Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • May 29th, 2020

SOMETHING FOR VOTERS TO CHEW ON

By Joel M. Vance

 

It’s almost a part of the oath of office that a president of the United States must have a dog. But President. Donald J Trump turned down the offer of a dog for his son Baron possibly believing that one son of a bitch in the White House was sufficient.

 

There is also the possibility that the offered dog, variously reported as a labradoodle, a combination of Labrador and Poodle or a Goldendoodle, a mix of Golden Retriever and Poodle—both mixed breeds, considered among the most intelligent of all dogs, not only would be smarter than he is, but also for the good of the nation might organize, functioning as a good general would, a battalion of Rottweilers to attack him.  Voters, for your information, Joe Biden owns a rescue dog named Major, a German shepherd who has been described as looking a lot “like the dog version of himself.”)

 

Ivana Trump, first of Donnie’s trifecta of wives, reported that her Poodle, Chappy, would bark at The Donald when he approached her closet (why he would be approaching her closet is open to speculation—I wouldn’t discount the possibility that he was giving some consideration to emulating J Edgar Hoover who enjoyed dressing up in women’s clothing. Ivana said in her memoir about her time with Fatso, “Donald was not a dog fan.” She said to him “it’s me and Chappy or no one.” And shortly it was no one except whoever was next in line.

 

To be fair to Trump Ivana added that Trump didn’t object to Chappy sleeping next to her on their marital bed. And Snopes.com says that there is really no evidence to indicate Trump has a built-in aversion to dogs, even though he routinely uses the word “dog” to insult people—he once said Mario Rubio was “sweating like a dog” although if he knows so much about dogs, he should know dogs don’t sweat. And fact Donnie was photographed cuddling a Beagle, winner of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, who was invited to the White House. There is no record that he loaded up the dog on cheeseburgers and fries from his favorite fast food restaurant as the usually does for visiting athletes.

 

George Washington owned foxhounds named Drunkard, Mopsey, Taster, Cloe, Tipsy, Forester, Captain, Lady Rover, Sweet Lips and Searcher, among others. From Abraham Lincoln’s Fido to Lyndon Johnson’s beagles, Him and Her According to the Presidential Pet Museum, the White House grounds have hosted cows, chickens, a goat, a pair of bald eagles, Shawl Neck game chickens, at least one alligator and a tobacco-chewing ram. Calvin Coolidge alone hosted a black bear, a pygmy hippo, a bobcat, a donkey, a wallaby, a goose, a thrush, several canaries and two raccoons. Plus a pair of lion cubs, named — seriously — Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.

 

George Washington started the tradition of presidential pooches.  He raised and hunted foxhounds.  Mr. Washington kept his dogs in a kennel, not in the presidential home.  Not so the Ronald Reagans who invited Lucky, an 85-pound sheepdog, given to Mr. Reagan by a March of Dimes poster child, into the White House.  But Lucky, belying his name, used to drag Mrs. Reagan around as if she were a chew toy and he also misbehaved on the White House carpets.

 

Mrs. Reagan was less tolerant of such misbehavior than Mrs. Bush The First would be with Millie, with whom Barbara Bush wrote a best-selling book. So Lucky soon found himself far from the hustle and bustle of Washington, banished to the Reagan ranch in California.  His successor was a King Charles spaniel who, presumably, scratched at the door when necessary, and heeled properly on leash.

 

The choice of a first dog breed sometimes has been a matter of national significance as closely followed as batting averages of a favorite baseball player. There was much breathless speculation on what dog the Obamas would choose and even more discussion about their eventual choice of a Portuguese water dog.

 

As far as Trump is concerned, given his devotion to Vladimir Putin, I’d suggest the Russian dictator donate a Russian wolfhound fully equipped to transmit intelligence to the Kremlin right out of the box. Today’s dog can be equipped well beyond a simple collar. Many have microchips implanted with personal information designed to identify them but, through the miracle of miniaturization, a microchip can have enough wizardry imprinted on it to spy on every aspect of the White House including Trump’s thought processes if there are any. Electronic collars contain GPS systems so that the handler (i.e. Vladimir Putin) can follow every movement, not only of the dog, but the dog’s putative owner.

 

A built-in monitoring system in the collar could record and transmit every word spoken in public or private by Trump about the nation’s secrets. Although he probably would just blurt them out at a press conference , but If they already weren’t compromised by the Bigmouth in Chief they could be monitored by the Kremlin as if they actually made sense.

 

Russian dealings in presidential dogs actually has a precedent. Caroline Kennedy’s dog, Pushinka, was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev and no doubt had the most thorough vet exam in history to make sure the dog was not implanted with listening devices.  I can imagine the dog whispering into a paw-implanted transmitter, “Boss, the guy really does mean get those missiles the hell out of Cuba!”

 

With the revelation that Trump is not a dog fan and does not have a dog, historians have made much of the fact that he would be the first president in 100 years not to have one—the last dogless President before him supposedly was William McKinley, elected president in 1897 and assassinated in 1901. Besides being averse to dogs, McKinley was a Republican as is Trump and each had a five associated with his presidency–McKinley number 25 and Trump number 45. Trump terms himself a “war president”, fighting valiantly as only a war hero can against the Covid 19 pandemic, and not very well, while McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War. Trump has no vice president who can lead the charge up San Juan Hill as did McKinley’s Veep, Teddy Roosevelt. He has instead Mike Pence. Who, if Trump ever stops suddenly, will break his nose.

 

George W. Bush had two dogs, a Scotty (shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Fala) and Spot, son of Millie, the White House dog when the first George Bush was President, but you almost never hear anything about them.  Barbara  Bush,  wife of Bush One, actually ghost-wrote Millie’s Book, their springer spaniel’s autobiography,  which  earned more than one million dollars in royalties which Mrs. Bush donated to a foundation to endorse literacy (in people, not dogs).   Mr. Bush Sr., in a moment of election year pique, was reported to have said of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.”

 

Few White Houses have been without a First Dog.  Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks which got entirely too much publicity until the press tired of writing about a cat, but his dog, Buddy, a Labrador retriever, rarely was mentioned.  Buddy, a tremendously handsome chocolate Lab, was killed by a car in 2000.  The first First Dog belonged to Maria Monroe, daughter of President James (1817-1825) who also was the first child in the White House and the first to be married there (at 17).  The dog was a spaniel of some sort, but she probably did not hunt behind it, presidential daughters not being noted for upland hunting enthusiasm.

 

 Aside from Trump and McKinley not all presidents have had dogs.  Benjamin Harrison had a goat named His Whiskers, which tells you quite a bit about Benjamin Harrison.  Once the goat ran away, down Pennsylvania Avenue, pulling a cart containing the President’s grandson, Benny.   Mr. Harrison chased the cart and the press had fun with it.   Obviously something is missing from politics today, at least at the presidential  level.   When was the last time you saw the president chasing a goat cart down Pennsylvania Avenue?

 

Another example of how things have changed is the story, possibly true, of a small boy who sneaked onto the White House grounds and was fishing for goldfish in a pond when King Tut, a German shepherd belonging to Herbert Hoover, grabbed the kid by the seat of his pants and held him until the gardener showed up.  Today you’d have a dozen Secret Service agents, a hovering gunship, a SWAT team and a detachment of Green Berets all over any little kid who even looked through the fence at the goldfish pond. If the kid even looked like he might be Latin American, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would stick him in a dog crate and ship him to Guatemala.

 

As you might expect, Theodore Roosevelt, the first and greatest of the conservation-minded, outdoor-loving presidents, had a virtual zoo in the White House, including six children.  All the kids, by accounts as wild as Mr. Roosevelt’s legendary charge up San Juan Hill, had ponies and lizards and rats and squirrels and even bears (a garter snake was named Emily Spinach because it was green and they had a friend named Emily).

 

For all Mr. Roosevelt’s hunting proclivities, apparently none of his menagerie was a hunting dog.  He probably had so many that they weren’t worth mentioning.   He did have a bull terrier, Pete, who was banished from the White House after he ripped the britches of the French ambassador.

 

Franklin Roosevelt’s black Scottie Fala was photographed almost as much as was the president.  Fala was a shameless camera hound and once tried to crash an inaugural parade by jumping in the car seat that Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House, was supposed to occupy.  Mr. Roosevelt,  who loved his little dog (he once sent a destroyer back  for  Fala  after the pup had  been  left behind on the Aleutian Islands),  no doubt  would have  preferred Fala to the dour Speaker, but politics is politics and Mr. Rayburn got his seat back.

 

Another Scottie was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s shared gift to his alleged mistress, Kay Sommersby, during World War Two.  The dog’s name was Telek, a combination of Telegraph Cottage, an English retreat for the future president, and the name Kay.

 

The most scandalous event involving a presidential dog was when Lyndon  Johnson  picked one of his two beagles up by the ears, igniting the outrage of dog lovers everywhere (his choice of names was somewhat less  than inspirational: he  called them Him and Her).  Presidents, being politicians, know the value of being considered dog lovers and Mr.  Johnson was a consummate politician, but he stumbled badly with the ear-pulling incident.   “Those Republicans are really bashing me about picking those darned dogs up by the ears,” he grumbled to his vice-president Hubert Humphrey.  There possibly were other issues involved in Mr. Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, but Beaglegate certainly didn’t gain him any swing votes.

 

Mr. Johnson also had a mutt, found at a Texas gas station, who would howl duets with the President in the Oval Office. There are photos of the two of them with their mouths open, heads lifted in song.  That must have been almost as inspiring as watching Benjamin Harrison chase his goat.  Harry Truman defended his fellow Democrat over the ear-lift incident:  “What the hell are the critics complaining about.  That’s how you handle hounds.”  Mr. Truman also said, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.”   But Mr. Truman did not follow his own advice (or maybe did not want a friend in politics).  He didn’t have a dog (he was given a cocker spaniel as First Dog, but decided not to keep it).  Neither did Calvin Coolidge, who nevertheless said, “Any man who doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want them around shouldn’t be in the White House.”  So the assertion that Trump and McKinley, separated by a century, are the only two dogless presidents would seem to be wrong.

 

Only once has a dog  become intimately involved in presidential politics,  other than as an attractive accessory and that was when vice-presidential  candidate Richard  Nixon,  hounded  (sorry for the dog pun) by allegations  that  rich backers were supporting him in a luxurious lifestyle,  made  what became known as the Checkers speech in which he cried poor, using as an example his wife’s plain Republican cloth coat and  emotionally defended  accepting the gift of a cocker spaniel, which his daughter Tricia named Checkers.  “Regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Mr. Nixon declared.  And Mr. Nixon remained on the ticket and Checkers became a presidential dog.

 

 Jimmy Carter was a longtime quail hunter, but his presidential dog was only part bird dog–a springer spaniel, mixed with genuine alley mutt.   Gerald Ford, a golfer, not a hunter, did own a hunting dog, a golden retriever named Liberty, who whelped in the White House (one puppy later became a Guide Dog for the blind).

 

So, presidential dogs have abounded (and bounded) and Trump and  his  successors should realize  there is great publicity value in fondling the soft ears of a loving dog while evading pointed questions from nosy reporters (just don’t use the dog’s ears as a handle).

 

There have been many country songs celebrating dogs. “Old Shep” and “Old Blue” spring to mind. But the most descriptive anthem for any unlucky canine ever to become Donald J Trump’s Dog One was written years ago by Jack Clement and sung by Johnny Cash “That Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • May 22nd, 2020

Bring back the CCC

 

by Joel. M. Vance 

It was the last worst time, or so we thought. The United States of America had united, more or less, after a Civil War that killed more young men than all the wars before or since combined. We had survived a worldwide flu pandemic that killed an estimated third of the world’s population and an estimated 675,000 Americans, young and old alike.

 

We had muddled through the frenzy of the Roaring T helped along by copious belts of bootleg booze so we could throw our money into an economy the bloated rich guys told us would never cease to grow. Invest, invest, and never quit the mindless pursuit of wealth instead of stashing a few bucks for a rainy day. But the rainy days quit coming, especially in agricultural parts of the country that relied on wet weather to water their economy

 

Now we were mired in an extended drought that lifted the middle part of the country in great clouds of dust which hot winds blew all the way to Washington DC, murking the sun and dramatically gaining the attention of Congress. In October 1929, that bloated economy collapsed like a punctured balloon and the country was mired, not only in a seemingly perennial dust storm, but also the muddy ruins of a once overstuffed economy. They called it, variously, the Dustbowl, the Dirty Thirties, and the Great Depression.

