider that something of a cycle of life. Or maybe it’s an irony. I don’t know, and don’t care because I’m more captivated in the moment by owl calls.

 

Over the years I have gardened with mixed results. Some years the garden plot produced a bounty; other years it was a bust. Various ground hugging plants almost invariably fought a losing battle against insect pests and other fatal enemies. I was reluctant to use pesticides since I have a deep rooted belief that chemicals designed to kill things, no matter how seemingly insignificant, also have the ability to do me long range harm. So I would plant, hoping for the best, and usually got the worst.

 

Although I never kept books on it, I’m quite sure that I have spent far more money installing and maintaining my gardens than I’ve ever gotten out of them. Not just seeds and plants, but an expensive garden tiller which had enough power to till an interstate highway. I also haunted the city compost heap which was a mixture of everything city maintenance workers scraped up and dumped there. It was composed of some good stuff, but adulterated with roots, rocks and God knows what? I laboriously scooped this gunk into our battered pickup load after load and hauled it to my garden plot. It was a long way from being the rich compost that I got from cleaning out a friend’s horse barn for my garden when we lived in Jefferson City. At least I had a pickup bed in which to haul the compost; the well-rotted horse manure got shoveled into the back of the family station wagon. We didn’t tell guests riding in the backseat of the wagon what had been there previously.

 

But some of the gardening worked out. One year I planted several cucumber seeds and got enough cucumbers to can so many pickles that we still have several jars a number of years after I quit gardening. Another year the garden provided a bumper crop of tomatoes and, coupled with the produce of one or two pepper plants canned more than 50 pints of salsa. I also was successful with a plant or two of basil each summer and if there is anything finer than sliced fresh tomatoes topped with chopped fresh basil leaves and slathered with Italian salad dressing, I don’t know what it would be.

 

But more often than not Marty and I would travel to an annual outdoor writers conference, leaving behind a Garden of Eden and return home a week or two later to an Amazon rain forest of weeds. As age and decrepitude increased, so did my desire for gardening decrease. These days the supermarket and the farmers’ market are enough—let someone else do the dirty work.

 

We bought the 30 acres, now 40, a half-century ago. Immediately after we moved to Jefferson City we began looking for some acreage in the country which would become a weekend retreat. Perhaps I had a dim vision at the time of a deck where I would hear owls and the faint chirping of visiting hummingbirds, but for many years our Eden in the raw was a source of firewood, work tree planting, endless maintenance and blood, sweat, and tears.

 

Our in town realtor was ever helpful, locating isolated properties which we investigated but always found wanting until one evening he invited me to go with him a dozen miles from town. “You may like this place,” he said. “It’s actually our family retreat, but the kids aren’t much interested in it anymore and it needs to go to someone who will appreciate it for what it is.”

 

There it was, behind a metal gate. There was a concrete block cabin, equipped with electricity, but no water and a quintessential rough board outhouse a few yards from the back door. Over the years, we did away with the little house out back, drilled a well, added a room, which became a bedroom, installed a tiny bathroom, and called it weekend home. Proving beyond doubt that common sense is not my hallmark, I babbled to the realtor who was trying to sell me a piece of property, “I don’t care what it costs! I want it!” But he, being a man of rare compassion, turned down an opportunity to pick my pocket and sold us the land, the cabin, a garden tractor for a ridiculously low price—he even threw in the outhouse for free.

 

But we always entertained the dream of building our dream home facing the pond (or, lake, as Marty optimistically likes to upgrade it). Once the kids were out of school and I retired in 1990, we finally paid off our house in Jefferson City and plunged the money and savings into the house that now hosts the deck on which I sit and listen to owls.

 

Even the bird dogs got a new home. Sons Eddie and Andy first built a woodworking shop for me and then a small shed with enclosed dog houses opening into four chain-link enclosed runs. One woodworking project was a sign installed above the door to the dog houses reading “the Britz-Carlton.” The dogs were Brittanies.

 

Usually I don’t read while I’m sitting on the deck, reserving the time for not thinking and listening to owls, but today I made an exception and happened across a Facebook post by my friend Barb Brueggeman, passing along part of the profile of RBG by Sylecia Johnston. In part, the profile said, “Friends, it is not a coincidence that the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court died on the most holy day of the Jewish year. According to Jewish wisdom, a person who died on Rosh Hashanah is a Tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. It signifies that they were given the full measure of a year. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a person of great righteousness and a judge of truth, and her legacy will live on forever. May the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.”

 

That Donald Trump and his evil sidekick Mitch McConnell would desecrate the memory of this great human being by trying to force through a hastily chosen and suspect replacement, even before the nation’s grieving has ended, is beyond condemnation.

 

The owls hoot, perhaps in derision, and the hummingbird has left, perhaps on its multi-thousand mile migratory flight far to the south. Even hummingbirds, know when it’s time to escape. For us, who can’t leave and who don’t want to because even in the darkest of times, this still is our country and our love for it transcends the efforts of the Dark Side Trumpians. The chill that I seem to feel has nothing to do with seasonal change; everything to do with the Apocalyptic forces facing those of goodwill. If we don’t vote to clean house on November 3, we deserve whatever dire fate almost certainly will follow.

 

My late friend, hero, and role model Mike Milonski, when he was an assistant director at the Missouri Conservation Department, was responsible for hiring the first African-American conservation agent, the first woman conservation agent, and the first woman wildlife biologist. When he and his wife Winston moved to Florida after he retired, he retained Polack Flats, a farm adjacent to Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the farm named by him in honor of his cherished Polish heritage.

 

When Mike found that he had a terminal disease, his wish was that he sit on the deck at Polack Flats, watching the sun go down, seeing geese and ducks settling into the wetlands to the West. And there he died, hearing the gabble of ducks and the chorus of geese. It was a fitting way to go and I think of it as I sit on my deck, admiring my own Eden.

 

The owls hoot and the sun seems darker, even though the forecast is for continued mellow temperatures.

 

 

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  • September 18th, 2020

YUH WANT COCKROACHES WITH THAT?

By Joel M. Vance

 

There are two enduring legends on the campus of the University of Missouri at Columbia, both conceived in the fertile imaginations of generations of students (imagination which sometimes even manages to translate into the classroom).

 

One is that the stone lions flanking the entryway between the university’s two original journalism school buildings will roar if a virgin ever walks between them. The lions have been mute for decades, and I can testify from personal experience (humiliating but sadly true) that the rumor is false.

 

The other rumor is that the 1956 popular song “The Green Door” recorded by Jim Lowe was a tribute to the entry door at the Shack, an historic beer joint which defiantly squatted directly across the street from the University’s administration building, Jesse Hall.

 

That rumor also is not true, although Lowe was a graduate of the University (in 1948) and hailed from Springfield. But the song itself refers to a joint in Texas. A local historian wrote that he knew of a green door in Columbia, but implies that it opened to a brothel.

 

No one ever would confuse the vintage Shack with a sporting house. Describing the place in its glory years is virtually impossible. Imagine the most decrepit sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi transported to the University campus and plopped down facing the the most hallowed structure on the campus just across the street. It was, most generously described, an inflamed zit on the otherwise flawless face of Miss America.

 

The ill fitting green door, led into a murky fog composed of  cigarette smoke and beer fumes (everyone smoked and certainly, everyone was there to drink the dime glasses of beer). There also was a lingering tinge of sweat, especially in the sweltering days of early summer or fall. Hovering over all was the unappetizing aroma of the shack’s grill which created burgers and fries for anyone daring enough to eat them—I never did preferring to spend my meagre dimes on beer rather than on 25 cent hamburgers, cooked by impoverished students, desperate to make a few bucks toward the cost of their education.

 

The dimly lit interior was crowded with booths that looked as though they might have been built of weathered wood left over from a failed deck project. Generations of students had carved their initials, names or other symbols (perhaps some representing devil worship) in the tabletops leaving them so corrugated that there wasn’t a square inch of level space where you could perch a beer glass without it tipping over.

