Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • January 16th, 2019

WORDS MATTER

By Joel M. Vance

Words matter. That’s the lesson for today’s lecture, kiddies so pay attention. You there in the back! Put up your cell phone. You can Twitter off into obscurity later on but for now listen up.

 

Words have led us down the perilous path of history from the first glimmerings of democracy through two and one half centuries to where we are today. And where we are today is not all that great because we have forgotten the meaning and the lessons of the words that got us here.

 

Without the fiery words of Thomas Paine, we might not have gotten to the stage of open rebellion. Without the words of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and the others who, today, we call our Founding Fathers, we would not have a powerful framework on which our democracy is based.

 

The cretinous followers of the bloated oaf in the White House today almost certainly do not know who Thomas Paine was, nor have they absorbed the lessons of those other old guys from colonial times. But even the dimmest of them must be dimly aware that there was a Gettysburg Address (although they probably think it was a street number somewhere).

 

And an uncomfortable number of them are only dimly aware that a black guy named Martin Luther King had a dream, although to them he was nothing more than a troublemaker. They don’t know, nor do they care, that he spoke to a multitude of a quarter million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. His words, which echo today, illuminated the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, for that matter, of efforts to gain freedom and equality d for black people dating back hundreds of years. It has been called the top American speech of the 20th century.

 

Words not only matter— they have consequences and they sometimes change history. Said by the right person at the right time, they change history for the better. At a moment in our nation’s history when we have a sociopathic president whose only policy aim seems to be building a wall to separate us from a third of the continent, it’s instructive to remember the last time there was a noteworthy wall in place.

 

The words “ich bin ein Berliner” may not mean anything to non German-speaking Americans but they meant a whole lot to the citizens of East and West Berlin when John F. Kennedy said them in June,1963, to give hope to Germans trapped inside Berlin by the looming Soviet presence at the height of the Cold War. The United States president gave hope, not just to the citizens of Berlin, but to the world when he added “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words….” And then he finished with the German phrase which translates as “I am a Berliner.”

 

Instead of relaxing its iron grip on the city of Berlin, the Soviet Union built a wall between its portion of the city and the western half administered by the free West.  That, of course, was the Berlin Wall.  Memory is short, apparently so short that the advocates of the wall between the United States and Mexico don’t remember the divisive and hated wall that split Berlin in two. The Berlin Wall has become until now, the symbol of autocratic oppression.    

 

Words as so often, as has happened in our history, played a vital part in ending the Berlin Wall. I am not a Reaganite, but have to give credit where credit is due. In June 1987, Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, in West Berlin, spoke to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The words couldn’t tear the wall down, but they had the force of the sledgehammers that ultimately did dismantle the wall.

 

Reagan’s words will stand for all time as the ultimate statement against the effectiveness of walls between peoples. The Berlin wall did come down and today remnants of it stand 20 miles from my home, in Fulton, Missouri, as a reminder of what walls do when they threaten freedom. Anyone with half a brain (which I’m afraid represents the most we can hope for among the wall nuts who blindly follow anything Donald Trump tweets or bleats) can examine the evidence against building a wall between us and Mexico and see that it is not only a stupid idea, but one that threatens the very fabric of the country.

 

Trump’s rationale (if you can use the word in conjunction with the most irrational human being ever to desecrate the Oval Office) for building a wall is to keep out people who will, as he has variously threatened, rape our defenseless women, flood the country with drugs, kill us all with pestilence, and seek to outlaw the nonsense ravings of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter (well, maybe not that last, but one can only hope).

 

All these hysterical fantasies are disproven by fact—and not the alternative facts that Kellyanne Conway and other administration screwballs conjure up— but actual truths. Illegal immigration is down, most drugs come in through closely monitored entry ports or by mail, the most notable incident of disease entering the country by way of immigrants has been the death of two small children when they got sick while in the custody of border control authorities.

 

The people clustered at the border are not seeking to enter the country illegally , but instead are seeking asylum and a chance at a life better than the one they left. There has been and is not any plan to deal with these weary pilgrims. Instead of pouring billions of dollars into a wall that is both impractical and probably impossible to maintain or even build in the first place, how about increasing funding for logical border security— more electronic surveillance, more security personnel. History has proved that walls do not work and this one in particular is nothing more than a monument to Donald Trump’s massive ego. Long-ago despots built pyramids to glorify their existence. Saddam Hussein ordered a massive statue of himself in Baghdad. We all know how that played out. The statue came tumbling down and so did Saddam, rooted out of a spidey hole and executed.