 

The Dustbowl was an added burden to the Great Depression. The middle of the country dried up in a decade long drought and repeated windstorms lifted soil it had taken millenniums to create. In the most memorable of those storms April 14,  1935 now called Black Sunday, an amount of dirt estimated to be as much as was dug to build the Panama Canal blew off the plains as far East as Congress. The result of all these dust storms was an epidemic of “dust pneumonia” that killed an estimated 7000 people, men, women and children. It wasn’t a pandemic, confined as it was to the United States, but it was yet another burden added to the enormous challenge of reviving a beleaguered country that faced a new president.

 

A quarter of the country’s work force was unemployed, some 15,000,000 workers. Almost half the banks in the country had failed. The last worst time had arrived. The time was ripe for dramatic action to keep the ship of state from sinking. It would take bipartisan action, Democrats and Republicans alike, to come up with solutions, not just to unemployment, but to put that dirt back where it belonged atop America’s breadbasket.

 

If ever a nation needed its Savior who could walk on water that time was it—and a Savior appeared, but he couldn’t walk on anything. He was confined to a wheelchair. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an unlikely Savior. Elected in 1932 to replace Herbert Hoover, a Republican whose best attribute was that he loved to fish so much he even wrote a charming book about it. But as the leader of the Republic he was a total disaster. So this crippled (by polio, at the time an unpreventable disease for which there would be no vaccine for more than two decades) savior became president faced with what a thinking person would call an insurmountable challenge.

 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” FDR told the battered nation. It was a hard sell—the nationwas largely without hope and scared to death. What followed was a decade of the most progressive, unconventional, and imaginative legislation in the nation’s history. The programs that he devised, aided by what he called a brain trust, still exist today as the foundation of our society and the reason we have, until now, been considered the world’s leader in all things progressive and beneficial to the general welfare of the nation’s population.

 

A philosopher named George Santana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If you doubt the wisdom of those words, read the front page of any newspaper today. And then go back and read the dire history of the Great Depression and the associated Dustbowl.

 

Now, instead of Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration workers, armed with shovels and other weapons of construction, we have wannabe insurgents prancing through the Michigan State Capitol, armed with AK-47s, weapons of destruction. Instead of welcoming a modest salary in the interests of reconstructing a broken nation, these thugs threatened to shoot the state’s governor if she doesn’t open their beer joints so they can further soften their brains with booze.

 

If Donald J Trump had any vision beyond that of admiring his own image in a mirror, like the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (who could, nowadays, be Trump’s cabinet) who constantly asked her mirror, “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” At which the mirror was supposed to answer that the Queen was, he would lobby to institute modern versions of many of the progressive programs instituted by FDR in the nineteen thirties. Instead, he lobbies insistently and aggressively to dismantle what ones of those programs still exist—think Social Security.

 

Most don’t know (I didn’t) that universal healthcare was supposed to be part of the original Social Security program in 1935. In 1938, but it got derailed by negotiation, Republican objection, and other political obstacles. FDR tried again in 1938 to include it in his program. “A comprehensive health program is required as an essential link in our national defenses against individual and social insecurity” he said. Once again Republican opposition shot down the proposal. As we all know, we still are waiting for universal healthcare. It took 20 years after Roosevelt’s death before President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law. And it was another 25 years before another Democrat, Barack Obama, signed into law the Affordable Care act which the Republicans have shot at ever since. It’s instructive to recognize that all three of these proposed or enacted healthcare programs have been championed by Democrats, and all three have been vigorously attacked by Republicans.

 

So we have Donald Trump, dedicated to dismantling virtually every one of those programs that grabbed the country by its bootstraps in the 1930s and hauled it out of the despair of depression and almost universal hopelessness. Trump has plunged America back into pre-depression days and now we are faced with a plunging economy, millions of American workers looking for jobs, and a pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever faced, including the 1918 flu epidemic.

 

The CCC and the WPA put America back to work at a time when the nation’s workforce was jobless. At its peak in the late nineteen thirties, the WPA offered jobs to 8,500,000 people—and, if my information is correct, that’s about half of the workforce currently jobless. And there were far fewer people in the country then. FDR created the WPA in 1935 and it lasted until 1943 when, like the CCC, it was bled dry by the necessity to send those employed in the two programs to war.

 

By the time the United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Depression was largely over and the booming wartime economy erased what lingering traces there were of the last worst time. Both programs were dedicated to exactly what is needed today to revive an economy tanking for some of the same reasons that plunged the country into depression in 1929. The WPA hired workers for public works, including building roads, bridges, schools and other public projects. Workers didn’t make much money, but it was better than no money at all. Among his many failed promises when he was elected three years ago, Donald Trump pledged to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. We’re still waiting for the beginning of any part of that promise.

 

Both the WPA and CCC were bipartisan projects, supported by Democrat and Republican alike. Unless you are very very old you do not remember the beginning and all too short but incredibly productive life of the CCC. Even I, who is older than television and either one of the callow youths vying for the presidency this November, do not remember when Franklin Delano Roosevelt fathered the CCC in 1933, an extension of an idea he began as governor of New York before he became president in 1932. But, the chances are pretty good that you have experienced the legacy of the CCC at some time in your life, especially if you are an outdoor oriented person.

 

Those enduring lodges, cabins, and other state park facilities you have enjoyed, those trails you have hiked, often were built by the CCC workers over the nine year history of the program.

 

Overlooked and often forgotten amid the deluge of progressive legislation that hauled America out of the despond of depression is the role of FDR in wildlife conservation. Before his death in 1945, FDR had overseen the creation of 150 National Wildlife Refuges—the largest such system in the world. In 1934, the year that I was born, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting in Conservation stamp act. We know it today as the duck stamp, funds from which have bought and maintained the nation’s national wildlife refuges for more than 80 years.

 

Much of the work in the early years of the refuge system fell to the CCC which built water control structures, access roads, buildings and trails, picnic and viewing areas and other facilities to serve the public, as well as migratory wildlife. I’ve spent many hours on Missouri’s several national wildlife refuges— hunting geese at Swan Lake, bicycling at Squaw Creek, and searching for state record trees in the swamps at Mingo Refuge in Southeast Missouri.

 

As if that were not conservation legacy enough, FDR in 1935 established the Soil Conservation act, aimed at stopping dustbowl erosion and beginning the long process of reclaiming the Great Plains from the Dirty Thirties. From that act came the Soil Conservation Service (SCS which today is the ASCS). One comment summed the problem up, “sailors 300 miles off the Atlantic coast often needed to sweep Kansas soil from the decks of the ship.” The CCC quickly became involved planting shelter belts totaling more than 200,000,000 trees as windbreaks. Many were Osage Orange, providing wonderful shelter for quail coveys (I speak from personal experience, having hunted the remaining windbreaks for years). Sadly, modern farming has resulted in many if not most of those shelter belts being ripped up to make way for a few more yards of row crop farming.

 

We will never know the misery of the Dirty Thirties unless, God forbid , we endure a second Dustbowl. FDR said, “I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves.  For what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on 50 acres.”

 

In 1937, FDR’s administration established the National Grasslands, located in 13 states, covering more than 3,000,000 acres. Slowly, those acres regained some of the historic grandeur they had enjoyed before drought and the plow turned them to useless dust. The contrast between those restored grassland acres and, even today, overgrazed adjacent acreage often is stark and a continual reminder that natural landscape devastation is just around the corner if we don’t take heed.  Just one day of hiking a national grassland, chasing sharp tailed grouse or prairie chickens should be enough to convince any doubter of the value of undisturbed native grass prairie.

 

We seriously need a new New Deal and we’re not going to find it under Donald Trump whose whole administration is dedicated to destroying the legacy of the original New Deal. Take the AK-47s out of the grimy hands of the so-called “protesters” who are not in any way protesting anything but their supposed right to do as they damn well please, never mind the law and common morality, and put them to work. Let them rebuild the bridges, the deteriorating roadways, and other public works projects necessary for the common good. Maybe a year or two of mandated public service will cure them of their selfish, stupid, narrow minded, bigot laden attitudes.

 

Woody Guthrie, balladeer of the Dustbowl wrote this “you could see that dust storm and the cloud looked deathlike black/ and through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.” Guthrie would go on to write the enduring anthem of hope and celebration for the United States of America:

 

 “this land is your land/

this land is my land/

This land was made for you and me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • May 14th, 2020

JOEL IN WONDERLAND

By Joel M. Vance

 

Many years ago, during my one trip across the big water to England, I spent a magical afternoon in the British Museum amid artifacts of history that have shaped the world we live in today. There was the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs. But of all the earth shattering exhibits, two captured my attention more than all the rest.

 

One was the scrawled words to “Yesterday” by the Beatles’ John Lennon, and the other was a water stained page from a manuscript written along a riverbank on a day when it rained and smeared the ink on the words being inscribed there by guy named Charles Dodgson. He became considerably better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice in Wonderland.” Despite the fact that Dodgson apparently had an unhealthy real life interest in underage girls, his pair of books about a little girl’s adventures in a fantasy world down a rabbit hole and behind a mirror, have captured the spirit, mind, and imagination of readers ever since and will continue to do so on into eternity (if, given the current state of a world, beset by pandemic, unending bloodshed, and bloodthirsty, power mad rulers, there is an eternity in our future).

 

I can easily visualize a modern-day tea party (not Newt Gingrich’s version of political insanity of a few years back but a Trumpian version with Fat Donnie as the screaming, incoherent red Queen, surrounded by such as the Mad Hatter (Stephen Miller), the drowsy, dimwitted Dormouse (Jared Kushner), and the dithering and ever behind the curve white rabbit (Mike pence). All gathered for a brunch of diet Pepsi and cheeseberders. And don’t forget Donald Trump Junior and Eric Trump as Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.

 

Even as Lewis Carroll was speckled by raindrops and energized by imagination, he could never have imagined the fantasies being realized today, far more goofy than anything Alice encountered. I am experiencing a continuing nightmare, epitomized by the sight of the president of the United States co-opting the nation’s monument to Abraham Lincoln to conduct a politically motivated interview with Fox News, while at the same time the Missouri legislature a shallow imitation of Donald Trump’s national psychotic rampage put aside matters of state importance (like the budget, for example) to legalize brass knuckles.

 

As if the issue of brass knuckles weren’t important enough, our Neanderthal state representatives, Republicans all, would like to legalize feral hog hunting, thereby loosing on the state a sort of porcine pandemic to go along with the actuality of coronavirus. It would make sense to me if the gourd heads of the right had made it legal to hunt feral hogs only with brass knuckles. That might weed out a few of the genetically disadvantaged folks who think that the science of wildlife management is better served by them than it is by trained and experienced professionals.

 

But those same folks, when they aren’t encouraging further infestation by rampaging piggies, will be gathering in mobs of well armed protesters against mandated or suggested limits to their imagined right to cloak the countryside with droplets of Covid 19 virus. If they were just infecting each other, I say have at it, but the insidious little microbes are not selective— they nail innocent and guilty alike.

 

So here we are, trapped in a modern society overpopulated by mindless acolytes of Trumpian philosophy, insisting on mythical rights to infect the innocent.

 

I’m currently reading a thriller novel titled “Summit” where one of the characters, perhaps channeling the philosophy of the book’s author, Harry Farthing, says “every time we build a pyre of alternative beliefs and kindle it with anarchy, it always ends up burning with dictatorship and racism.” Doesn’t that sound like what Donald J Trump and his evil minions have tried to create in our country? We have already experienced the ludicrous claim by the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Kellyanne Conway, that there exists in Trump World “alternative facts” and Trump’s demonstrated aspirations to be a racist dictator are numerous.

 

He is monomaniacally dedicated to building a wall between the United States and Mexico. It consumed his tweet infested life until Covid 19 came along to divert his attention. He’s already tried to shift blame for a worldwide virus to the Democrats and the Obama administration. His hatred of Barack Obama is monumental—fueled by his innate racism, no doubt a legacy from his father Fred who marched with the Ku Klux Klan, and his hatred of anything and anybody who is better than he is.