 

The origin of the Shack is as incongruous as was its presence as an irritant mongrel building defacing the august majesty of Jesse Hall across the street.

 

In 1920 the Chandler Davis family began serving sandwiches from a quintessential dining car which gradually became a building as bits and pieces were added to it. It actually began life as a tea room presumably patronized by Columbia’s staid matrons, delicately sipping oolong as they gossiped about those rowdy, outlandish college boys behaving irresponsibly with their prohibition liquor.

 

The tea room ceased life in 1933 but Vernon and Mary Blackmore reopened it in the nineteen thirties and named it Jack’s Shack after a co-owner Jack Armel. They shortened the name to the Shack and then in 1962, sold it to Joe Franke after I graduated from the University in 1956 (and I like to think of the glory years of the Shack as the late nineteen forties and nineteen fifties).

 

The Davis Tea Room and tea garden morphed into the beer joint that we knew and loved but it fell into disrepair (as if there ever was a period when it was in repair)

 

Columbia businessman Joe Franke, who also owned two other businesses next to the Shack, hung out in the beer joint with other ex-GIs after World War II and in 1962 bought his favorite hangout and would own it until 1984. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.

 

 In 1968 After Joe Franke bought the Shack, he temporarily closed it. In 1974 it reopened but went broke, but then in 1984 a couple named Weston closed the Shack for the last time. Joe Franke sold the property to the University, thus effectively ending its life as a private enterprise. And in 1988, a fire described as “suspicious” ended its life in any form.

 

It was at the Shack that Mort Walker, who would become the creator of Beetle Bailey after his 1948 graduation from the University, held staff meetings as the editor of the University’s humor magazine “The Show Me”. The magazine, typical college humor (not very funny) did have the distinction of being suspended by the administration about as often as it was actually in publication.

 

An indication of the level of humor was that the college president, Frederick Middlebush, was called Centershrub. But this also was the era of the panty raid when gangs of testosterone poisoned guys would gather outside the women’s dorm and plead for the girls to hurl lingerie from the upper windows. This became a national fad for a short time until college authorities cracked down on it. That was a major national college scandal until some years later when streaking became popular (running naked through the streets certainly is less offensive to the populace than another fad of the nineteen sixties—burning down the administration building).

 

Walker died in 2016 At the age of 93.  I wrote him a fan letter several years before he died explaining that we were fellow journalism school attendees and that we both had spent quality time in the Shack. Mort Walker returned for a visit in 1978, his last visit to the original building.  In his letter, Walker asked if I knew that the University had built into its new student activity center, a supposedly replica of the Shack, naming it Mort’s, and featuring a giant statue of Beetle Bailey.

 

Walker’s time at Mizzou was not a smooth one, beginning with what happened to him when he was in journalism school and a BMOC (big man on campus). The letter went on:

 

“I returned from four years in the Army during World War II, became editor of the Show Me magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and had had an office in the J-School.”

 

“The Dean “(Francis Mott) told me to report to his office and he asked what I was doing in J-School I answered brightly “getting educated sir.”

 

He said, “But I see by your records that you didn’t take my prerequisite course, ‘History and Principles of Journalism.’ I replied, “I was too busy serving the world for democracy, sir.  He yelled “GET OUT!”  I came to class the next day and found my office locked and all my belongings thrown out on the floor I applied with Dean Mott for a diploma in humanities and left for New York I had several other conflicts with the school and here they were honoring me that’s Mizzou.”

 

My longtime friend and retired coworker at the Conservation Department, Jim Auckley, worked at The Shack when he was in college and his memories of the place are what one might call bittersweet.

 

“We had a cockroach that came out at night near the beer tap at the Shack. We named him Archy.  The man who ran the place was a retired Boone County farmer named Ray…can’t remember his last name. He ran the grill at the front of the building; it had an outdoor take-out window. Ray and his wife made the secret Shack Sauce for the hamburgers at home and brought it in. The man who owned the jewelry store just down the street actually owned the Shack building [Joe Franke]. I remember one lunch hour when a hamburger fell onto the floor from the grill; Ray looked around, saw none of the customers were watching and deftly flipped the burger back on the grill!

 

“I was usually stationed at the beer tap, except for busy lunch hours when things got hopping. The Shack had a juke box that was always roaring.  One night, on a typically slow evening, I served two girls that I knew were under age. I almost had heart failure when two men in suits, ties and trenchcoats came through the front door…I just knew they were cops. Never did that again.

 

“I’m sure you remember Beetle Bailey started life as a college student; he spent quite a  bit of time at the Shack before becoming an Army private.”

 

Archy Jim’s cockroach, was named in honor of a fictional insect from a column in the New York Evening Sun by Don Marquis 100 years ago. Archy, a cockroach, crept into the newsroom after hours and would type (in lowercase because he wasn’t heavy enough to do capitals) stories and poems. His best friend was Mehitabel an alleycat. The Shack’s Archy, even in the presence of journalism students, never produced prose or poetry, although I’m pretty sure there were alleycats in the vicinity, attracted by the ever present fog of cooking oil.

 

Jim doesn’t remember the prices from the Shack, so dime beer and quarter hamburgers may be wishful thinking on my part, but they’re close.  Jim has a board from the original Shack, with carvings from some of the army of thirsty students whose initials and other jackknife created memorabilia went up in flames. A board like that is akin to owning a body part from a saint. I envy him.

 

Joe Franke had removed several booths from the Shack which saved them from the fire and those have been incorporated into that supposed replica of the Shack in the university’s student activity center. It is as pale an imitation of the real thing as are those goofy looking imitators who infest the country posing as Elvis. The phony Shack doesn’t even serve beer. That’s like being invited to the White House for a state dinner and being served cheeseburgers.  But what President would be crass enough to do something like that?  Unthinkable!

 

In October 2010, Mort Walker returned to Columbia to help celebrate the grand opening of the student center, featuring “Mort’s” supposely the re-creation of the Shack which, of course, was a physical impossibility. Walker must’ve been conflicted over the invitation but graciously accepted the dubious honor.

 

Did The Shack succumb to a stray spark that ignited generations of grease- impregnated, highly flammable walls? Or did a surreptitious night crawler, perhaps on orders from the higher echelons of the University administration apply the fatal spark?, We will never know and considering that the University is Columbia’s largest employer, any investigation into the origin of the Shack’s final dive into immortality was likely to be minimal.

 

Today, Dean Mott is gone (although I still have his textbook which, of course, I bought to avoid being kicked out of the school), the J-School lions still have not roared, Mort Walker is gone although Beetle Bailey remains in the custody of Walker’s two sons, dime beer and greasy hamburgers cooked in company with cockroaches also have vanished, as has the Shack.

 

R.I.P.

 

 

 

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  • September 10th, 2020

WORD OF THE DAY

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

We all know the word. “Sacrifice.” It means it means different things to different folks. Thousands of years ago in what we like to call primitive cultures because they didn’t have cell phones and fast food grease pits, the word meant rounding up an available virgin, trotting her up a nearby mountain and performing elaborate rituals, involving blood, in homage to whatever God supposedly was operating the levers behind the curtain.

 

The practice faded over the centuries, possibly because of a dwindling supply of virgins, but the word remained. Biblically we remember Abraham being ordered by God to off his son Isaac to prove his loyalty to God. Even at the time, it sounded like overkill, especially to Isaac, but God reprieved the kid at the last moment, possibly chuckling “only kidding.”

 

Through those same eons since what would become man crawled out of the muck and started looking for the closest McDonald’s, humans have been involved in one form of sacrifice or another. Most of the time it doesn’t turn out well. Every war has demanded the equivalent of what God ordered Abraham to do— parents giving up their sons to the wrath of war or, in many cases, the sons giving themselves up to whatever God had in mind.