 

If Trump truly wanted to make America great again rather than providing it with baseball caps, he could divert the billions of dollars currently wasted on tax cuts for the richest 1% of the country into providing services, such as medical care, food and shelter, for the other 99% of the population that doesn’t live in a golden tower or on a private golf course.

 

Whether the president is an active agent for the Russians still has to be proved but there is little doubt that he is as one columnist termed it “a useful fool.” As I write the country is in the 27th  day of shut down and no end in sight. Even with an end the ripple effect will take a long time to dissipate. Donald Trump has much to answer for and let’s hope that it is in a court of law if not in public opinion.

 

The American public, right and left, is beginning to blame Donald Trump for the whole mess. “I’ll be proud to do it,” Trump said about a government shutdown and, sure enough, he followed his words with action. Words matter— but so do the actions they inspire and Donald Trump is ripping apart the fabric of our democracy piece by piece and we either get him out of office or become another failed government in the world’s history.

 

We can start the process by dismantling the hypothetical wall before it ever begins.

 

Wall building goes back a long way. 800 years before the birth of Christ the Chinese were building a 13,000 mile wall to keep out the “undesirables” from up north— the area that later, much later, became the Soviet Union. A good bit of that wall exists today as a tourist attraction but its original purpose has long since ceased to be viable.

 

And, about 800 years before Donald Trump suffered the mind fart that he calls “the wall” the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, ordered up a wall across what now is England to separate the Roman Empire’s northern border from those uncouth Picts. That wall also has become a tourist attraction—at least the few remaining remnants of it. Both the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall were intended to keep alleged undesirable northern folks away from the more desirable Southerners. Trump, as he does with most things, proposes an ass backward wall to keep southern folks away from the Northerners.

 

Perhaps the religious far right has endorsed Trump’s wall because of the Biblical precedent set by the story of the wall of Jericho which dates to about 8000 years before Christ. It was up to 17 feet high and supposedly was to prevent flooding of the city. One archaeologist theorizes that the purpose of the wall was to create awe and inspiration in people. If so, that antedates  Donald Trump by a good many years. According to the book of Joshua, the Israelites destroyed the wall by blowing trumpets of rams’ horns and shouting, whereupon the wall fell down.

 

Chances are anyone interested in breaching Trump’s proposed wall will use more sophisticated methods— every proposed wall type so far has been breached in tests conducted by the Customs and Border Protection authorities. Apparently, the testing did not include ram horn trumpets or shouting.

 

In an ironic historical twist, the 16th century Dutch built a wall on Manhattan Island to keep out those pesky Native Americans. It ran across the island from shoreline to shoreline and today we know it as Wall Street, home of the nation’s financial heartbeat.

 

The entertainment news magazine Variety reports that in 1958 a con man named Walter Trump in a television Western series tried to con the citizens of a Texas town into building a magic wall to repel what he said were incoming meteors for 50 bucks apiece. It was a con and the series hero, Robert Culp, playing a Texas Ranger, exposed the scam and made things right. As Variety says, “The country maybe is hoping for a Ranger Gilman of its own to bring an end to it.” “It”, of course, being the present situation in Texas where a con man named Trump is doing his level best to bamboozle the entire country.

 

Let’s put it in terms that the grade school mentality of the Trump followers can understand:

 

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” We have our own version of Humpty, a bloated empty shell, and cracked to boot.

 

Even if, in some inconceivable way, Trump manages to survive his entire presidency, he is doomed for a great fall in tomorrow’s history books. His legacy will be no more memorable than that of Humpty Dumpty. Then all of his men many of whom have already deserted him and those who have not will not be able to put him together again.

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • January 11th, 2019

BUG OUT!

By Joel M. Vance

I never thought I would write about it because the memory is so traumatic. It’s like the memory of the worst night you ever spent when projectile elimination was so profound it eclipsed the will to live and you wished only for an end to it. I’ve been reading a history of World War II, a section dealing with jungle warfare where dysentery and other debilitating afflictions got so bad that soldiers cut the seat out of their tattered uniforms, not to provide air-conditioning, but to provide an immediate exit strategy. I can identify.