 

As an example of just how evil this sluggish hell boy is, his Department of Justice, headed by the thuggish butt kisser, William Barr, is suing the century old Sacred Heart orphanage along the US-Mexico border, to grab 68 acres. For this blatant misuse of the government’s eminent domain power, the Trumpies are offering $100 in compensation for their intrusion. As Dana Carvey as the church lady on Saturday Night Live used to say in a syrupy voice, “isn’t that special!”

 

How can any citizen of the United States of America hear the president proclaim that he has been treated worse than any previous president, including Abraham Lincoln, and not go looking for a nearby bush to throw up? Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by an assassin, you freaking moron! If you think that embarrassing questions asked by reporters about your embarrassing behavior is worse than an assassin’s bullet, you obviously are way beyond the definition of clinically insane.

 

The photo of Trump who forced the closure of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial to everyone but him and two Fox News lapdogs so he could conduct a three-person campaign rally, was absolutely gut wrenching. In my own fantasy world, I visualize that, like a scene from a nineteen fifties fantasy movie, the seated statue of Lincoln, would come to life, rise from the chair in which he is seated, and stomp the fat presidential imposter to oblivion, kind of like squashing a repulsive garden slug.

 

Trump hasn’t yet made a ludicrous claim, currently infesting the Internet and promulgated by conspiracy theorists, but don’t hold your breath that he won’t do it if he thinks he can get away with it (and apparently he thinks he can get away with anything). The claim is that the Bill Gates Foundation has patented coronavirus. It took about 15 seconds to Google that and find that it is as obviously false as you should think it is. Bill and Melinda Gates are among the rare billionaires who have dedicated much of their fortune to humanitarian outlets. Going years back, Bill Gates was warning that the world was in the sights of a pandemic. The New York Times found that there are at least 16,000 Facebook posts and 10 YouTube videos with some 5,000,000 views falsely claiming Gates is responsible for the Covid 19 pandemic. That’s 5,000,000 people who should have been sickened by the execrable claim whether they get sickened by Covid 19 or not.

 

In fact, the Gates Foundation has pledged $250,000,000 toward fighting the pandemic and toward developing and manufacturing a vaccine. Will Trump buy into this ludicrous series of attacks on Bill Gates and his foundation? Don’t count it out— Gates has been critical of The Donald and that’s all it takes to get on his dark side (is there any other side?)

 

For those who are protesting some imagined abrogation of their imaginary rights, I have no sympathy whatsoever. They are willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent people whom they might contaminate, just so they can pursue their normal routine which in all too many cases is dedicated to making trouble for the majority. The attitude of these people was summed up graphically on the front page of our local newspaper a few days ago when the state began tentative steps toward what they foolishly call “normalcy”. The photo was of a man getting a haircut (barbershops were allowed to reopen). He had just come from his job at Capital Region Hospital which just happens to be where our family doctor. and most of the other physicians we’ve had contact with in the last several years are located. So here is a guy whose job mandates that he be in the vicinity of Covid 19 patients and potentially infected surfaces on a daily basis who feels that immediately transporting his possible viral aura to the local barbershop is a peachy keen thing to do.

 

For all I know, the guy’s job is such that his contact with the virus is no more dangerous than anyone else’s, but his attitude certainly makes me a whole lot more wary of him and his like than I already was. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the wearing of a mask in public is not so much protecting you from Covid 19, but protecting others from you spreading it to them. Our president and vice president rely on the defense that they are tested daily—but each has had a close associate test positive in the past several days. Likewise, our governor in Missouri toured the local HyVee grocery store a day after throwing the state open to so-called “normal” activity, not wearing a mask and spewing potentially toxic Covid 19 droplets in every direction. Our leaders are setting a fine example.  “It’s a matter of personal preference,” he told the state’s citizens. My preference is that he be soundly defeated in November.

 

The obvious bottom line to the right wing approach to the coronavirus pandemic is not to curtail the disease, find a solution, or emphasize citizen safety, no matter the cost—but to protect at any cost (the cost being human life) Trump’s reelection campaign. God forbid that we should be deprived of the privilege of enduring four more years with Trump at the helm of state. And I hope God is in a forbidding mood.

 

The increasing frequency of positive Covid 19 tests on members of Trump’s and Pense’s immediate staff is beginning to give the appearance of a noose tightening. The two Bumblers in Chief have to be feeling the heat of retribution for their incompetence. It’s inhumane to wish pestilence on anyone but, damn, it’s sure tempting.

 

But for those who protest because they have been laid off or fired or otherwise prevented from making a decent living—in many cases enough of a living just to keep living, it’s impossible not to be sympathetic. The so-called stimulus checks are Band-Aids on a horrendous wound, a temporary fix to an insurmountable problem. In fact, I have yet to get mine and I suspect I never will, but so what—I have given it already to candidates who are pledged to defeat the Evil Empire of Donald J Trump and those who worship him. I can’t vote against Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell, but I sure as hell can give money to the people running against them and devote my evening prayers to the possibility that deadly duo and those who think like them will be sent back to the political sewage system that spawned them.

 

Charles Dodgson seemed like an amiable enough chap, certainly talented enough as a writer to have created several works that have endured for a century and a half, but there are several parallels between him and Donald J Trump that give one pause. There is a photo of Dodgson kissing 11 year old Alice Liddell, who supposedly was the model and inspiration for the fictional Alice. There is an almost identical photo of Donald J Trump kissing his daughter, Ivanka. Dodson allegedly proposed to the 11-year-old and had a lifelong fascination with underage girls—to the point that he, who became an accomplished photographer, took many nude photographs of them. Fat Donnie has said publicly that if Ivanka weren’t his daughter he’d probably be dating her..

 

Dodson was a political conservative, like Trump professes to be, but certainly was without the ability or the power to destroy his home country. Of those two exhibits at the British Museum, while I cherish the sight of the raindrop-battered page from the manuscript of “Alice in Wonderland” I think I’ll stick with the prophetic message of the Beatles “Yesterday”.

 

                                “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away/

                                Now it looks as though they’re here to stay/

                                Oh, I believe in yesterday”

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  • May 8th, 2020

ONE OF A KIND

By Joel M. Vance

 

Picture this: a moonless night in the Arkansas Ozarks, stars twinkling overhead, perhaps a distant call of a whippoorwill, a group of unshaven men gathered around a campfire which is slowly crumbling into glowing embers, the music from a guitar and mandolin having silenced because it is time not to listen to Jay and Ralph playing “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway” in perfect harmony, not to fashion rough edged stories of hunts past, or to do what most think rough edged men do when gathered in hunting camps (tell rowdy and profane lies to each other) but to listen to John Madson read an essay written a century earlier about the capricious Missouri River.

 

This was not a stuffy lecture in a stuffy lecture hall in a stuffy college, delivered by a stuffy professor who had delivered the same stuffy lecture to countless inattentive and bored students for decades—this was John Madson, raconteur supreme, mesmerizing his audience—and, to John, his audience was any number from one to a thousand or more (and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that for John an audience was himself if an idea occurred and there was no one around to hear it).

 

It was a quarter of a century ago that John Madson left us heartbroken to entertain the angels with stories told only as John could tell them. The Arkansas woods may still have wild turkeys and knots of unshaven hunters gathered around campfires at night, but I am certain that there is no one in those fire lit circles being entertained by words of magic and stories that only Madson could tell.

 

John’s literary legacy is very much a family affair. His wife, Dycie, whom he met in college, was a talented illustrator. She illustrated John’s books and his son Chris, now retired as the editor of Wyoming Wildlife magazine, has created a reputation of his own as one of the most talented, thoughtful and perceptive conservation writers operating today. Chris has only one blot on his otherwise unblemished reputation— he is the only member of the vaunted Arkansas turkey camp gang ever to actually shoot a turkey. We threatened him with banishment for spoiling our spotless record of futility, but when he exhibited penitence and groveled enough, we let him back into our hapless gathering.

 

The Arkansas turkey camp was the brainchild of Jay Kaffka, a sprightly Arkansan whose great joy in life was serving as camp majordomo and woodlands chef. Jay didn’t hunt; he fussed around camp when he wasn’t playing backup guitar to the sweet mandolin of his friend Ralph Philbrook. One memorable day, Jay furnished the material for that night’s campfire story. In the midst of preparing  dinner, Jay swatted at an annoying insect and ran a Rapala filet knife completely through his bicep. John insisted that they go to town to have the wound checked out by a doctor.

 

The doctor examined the knife wound which miraculously had missed veins, arteries, or any other essential body parts and asked suspiciously, “you boys getting along all right out there?” En route back to camp they needed to replenish the camp water supply and stopped at a ramshackle cabin where an old man sat on the deck cradling a 22 caliber rifle with which, he said, he was shooting sparrows off his martin house. “The house was full of holes,” John said, “so he couldn’t have been very successful at it.  “He looked to be about two heartbeats away from a massive stroke. I asked if we could get any water and he said to help ourselves from a rusty pump. The water didn’t look any healthier than the man and I asked if it was all right and he said ‘Ah bin drinkin’ it all mah life and it ain’t hurt me none yet.’”

 

And there, with appropriate flourishes and judicious editing was that night’s campfire story.

 

John Madson was born in Iowa in 1923. He served in the  Army Air Corps in World War II and once told an enthralled group of us in the Arkansas turkey woods about trying to kick loose a bomb that had failed to release. It’s not considered wise to land a bomber with a live, unexploded bomb lodged in the open bomb bay. It’s also not conducive to longevity to be the airman delegated to hang over the open bay and try to kick loose the unexploded bomb. John did it and returned from the service to get a wildlife biology degree from Iowa State in1951. He edited the Iowa Conservation Department magazine  from which experience came a series of essays that later were collected into his first book “Stories From Under the Sky” published by the Iowa State University Press. For years I would order multiple copies of the book to give as gifts to people I thought would appreciate John’s incomparable writing about nature and conservation.

 

In a short essay from “Stories” John examined his approach to nature. He placed himself somewhere between Thoreau and a cynic who said when someone told her they were going for a walk in nature, “well, kick a tree for me.” John wrote “ Nature transcends love, goodness, malevolence or evil. It is simply a primordial force—shining, aloof and brooding, a vast sweep of power too awful to be imbued with human emotions, virtues or mistress. It is as presumptuous to adore nature as it is to kick a redwood.”

 

But John did not only love nature; he understood it. The evidence is in his book-long tributes to two towering ecosystems of Mid-America—”Up On the River” about the Mississippi, and “Where the Sky Began”, about the once vast tallgrass prairie.

 

Apparently I bought out the backlist of “Stories” finally after the book went out of print. It has been reprinted and is available from Amazon. Anyone who has not read Madson should immediately order a copy—not to see the early undeveloped Madson, because there is no such thing.

 

John’s son, Chris, updated me on the status of John’s books, including a rare series of booklets he did for Winchester on natural history and conservation. Chris says, “These days, the University of Iowa Press is publishing “Stories From Under the Sky”,” Up On the River”, “Out Home”, and “Where the Sky Began”.   While they’re not making much money, it is a tribute to their unique quality that they are still in print after all these years.”   You can find an extensive list of Madson books at booklets@bookfinder.com (and several copies of the squirrel booklet indeed list for more than $300–but also there are far less expensive ones for sale).

 

John Madson’s prose was luminous from the beginning and remained so until his death in 1995.  John Madson was my friend, my mentor, my role model, and the best writer I’ve ever known. Once we shared a panel on writing at an Outdoor Writers Association of America conference where John told the audience, “there is no such thing as an outdoor writer; there are only writers who write about the outdoors.” And John did it better than anyone ever.

 

About his books, John once told me, with a deprecating grin, “I’m in the business of writing instant collector’s items.” To which I can only say anyone who has not collected John Madson’s books and cherishes them, is missing one of life’s great reading pleasures.

 

After a stint working as a feature writer for the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, John became assistant conservation director for Winchester Western and settled in Godfrey, Illinois, with the Mississippi River flowing practically at his doorstep. The Big River would contribute material for another of his wonderful books “Up On the River.”