 

All of which is preamble to telling you what you already know. That we have a president, elected by less than a majority of the nation’s voters, to whom the word “sacrifice” means that those who elect, whether by choice or selection to offer their sons up to the grim lottery of conflict, are “losers” and “suckers”.

 

I’ve had three cousins who survived what the late Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, called “the fog of war.” One was a paratrooper who jumped behind German lines on D-Day in World War II, broke his back on landing, and had to endure the agony of his injury for several days until he was able to hook up with Allied troops and be evacuated for treatment.

 

Another was a Marine in the South Pacific who survived the hell of island battles in the Pacific, without being wounded in his physical self, but who suffered the mental agony of his experiences for the rest of his life. His brother chose also to join the Marines and fought in combat in the Korean War.

 

Only by the grace of circumstance and timing did I avoid the necessity of sacrifice in any of the wars beginning with the Second World War. I would not wish what happened to my cousins on anyone else, nor have I felt elated that it didn’t happen to me. I was lucky and can only be grateful that I didn’t have to make the choice of sacrifice myself, or have it made for me by the local draft board.

 

But never have I felt that my luck spared me from being either a loser or a sucker—only grateful and somewhat ashamed when Memorial day or Veterans Day or any other remembrance of those who served rolls around and reminds me that I have been merely lucky and that my cousins gained something as honorable men that I can never know.

 

Those cousins all three of whom have gone to whatever reward awaits fallen warriors, were in life, and are in memory, infinitely more valuable as human beings than Donald Trump ever has been at the best of his revolting life. That he would disparage those who sacrificed everything is so reprehensible that every voter, not just the ones who didn’t vote for him, but those who did should recoil in horror that we are being led, like lambs to the slaughter, by a sociopathic madman.

 

Among the many outrageous statements that Donald Trump has made, disparaging ethnic groups, women, and virtually every other entity in society that isn’t him, this has to be the most self-destructive. He’s gotten away with everything else, but if this doesn’t push him off the cliff, nothing will and we are all doomed.

 

When he insulted John McCain, saying that McCain was not a hero for having been captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned and tortured for several years, he got away with it. He didn’t like McCain, he said, because he got captured so therefore he could not be a hero and he, Donald Trump, didn’t like people who got captured. That caused a considerable ripple among his sycophants, but it didn’t last.

 

He insulted the family of a soldier killed in Iraq saying the Muslim gold star mother didn’t speak because her Muslim husband ruled the family and wouldn’t allow it. Even that didn’t sway the hatemongers among his brain-dead following because to them the woman was Muslim and therefore an enemy of Trump’s white redneck supporters.

 

It’s worth repeating the words that Khizr Kahn spoke at the 2016 Democratic national convention, igniting Trump’s volcanic anger at Khizr and his wife Ghazala,” have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing—and no one.” He offered to loan Trump a pocket copy of the Constitution which Khizr carried then (and carries now). “I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of the law.’”

 

Trump’s nonexistent and disgraceful disregard for actions to contain coronavirus has rocked the boat seriously for him because, after all, some of the nearly 200,000 dead Americans have been among his so-called base.

 

It’s inexplicable that the base continues to support him even as some of their ranks die of the disease that he totally has failed to combat. In their case the word “sacrifice” has no logical meaning. It defies logic that they believe in a fantasy “right” to  refuse to wear masks, stay at home instead of gathering in potentially infectious herds, or to do any of the preventive measures that other countries have successfully used to contain coronavirus. In the case of these self-righteous sheep, the word “sacrifice” is a self-destructive joke.

 

Instead, Trump is attempting to force through a largely untested vaccine against coronavirus before the election and simultaneously supporting the idea of letting the virus run unchecked in hopes that “herd immunity” will, in time, result in the virus burning out.

 

A few days ago I lost a long time hunting partner. When he was young, he dropped out of college to join the military, knowing that he almost certainly would be sent to Vietnam. He was deployed there, as a medic (he once sewed up a gash on my bird dog, as expertly as any veterinarian). He hadn’t needed to risk his life in a combat zone, but he chose to suspend his education for what he perceived as a greater good.

 

Later, after his discharge, he returned to college, earned a law degree, and spent the next several decades as a highly respected lawyer and became an exceptionally gifted outdoor writer with three fine books published. In every facet of his life, he put the lie to Trump’s description of “losers” and “suckers”.

 

Two of the groomsmen in Marty’s and my 1956 wedding a year later would be commissioned as Marine second lieutenants. Vietnam was just beginning to gain momentum (and casualty totals). Both knew that they likely would be sent into the heart of the gathering Viet Nam storm. Neither majored in military, but they put their futures on hold.  Sacrifice is the applicable word.

 

Both were wounded in combat. One, a helicopter pilot, was shot down and nearly died. The other, a foot soldier, chose to stay in the Marines as a career choice and retired decades later as a bird colonel bearing the scars of combat.  No reasonable human being would describe either as a “loser” or a “sucker”. Only one despicable exception I can think of would be so callous, so soul empty, so devoid of understanding or empathy as to use those terms to describe my friends. As the old saying goes you get three guesses as to who that individual is and the first two don’t count.

 

The last time the United States had a united populace forced to confront the concept of “sacrifice” was in World War II when everybody to some degree or another gave up something for the common good. “Sacrifice” even extended down to us grade school kids. We couldn’t volunteer with our cousins to go into combat, but we gave up what had been common food fare, suddenly rationed so the troops in the field could eat. Everyone made do with what they had when the war began—automobiles, the tires they rolled on, and many other items that people had taken for granted for decades. Kids saved rubber bands and rolled aluminum gum wrappers into metallic balls which could be used somehow in the war effort.  Kids donated millions of Buddy L and other cherished toys to scrap metal drives (which makes the toys today highly sought after collectibles because of their scarcity).

 

My wife’s folks had a lovely decorative wrought iron fence at their house and they donated it to a scrap metal drive. Certainly not a major sacrifice but everybody did something similar.

 

Trump’s latest outburst of unhinged fantasy is to accuse the military of starting wars so that the companies who make armament can profit.  “I’m not saying the military’s in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”

 

Trump says the soldiers are in love with him but chances are that a good many of the soldiers wearing stars on their shoulders are not quite as enamored. In a rage he once called them “dopes and sissies.” Apparently he judges all generals by Beetle Bailey’s General Halftrack (he should cherish Mort Walker’s cartoon general whose favorite pastime is escaping the office to play golf).

 

Trump continued, “But we’re getting out of the endless wars, you know how we’re doing. We’ve defeated 100 per cent of the ISIS caliphate. When I came in it was a mess, it was all over.  A year later I said, ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s all gone, sir, because of you, it’s all gone’.”  This is the raving of a megalomaniac madman.  Anyone who doesn’t recognize it for what it is—dangerous nonsense—is as self delusional as Trump.

 

This week we found what Trump’s sacrifice is—the truth. In a new book, famous Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward quotes a recording he made during an interview with Trump. Trump confesses that he was well aware of the severity of coronavirus at the same time he was assuring the American public that the virus was no big deal and would go away.  The result of this sacrifice of truth to political gain, rampant vanity, or a simple inability to tell the truth, means that 200,000 Americans who might have lived if he had told the truth and combated coronavirus at its beginning is the price the country has paid for his bungling.

 

A cartoon currently is caroming around the Internet, depicting the ghost of Richard Nixon hovering over the little figure of a robe clad Trump, saying, “you know about Watergate and yet you let Bob Woodward record you, you effing moron!”

 

We are less than two months from election day, November 3, and this momentous event is approaching like a runaway train. More and more it appears that a mail in vote will decide who wins—Trump for what would be a catastrophic four more years, or Joe Biden who offers the promise of a return to sanity. Trump is doing his utmost to cripple the mail in vote, so it is vital to vote early.