 

We’ve all had it—the dreaded and so-called 24 hour bug which, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, will last only 24 hours but which more often lingers on into a second third and even fourth day. If you are a family man (and you devoutly will wish to be a hermit in a cave, preferably one equipped with half a dozen toilets, none more than 5 feet from where you are) you will have company of a sort during your travail.

 

The company will be the other members of the family at least one of whom will have been the source of your present misery. The old saying is that misery loves company and it is never more true than when the bug strikes, because when one gets it everyone gets it.

 

My wife was the first (I will not use names to spare the rest of the family from remembered misery) okay, one name— Eddie, our middle son who escaped through some miracle and had the good sense to isolate himself from everyone else until the contagion flapped off into the distance like a wake of buzzards that, having picked a carrion carcass clean, flies off looking for new culinary victims.

 

It begins with that feeling of unease, as if the meal so lovingly prepared, contained strange tastes not intended by the chef. There is a tiny but growing coal of heat somewhere deep in the digestive system and a feeling that something is not right. Various over-the-counter remedies— Tums, Pepto-Bismol, you name it— all might as well be like waving at a raging conflagration in the hope that you can blow out the flames.

 

Then comes the moment when you resort as quickly as possible to the restroom (where no rest is possible) and in the euphemistic terms “pay homage to Ralph” or “worship at the porcelain throne.” My wife was spared this aspect of the ordeal but as we all know the 24 hour bug is a double ended marathon.

 

Youngest son was the second to succumb, and if there is any way to minimize the agony, it is that he only suffered from what (again euphemistically) we call “tossing his cookies.” He quickly was bed ridden, unable to help me cope with the growing family disaster. “I guess I’m next,” I said prophetically, but I was wrong. Our youngest daughter, an angel of mercy, came by with cans of chicken noodle soup to deliver to her brother and her mother. Shortly after she left to go home (apparently about 100 feet down the driveway) she was stricken by the looming disaster and barely made it home before she emulated a digestive Mount Vesuvius. My turn came two hours later, as I knew it would. Now everyone was in bed moaning and muttering vile epithets except for me. I made it to the throne and Ralph and I communicated. I have no need to clip my toenails ever again because I vomited them along with, as best I could tell, everything I had eaten for the previous six weeks.

 

Euphemisms for the other ugly manifestation of “the bug” range from incredibly disgusting to the delicately phrased. No matter how you say it, it is the human equivalent of what happens to a volcano after weeks of ominous rumbling. Those poor souls in the shadow of Krakatoa perhaps didn’t know what was to come, violently and copiously, but I did and those first internal tremblings signaled the onset of perhaps the worst of the indignities heaped on victims of “the bug.”

 

It was to be in the immortal words of really bad writing “a dark and stormy night.” Not only was it the dark of the moon, but it was the dark of the soul, not to mention the digestive tract. Not a glimmer of light penetrated the inky blackness when I opened my eyes at 8 PM. It took a while for the truth to penetrate— the power had gone out.

 

Much later, when it didn’t matter, I found that a drunk 23-year-old girl had run off the road a quarter-mile from our home into a deep roadside gully, knocked over a power pole, and somehow, even though she was stupidly not wearing a seatbelt (but then she also stupidly was drunk) managed to avoid killing herself and her young daughter, who also was not wearing a seatbelt.

 

The only good news in the whole scenario was that she and the little girl survived. The bad news was that at the moment of digestive crisis for me I couldn’t see anything including the route to the bathroom. My cell phone was beside the bed and I knew it has a flashlight application but entrusting me with a cell phone is like entrusting a toddler with the nuclear football. I managed to fumble the phone into my hand, find the button that activated the screen, and pressed what I thought was the flashlight symbol. Instead it was for the camera function and I immediately began taking photographs of nothing.

 

At that critical moment my wife experienced a similar imperative and began to get out of bed growling that she couldn’t see anything and why wouldn’t the lights turn on? At the best of times her hearing is minimal and she was not wearing her hearing aids so I was reduced to shouting “Don’t get out of bed! Stay in bed! You’ll fall and hurt yourself!” And similar exhortations, all the while realizing that if I didn’t get to the bathroom quickly it was going to be a moot point.