 

It’s impossible to pick one of John’s books and as “the best” but there’s a good argument that “Where the Sky Began” is a strong contender. John was an Iowa boy born and raised in a state that historically hosted a wide sweep of windswept tallgrass prairie, now almost totally replaced by waving green corn stalks. You can’t read John’s book without gaining an appreciation for the tallgrass prairie even if you’ve never seen it, and chances are you haven’t because today what once was an enormous chunk of the country has been confined to relatively small remnants. Although it is named for a congressman, the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge, 8600 acres in southern Iowa just south of the appropriately named Prairie City, might just as well be named for John Madson, the most accomplished chronicler of what once was the dominant ecosystem of much of Mid-America.

 

It’s an irony of modern times that the refuge, now an attempt to recapture a fragment of what once was Iowa’s signature ecosystem, originally was intended to be the site of a nuclear power plant. Some years back, when the refuge was in its development stage, one of the intended exhibits in the visitor center was a tribute to John Madson. I was honored to be asked to comment on John for a film to be shown in the center. I don’t know if it’s still running or not, but to have been asked to pay tribute to my hero was a high point in my life.

 

You might say John’s life was circumscribed by his two greatest ecosystem loves. The Mississippi River forms the East boundary of his childhood home state, Iowa, and also the western boundary of his home in later life, Illinois. But not only was the Mississippi prominent in his childhood, more so was the tallgrass prairie that once blanketed virtually the whole of Iowa, a prairie wind billowing the tall stalks of big bluestem and Indian grass like the waves in an ocean.

 

In his prairie book, John wrote about an experience he had when he was a kid, just out of school on summer vacation. “I am 12 years old, rejoicing in the heady miracle of shedding both shoes and school—hurrying toward the Skunk River and into a summer that had six Saturdays in every week. There on the fence dressed to the nines in gold and black and shouting his howdies to every newly freed schoolboy in Iowa, perched a meadowlark. Inspired, I whistled back. My first try was almost perfect, and I’ve never forgotten how. The western meadowlark and I sang the same song that morning and we still do.”

 

Once John came to quail hunt with Spence Turner and me. We met in the coffee shop of a local motel and John confessed “I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m like a little kid when I’m going quail hunting. Later, in the field, my dog went on staunch point and we moved in behind him three abreast and a rabbit jumped and ran and I scolded the dog and we took another step and a huge covey flushed. Startled, no one took a shot. The dog’s expression was disgust; mine was embarrassed shame.

 

John would have appreciated that my two bird dogs when I let them out to stretch their legs before filming for the refuge exhibit spot were overwhelmed by a wall of pheasant scent and lost their minds, flushing birds and running wild to the dismay of refuge personnel and me.

 

John Madson can’t be summed up in any single word only by the phrase “one-of-a-kind.” He was my friend, my mentor, my role model. I still can hear him telling about the Illinois circus train whose elephant became defunct en route from one town to another, whereby the circus owner simply dumped it beside the tracks and moved on, leaving the nearby downwind town to deal with a rapidly decomposing and unwelcome problem. Or the story about the conservation agent in Iowa, when John worked there, who had a pet monkey and a pet cat. The scandalous story involved the monkey’s habit of trying to sexually assault the cat. Even writing about it is impossible. You had to hear John tell it.

 

 John had a talent for finding roughhewn characters and bringing them to life on the printed page. Just as he wrote with affection in one of his essays about the charm for him of a shrew, so would he write with affection about a river rat or some other scruffy member of society who had something to say that John was the ideal interpreter for.

 

If anecdotes were lacking John had a rare gift for creating his own. Once, at an Outdoor Writers conference John and I were sharing a beer when John spied Grits Gresham, a regular on the popular television program Wide World of Sports, sitting nearby. In a voice just loud enough for Grits to hear, John said “you ever watch that stupid program on TV with Grits Gresham? What a phony.” I was in a position to see Grits’ neck begin to turn red. John continued “I wouldn’t watch that show if you paid me. That Gresham makes up half the stuff he talks about.” Grits spun around ready for battle, realized who the speaker was and shamefacedly grumbled, “Madson, you old son of a bitch!”

 

He did it to me at another outdoor writers conference when he was launching clay birds for us on a trap range. I stepped timidly forward gun at the ready, well aware of my enormous shortcomings as as a shotgunner. John said “don’t let the fact that your peers are watching influence you. Remember, just concentrate and don’t think about what they’re probably saying about your shooting.”

 

By then I couldn’t have hit a bull elephant standing 15 feet from me, much less a clay bird launched out of a trap thrower. I don’t know how many in a row that I missed, but it was however many John pulled.

 

I met John about 1969 when I started working for the Missouri Conservation Department and John was doing a series of articles, gratis, for the Missouri Conservationist magazine, an essay about each month of the year. I know he didn’t get paid because at that time the Conservationist didn’t pay for freelance articles. He did it probably out of the goodness of his heart and because he was friends with my coworkers on the Conservationist staff. At the time, John was working for the Olin Corporation (Winchester Western) and was writing the series of booklets for them on conservation and natural history. Chances are, you’d never find any of those today, but I’m lucky enough to have what I think is a complete collection.

 

Chris adds information about the Winchester booklets, “In this era of internet services specializing in finding out-of-print books, it is possible to lay one’s hands on copies of the game booklet series.  I remember when Winchester finally quit sending them out free of charge because the demand was just too great. So they decided to charge a buck a copy. These days, the price runs from $4 for a beat-up copy of the pheasant book to $300 (!) for the book on gray and fox squirrels. For most of them, used copies in good condition run from $15 to $20. Wherever he is, Dad must smile when he considers that.”

 

One final John Madson story. National Geographic magazine commissioned John to write a piece about the Nebraska Sandhills. An assignment from national Geo is an acknowledgment that a writer has reached the pinnacle. If writers about the natural world dream of a heaven exclusive to them, it is that they be assigned there by Nat Geo when they die.

 

You tend to think of National Geo writers traveling to far corners of the known and unknown world where the natives are likely to be carrying spears, and the encountered wildlife is armed with fang and claw. But the Sandhills of north-central and Northeast Nebraska are a far cry from the jungles of Zimbabwe or the Masai Mara. This vast expanse of rolling dunes covering more than 19,000 square miles is a relic of the last Ice Age when retreating glaciers deposited sand which manages to grow sparse native grass covering strong enough to hold the sand in place. It’s an easy place to get lost— there are no eminences or other points of reference.

 

You can drive through part of the Sandhills on state Highway 20, sometimes called “the loneliest Highway in the United States.” Just south of the highway in Cherry County, the largest county in the state, is the Nebraska National Forest, established in 1908 as an experiment to see if a forest could be created in the treeless Great Plains. At one time, it was the largest such anomaly in the world, covering nearly 142,000 acres. It continues to exist as a man planted ponderosa pine forest, but the central question, given that the Cherry County sandhills are nature’s experiment in creating a completely treeless plains, the question about the Nebraska National Forest is why?

 

Anyway, John headed for the Sandhills equipped with notebook and a lavish National Geographic expense account. In his motel room he looked at the furnished Nat Geo book for listing his expenses. In typical over-the-top Geographic style, it was leather bound and contained pages for writing down every possible expense that an assigned writer could run into. In addition to the typical meals, housing, travel and other expected expenses, John ran across one page that brought him up short.

 

“Gifts to natives…..” What the hell? He wasn’t in deepest Africa, the jungles of South America, or any other place where trinkets or other tribute to the indigenous population would seem to apply. But the magazine did not reckon with the impish imagination of John Madson.

 

“I was riding around in a rusty old pickup one day, back in the sandhills,” John said. “I was wearing an old bush style jacket. I was with a local rancher and we were shooting the breeze about the country and living in it, when he said,’ that’s a mighty fine jacket you got there, John’ and the light bulb went on.”

 

That night, in his motel room, John opened the glitzy National Geographic, leather bound expense book and gleefully made a notation on the gifts to natives page: “one bush jacket.”

 

So there we were in the Arkansas woods, grouped around the campfire listening to stories of abandoned dead elephants and rapacious monkeys. The night sky glittered with an infinity of stars. I looked around at this scruffy group, enraptured by riveting stories told by an incomparable storyteller and I thought “John Madson, gift to natives.”

 

He was and always will be a gift to us all.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • May 1st, 2020

EELS AND OWLS FOR DINNER, ANYONE?

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was fruitlessly flogging the promising -looking waters of a Welch River on a sunny, glorious warm day, supposedly a rarity in this legendarily gray and grim country. Wales contrary to that description is the Montana of Great Britain, rugged and mountainous, with streams that fairly scream for an adept fly fisherman to loft a Jock Scott streamer and tie into an ocean run Atlantic salmon.

 

I didn’t even tie into my usual bank side tree, but did unfurl glorious cast after glorious cast. I could have posed for the beautifully unfurling casts of the movie “A River Runs Through It” but after several hours of fruitless casting, I gave it up and headed back to the ancient pub where we were staying. However, that night in the common room, a craggy, weatherbeaten fellow next to me asked, “tha wert oot on the river this afternoon, weren’t tha?” I allowed is how I was but without success, but he warmed me like the good single malt I was drinking when he added, “tha cast a gude line, laddie.”

 

I would’ve been more heart warmed except for the fact that this amiable and obvious Scot, apparently down from Scotland visiting his southern neighbors in Wales, had been bank fishing for eels. In my Missouri home state my list of deep prejudices is one that does not equate an eel with a noble Atlantic salmon. I’m sorry, but that’s just me. I recalled the episode recently when I read a Facebook posting from someone lamenting the erratic run of elvers on the Medomak River in Maine.

 

While I vaguely knew that eels were fished for and of various uses, I was astonished to learn that elvers, one of the various stages of an eel’s life, can be worth up to $500 a pound. I was even more astonished when I researched eels. In case you don’t know, an eel is a fish with all the attributes of the fish you pay good money to sit down to a gourmet dinner in an upscale restaurant— say a salmon, trout or other glamour fish.

 

But one look at a mature eel on my dinner plate would send me hustling to the nearest restroom gagging and gulping. In short, an eel looks like a snake and I don’t eat snakes. Well, actually one time I did partake of one bite of a rattlesnake in the Arkansas woods, on a turkey hunt. One of our hunting party had found it freshly run over on the road, skinned it out and, declaring himself a gourmet camp cook, fried it up for supper. I can testify that that one bite if I had not spit it out would still be available for mastication years later. I’ve never actually tried to eat a piece of garden hose, but the consistency of the snake was the same, and the more I chewed it, the more it refused to yield.

 

That was my one and, God willing, my only dining encounter with anything that even vaguely resembles the American eel. Several members of our family (think two daughters—the three boys could not care less) keep suggesting that a good time passer during this period of home confinement, thanks to Covid 19 would be to clean out our freezer. That noble venture is right up there with the necessity “someday” to straighten up my home office which, I have to admit, looks like the aftermath of an in-house tornado.

 

I’m intimidated by the prospect of delving into the freezer for fear of what I will find there, since I know some of the artifacts involved. I’d rather leave it to archaeologists in a far distant future to unearth packages of our stored items and no doubt exclaim, “Who the hell was this guy!” Because, I know that one of the long-ago frozen items is an eel. It got stored there because a guy I knew caught it, had some vague idea of cooking it, didn’t have a freezer, and asked if he could stash it in my freezer. That was so long ago that the guy (whom I came to despise) has gone to whatever corner of hell those who saddle people with leftover eels are consigned to.

 

Though the erstwhile friend is gone the eel lingers on which brings to mind an old joke that I love. An explorer became ill in the wilds and visited a local medicine man, hoping for a cure. The medicine man handed him a strip of rawhide and said “chew a piece of this each day for a week and you’ll be cured.” So the man dutifully bit off a piece of the strip for a week, but felt no better and went back to the medicine man and complained that the cure didn’t work. (Here comes the punchline) “I can’t understand it” said the medicine man, “the thong is ended but the malady lingers on.”

 

Anyway, perhaps nestled slimy eel, cheek by feathered jowl in my freezer is a package containing a tiny screech owl which I found dead on a path, early one morning. It was so cute I couldn’t resist bringing it home and for reasons which now escape me, I froze it. Forgotten until now, it has resided somewhere in the packed freezer for many years. Possibly I was hoping for some sort of cryogenic resuscitation, where the little owl would thaw, fluff its feathers, and fly away to enliven the night with frightening screams.