 

The time to vote is now. Request your ballot for absentee voting now and return the ballot as soon as possible. I’ve already been waiting more than a week to get my absentee ballot and it’s only a 15 mile trip from the election office. The Postal Service is being systematically crippled so it can’t function as an absentee ballot delivery facility. In order to be counted do it now. Don’t wait! And be sure it is notarized if that is necessary and mail it back by early October. Theoretically you can mail it two weeks before the election to be sure that it is delivered by election day, but don’t count on that.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • September 3rd, 2020

ENTER MOUNT TRUMPMORE

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

So Donald Trump wants to debase and deface Mount Rushmore by adding his face to that of the four presidents already there. There’s room next to George Washington for him and room for Mike Pence next to Lincoln on the other side.

 

I have a couple of suggestions: why not carve the two evil ones where they want to be and then rent drilling equipment and donate many cases of dynamite to the Lakota Sioux and let them punch holes in the brows of the six (hate to lose Lincoln and Teddy, but freedom has its price), load the holes with dynamite and let the tribal chiefs press the button that will fire the shot heard round the world.

 

Or, conversely, carve the two Demons in Chief on Stone Mountain in Georgia next to the Confederate memorial already there and donate the afore mentioned drilling equipment and dynamite to Black Lives Matter, drill holes, load up, and shoot the moon.

 

This is the man, Trumpsters, that you support at his articulate best speaking on the problem of homelessness. “It’s a phenomena that started two years ago. It’s disgraceful. I’m going to maybe— and I’m looking at it very seriously— we’re doing some other things that you probably noticed like some of the very important things that we’re doing now. But we’re looking at it very seriously, because you can’t do that— it’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”

 

 (It’s “phenomenon”, you dolt, but then so are you)

 

Anyone digesting this word mush from an interview with Tucker Carlson (and anyone listening to Tucker Carlson in the first place already is suffering an overdose of word mush) who still believes that Donald Trump possesses the remnants of an adult brain does deserve a memorial to him and I have a suggestion.

 

Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more appropriate, if they want to memorialize him in stone, to rent a bulldozer and push up a pile of rubble at the base of a former West Virginia mountain leveled by coal mining? Trump’s base could hold Ku Klux Klan rallies there and the upside would be that since they are already masked, they might actually be semi-protected from Covid 19.

 

Ivanka Trump, Donnie’s favorite Barbie doll, says she has seen “the pain in his eyes” when he’s told about the latest Covid 19 statistics. I have a feeling that what she mistakes as “pain” is “lust”. He’s even admitted in the past that if she weren’t his daughter he probably would be dating her. Parental pride is one thing, not only admitting to, but bragging about, romantic longing for your children is downright spooky.

 

Trump’s long history with allegations of dubious treatment of women is well documented and apparently extends, by his own words, to his own family.

 

We can expect for the next few weeks until November 3 to endure a constant barrage of pro-Trump campaign rhetoric to the effect that a Biden presidency would be an apocalyptic disaster. He already speaks of a Biden chaotic America as if it were already here. He seems to be speaking of the multiplying disasters of his own administration as if they belong to the person who probably will succeed him and will be tasked with fixing what he has inherited. Trump has spent the last nearly four years blaming Barack Obama for everything wrong in his own administration and claiming credit for everything right that existed when he took over.

 

The Republican National Committee recently issued a video with the narrator saying “this is a taste of Biden’s America,”  showing a bright fire and a person running across the screen holding a baton. “The rioting, the crime, freedom is at stake now and this is going to be the most important election of our lifetime.” says the narrator. The only problem with the video which also has been posted on Trump’s YouTube outlet is that it was taken a year ago in Spain and has nothing to do with any protest in the United States.  The only accurate part of the video is that, yes, it is going to be the most important election of our lifetime.

 

Trump points to the stock market as the indicator of a wonderful economy, ignoring the fact that he inherited a booming stock market which began in the Obama administration after a near cataclysmic debacle under the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush. And let’s forget the stock market as an indicator of national economic health—most people don’t own stock and measure their economic well-being by having a job that pays a living.

 

Unemployment is about three times greater than it was when Trump took over, the small business segment of the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, the agricultural segment is suffering and the overall economic picture is of an oligarchy, owned by the rich at the expense of the poor.

 

And yet Trump expects the poor to line up on election day and vote for four more years of him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a campaign ad reading “vote for Trump—my name is God and I approved of this message“. Trump already is annointing himself as God’s chosen (I thought we already had one of those).

 

It absolutely boggles my mind that evangelicals can continue to support this human trash given his multiple highly visible unChristian thoughts and actions.

 

Trump has been busy recently, touring the rubble left by the nation’s latest catastrophes. He surveyed the open wound left by Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and did everything but wave an imaginary magic wand. Wearing his inevitable MAGA hat, he assured the devastated Cajuns that “we will supply what we have to supply, you know what a lot of that is, a thing called green.” Presumably, he meant money, although he later supposedly was joking when he told some of the rescue workers that maybe he could sell his autograph for $10,000 a pop. Given his mega monomaniacal personality disorder, it’s entirely possible he was dead serious.

 

And then he went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, against the express displeasure of the state’s governor and the city’s mayor that he stay the hell home. Muttering further insanity, he claimed there had been a plane full of “thugs” garbed in black, headed to Kenosha to foment violence. The Fomenter-in-Chief was him of course because that is his only remaining campaign strategy—to bring the nation to the brink of Civil War in hopes that anguished voters somehow will be convinced that only he can wave his magic wand, sell  enough autographs and keep the thug planes grounded and thus make everything all cozy again.

 

The man clearly is insane.

 

One of the more egregious anti-Christian acts by self-styled Christians is the effort by a Christian fundraising outfit to raise money for the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17 year old gunslinger from Illinois whose mother drove him and an AR 15 to Kenosha where he proceeded to kill two people and wound a third.  Trump says Rittenhouse was defending himself and would have been killed had he not heroically mowed three people down with his illegal gun, provided him from a mother’s love.

 

The “Christian” fundraisers say “Kyle Rittenhouse just defended himself from a brutal attack by multiple members of the far left  group ANTIFA. According to his Christian supporters, he was forced to take two lives to defend his own.”  As I write, the group has raised about $100,000, no doubt from ardent Christians who believe they are doing God’s work in defending a crazy whacked out kid with a record of drug abuse and delusions that he is a patriotic defender of law enforcement.

 

You never realize the credibility of human beings until some super con man comes along and bands them together in a fawning crowd of supporters who forgive any faults or inconsistencies. It’s one thing to whoop and holler for Elvis or Frank Sinatra or the Beatles—that’s harmless— but to do it for someone who can theoretically destroy the world is a scary thought.

 

We’ve had charlatans before but Trump trumps them all. Fraudulent doctor John R. Brinkley back in the nineteen thirties proposed to restore the virility of men by transplanting goat nuts into them. In the nineteen forties and fifties, Cajun con man Dudley LeBlanc hawked the therapeutic virtues of Hadacol which was 12 percent alcohol and certainly made those who bought and chugged it feel better temporarily. But so does bathtub gin containing wood alcohol until it kills you.

 

I don’t see a whole lot of difference in the Trump family and the Mafia “Family”. It’s significant to me that half of the dozen keynote speakers at the recent Republican convention were Trump family members. I’m pretty sure that no Democratic presidential nominee in modern history, dating at least to the FDR administration, had family members keynoting the conventions that nominated them. For that matter, neither have the Republicans until Trump. He is one-of-a-kind and we can only thank God for that.

 

FDR famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Fear is the cornerstone of Trump’s reelection strategy—create nasty fear that to elect Joe Biden would be to bring on the Apocalypse. Trump will be hammering that from now until election day –that a Biden presidency will be one of riot, a plunging economy and blood in the streets.  This is, Trump repeatedly trumpets, Biden’s America. It’s all he has. The Republican Party doesn’t even pretend to offer a platform. It has no ideas other than to scare the crap out of voters in hopes that fear will keep them from the polls, or confuse them into voting for the likes of Kanye West or Mickey Mouse or, if all else fails, accept help from Russia, Iran, or anyone else willing to aid in the downfall of Democracy. Trump threatens to send law enforcement to the polls to ensure no voter fraud, but isn’t that a veiled threat to intimidate voters?