 

But first I had to corral her there in the pitch black and get her back to bed. I fumbled through the dark, banging shins against furniture, door jambs and other impedimenta, and saying words from Chaucerian English. Cell phone in hand, resolutely clicking away at nothing, I fumbled toward the bathroom, losing more chunks of myself to sharp objects, cursing the idiot who said “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Since I had no candle and even if I had, no matches with which to light it, I settled for cursing the darkness.

 

Finally I reached the bathroom and at the moment when relief would have been in sight if I’d had any, I dropped the phone and, well, let’s just draw a veil over the next awful interval in this whole depressing drama.  We can sum it up by quoting my favorite euphemism “I’m about to attend a short-term weight loss program.”

 

We resume the narrative to when I remembered there is a flashlight in the mud room. That required another fumbling journey through several rooms and doorways, all invisible in the blackness. I managed to get the mud room door open and reflexively flipped the light switch. A big joke on me. I found the flashlight and turned it on and blessed light filled the room— for about 15 seconds. The flashlight is solar powered and apparently Mr. Sun had not shone brightly enough to keep the damn thing charged. The light dimmed and went out taking with it my only hope for salvation.

 

Back to bed. All we could do was lie there in our misery waiting for the power company to work its magic somewhere in the night and restore visibility. Time dragged on, putting it mildly, although there was nothing remotely mild about the whole situation. My cell phone might as well have been lying on the floor in a trapper’s cabin in Nome, Alaska, for all the good it was. I could’ve fumbled my way to the landline phone, but it wouldn’t have worked. My wife summed it up, at the top of her lungs, shouting “this is horrible! This is awful! Help!” People shout at hurricanes but it doesn’t stop them from blowing.

 

Among the family, only Eddie peacefully slumbered, unaware of the catastrophe unfolding around his loved ones.  One son writhed in misery up the hill from our house in the cabin where he lives, while a daughter a dozen miles away, similarly was occupied with hopes that perhaps a falling meteorite would obliterate her misery. Meanwhile the parental unit lay in the marital bed and I did not recall this mutual sharing of our lives together being part of the nuptial vows.

 

Finally, after several eons it occurred to me that the Kindle, on which I had been reading a book, before disaster struck, emits a screen light when turned on. Was this a possible pathway if not to salvation at least to the bathroom? I fumbled for the Kindle and managed to turn it on and for a brief few moments the room was dimly lit— the path to Paradise (the bathroom) lay before us. The problem was that the Kindle light lasted only seconds before fading out and then I had to fumble for the switch to turn it on again.

 

A note to Amazon: “How about equipping your Kindles with a powerful searchlight that stays on for more than 10 seconds, a service to those customers afflicted by what has colorfully been termed’  bubble guts’” and drunken girl power outages. Probably not a common occurrence, but one never knows.

 

So we made our way toward the bathroom, much as did Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in McDougall’s Cave, trying to find their way out. Tom discovered a hole in the wall of the cave through which he spied the Mississippi River. There was no visible hole in the wall of our house through which I even could spy our pond. But there also was no dreadful killer Injun Joe lurking in the dark, possibly the only small blessing in the entire episode.

 

Mark Twain I am not when writing about remembered trauma. So, Kindle led us haltingly through the house and I spied the cell phone in the middle of the bathroom floor. Sick or not, I called our ailing son who answered after a half-dozen rings. I don’t think he would’ve been happy if it had been the Publishers Clearing House representative, but he said, “I’ll be down” and shortly he appeared with the holy flashlight.

 

He somehow knew (I didn’t) that we had candles and, more importantly, where they were. Shortly he had one lit in the kitchen. He lit a second in the bedroom and an instant later the power came back on.

 

We all are well again, the drunk girl has lost her license, and Eddie once again is able to visit the houses that once were pestilent. So beware all thou who read this. The bug is out there.  On the CD player Patsy Cline exuberantly sings “Come on in and make yourself at home.”

 

You might want to bring a flashlight, though.