 

Once we played host for a couple weeks to a pair of kestrels who had been “rescued” by some well-meaning observer who didn’t know to leave well enough alone. A conservation agent confiscated the two orphans and they became part of the Conservation Department’s wildlife exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. The orphans needed a place to acclimate to the wild before they were released and I volunteered. We put them in a kitten crate on the back deck with the gate open so they could come and go and I fed them, at  first, with globs of hamburger. Very quickly they adapted to dining on the handrail of the deck, but I realized they needed to learn how to take prey if they were to become truly wild.

 

It was grasshopper time and I caught several, but realized the instant I put them down the hoppers would be a hop or two from freedom before the little hawks’ predatory instinct kicked in. So I put the hoppers in the freezer for two or three minutes to chill them and then put them on the rail. Animal rights folks may criticize me for being cruel to grasshoppers, but the experiment worked like a charm. The instant the insects began to stir, so did the killer instinct of the birds. Within a day or two my little avian friends were exploring the neighborhood for their own grasshoppers, ones without hypothermia. A few days after that, even though they returned a time or two to the back deck railing, they finally vanished into the wild where they belonged.

 

Back to eels for a moment (he said, repressing a shudder), the elver stage is prized as bait, especially for bluefish, an ocean fish which tastes wonderful but which has a set of teeth that the wise individual would avoid even if it meant leaving an expensive elver halfway down the fish’s gullet. I have a friend who fly fishes for smallmouth bass with what he calls a bunny strip, a black dyed strip of rabbit fur that either imitates a stretched out leech or perhaps an elver. Either way, it is far more attractive to a bass than it is to me.

 

Our freezer is that rarity of household appliances that lasts for many years. It is so old that it apparently was manufactured before the age of planned obsolescence. You can be certain that today any appliance you buy has a shelf life guaranteeing that it will die long before you do. The freezer may well date to shortly after Marty’s and my blissful matrimony— we acquired it so long ago that I have forgotten the details but it hums quietly and contentedly day after day, month after month, and year after year.

 

It has no automatic defrost and periodically over the years I have emptied it keeping the frozen packages in a pile while I attack the accumulated ice and frost inside the box with hammer and chisel. That’s probably not the recommended method of ensuring freezer health, but it has worked so far and after chiseling off many pounds of ice like a crewman during a Bering Sea storm on the “Deadliest Catch” television show, I reloaded the freezer and shut the lid on whatever oddities I have stashed there over the years.

 

I once trapped and froze a house mouse to use as a prop for a photo with a barn owl. The owl was another Conservation Department refugee and several of us gathered to photograph it as it clutched, the mouse which we hoped would look as if the owl had just caught it. The owl dutifully grasped the defrosted mouse and the photos turned out beautifully except that the mouse looked as dispirited as a cabinet level employee who has just been fired by Donald Trump from a very lucrative government position.

 

 

The hallmark of someone with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is to make sure that everything is in order. The freezer of someone with OCD, for example, would have every package neatly arranged in categories, probably posted on a list inside the lid, and every package would sport a comprehensive label detailing the contents within. That person and that freezer does not belong to the guy side of the Vance family.

 

The packages are jumbled in no discernible fashion and the main requisite is that they fit. This is why things like eels and owls find their way toward the bottom over the years. Even the labeling contains a certain amount of by-guess-and-by-God contemplation. For example the aforementioned two daughters who have an out of family character affinity for neatness and order, treat as a family joke that there is in our freezer a package labeled “Spanish rice without the rice.” They even tell other people about it. I’m sure that at the moment when we consigned the riceless rice dish to the freezer we had a perfectly logical reason for doing it, but that reason has long since vanished among the owls and eels. “It’s in a Cool Whip carton with a masking tape label reading “Spanish rice without the rice” says Daughter Number One with a depressingly accurate memory.

 

So our freezer remains the modern equivalent of the legend of Pandora’s box. In Greek mythology, Pandora opened a box which loosed all kinds of evil on the world including sickness and death (was there perhaps a modern Pandora in China who recently got to fooling around with the lid on a box she wasn’t supposed to open?)

 

I think I will put a label (using masking tape of course) on the front of the freezer saying “Pandora ‘s Ice Box. Beware ye who enter here. Eels and owls lie within!”

 

 

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  • April 25th, 2020

COVID 10 CRANKINESS

By Joel M. Vance

 

If you are fool enough to leave the safe, quarantined confines of your home and venture into what has become the great unknown of today’s world, and you meet someone in the dark who is glowing like a lightning bug swigging from a pint jar of Clorox, you can be sure this is a person who has swigged from the noxious verbal Kool-Aid being dispensed by our very own version of Dr. No (where is James Bond when you need him?). I speak, of course, of Donald J Trump, the Clown in Chief who daily stands before the nation for two grotesque hours, dispensing medical advice and nonsense.

 

I have refrained in recent weeks from posting blogs about this immoral idiot who somehow has grabbed 40 percent of the nation’s deplorables by the naughty bits. Why bother to write about this blithering moron when, almost before you can commit the words to typescript, he has come up with an even more incredible scenario?

 

I thought his latest inanity about maybe we could cure Covid 19 by injecting those afflicted with the virus with disinfectant was the bottom floor of the elevator of social disintegration the country is trapped by. And how about infusing the body with ultraviolet light which allegedly kills the Corona 19 virus? One suggestion, voiced by more than several Facebook scoffers, suggests that ultraviolet light bulbs be inserted as suppositories. But that’s presupposes that you could remove Mike Pence’s head to make room for the light fixture.

 

Donnie now claims that it was sarcasm to suggest to the world that maybe injections of Lysol or Clorox is a miracle cure for Covid 19, that he was baiting the press corps, but the visual evidence is that he was not looking at the reporters; rather at his stunned medical advisors, all of whom had that deer in the headlights expression that suggested they were wishing they had opted for garbage collection as a profession rather than medicine. Both Clorox and Lysol failed to get Donnie’s peculiar humor, both companies quickly issuing strong warnings against ever introducing their product inside the human body.

 

One Facebook commentator posited that ozone therapy is the answer. Apparently this is a cancer treatment, although I can’t speak to that not being a medical expert like the president, but it took about 15 seconds on Google to find that the idea that ozone therapy is a cure for Covid 19 is fraudulent and in fact, the government itself, is suing to stop a proponent of the idea for making the claim. However, don’t discount that Dr. Donnie will use his next comedy monologue to make the claim.

 

He hasn’t yet completely abandoned the fallacy that hydroxychloroquine is the magic bullet, even though the drug has potentially fatal side effects when used for its intended purpose against lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. There is no long-range testing yet done in conjunction with Covid 19 and early indications are that more people treated with it die than those not treated with it. “What have you got to lose?” Fat Donnie shrugged. Well, your life is a possibility. But then dead Americans, so far 51,000, is an apparent and minor consideration when weighed against a plunging economy and the horrifying possibility to the Sociopath in Chief that he might lose reelection.

 

The delusional fat man is so desperate to be reelected that he will grasp at any straw, any lie, any obvious (to everyone but him and his brainless followers) inanity to divert attention from what is a sinking ship. I once read about a fisherman who hauled a large muskellunge into the boat with him long before it was done fighting and, in a panic, pulled out a revolver and shot the bottom of the boat full of holes trying to subdue the thrashing monster. Donnie’s equivalent .357 Magnum is using outlandish whoppers which have the same effect—sinking the ship of state.

 

Each day I think that possibly this is the day that the country will wake up and that basket of deplorables will realize they are following a putrid philandering Pied Piper of pusillanimity. Hillary Clinton partially lost the election to Trump because she called it the way it is “a basket of deplorables” to describe those who blindly follow the porky nutcase but, although she is about as likable as a margarita hangover, she had it right.

 

There are those who plead for balance and criticism, to be constructive rather than negative and to seek solutions for the many problems that face us. But I am reminded of King Canute who supposedly tried to stop the ocean tide by commanding it to recede, but failed. Actually, the king tried to pull off that trick to demonstrate that even kings are limited in their powers and that nature is the ultimate ruler.

 

Our own would be king, Fat Donnie hasn’t learned that lesson yet and, I’m convinced, he never will. He has had delusions of godly power most of his life and seems to be getting worse. He shares his delusional attitude with other strongmen in history who thought they were somehow superior to everyone else, but ultimately succumbed to the inexorable force of reality.

 

Donnie is 73 and one of these days something is going to get him. The least painful for the rest of us would be if he simply is voted out November 3. The downside to that is he has several more months of burgeoning insanity that he can inflict on the country. And there’s no doubt he will—he certainly hasn’t let up on shoveling his own brand of nuttery on the nation. It is not a “daily briefing” but, for those who think as I do, it is a “daily barfing.” I wouldn’t put it past the Sociopath in Chief to be doing these briefings at supper time as a revenge against his perceived enemies— send them stumbling toward the bathroom gagging and heaving.

 

The solution, of course, to this outpouring of craziness, is to turn off the television set and settle into a tranquil meal unsullied by Trump’s latest example of political absurdity. But the reality is that turning Trump off at the television set, does not turn him off in the real world where his actions, and those of his devoted followers continue to resonate and disintegrate rationality.

 

Don’t ever underestimate the power that insane leaders have over their followers. I remember that during the waning days of world war Two when American forces were capturing island after island in the brutal Pacific war against Japan, edging ever closer to the Japanese homeland, Japanese civilian mothers on Okinawa, having been indoctrinated by their leaders in the belief that the Americans were evil and brutal, threw their babies off cliffs, then followed by leaping after them.

 

It will take many decades before historians will be able to sort out the disaster that Donald J Trump has brought upon the nation. That’s assuming, of course, that there is a nation left. Don’t discount the example of history in that many nations have risen and fallen. Great civilizations that once dominated much of the known world are long gone—the Egypt of the pharaohs, the Roman and Greek dynasties, and in more modern times the rise and fall of the German Reich and Japan’s imperial control over much of the East. In all those civilizations, powerful rulers dominated their commoner class in a sort of herd mentality—the all-powerful shepherd and the witless sheep who blindly follow the orders of the leader, no matter how disastrous.

 

Perhaps that same lemming mentality is what motivates the current wave of protesters against quarantining to gather in groups waving Confederate flags and shouting incoherently about the injustice of having to stay indoors, not being able to gorge on McDonald’s and guzzle beer at their favorite joint. It’s all so obvious to these Trumpites—a deep state, left-wing, plot fueled by the fake news media to deprive them of their inalienable right to commit viral suicide.

 

I also don’t exempt the news media from contributing to the daily horror show. To be honest, and exempting Fox News which is about as trustworthy as anything ever concocted by Joseph Goebbels, the mainstream news media is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do you ignore the daily raving by the Maniac in Chief or cover it as a genuine news event? The bitter truth is that every word, no matter how nonsensical, by the president of the United States, is newsworthy. But that’s with a normal presidency, with a normal person occupying the Oval Office. When you have an inmate running the asylum, you have to consider that all bets are off. I’m still waiting for the day when some reputable attendee of the daily briefing, at the end of a particularly garbled foolishness by the idiot in Chief, leaps to his or her feet  and shouts, “I’ve had all of this bullshit I can stand!” And stomps outs, slamming the door behind. But it won’t happen—mainstream news people, being professional and aware of the deference due the highest office in the land, will continue to put up with the daily avalanche of drivel at least until November 3 when, God willing, the country can shed itself of this nightmare.

 

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  • Blog
  • April 24th, 2020

BALONEY AND TUMS

By Joel M. Vance

 

A while back— come to think of it was only last week — I wrote a blog about Bill Clark, my friend of six decades. It started out as a reminiscence of places good and bad I have eaten lunch at over the years, usually on quail hunts. I stole the idea from Bill who has been promising to write a book about his birding groups’ many lunch stops over many years of trips around Missouri, discovering hidden rare gems of mid day eateries.

 

Before I even began recounting some of the greasy spoons where I found either uncommonly good food, or gustatory disasters, I was writing a lengthy blog about Bill and never got around to the midday food experiences.