 

Trump and Stephen Miller the weasel faced Heinrich Himmler of Trump world have adopted fomenting street violence as a campaign strategy. They feel that the more civic unrest they can endorse will be good for Trump’s candidacy as a self proclaimed “law and order” president. The fact that it is the President himself who is praising right wing rioters as “great patriots” should be enough to convince anyone with the faintest doubt that he is nothing but a lynch mob agitator. Kellyanne Conway, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, came right out and said that the more unrest in the streets, the better for Trump. She is leaving the Trump camp to focus on family, she says. Does that include a family of flying monkeys?

 

Shouldn’t it be painfully obvious even to the most dense of his addled supporters that the end of times inevitabilities that he predicts are already here? We are trying to survive, not in a future Biden America, but in the present which is Trump’s America. The rioting, the plunging economy, the blood in the streets is leaking from the circulatory systems of peaceful protesters now as is the money from the wallets of middle-class America.

 

Benjamin Franklin said it long ago “we must hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” And, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln famously said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was speaking of slavery and went on to say “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

 

Just two years later and for five more incredibly bloody years, the nation fought to resolve the question that Lincoln had raised. Much of today’s unrest is an echo of that same situation and if the solution is for a white cop to shoot an unarmed black man seven times in the back, we have not come as far from Abraham Lincoln as a  “law and order” president would have you believe.

 

This began as a blog about Trump’s fantasy of joining the faces on Mount Rushmore but has devolved in the morass of Trumpian insanity. It’s like quicksand—each step toward escape only makes you sink further into the muck.

 

United States of America is not united now.  We are in desperate danger of becoming a Humpty Dumpty society so fractured that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put us together again. The King, of course, would be the wannabe king Donald Trump. Rather than him as the self proclaimed king, I’d prefer to see him as the shattered fragments of President Dumpty.

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  • Blog
  • August 28th, 2020

EAT YOUR CARP–IT’S GOOD FOR YOU

By Joel M. Vance

 

If dried fish are nutritious enough to fuel a sled dog a thousand miles on the Iditarod, you’d think a similar diet would be nutritious enough to fuel the average commuter to his office and back.  Fish are good for you. Every morning I pop a couple of fish oil capsules at a doctor’s suggestion, and at least twice a week we eat fish, salmon or tilapia. But, if Dr. Mark Morgan of the University of Missouri prevails, the food that propels sled dogs and me will become even more of a staple on the American diet than it already is.

 

The best lunch I ever ate was a fish sandwich in the Florida Keys, fresh from the ocean to my plate and palate. And a Cajun po’ boy sandwich ranks right up there with fish gumbo as food fit to make gourmands groan and wish they hadn’t eaten so much.

 

“Carp tastes good and it’s good for you,” Mark says.  “I just didn’t know how good until recently.  I’ve served carp to probably thousands of Missourians over time. But you know they can be a fickle bunch, so I’m always looking for something new.”  The “new” sounds at  first hearing like something from a science fiction story but hear him out.

 

Dr. Morgan, associate professor in research at the University’s School of Natural Resources, has been on a multi-year crusade to awaken the American public to the nutritional value of the invasive Asian carp–a fish that is a destructive presence in many American waterways, but a neglected visitor to the American dinner menu.

 

Let Mark continue the story: ““I got a mini-grant from SNR and purchased some slabs, salted and smoked them at MU. I took some down to Haiti and fed them to some of the villagers.  Let me tell you, Haitians loved my carp.  Before I left, they wanted to know when I was going to return.  It made me feel bad that I had a real job, and carp wasn’t it.

 

“I have a team of scientists which is interested in helping me – – from MU, Vietnam, and South Africa. No money yet but I think that’s going to change soon. Two grant proposals are in now. One is for Haiti and one is for South Africa.  The iron content of the fish alone is enough to save the lives of disadvantaged women and children who suffer from anemia.”

 

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is a glaring example of national despair. Beset by poverty, malnutrition, suffering  recurring natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. If ever there was a place that would welcome alleviation of any of its national miseries, Haiti is it.

 

Asian carp won’t cure poverty nor prevent hurricanes, but they do offer an opportunity to alleviate hunger.  Haiti has a population of 11,400,000 which is three million more than it had 20 years ago. About 59% of Haitians live in poverty and nearly half the population is undernourished. About 20% of Haitian children are malnourished suffering both physical and mental disabilities.  Obviously, there is an urgent need for nutritional aid.

 

Asian carp have most everything a person could ever want or need: protein, calcium, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential amino acids.  It’s even got good N-P-K numbers for organic fertilizer. Further analyses are in the plans.

 

“I have no idea what’s in this, but nobody else does either,” Mark says. “For the time being, I’m going to say it’s liquid gold. Hey, there’s no law against dreaming. Or, as Lum and Abner used to say, “dreaming out loud”  For those of you who are older than dirt, as I am, Lum and  Abner were a comedy team who had a radio program back in the nineteen forties where they dispensed rural wisdom From the Jot ‘Em Down store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

 

Before you dismiss Mark Morgan as someone who has overdosed on fish oil capsules, remember that a fish diet long has been considered brain food. Remember that long ago the tomato was considered poisonous. Attitudes change. So Mark’s biggest problem is not proving that Asian carp are good for you (he’s already done that) but that they are good to eat, in whatever form science can develop.  

 

The University of Minnesota has appropriated more than $10 million to study ways to prevent Asian carp from infesting the state’s rivers and lakes. More than seven million of the money is to install electrical or bubble barriers within lock chambers on the largest rivers to slow the invasive species upstream spread.

 

Does it make sense to invest at least some of that money in studying how to utilize Asian carp as food rather than a probably futile attempt to eradicate them?

 

Fisheries folks on Kentucky Lake used electro fishing and sound to herd silver carp into nets, hoping to trap more than a million pounds in two weeks, an effort that they described as “a drop in the bucket”. Netting the high jumping invaders should involve hazardous duty pay for the fisheries people involved. Corralling a 25 pound carp that doesn’t want to be corralled and which is capable of leaping into the air is like sending a grade school football team into the game against an NFL line.

 

So far state and federal agencies have spent about $600 million to stop Asian carp since 2004 and the estimated cost of projects already in the works are estimated at $1.5 billion over the next decade.

 

There certainly is no lack of Asian carp. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers both are infested with the fish and the Illinois River is virtually wall-to-wall with them–a boat trip on the Illinois is like traveling through a thunderstorm with the raindrops being jumping fish.   In 1848, the Mormons left Illinois only to encounter a plague of locusts in Utah, but today’s Illinois residents are dealing with a piscatorial plague, trading grasshoppers for Asian carp. Supposedly, seagulls swooped in to eat the locusts and save the Mormon crops. It’s probably too much to expect an armada of birds to miraculously appear (perhaps millions of fish eating eagles) to rid the Illinois and the other mid-America rivers of the Asian invaders.  The Illinois River has the largest concentration of Asian carp anywhere in the world. It’s reasonable to expect that, given time, the prolific invaders will find a way into every major waterway, at least in Mid-America, and into their tributaries as well.

 

There is no practical way to control them. Electric or other barriers merely slow their inevitable progress en route to dominating the biomass of a given river,  They compete with native species for food and territory and the loser in that grim game inevitably is the native fish.

 

Carp of all fish species are a widely utilized food in Asian countries and the common German carp, an alien species in this country for more than 100 years, is widely used by those in the know as good food. Scaled, gutted, filleted and scored it is a fine fish fry menu item, and for those who know how, a smoked carp makes a hard to beat canapé.