 

 

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  • Blog
  • January 7th, 2019

THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

By Joel M. Vance

I was watching, fascinated, as I always do as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clambered across George Washington’s face in the climactic scene of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Grant and Saint are trying to escape the bad guys who are, themselves, trying to flee the country in an airplane which had landed atop Mount Rushmore where the faces of four of our most prominent presidents are carved— George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

 

The Rushmore Monument was the creation of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants, born in Idaho territory. He also, uncomfortably, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and carved a bust of Robert E Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which should endear him to the fans of Donald Trump, currently the nation’s Bigot In Chief. His vision for the mountain was a relief of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

 

But he got in a fuss with the KKK and left the granite version of the Confederacy to others in favor of the Rushmore project (which does, however, contain a couple of Virginia boys—and who knows what side they would have taken, had they lived long enough to be involved in the Civil War).  The carving of Rushmore began in 1927 and was not finished until 1941. Borglum died before it was done but his son, Lincoln, oversaw the completion.

 

By the way, there is no such compass direction as North by Northwest but it makes a hell of a good movie title.  And there is no landing strip nor rustic mansion atop this mountain. I know, because once I parked along a highway that skirts the monument, and, probably violating all sorts of federal law, skulked through the woods and emerged at a point where I was looking directly up George Washington’s nose. I can testify that our first president’s nostril was free of nasal boogers.

 

Also in the family photo archives is a picture of our two oldest sons, JB and Eddie, as little kids (they both now have cracked past the half century mark) sitting on a rock in South Dakota with the images of the four presidents in the background. The occasion was a backpacking trip into the French Creek Wilderness, long ago, and the memory of that experience looms large in my mind. It was a trip to remember, daddy with his sons on an Odyssey of experience. Just as pioneer daddies took their sons via covered wagon and headed west, we did the same with a secondhand Pontiac station wagon and our secondhand camping gear and, as long as the fast food restaurants littering the landscape did not vanish, we did not face the dangers our forefathers did, including starvation and attacks by hostile natives.

 

We stopped briefly to gawk at the Nebraska National Forest, that state’s Mount Rushmore, a tribute to the obsession of one man with the idea of bringing forested land to sand dunes never meant to entertain trees. It is 142,000 acres established in 1907 after lobbying by J Sterling Morton, a newspaper publisher (who also founded Arbor Day and whose son founded the Morton salt company). At one time the Nebraska National Forest was the world’s largest artificial woodland. Almost prophetically Morton died in Lake Forest, Illinois.

 

We also took a driving tour through South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, a depressing revelation for anyone who has not seen the often degraded living conditions for modern Native Americans. For every tribe which has profited from casino gambling, there is one or more Pine Ridges wallowing in poverty and misery. The Indian, in smarmy and corny early Western literature termed “a noble Savage” all too often today is more likely a downtrodden relic of society.

 

Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation is where, in 1890, United States soldiers murdered more than 150 women, men and children in a massacre, one of many committed by the United States government against native tribes.  Perhaps it was revenge for what happened in June, 1876, In the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains in neighboring Wyoming where Gen. George Armstrong Custer led 268 troopers into an ambush by thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe people. Custer, the arrogant Donald Trump of his day, ignored all the warning signs of disaster and marched over the hill into the history books and barroom posters depicting  “Custer’s last stand.”

 

We also made a stop in Wind Cave National Park where the boys romped through a prairie dog village. There is a photo of Eddie crouching in front of a prairie dog burrow, probably waiting for a prairie dog to pop up so he could surprise it. It wasn’t until later that I found that rattlesnakes often appropriate prairie dog holes. Thank goodness we didn’t find out the hard way whose surprise it would’ve been.

 

South Dakota currently is the repository of sculpted mountains. Not only is there Mount Rushmore showing the snouts of four of our most illustrious presidents, but 17 miles away is Mount Thunderhead with the unfinished visage of Crazy Horse, among the most famous Native American warrior chiefs (he was prominent among those who did in Custer).  Work on the tribute to the Lakota warrior began in 1948 and is far from completed. It is funded by contributions and is privately owned. Although it was originated by Native Americans, it is controversial with quite a few leading Native American leaders opposed to the idea. Russell Means, a Lakota activist said “It’s an insult to our higher being. It’s bad enough getting four white faces carved in up there, the shrine of hypocrisy.” The four white faces, of course, being the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

 

Given Donald Trump’s propensity for shoving his face in front of his faithful mob of semi literate devotees it’s a wonder he hasn’t co-opted Crazy Horse in favor of altering the face of the Indian luminary to his own. Instead of Crazy Horse, we would have Crazy Horse’s Ass.