 

Writing about memorable lunch spots may be more an exercise in reminiscence than in a guidebook to eating spots. Bill says “Anything I write about small town restaurants will be obsolete as soon as I hit “save.” Just about every one of them exists from week to week. I  drop in at one run by a Mexican couple with four kids – two of them still in diapers. They do it all alone and it has been successful in a highly prejudiced town at a location that has failed regularly every six months until they took it over about four years ago. There’s no way they can survive if this thing (Covid 19) goes for two months. They’ll need jobs that don’t exist. I could write a column about them, but I could write the same column about a lot of others in the small business world of day-to-day.”

 

So here it is my reminiscences: while Covid 19 continues to shutter lunch spots all over the country and I continue to eat my midday meal at the kitchen counter in our house, the memory of those times paused at some remote and overlooked small town eatery persists, in some cases like a serious case of acid indigestion.

 

Bill’s lunch joints have been discovered in the course of bird watching, mine have revolved about a different kind of bird watching, instead of over the twin barrels of binoculars, the twin barrels of a shotgun. The result often has been the same. Given my often hapless shooting, the reward at the end of the day has been the pleasure of time spent outdoors, with agreeable companions, and in the company of favorite birds, usually seen vanishing over the hill unscathed.

 

I recall one time when the companions were not so agreeable when it came to dessert. It was in a small town which featured a nondescript restaurant presided over by the quintessential ample girthed mom, synonymous with home cooking, and so the meal proved to be. I don’t recall what we ate except for the choice of dessert which the menu said was a variety of home-baked pies. It turned out the available pies were unavailable save for a single remaining slice of gooseberry pie. “I’ll have the gooseberry pie,” I said before anyone else had made a choice only to find their choices were absent. “And top it with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream.” I added.

 

Gooseberry pie is an annual treat for the Vance family which gathers the tart green berries (the ripe ones are unsuitable for pies) each spring along the path around our 40 acres. Appropriately sugared and baked in a pie shell, served hot, topped with ice cream, they are an experience from culinary heaven, a taste of angel food. No wonder my usually amiable companions were miffed to hear me moaning with delight as I ate every bite of that last slice.

 

“Well what about us,” asked one of my shooting companions. “Are you going to share?” He looked like a small child who’d lost his binky. “Not,” I replied “in your dreams.” I spent the rest of the afternoon suffering accusations of inhumanity, selfishness and having committed other indignities to the common good to which I could only reply, “Man, that pie sure was good. Wish there had been enough to go around.”

 

The memory of a pie episode reminded me of the time when a fellow national guardsman and I stopped in a small Iowa restaurant en route home from summer training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. We finished our meal and each ordered a slab of pie for dessert. The waitress took our dinner plates, along with our eating utensils, leaving us with no tools for the pie. When she brought the pie, my fellow weekend warrior who unaccountably (because he was from North Missouri) spoke with a hominy and grits accent like a refugee from Duck Dynasty, growled at the waitress “Ah need a fawk!”

 

She recoiled as if he had said what she thought he said and looked as if she might be contemplating either screaming for help or going for the nearest loaded weapon. “Fawk!, Ma’am, Ah cain’t eat mah pie without no fawk.” Comprehension finally sank in and the waitress scurried off and brought my buddy a fork. People from foreign territory like Iowa sometimes don’t understand simple spoken English.

 

Otterville is a small central Missouri town named for an animal that had not been resident in the area for 100 years until a Conservation Department otter reintroduction program restored the animal to the Lamine River watershed in the nineteen nineties. Between the vanished historic otters and the modern ones, Otterville was most notable for being the site of a train robbery by the Jesse James gang just outside town.  That was about it save for two notable exceptions: the town is almost precisely in the middle of the two halves of the huge Lamine Conservation Area and was  the home of John’s, a much  lamented Otterville café which was perfectly located to provide both refuge and food for the weary hunter at mid day.

 

So memorable is John’s  that I once wrote an article about it which made the editors at Field and Stream salivate to the point where they actually paid me more than lunch money for it. It was the mandatory midpoint of a hunting trip—first a long trek through at least part of the South end of the conservation area, then a stop at John’s  and, groaning with surfeit, a fairly short afternoon hunt into the other half of the area. Only once did I vary that routine on a memorable morning when, hunting alone, I shot a limit of quail and three woodcock in about an hour in the morning and was home well before lunchtime, thus missing out on the traditional midday Otterville lunch break. After a unique hunting success like that it sounds silly to say that I was disappointed, but I was—I didn’t get one of those delightful meals at John’s .

 

The most memorable came on a hunt with son, Andy, a couple of days shy of Thanksgiving when we hunted hard most of the morning and, already tired and very hungry, opened the creaking door of John’s  to be greeted by an overload aroma of culinary ambrosia. The special of the day was a traditional Thanksgiving dinner— roast turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, hot rolls and choice of apple or pumpkin pie for dessert. We didn’t do an afternoon hunt that day—we just digested.

 

Otterville also was the site of one of the more embarrassing moments in the checkered life of Joel M Vance. Several of us arrived fairly early in the morning before the diner had opened and desperate for coffee everybody but me headed for the local feed mill office which promised to have a pot brewing. Instead I spied a sign at the end of the block partly obscured except for the enticing end of a word “….Tique”. I assume that it meant antique and, ever alert for the backwoods store that, in a dusty corner of a back room, leaning against the wall, I would find a double-barreled Parker shotgun with a price tag of $20. I hustled along the uneven and cracked sidewalk, eyes down. There was a woman sweeping the sidewalk outside the store in which lurked untold treasures—the kind that folks on the “Antique Roadshow” discover are worth many thousands of dollars.

 

“Mind if I look inside?” I asked the woman. I was dressed in shabby hunting clothes, britches stained with faint dabs of old bird blood and the grime left from many miles of trudging forest and field. I looked as if I might have just tumbled off one of the periodic trains left over from the Jesse James days. Tremulously the woman said, “ooookay.” I wasn’t two steps inside the door before I realized what I’d done.  Not “antique” but “boutique.” And there I was, grimy, unshaven, bloodstained britches, eyes bleary from lack of sleep and coffee, having left behind me an increasingly apprehensive beautician, no doubt expecting my next appearance to be someone armed with an ax snarling, “Here’s Johnny!”

 

And the worst of it was, I had to walk back outside past the woman, who was clutching her broom as if wishing it were an AK47, mumbling words of no encouragement whatsoever. At least, John’s was open for coffee.

 

Then there was the time we stopped for lunch in the Twilight Zone. It was at a combination grocery store gas station at the end of a dead-end road in a place which does not appear on any county map I can find. Does it really exist? To this day, I am not sure.

 

We walked into this diner through a wormhole in the space time continuum and I expected immediately to see Rod Serling standing by the rusting pop cooler saying “you have entered a different dimension, a place of imagination that exists only in the Twilight Zone.”

 

Everything there seemed to have leapt into existence from a photograph of a general store, taken during the first administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There was a wood stove, absent only the omnipresent circle of old geezers dissecting the world according to them, but all else was a history lesson from the nineteen thirties.

 

There was no posted menu. You ordered from what you could see in the display case, glimpsed through a Plexiglas cover gone opaque with age. I opted for a salami sandwich (on Wonder Bread of course) and a choice of condiments including ketchup or plain mustard, a bag of potato chips (I blew the dust off), and pop from tepid water in the unrefrigerated cooler—NeHi Orange or NuGrape dominated, along with a few Coca-Colas in bottles so old they now are collector’s items.

 

It was not a place to linger, nor to savor a full belly like that from a meal at John’s in Otterville. The proprietor, as gnarled as the place itself, was reluctant to see us leave, no doubt because we were the first and perhaps the only customers he had had since the end of the Second World War, the absent circle of geezers having long since preceded him to the nearest rural cemetery. As we clambered in our trucks and pulled away I seemed to hear the distant sound of the Twilight Zone theme song.

 

And last but certainly least of the midday dining establishments I’ve patronized over the years is one in a small North Missouri town which I will not name because it would be cruel to penalize an entire community for the dire existence of one of its businesses.

 

I should’ve known this was not a thriving culinary hotspot when we walked in and the only occupied table was by several elderly ladies who would spend the entire time we were there discussing their physical infirmities, most of which concerned female plumbing malfunctions, analyzed at length in loud voices. When they weren’t comparing gynecological gaffes, they were dissing whomever of their social circle had the poor judgment not to show up that day. Soap opera plots also came in for deep analysis.

 

The proprietor and waiter was a gnomelike figure whose eyesight was so poor that the lens in his glasses could have come from the telescope on Mount Palomar. He had to put his nose in the palm of his hand so he could peer at the change he held to discover whether he was holding a nickel or a quarter.

 

I don’t remember what we ate because my appetite, already in crisis mode, vanished entirely when I glimpsed a baby in a soggy diaper crawling across the floor, leaving in its stead a clean wake—obviously what I had thought was the floor was actually a coating of grime which the baby, functioning as an infant floor mop, was cleaning as it went. “Went” as in “there went my appetite.”

 

I’m reasonably sure that encrusted joint has long since closed and I would hazard a guess that the baby did not grow up to change the course of the world, unless it didn’t grow up at all. By contrast, that eerie place from the Twilight Zone with its salami sandwich and its NeHi Orange seems in retrospect like a place to take a date to on a romantic night out. Assuming you could find it, which I don’t intend to do. Instead, if Bill Clark ever gets around to writing his guidebook to Missouri’s outstanding lunch spots, I’ll just follow his directions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • April 17th, 2020

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Joel M. Vance

 

My octogenarian friend of 60 years and counting, Bill Clark has a best-selling book stuck in his head and I haven’t been able to pry it out, although I’ve tried for years. It is a list of the favorite lunch spots he and his faithful and indefatigable Wednesday birding squad have visited over the years.

 

I’ve often told anyone who cared to listen that Bill Clark is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met and that includes a whole bunch of fascinating people. He is a quintessential Renaissance man. A partial list of his enthusiasms include major league baseball scout, professional boxer and wrestler, longtime official in just about every sport known, weightlifting record holder, entertainment critic, worldwide birding enthusiast, philanthropist, community activist, and contender for the most joint replacements by anyone human (11 at last count).

 

I first met Bill in 1959 at a frigid early season softball game shortly after I started as the sports editor of the Mexico Missouri Evening Ledger. Bill was, at the time, reporting sports for one of the Columbia newspapers—I don’t remember which but at various times he has worked for both of them. I was bundled up in the stands, shivering in the icy late evening air when this burly guy approached, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and flip-flops and introduced himself. If he was affected by the cold it didn’t show. This is a person I think I need to know, I thought to myself.

 

In the ensuing decade we swapped scores over the phone, pretty much dominated the choice of All-state high school teams and became closer friends with each passing year. After decades of writing columns for the Columbia Tribune, Bill was ousted by a new ownership after he wrote a column critical of the Sheriff’s Department for having ticketed him for making a legal but unsignaled turn. It turns out that at least in Columbia when you want to turn right after a stop at a stop sign, you’d better signal it. Common sense should have prevailed—the deputy who pulled Bill over should have issued a warning, but instead issued a ticket. Bill subsequent column was intemperate.

 

The sheriff retaliated with a rebuttal column. So Bill overreacted, the sheriff overreacted, and the Columbia Tribune which, unfortunately for Bill had the last word also overreacted by suspending Bill permanently. The summary judgment by the paper was symptomatic of what megacorporations do today to longtime employees—rewarding them for their loyal service by putting them out if there is even a whiff of something that doesn’t conform to the corporate image. It reminded me of a hunter I once overheard saying that if a new dog didn’t immediately prove out “I put them down.” The paper lost the voice of, in my opinion anyway, Columbia’s number one goodwill ambassador.

 

Bill had proved out for many years, often spending more to acquire material for his column that he was paid for it—he invariably bought lunch for those he interviewed, including me. Bill taught a series of classes in writing, baseball, and birdwatching, for the adult education program in Columbia, again paying out of his pocket for lunches and travel for those in his classes. The few dollars from his columns helped pay for countless tickets to countless performances by theater groups ranging from area high school thespians to traveling Broadway talent. His reviews showcased the Columbia theater scene for decades.