 

For information on how to prepare Asian carp for the plate, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation website at mdc.mo.gov and search for invasive carp control which will further lead you to YouTube videos on preparation and recipes for silver carp, the most numerous of the four invasive carp species now plaguing the nation’s major waterways (silver, bighead, black, and grass).

 

A hefty carp on the end of a fishing line offers a bulldog worthy tugging contest. I remember some years back when a hatch of periodic locusts inspired German carp to feed like piranhas and some anglers were able to catch them on fly rods, using bulky flies tied like fallen cicadas.

 

A fisheries biologist friend used cherry tomatoes as bait for grass carp, an invasive species that feeds almost exclusively on vegetation, and was successful in catching them. I ate some of the result smoked and it was delectable.  While you might catch the occasional grass carp with a cherry tomato, angling is no solution for the other Asian carp species–they don’t take bait, nor do they inhale a fly or an artificial lure.

 

Silver and bighead carp are “filter feeders” meaning they filter microscopic organisms in the water, rather than feeding on minnows, crayfish or other aquatic food preferred by most native fish species. But, for the sport minded angler, there are several ways to turn Asian carp collection into sport.

 

Perhaps the easiest way is to run your boat through a concentration of the fish and watch them drop into the boat as they leap. Might be best to wear a football helmet. Netting is the most productive, but hardly sporting–a meat gathering operation that will be the major method of large-scale harvesting if Asian carp ever become a viable food crop.

 

There is a weird hook and line method where a dough ball is inserted in a porous container studded with small hooks and suspended from a bobber. The dissolving bait attracts the carp who feed on microscopic particles of it and, you hope, gulp a hook in the process.

 

Bow hunters have been skewering German carp for decades. Since Asian carp tend to feed close to the surface, they are visible targets.

 

Bait for the common German carp traditionally is a dough ball which mostly consists of something like Wheaties (the Breakfast of Champions) mixed with a sweetener like sorghum molasses, and rolled into small bait balls. The upside of that is that if the fish aren’t biting, you can eat the bait. Anglers often seed a carp fishing hole ahead of time with canned corn or cottonseed cake, let it marinate for a day or two and then go back and fish. It’s a piscatorial version of shooting fish-in-a-barrel.

 

Leaping tarpon and sailfish have nothing on Asian carp when it comes to jumping free of the water. The carp leap when startled and there are reports of fatalities from collisions between airborne carp and people in the water.

 

In certain circumstances, associating with invasive carp, especially silver carp, is downright dangerous. Imagine barreling up or down a river in your speedboat when a silver carp leaps high in the air just in front of you. Being smacked in the face by 25 pounds of carp at 50 miles an hour is somewhat similar to having Al Capone pound you with a baseball bat the way he used to do his enemies back in gangster days.

 

Even if Asian carp never are turned into a featured entrée in upscale restaurants, there’s another possibility–their processed use as high quality fertilizer for food crops. Every little kid of my era learned in grade school history how the Native Americans told the first settlers how to bury fish in hills of maize to ensure a bumper crop. I used to bury the guts of fish in our garden for the same reason, until the dogs dug them up and rolled in them which curbed my enthusiasm for pioneer fertilization.

 

Carpe diem is Latin for “Seize the day” but in time that may translate to “Seize the carp”.  Might want to wear a first baseman’s glove, though.

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • August 21st, 2020

FILL YORE HANDS!

By Joel M. Vance

 

I’ve owned but one hand gun in my life, a .22 caliber Colt replica in miniature of the famed six shooter carried by the many Western heroes of the black and white movies of my childhood when my eight-year-old peers and I haunted the local movie theater on Saturday, hollering at the screen bad guys, sticking our Juicy Fruit wads under the seat, dissolving Milk Duds and our teeth in almost equal proportions.

 

Fast forward half a century or more when I bought my Colt handgun. I somehow acquired a leather holster and ammunition belt, similar or identical to those worn by my childhood heroes, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid, Tex Ritter, Duke Wayne, and, of course, Roy and Gene.

 

I began practicing fast draw in our basement, the gun unloaded of course–I was stupid, but not completely unhinged–and decided to try it for real in the local National Guard armory shooting range.

 

I was the battery commander of the Guard unit and had access to the range anytime I wanted, plus an unlimited supply of .22 caliber shorts. So, I showed up at the armory and explained to the master sergeant office manager that I was going to pop a few rounds on the range.

 

I went into the range, pinned a couple of targets to the bracket at the far end, and backed off to the 10 yard firing line. I practiced a few quick draws to warm up and then decided it was time to join the ranks of my movie idols. I loaded all six cylinders of the pistol, snapped it shut and nestled it in my holster. I visualized Jack Elam, The quintessential Western movie bad guy, snarling at me, his hand hovering over his sixgun, daring me to go for it!

 

I saw him grab for his hog leg, and, adhering to the unbreakable code of the West which dictated you couldn’t shoot a guy until he went for his gun first, as quick as a striking rattlesnake, I grabbed my trusty sidearm and fired–right into the overhead ceiling light fixture which exploded in a shower of broken glass.

 

There was a deafening and protracted long silence, during which I carefully unloaded the gun, put it back in the holster.  Finally, after several centuries of embarrassment, the door opened and the sergeant. walked in and took one look at the debris scattered in front of me and quietly said, “Jesus Christ, Sir.”

 

Shortly after, I traded the pistol and a bunch of cash for a 12 gauge over/under shotgun. I can’t hit anything with it but at least I haven’t shot out any more overhead lights.

 

Having demonstrated that I was a menace to overhead lights with a pistol, I switched to the armory’s .22 caliber rifles that were set up for target shooting. I was pretty good with a rifle (certainly light years better than I was with a pistol) and began shooting the clothespins that fastened targets below a wire–more of a challenge than a paper target with a big ‘ol bullseye. My sergeant would come into the range after I finished demolishing his clothespins, regard the splintered remains, and say quietly, “Jesus Christ, Sir.”

 

The incident with the pistol convinced me that the idea of, like Gene Autry, shooting the pistol out of the hand of a bad guy, without otherwise injuring him, was impractical in the old West, more likely to result in Clean Gene being slung over his saddle on Champion and hauled to Boot Hill for burial.

 

Besides which, if some old West gunslinger was able to shoot the bad guy’s pistol out of his hand, the result almost certainly would’ve been severe damage to the hand, and there were no orthopedic surgeons in those days to make ligaments and tendons all better again.

 

The truth is that most old West gunslingers were notoriously poor shots and those fabled shootouts in the local tavern probably killed more innocent bystanders than they did the intended targets. More often than not, two guys would face off six feet apart, both draw, and blast away futilely without hitting anything other than the bartender, a couple of the ladies of the night, and the afore-mentioned innocent bystanders.

 

Discounting the fact that many gunfights resulted in more stray bullets than they did in effective ones, some of the reports of sharpshooting desperados are exaggerated but almost true (never forget that tall tales from history often are elevated in height by adding colorful details).

 

Reportedly Butch Cassidy could hit a coin thrown in the air (although I’m sure it was a silver dollar rather than a half dime). And both Butch and the Sundance Kid reportedly entertained visitors by drawing and shattering thrown beer bottles before they hit the ground. Another story is that Wild Bill Hickok once killed a running man with a pistol shot at 100 yards. I suspect more than a little inflation in that tale because, given the range and muzzle velocity of a cap and ball pistol, chances are at 100 yards, even if Wild Bill hit his target, it wouldn’t do more than at most leave a bruise.

 

I actually do have another pistol, an 1860 .44 caliber Army Colt that supposedly belonged to my great grandfather. The story is that he carried this pistol during a brief career as a Union militiaman in a Civil War company formed by his brother my great grand uncle, known as Vance’s Rangers.