 

Or perhaps he could appropriate Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, given his propensity for interfering with national parks to serve his own selfish purposes. He could have his pet sculptors chisel his fat mug on the mountain, a curiosity to educate future generations as to the excesses to which a combination of sociopathy and narcissism can lead a powerful nutcase.

 

I dislike the descriptions “Indian” and “native Americans.” Early white explorers thought they had reached India. They were wrong by half a planet. And native Americans likely are an amalgamation of immigrants from northern Asia who reached what now is the United States by crossing a land bridge between Asia and North America that no longer exists and immigrants from Africa who reached what now is the United States by way of South and Central America. Why not call them what these long ago immigrants call themselves: “first nation peoples”?  That’s more accurate— they were the first nation in North America until northern European invaders immigrated (make that “invaded”) and took it away from them.

 

We met Foster Sadler, my best friend, in Custer State Park and an old bull bison ambled through the campground looking powerful enough to head butt Winnebagos but instead of targeting RVs it wandered off to do what bison do when not titillating tourists.  Foster was en route to Alaska during his summer vacation from high school teaching and hoped to make it there and back in time for the start of school–but it seemed like a good idea to stop off at scenic layovers along the route. Especially when I told him that French Creek, while not likely to result in a new gold strike, was supposed to be a blue ribbon trout stream.

 

We came at last to the trail leading into the French Creek natural area, a 12 mile one-way passage along the tiny creek which in 1874 was the site of a gold discovery during an expedition led by none other than George Armstrong Custer, who has a lot to answer for. The resultant gold rush into what the first nation peoples considered sacred land was one of the more egregious outrages against the folks who were there first.

 

The boys sported identical kid-sized backpacks. I had a two-piece ultralight fly rod made for me by a local craftsman which I was anxious to try in French Creek. And somehow I snagged it on a trailside bush that leaped out of the shadows and neatly snapped my fairy wand in two. What would George Armstrong Custer do in similar dire circumstances aside from getting himself killed? I was woefully short on Superglue but abundantly supplied with ponderosa pine pitch. I cobbled together a lumpy Band-Aid and proceeded to catch a couple of beautiful rainbow trout. Foster added another one or two and we eagerly anticipated a breakfast of fresh caught trout. What could be better? During the night, while we peacefully slept beneath the carpet of wilderness stars, the local raccoons dragged our stringer of trout from the stream and enjoyed a midnight snack.

 

While we were examining the carcasses of what was to be our breakfast, Eddie exclaimed “What are those?” There on a bald spot atop a hill, at least a mile away, was a herd of elk. They heard us talking and slowly ambled into the woods. It wasn’t such a bad morning after all.

 

En route home to Missouri we drove across Nebraska’s Western reaches on Highway Two, among the most scenic but also among the most lonely roads in the nation. At that time the speed limit was 55 mph, the result of a shortage of oil because Donald Trump’s current best friend nation, Saudi Arabia, and its OPEC neighbors had cut production and created a gasoline shortage of historic proportions. There aren’t many gas stations in the Nebraska Sandhills, but a squeezed off gasoline supply didn’t stop the Nebraska Highway Patrol from lurking.  God only knows where the trooper was hiding in that empty wasteland, but JB said “Dad, there’s a police car behind us.” Sure enough, in the rearview mirror I spied flashing lights. It was the only car I’d seen for many miles but it was an official one and equally surely I was exceeding the 55 mile an hour speed limit.

 

The trooper showed true Western hospitality and assured me that I could follow him into the nearest town (which, way out there, isn’t all that near) and pay my fine and be on my way. He found out how much money I had left and told me that was just enough to pay the fine with a bit left over for cheeseburgers and fries to get me and the boys back to the Show Me state.  They tell you not to leave home without your American Express card, but unfortunately I didn’t have one— although I did have American Express travelers checks and it turned out those were perfectly acceptable to the local magistrate who looked remarkably like Edgar Buchanan the old-time actor often featured in Western movies as a disreputable old reprobate.