 

It was, for the large part, a thankless effort one which continues today as an Internet blog without the pittance paid by the newspaper. His retirement income from baseball helps and the Atlanta Braves also have helped him through those numerous joint replacements with their orthopedic expertise. Bill has tried to compensate for losing out on his Tribune pittance by opening a subscription blog through Patreon, aided by one of his five multitalented children who is a computer guru (Bill obstinately had clung to an anachronistic manual typewriter for decades—even Mark Twain succumbed to the lure of mechanized typesetting, although he lost his entire fortune doing it).

 

While Bill may have gotten crossways with Missouri’s version of the Sheriff of Nottingham, it was not the only time he and the law have had different versions of life. Some years back I was duck hunting with several members of the Atlanta Braves when Bill was their chief scout for Latin American talent. Over dinner I asked one of the Braves executives (I think the traveling secretary) if he knew Bill Clark. “Oh, old Clark,” he said, “he’s been in every jail in South America.” It turned out it was one jail, in Nicaragua , when Bill was arrested after he bumped an old man while driving  in a dust storm, with zero visibility.  The old man suffered a broken leg.  Latin American jails are notoriously poor places for gringos to wind up. Bill managed to get a phone call to the Braves and after negotiations and access to the deep Braves’ pocket (they were in their glory years with players Bill had scouted and recommended) he managed to bribe his way onto the good side of the iron bars and his criminal record remained spotless until he forgot to signal a turn.

 

Almost every time I hang around with Bill or even when I read his many and varied columns, I find out something new about this incomparable character. For example, in a recent column he reminisced about the time that he and the Hickman High School wrestling coach Dan Judy owned several trotting horses. It was a revelation akin to finding out that Bill was one of the Apollo astronauts. The world of trotting horse racing (you may have seen photos from the 19th century of a driver behind a trotter in a rickety little sulky, a memento of the time when Dan Patch was as famous a horse name as Man-O’-War or whoever this year’s Kentucky Derby winner would have been if the race hadn’t been canceled.

 

That factoid alone would make Bill unique among my acquaintances—how many people do you know

who have owned race horses of any type?

 

In a recent column Bill fessed up to the fact that he is way behind on joining the wonderful world of book authorship. Being a book author is kind of like having once owned a trotting horse, a source of ego boosting but unless you’re the rare Stephen King or John Grisham, is unlikely to boost you into the ranks of the moneyed few. Bill wrote, “When I turned 86 (Bill is 87 now) I had a talk with myself and decided that I probably didn’t have more than 25 more years to live. If I still had plans to write all those great books, I had better start.”

 

He found that after writing about 40,000 words of a memoir of his officiating days, and doing interviews with local black leaders about collecting columns he had written on his interaction with the African-American community of Columbia, what he termed as “the huge number of bank storage boxes containing all my notes and collections” that had been in a storage area on his family farm had burned to the ground destroying everything. “Essentially my whole life work had disappeared. All I had were memories and publishers don’t pay much for undocumented memories.”

 

I beg to differ. While most writing concerns the here and now, there is the rare individual, like Bill Clark, whose here and now is plenty fascinating, but whose undocumented memories are more fascinating than anything life conjures up these days.

 

Bill is more of a Luddite than whoever Lud was, whoever he was, and his editor at the Tribune once told me that it drove me nuts when Bill came in and plopped down a typewritten column probably on copy paper left over from the nineteen fifties, which then had to be typeset before it could be shoveled into the newspaper by computer. There was a two month gap between his ousting at the Tribune and the birth of an Internet blog several times a week. I suspect having a computer savvy son and the urging of his wife, Dolores, of 65 years playing a large part in bringing  about a revival perhaps not seen since biblical times in the rebirth of the Clark column.

 

I quickly subscribed to the new service which unfortunately has not been overwhelmed. Bill’s viewpoint on current issues, his wry observance of the human condition always is entertaining, even when he’s writing locally about things that don’t apply to my part of the world. I haven’t figured out how to negotiate Patreon but you can contact Bill at 3906 Grace Ellen Drive, Columbia, Missouri 65202 – 1796 or call him at area code 573 – 474 – 4510. Just don’t call on Wednesday; that’s birding day and Bill won’t be there. He’ll be somewhere in Missouri  at a birding spot in his new\used Toyota Camry which replaced one that was within shouting distance of 500,000 miles.

 

Bill said that he and the Camry planned to reach the end of the road together, but the Camry didn’t make it and Bill rolls along with the practically new Toyota and 11 new joints.

 

Which brings us to one of the several books Bill has promised me for years that he will apply fingers to (oh, horror of horrors, (he has delivered his manual typewriter to the same fate as the venerable Camry) in favor of a computer keyboard. The book would be a survey of the favorite lunch spots of the birding group, collected over the many years the birders have chowed down during visits to about 1200 conservation locations in Missouri, ranging from river accesses, to the state’s largest conservation areas.

 

If ever you have, as I have, spent time roaming afield far from home when hunger struck at midday, you know the value of finding one of those rare eating establishments that serves up memorable food. There’s not always a McJunque on every corner in those remote towns where wildlife areas exist and the hidden mom-and-pop eatery that makes Bill’s list is one to be cherished and shared, which is why I think a guidebook to the state’s lunch spots would be a bestseller. But first it has to be written and that’s where the snag has been. Even the most productive of Renaissance men would have trouble applying britches to seat and fingers to keyboard to produce a book. The material is there waiting to be transferred to type, but good intentions are merely asphalt on the road to hell.

 

And maybe he has lost his notes and documents to fire but he is far from having lost his mind where those same notes and memories reside. I want to read his memoir. And, although my weightlifting mainly is relegated to lifting a fork at dinner time, I even want to read his history of weightlifting (his notes of decades of lifting and writing about it mercifully were stored in an obscure corner of the basement and escaped the disastrous fire). Where else are you going to find a history of weightlifting? And I think the African-American community of Columbia if not the country would be interested in the thoughts of an old white guy who’s always been far ahead of the curve in racial relations. Those are just several of the five books he has indicated he has plans for. But, butt to chair, Bill. They won’t write themselves.

 

In a recent column, Bill talked about the impact Covid 19 has had on him his family and his activities. He has a pile of tickets bought in advance of the many entertainments he had planned to visit and review which now will not happen. Instead of asking for his money back, he has told the various venues to apply the ticket cost to next year’s productions. Typical Bill Clark—giving back that which did not need to be given back.

 

Here is Bill’s take not just on Covid 19, but on life itself: “the world must reopen, then recover before the bright lights go on again. Take care of your family and yourself. Keep your distance so that we can eventually gather together again in the music halls and theaters and enjoy the world of make-believe.”

 

Subscribe and enjoy—and don’t forget to signal your turns.  

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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2020

CONFESSIONS OF A SAUNTER STAFFER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

The late, great, hard-to-define, inscrutable, Leon Redbone (who was fond of taking Polaroid photos of his audience), grabb  ed me with his first recording popular among people like me who appreciate musicians who don’t conform to the norm—and God knows,Redbone was far from the norm. But he left the world with this bit of wisdom which has livened my life. As he told us in song , “if I ever left my house without my walking stick well it would be something I could never explain.”

 

Never mind that credit card thing, take Leon’s advice and never leave home without your walking stick. Mine is about 6 feet long, longer than recommended for a walking staff/stick (ideal is supposed to be a staff that reaches from the ground to your armpit), but I love it and would not be without it, not only for its varied uses, but for its intricate design. It is not carved at the upper end as so many walking staffs are, but has instead been decorated by the sharp bill of a woodpecker.

 

I don’t know what the bird was looking for, but when I left the staff outside, the hungry, bug seeking woodpecker drilled a neat hole and, possibly miffed at not finding a juicy morsel inside, ripped off a couple of chunks of the Eastern red cedar, and then flew off looking for greener pastures.

 

I harvested the staff from our woods which are a composite of Eastern red cedar, various oaks, hickorys and a few other trees that make up a typical mid-Missouri forest. Cedar is so dominant that we named the road into our place Cedar Grove Lane and would’ve named it Cedar Glade Lane except that somebody copped that name first for another road north of us.

 

Among the first things any diligent little Sunday school going kid learns is to memorize the 23rd Psalm, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me….” There’s lots of cool stuff in that psalm. In case you have forgotten, it begins “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” I’m not so sure that I want to be considered a sheep, in need of somebody to herd me, but I like that part about “shall not want.” I take that to mean that I won’t go hungry nor ever be without a good bird dog or in times when I may lust for one of Oscar’s French dip sandwiches, and a good quail hunt.

 

(Oscar’s, by the way, is a local restaurant which not only has outstanding French dip sandwiches, but also outstanding catfish dinners.)

 

Before we get to the walking staff part, the 23rd Psalm continues “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadith me beside the still waters.” While snoozing in a green pasture on a soft summer day can be pretty relaxing, I think I’d be careful to look around for deposits left by the pasture residents before lying down, and the prospect of still waters, possibly with bass or trout, is considerably more appealing than sprawling amid cow flops.

 

Anyway, back to the walking staff which, in the Psalm, belongs to the Lord, not to me. I’m just a sheep who needs herding with the rod (or possibly a good butt whipping) and protection from predators with the staff. Various Celtic tribes pioneered the use of walking sticks, possibly about the same time God did, at least 2000 years ago and since I have Celtic DNA (Scot Irish) I gravitated naturally to using a staff on rambles afield.

 

The Celts used their walking staffs for weapons and, according to one source, as a sort of primitive pole  for vaulting across streams and ditches. Druids used a staff as a leadership symbol often in religious ceremonies. “It was a form of status and the type of wood used depicted the rank of the person in the ancient tribes.”  Thus says one website on the history of walking staffs. Since cedar is one of the most ancient of woods, I would hope that my peckerwood scepter carries with it both status and rank, and perhaps the kind of magic properties nowadays most often performed in the hands of Harry Potter characters.

 

Early on, walking staffs became more elaborate with intricate carvings, mostly having to do with a story or mythology. I don’t know what kind of story my woodpecker was trying to tell, but I suspect it had to do with edible insects, and the bird gave it up because the story had no good ending.

 

John Muir said it best “the mountains are calling and I must go.” Muir, a Scot, and a former sheepherder is considered the Godfather of the National Park system and was Teddy Roosevelt’s prime advisor when it came to preservation of wildlands. He preferred to be called a saunterer rather than a hiker as did his predecessor and major influence Henry Thoreau. There are varying interpretations of the meaning of the verb “to saunter”–one proposing that it means to go to the holy land and another that it merely means without country.

 

Saunterers argue that hiking is merely going from one place to a destination, whereas to saunter is to pause and smell the flowers. Boiling it down, can you find morels by charging along with purpose? You need to use that (shall we call it a saunter staff?) To poke through the leaves looking for the elusive fungi. In a pinch, you can use your saunter staff to flip rattlesnakes out of the path, knockdown spiderwebs, and lacking rattlesnakes flip, those deadly little sticks that somehow otherwise would leap between your legs and send you sprawling.

 

I once wrote an article on walking staffs and a reader sent me a beautifully crafted staff for which I hope I thanked him profusely. The knob end was intricately designed by nature herself, featuring  aberrant protrusions that were perfect for fastening a leather thong through which I could fit my hand, like the grips on ski poles. It had a resemblance to the caduceus symbol of the medical profession. I used this staff for many years—actually abused it to the point where the tip splintered and the finish wore completely off. It has been retired, replaced by the woodpecker designed staff I now use.

 

I’ve been called a peckerwood more than once now it actually is an accurate description, at least of my saunter staff. A good percentage of hikers don’t use a staff but there are so many advantages to one that I can’t see why not. first of all, it provides stability. Rather than two feet, you now have a third  point of balance and the more decrepit one becomes, the more need there is for all the balance you can get (speaking as one for whom the description “decrepit” is discouragingly accurate).

 

A survival website called Survival Weekly offers a bunch of suggestions on uses for walking staffs, including using one to string up a radio antenna. Possibly this could be used to tune in late night jazz sitting around the campfire warding off the neighborhood timberwolves. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” I’ve never dealt with a savage breast before, but you never know— a little John Coltrane late in the night has untapped potential when that howling you hear just outside the firelight is not Miles Davis. However, it’s more likely that you will use your walking staff for things other than fending off aggressive critters in the wee hours.