 

Despite its heroic moniker, the Rangers were no more than a bunch of farm boys who got together to play soldier and found they knew as much of military tactics as the Keystone Kops knew about police work in the early movie comedies. The Rangers began life in the spring of 1863, and in the fall they deployed to Glasgow to defend the town against the real army of Confederate General Sterling Price. The general, who had been Missouri’s governor, but who chose the Confederate side, sent a detachment to Glasgow where they proceeded to capture the entire Rangers company in about an hour.

 

The Johnnys Reb, paroled my great grandpa and his brother and the rest of their motley crew and I’m sure in the custom of the day where parolees were involved, allowed the enlisted men to keep their rifles, but confiscated the sidearms of the officers.

 

Thus, I should not have a pistol belonging to my great grandpa. Perhaps he didn’t have it when he was captured or he bought the gun later after he ignominiously went home, possibly as a protection against the depredations of Bloody Bill Anderson, a Confederate sociopathic killer whose bloodthirsty band of bushwhackers was roaming the very same territory as Price’s Army at the same time as the Glasgow “battle”.

 

Nonetheless, I have the old Colt and have never fired it and never will. Family story is that my grandfather used to unlimber  the pistol on July Fourth and salute the nation’s independence by banging away, but I never saw it happen.

 

I managed to mess up the firing mechanism after I inherited the gun, and took it to a gunsmith to have it repaired and supposedly it is operable once again, but I have no desire to find out the hard way–the hard way being if the gun explodes when you squeeze the trigger, or the gun “chain fires”, a spectacular explosion by all six loads, each one setting off the next. The result of that is going to be at least equal in damage to the shooter’s hand, as to what happened to the bad guy in old Gene’s cowboy movies.

 

The Colt .44 Army and its smaller cousin the .35caliber Navy Colt were the choice weapons for many of the bushwhacker outlaws up until 1873 when Colt unveiled the first practical cartridge revolver. The older Colts and all their pistol cousins were cap and ball, almost impossible to reload in the middle of the pell-mell horse mounted gunfight. There were attempts to develop a dependable cartridge gun before and during the Civil War, but none were reliable enough to be useful in robbing a train or a bank.

 

Cap and ball shooting irons meant that once you shot six times (hoping the gun didn’t explode in your hand) you were out of firepower. Thus, many of the outlaws carried multiple guns–Jesse James was reported to have carried as many as six. The Colt cartridge gun, commonly known as the Peacemaker, was a revolutionary update for the arsenal, not only of peace officers, but also for the bad guys.

 

But the bad guys of the cap and ball era were, in every sense, often really bad guys, exemplified by those who rode with Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War, like Frank and Jesse James. Apparently Jesse was sick and not present, but Frank was when Anderson and his estimated 300 ruthless killers descended on Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864.

 

First, the bushwhackers stopped a train containing 23 Union soldiers headed home on furlough and killed them all , no doubt using cap and ball six shooters which was their weapon of choice.

 

Later that day a detachment of Union soldiers, from the39th Missouri Infantry Volunteers under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnson showed up in Centralia and, determined to exact revenge, pursued Bloody Bill’s bushwhackers. They sound about as competent as Vance’s Rangers, described as being mounted on horses and mules “most of them old brood mares and plow horses with some indifferent mules.”  Tellingly, only the officers had pistols.

 

There were 147 troops, five officers and three others. Foolishly, they charged into Bloody Bill’s ambush and came out of it with 108 fewer. Johnson thought his rifle armed troops could prevail over the bushwhacker pistols. That “we got ’em boys!” attitude was echoed some years later when George Custer charged over the hill to his doom at the Little Big Horn.

 

I still have the shotgun I traded the frontier Colt for many years ago and I haven’t shot out any overhead lights with it, but I have used it to frighten countless upland game birds. On one hunt, my dog caught two rooster pheasants before I managed to kill one–it doesn’t say much for your shooting prowess when your bird dog bags more game than you do.

 

At least I was one ahead of him when it came to shooting out overhead lights.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • August 14th, 2020

SNAKEAPHOBIA

By Joel M. Vance

 

Indiana Jones summed it up so succinctly when he said “ why does it always have to be about snakes?” after he was dropped into a pit containing a couple thousand snakes, including a cobra with a bad attitude. Indy was harking back to a traumatic incident in his past which left him with an overwhelming fear of snakes.

 

Depending on your point of view snakes have been creating problematic situations for a long time. There was that pesky serpent who whispered provocative suggestions to Adam and Eve about what they could do with their spare time which, if you believe that led to sinful behavior, means either that sex or eating apples is bad for your health. On the other hand, without sex none of us would be here, and without eating apples every day, we wouldn’t be keeping the doctor away.

 

The fictional Indiana Jones actually was a contemporary of my mother (both of them, the fictional character, and the real one, my Mom, without whom I wouldn’t be here), were born and thrived about the same era the early part of the 20th century). Mom shared with Indy such a powerful snake aversion that she could not look at photos of snakes in books without shuddering and breaking out in a cold sweat. Where Indy managed to overcome his fear long enough to escape and indulge in other hair-raising adventures, my mother never conquered her fear of snakes and perhaps that is where I acquired my less overpowering aversion to elongated reptiles.

 

It’s not that I share the feeling that all too many people have that the only good snake is a dead snake. I recognize that they are citizens of the natural world, equal with me in their right to be there. Many snakes provide useful services including providing jobs for herpetologists. I like to think that snakes and I have a mutual understanding. I will leave them alone if they leave me alone. I welcome our mutual wish to eliminate noxious rodents and I share with every little kid on earth a fascination with snakes, especially if they are confined behind sturdy glass or remain out of sight, out of mind.( The snakes, not the kids.)

 

When I am exploring the wilds, I never think about the possibility of an encounter with a reptile, especially a venomous one, but it’s like the old saying that you can’t not think about elephants if someone tells you not to think about them. Either someone says, “watch out for snakes around here,” or I glimpse one and from then on my path through the wilds somewhat resembles the male half of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I have been known to leap tall buildings with a single bound.

 

I recall a dark and not stormy night on the Current River when a friend and I were returning after dark to our vehicle when he said “they say cottonmouth moccasins smell like watermelon.” Immediately my imagination kicked in and everything smelled like watermelon. The darkness was filled with the overpowering scent of watermelon like that at a Fourth of July church picnic. We were about 100 yards from the vehicle and it is entirely possible that I traversed the entire stretch of river without my feet ever once touching ground.

 

I also recall another possibly erroneous folk legend that moccasins tend to roost in trees overlooking the river, like birds, waiting only for an unwary canoeist to drift beneath the tree, whereupon they drop into the canoe and create the kind of havoc that only an imagination as fevered as mine can create.

 

Although I have paddled hundreds of miles on many rivers, I can only recall one time that I think I saw a snake in a tree above the river. I immediately recalled a story my father once told me about a time he was fishing in Wisconsin and saw a swimming snake and injudiciously cast over it and hooked the aquatic reptile which immediately began following the line back to its origin—the Pflueger Supreme reel in my father’s hand. Had it been me, I suspect I would’ve set a new record for how far you can throw a Pflueger Supreme reel, but with presence of mind, he cut the line. There are no water moccasins in Wisconsin, so the snake was undoubtedly nonvenomous, but who wants to take a chance with it being the first venomous immigrant from a Southern swamp? The snake I think I saw on the river, if it was there at all, may have been a harmless one, but I paddled at the extreme opposite edge of the river.

 

In fact there is one snake that I actually do think about periodically, like wondering whatever happened to an old friend. It is a small green snake that I found one day lolling in the sun above the door to our basement. For some reason, instead of looking for a 20 foot long stick with which to encourage the snake to go sunbathe somewhere else, I opened the door to go inside and the snake took that as an invitation to come live with me. It slithered into the basement and vanished into the clutter of my office which is, I confess, so cluttered that there may actually be people lost in there, as well as uninvited reptiles.

 

The snake may have died of old age by now or found some way to get out of the house (mice seem to have no trouble finding a way in when the weather turns cold) I can only hope that some of the invasive rodents have encountered the green snake which, while not noted as a rodent predator, Is welcome to munch on as many rodents as it wishes.

 

Then there is the black rat snake that took up residence in our sauna. Apparently this was a reptile that enjoyed social occasions. I built a sauna a number of years ago and it only took me a decade of occasionally cutting a cedar log fitting it into an approximation of a log cabin, installing cedar benches, siding and ceiling (you might infer here that I have a liking for cedar, especially if you see the sign at the entrance to our driveway “Cedar Glade” and the sign at the top of the hill for the blacktop which reads “Cedar Grove”). I cut a hole, installed a stovepipe and all it lacked was a stove with which to heat my sauna.

 

After another few years of searching junk-associated establishments, I spied a likely candidate at a yard sale in the Ozarks, negotiated a cheap price and came home bearing a cast-iron stove. All that remained was to fire it up, heated to many degrees, and park my puny rear on one of the benches and soak in the heat. The purpose of a sauna is therapeutic. The idea is to bake the body in hea After an extended bout of self-inflicted torture, one bolts for, in our case, the nearest body of cold water which is our pond some 15 or 20 feet from the sauna, plunge in, and rise from the depths, steaming and snorting like a grampus—or,in my case, a grampaw. That normally would send a sane person pell-mell toward the nearest air-conditioned ice cream parlor.

 

I enjoyed whatever therapeutic benefits there are in taking sauna and even enlisted the kids one time when there was several inches of snow on the ground. The idea was, after having absorbed great amounts of heat, we would roll in the snow and presumably live to be 100 or more. Instead of thanking their father for seeing to their health, in unison they cried “child abuse!” And, after threatening to report me to the nearest authorities, they fled to the house.

 

I even have witnesses as to how healthy the sauna made me. Once, emerging from a session in the heat, wearing only a grin, I heard a voice from above which at first I thought was God complementing me on self torture, kind of like a religious fanatic beating himself with whips.  The voice said, “looking good down there!” But when I looked toward Heaven, I saw only a hot air balloon full of gawking spectators perhaps 50 feet high, drifting over the pond. While mutual nudity is common in Scandinavian countries while taking sauna, the Vances have opted for swimming suits when entertaining company.

 

Aside from attracting folks who indulge in the equivalent of being lashed by a cat o’ nine tails, an unheated sauna often seems like an ideal home for members of the mouse family.  At the time we did not have a resident acquiring and installing a house cat and therefore lacked the requisite predator to restore nature’s balance in my sauna.  I considered loading the place with mousetraps, but knowing myself, I figured my toes would be the first victims . Acquiring and installing a family cat might have worked except that I once inadvertently shut the sauna door on the family dog and by the time I realized what I’d done and freed him, he was dehydrated and, not for the first time, gave me a look that made me happy it was me that carried the shotgun on our outings, and not him.

 

The solution to the mouse problem was apparent one night when I was luxuriating in the sauna heat and a six foot long black snake dropped out of the ceiling on the floor beside me. Never mind traps and cats, if you want rid yourself of a mouse problem, import a six foot long black snake. Mice are T-bone steaks to black snakes. I was more than happy to have the snake gorge on mice when I wasn’t in the sauna, but was more than a little uncomfortable sharing sauna time with the reptile. Apparently, he was not a snake of Scandinavian heritage, heat loving and brought up in the sauna tradition, because when I screamed and kicked the door open he quickly slithered out and vanished. That is a fact, established by empirical data, worth noting, because the chances are I will wind up in the eternal sauna of afterlife. While I may have to contend with little red demons with pitchforks, I’m pretty sure I won’t be dealing with snakes.

 

I figured that either the snake would abandon the sauna forever or, when I began to preheat it, would quietly exit without disturbing me. So, one night we invited two friends to share dinner and a sauna with us. I did take the precaution of telling our guests that we might encounter a snake, but not to worry about it because it would flee the heat of the sauna without an Indiana Jones moment.

 

We were luxuriating in the gathering heat of the sauna which was reaching the optimum temperature when we would exit for a dip in the pond when my reptilian resident dropped from the ceiling onto the shoulder of the male half of our dinner companions, draping around his neck like a scarf. Had that been me at that moment I would have created an instant alternative exit by ripping out a two foot by four foot section of cedar logs, averaging five inches in diameter. Instead, my guest gently disengaged the writhing black snake, stepped to the door pushed it open and set the snake outside, closed the door and sat back down. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.

 

In the good old days of black and white television, the Conservation Department’s weekly show on KOMU TV, was broadcast live, no delay tape or chance for correcting mishaps. I used to sub for Woody Bledsoe, the regular host, when he was on National Guard duty and I can only be eternally grateful that I was not the host when what happened to him happened. For some reason he had a live rattlesnake as a prop on a show about reptiles and, in the middle of it, he dropped the snake on the floor of the studio. Whereupon his cameraman, abandoned not only the camera, but the entire studio. The camera was on a movable tripod so it could be adjusted. Without human guidance, the camera slowly began to sink toward the floor. Woody gamely followed the lens downward, contorting to keep himself in the picture. Before the producer was able to cut to an announcement, Woody’s nose was virtually on the floor. And then he had to corral the snake and secure it before they came back live on the air.

 

Another Conservation Department employee, a conservation agent, was a herp enthusiast from childhood. He often use snakes in presentations including rattlesnakes. During one presentation he was bitten by rattler, hastily wound up the presentation stopped at a nearby filling station for a bag of ice, kept the bite iced down, and had an no repercussions—apparently the snake had not injected venom.

 

But he was not so lucky when he was in the armed forces, stationed in California where he pursued snakes in his spare time. Reaching onto a rocky ledge, he was bitten several times by a rattlesnake, managed to get back to his vehicle and drove to his base, increasingly closer to death from the venom. He was flown to a naval hyperbaric facility in the ocean where he spent several days in a decompression chamber, a by-guess-and- by-God attempt to save his life—at the time it was only the second time it had ever been tried. It worked. He later became an undercover policeman, dealing with drug cases, involving society’s most violent criminals. Talk about courting danger!

 

Another friend, retired Conservation Department education consultant Rodney Greene, participated in the ultimate snake story one which, when I reported it, made him nationally famous. Rodney is a renowned teller of stories, many verging into the category of “tall” and he has been known to take the basic facts of an incident and gently amplify them to create a more entertaining storyline. But I believe implicitly that this happened exactly as Rod recounted it and as I reported it.

 

Rod was giving a natural history program to a large group of Girl Scouts and their mothers. He had brought along as a prop a bag full of nonvenomous snakes with which he intended to introduce the adolescent ladies to the world of reptiles.

 

First out of the bag was a bull snake which Rod had handled many times but this time snake perhaps having slithered out of bed on the wrong side, chose that moment to bury its fangs in Rod’s hand. Thinking to make this a teaching moment, Rod said, with blood streaming down his arm, “notice that the snake’s fangs are recurved, making it difficult to remove them. Would someone hand me a spoon so I can pry the god, er’ gosh darn thing loose?”

 

Gamely continuing on with his presentation Rod next delved into the bag and withdrew, shades of my sauna snake, a black snake of 2 or 3 feet in length. Like the bull snake, it had been handled many times and supposedly was docile. A moment later as Rod passed the snake across his body, it reached out and fastened on his crotch. Surprise, Rod let go of the snake dangled from him, swaying back and forth.

 

The little Girl Scouts in unison burst into howls of laughter while their embarrassed mothers dithered and shushed in the background. I wrote the story as a “light bright” item in the Conservation Department’s weekly news release package. Shortly, it appeared nationwide, including in the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated. “I heard from people I hadn’t heard from since high school,” Rod said.

 

During my 21 years working for the Conservation Department, I gave many programs, but I can say, with no regrets whatsoever, that none of them ever involved snakes. Thanks Mom and Indie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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