 

I’ve never encountered a mountain lion or a ticked off grizzly bear while hiking, but depending on location it’s not impossible. However, even armed with my sturdy woodpecker-carved cedar stick, I’d be more comfortable with a can of bear spray and a .357 magnum revolver. Maybe I could just loan ursa arctos horribillis my iPhone ear pads for a little soothing John Coltrane? Except I don’t have an iPhone and ear pads. I don’t have a .357 magnum or bear spray either, but our mid-Missouri woods are so far devoid of apex predators—oh,we have the occasional reported mountain lion and once a timber wolf showed up in North Missouri, but I’ll take my chances with my woodpecker stick.

 

The most dangerous critter I’ve ever encountered was a striped skunk once. He seemed to know whose path it was and it wasn’t mine. I agreed and we carefully skirted each other and continued on our respective way. Once, on a ramble through our woods, I spied a cedar tree with claw marks above my head. If it was a white tailed deer buck rubbing its antlers, it was the biggest one in the history of deer. And if it was a cottontail rabbit nibbling, it had to of been at least as big as Harvey, the mythical invisible rabbit friend of Elwood P. Dowd, Jimmy Stewart’s best friend in the movie of the same name. My first thought was “bear!” That was years ago and I’ve seen no evidence since, nor any bear. But I have my stick.

 

One comment on the survival website says “use as a crutch, improvised paddle or pole, for signaling, a prop support for cooking, snake management, stringing an antenna for ham radio, a digging stick, temporary seat, rescue work, and many others.”

 

I can’t quite see the use of the saunter staff as a improvised pole. As a long-time canoe poler I can testify that unless you are more than 12 feet tall, your saunter staff will not be effective as a canoe pole—a typical canoe pole is about 12 feet long.

 

I use mine extensively in late summer during what I call “spider time.” That’s when the mature web builders of the forest decorate the trails with intricately woven snares to catch supper. I feel remorse every time I knock down one of these webs, but the alternative, is to face plant one dead center and while there is no peril from the non-venomous little arachnids, most folks, including me, dislike scraping sticky web out of their eyelashes. So, I hike the trails waving my staff in front of me like Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

 

Leon Redbone died about a year ago, way too young at 69. “Oh the thing that makes me click on lovers Lane/would go for naught if I were caught without my cane.” Rest in peace, Leon. And rest assured I will not be caught without my stick.

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  • Blog
  • April 3rd, 2020

A HANDFULL OF SUNSETS

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

 By Joel M. Vance

                There’s something about a brookie.  Imagine getting all gooey over a fish that has to strain to reach 10 inches.  It’s like Mike Tyson getting sentimental about knocking out Pee Wee Herman.

                Still…there’s something about a brookie.

                I love the little fish with the fierce heart.  Maybe it’s that a brookie isn’t sophisticated.  I’m not either.  I don’t half know one fly from another and a brook trout simply doesn’t care.  If it looks like food, he’ll give it a shot.  I’m the same way.  I like beer and brats.  A brook trout is a beer and brats fish, designed by Jackson Pollock.

                Maybe I love brook trout because they are the mine canaries of a stream.  Rainbows and browns, cutthroats and bull trout can handle temperatures and pollution that will turn a brook trout belly-up.  Or maybe it’s something else.  Researchers claim that brook trout do have a fair tolerance for acidity and temperature, but don’t compete well with other fish.  Maybe that’s it.  I get grouchy when my stream has too many anglers.  Me and brookies, we like the stream to ourselves.

 

                 In the words of researchers, “Brook trout are vulnerable to angling.”  So what?  Just because a brook trout is naive is no reason to trash him.  He is a fiery fish of unlimited courage that lives where virtually nothing save the occasional osprey preys on him.  He is not stupid; he is noble in the sense that Sir Galahad was noble because of his naïve innocence.  Everything is black and white to a brook trout.  You’re either food or you’re not.

                Call it stupid.

 

                Just not in front of me.

 

                Fishing writers tend to disparage brook trout.  They damn them with faint praise: beautiful but stupid.  Sounds like rednecks telling dumb blonde jokes in a bar.  “How many brook trout does it take to change a light bulb….”Are brook trout dumb?  Famed fishing writer Joe Bates wrote about highly-selective trophy brookies up in the Maine woods where they didn’t see an angler a year.  They weren’t dumb.

 

                Other anglers admit they use 12-foot leaders with elf-hair tippets and tiny flies to catch those stupid eight-inch fish.  So what if a brook trout will attack a chunk of nightcrawler.  A rainbow trout will gratefully accept two kernels of Jolly Green Giant on a No. 12 hook, too.

 

                Could it be that today’s brook trout has been pushed upstream so far, ahead of water warming and trace pollution, that it’s eating out of a nearly bare cupboard and feels compelled to take whatever looks like food?  That’s not dumb–it’s desperation.  Brook trout belong to hidden little streams as intimate as a chat with a lovely woman in a dark bistro.  I grew up on brook trout on northwest Wisconsin streams like Sucker Creek and Thirty-Three and Weirgor. 

 

                  Only one time have I fished for brook trout that reached weight and length you read about in books written before I was born, a depressingly long time ago. That was in the High Uinta mountains of Utah where a wealthy contractor had built a resort that was half for profit, half for his own enjoyment.

 

                    Being a contractor with heavy equipment available, he gouged a series of small lakes out of the thin mountain soil and allowed them to fill with snowmelt from the nearby Uintas. Then he stocked brook trout. You fish from float tubes only—no boats or wading— and use barbless hooks, catch and release only. The grateful fish gorged on natural food, grew to astonishing size, posed obligingly for photographs with which one (me) could taunt envious fellow anglers back in the flatlands of Missouri.   Today’s angler is more likely to encounter a brookie of about 8 to 10 inches long and perhaps ½ pound in weight. The largest weight I’ve seen recorded for brook trout is an astonishing 17 lbs. 10 oz.   

 

                          Except for the often intrusive manipulations of man those brook trout shouldn’t even have been there. Brook trout are native to the Eastern United States, not to the high Uintas or Wyoming or any other Western state. They are transplants who have adapted to the two thirds of the country where they didn’t exist in historic times. And, for that matter, they are not trout but char, a distinction which matters more to another brook trout than it does to me, especially at spawning time. I’m just happy they exist at all, no matter where, for they are as a friend once described them, “a handful of sunsets.”

 

                         Long ago I fished with an old guy named George Mattis who knew more about the woods and wildlife than 99.9 percent of the outdoor writers of the time.  He was an outdoor writer, in fact wrote the best-selling book ever published by the Outdoor Life Book Club.  But mostly he was a chunky little bachelor who’d gone to high school with my mother and who took pity on a young guy whose idea of fishing tended toward dunking turkey liver for channel catfish and who didn’t know beans about trout.  There were better things in life, he thought, and he shared them with me. I was carp comfortable because that’s the fish I grew up with, a fish of muddy water which tasted pretty much the same. You didn’t need intricate little insect imitations to catch carp; you needed a concoction of Wheaties, combined with sorghum molasses, rolled into a ball and molded on a number 2 hook. If you got hungry you could eat the bait.

 

                George used some flies, but was partial to crappie minnows when he wanted to catch big brook trout (which he kept and ate).  One researcher found brook trout almost never took other fish–just insects.  Tell that to George.  His crappie minnows were fish candy to the trout on Thirty Three Creek. Bait fishing violated the canons of purist trout angling, but George was no stream killer.  He hiked farther than any other angler on streams where few others fished anyway and the few trout he took to eat were cream off the top.

 

                You had to fight through alder swamps and stinging nettle and swarms of deer flies and mosquitoes just to get to beyond where the rest of the crowd quit and went to the car.  That was where George put his rod together.  “I don’t start fishing until the cigarette butts and chewing gum wrappers run out,” he said, busting through another impenetrable jungle like an aging halfback going off tackle.

 

                “If there’s a fisherman’s path, just keep going.”  There was no path where we were and it was a brutally hot day and I had a terrible thirst, possibly the result of an overindulgence in a local Wisconsin brew the night before that, while it may have lacked the indefinable bouquet of craft beer, had the advantage of being cheap.  “I gotta have a drink,” I rasped.  “Is this water safe to drink?”

 

                George shrugged.  “Bears poop back here.  Up to you.”

 

                I chanced it, felt better, and we pressed on.  Finally we came to a bend far back in the Blue Hills where the stream charged into a pool, hit the high bank on the far side, then eddied, scouring a deep, tannin-dark hole.  George nodded, as if to an old friend, dug his Coke bottle from his hip pocket, and shook a minnow free.  That’s the way he kept his live bait oxygenated–a Coke bottle jiggling in his hip pocket.  The minnow swam around, wondering what the hell pass in life it had come to.

 

                I flipped a wet fly into the large, slowly swirling pool and a brook trout whacked it and I dragged the fish, flipping and wriggling, onto the grassy bank.  It was about eight inches long.  George, meanwhile, had landed a rich beauty whose dotted sides glowed with color, like the dabs on a pointillist artist’s palette.  It would go a foot, maybe 14 inches.  He whacked it on the head with his belt knife, expertly gutted it, and stowed it in a wicker creel that Theodore Gordon might have worn.

 

                George was from another time, another century.  He remembered when the loggers came to Birchwood and cut the woods over the first time.  In winter, he wore snowshoes that looked to be 100 years old. He ate venison and brook trout. The local grocery store was foreign territory. Sometimes he would take a small frying pan with him, a salt shaker and some oil and fry up his trout on the streambank and there, alone in the sweet woods he would dine luxuriously. George was a man of another century—the one before, not the one to come.

 

                Next morning, we had a fisherman’s breakfast, brewed up by my Aunt Vic, who had been dealing with smelly anglers for about 70 years.  She fried a bounty of eggs, heaped diced potatoes and toast…and a platter of fresh-fried brook trout.  You ate them like an ear of corn.  Nevermind the careful peeling with a fork that you see in upscale restaurants.  We’re talking fisherman’s breakfast.  You didn’t talk; you ate.  You ate with both hands as if there were no tomorrow.  You picked up a brook trout by head and tail and ate your way from butt to neck on one side, turned it over and ate the other side.

 

                The coffee was lustily constructed to float bricks.  After breakfast, there was a period of contemplation, punctuated by grateful groans.  Then you were ready for another day of brook trout fishing.

 

                This is the way I learned to fish for brookies.  It was a meat-gathering exercise.  Since, I have fished for them in Utah, the high mountains of Colorado and the remote streams of Wyoming’s Big Horns.  I’ve been back to Thirty Three and Sucker Creek, but George has moved on to more distant streams and it isn’t the same.

 

                      I went back to Thirty Three Creek a decade ago, on an uncomfortably hot early fall day. There was a small parking area at the bridge across the creek and I rigged up a fly rod and plunged into the faint fisherman’s trail alongside the stream. It didn’t take long before my T-shirt was soggy with sweat. The creek was narrow and so low that the pools were few and far between. I had a hit on a woolly bugger that, at first, felt like the tug of a trout, but what came to hand was a large sucker, about the right size for a pike bait.

 

                      After a couple hundred yards of unproductive, nearly dry riverbed, I realized this was not the trout stream that George Mattis and I had cherished so long before and I gave it up and trudged back to my truck. There was a conservation agent there, dutifully checking to see who would be fool enough to struggle through the brush alongside this barren stretch of former trout stream. “I don’t think there are any trout left here,” he said. “We’ve had several dry years and most of the streams around here lost their trout.” I resisted the impulse to snarl “thanks a lot!” I gratefully gulped down a bottle of water, gone as tepid as that from the stream…. although presumably free from bear poop.

 

                      The dutiful agent had no idea that that stream had lost more than its trout—it lost a big piece of me in the process. I don’t know if there is a heaven or not but if George Mattis is looking down, as romantics are fond of telling us those who have left us do in their off hours when they are not playing harps or whatever, George could only have been thinking “dumb kid, things change.” And not always for the better. Maybe 33 Creek went to heaven along with George. After all, it was his stream far more than it was mine. The legacy he left me was an appreciation for brook trout and the knowledge that no matter how thirsty you get be aware that bears poop in the stream.

 

 

 

 

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