 

So, I paid my fine, and the three of us continued on toward Missouri at 55 mph and the state trooper resumed his hidey-hole behind a convenient sand dune, awaiting the next unwary traveler. It’s uncharitable to gripe about a deserved speeding ticket, because Nebraska is a fine state, but I hope he’s still waiting, 45 years later.

 

Since that long ago road trip Foster has gone down a darker trail, destination unknown, with no return route. The boys have passed the half century mark and I have put a checkmark beside many another trail. But the memory of French Creek is as golden in my mind as was the gravel of that little waterway to those who tried the trail so long ago, bringing the white man’s grief to the citizens of the first nation.

 

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  • December 28th, 2018

ME AND SKINNY SKIS

By Joel M. Vance

I don’t need Donald J Trump, that pus-filled boil on the body politic and his dimwitted acolytes to tell me there is no such thing as climate change. I’ve seen it happening for eight decades. Winters are getting warmer, no doubt about it—even though we still have the occasional blizzards to give the weather forecasters something to talk about.

 

When our first born daughter, Carrie, was one week old in the first days of January, 1960, one of the heaviest snowfall winters in modern recorded history, en route to a doctor’s checkup, we dropped her in a snowdrift. Cushioned by the deep snow, she was uninjured and we fished her out, horrified as new parents, but grateful that she was too young to be traumatized by the incident.

 

Although, you have to wonder. She chose to go to college at Bemidji State University, located in one of the coldest cities in the nation, and spent the first 35 years of her adult life in Minnesota, a state where ice anglers in the winter possibly outnumber normal wet water anglers in the summer. And when she finally moved with her husband, Ron, it was to the snowcapped Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

 

Along the way, Carrie and I both learned to cross country ski— negotiating snowy slopes on skinny skis. It’s known as Nordic skiing as opposed to downhill or Alpine skiing I was a pioneer cross-country skier in our home city and credit myself with bringing awareness of cross-country skiing to a town that previously had only known the occasional foray by the YMCA and a few others to Colorado to downhill ski at that state’s many resorts.

 

Before winter became as balmy in Missouri as it is in most of those states south of the Mason-Dixon line I had accumulated a cadre of skinny ski aficionados who haunted the local golf course with me on snowy days. I recall one such day, sunny and 13°, with a hefty covering of ski-able snow. After a couple of hours of the kind of exercise that everyone recommends and few practice, we retired to warm places and laced ourselves with hot chocolate. That was a quintessential good old day, not experienced since.

 

Some of us adventurous thirtysomething couples did make trips to Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, and Crested Butte in Colorado to downhill ski (once we got trapped by a Kansas blizzard on Interstate 70 and spent the night camped out in a Stuckey’s, sleeping under rock ashtrays and other detritus offered for sale by that defunct quick stop franchise) but none of our downhill ski group ever switched to skinny skis except for me. There didn’t seem to be any thrill in what , to them, amounted to a form of super jogging when compared to the excitement of “balls to the wall” downhill racing on black diamond slopes.

 

I was never comfortable on downhill skis which had a disconcerting habit of developing terrifying speed instantly that defied my ability to control it. It was like a 14-year-old boy sitting in the family car waiting for daddy and deciding that it would be delicious fun to shift into reverse and gingerly step on the gas to see what would happen. What happened (and I know because the 14-year-old was me) was that the car instantly lurched backward crunching into someone else’s vehicle. It only takes a moment of loss of control on downhill skis to turn me back into a 14-year-old, terrified of what daddy will find out when he returns to the family car and what he will do about it.

 

Only one time did I venture downhill on cross-country skis. I made it from top to bottom without breaking anything skeletal, but was not inspired to try it again. I did learn the mystery of the telemark turn and it came in handy when my skinny skis began to pick up far more speed than I was comfortable with. Until the summer before my venture downhill, I had no idea what a telemark turn was. My wife, Marty, and I were staying at a Colorado resort and met a young couple on their honeymoon. After we got back to Missouri, I read an article in Sports Illustrated magazine about a young man who had rediscovered something called the telemark turn. His name was Rick Borkovec and he was the young man who was honeymooning with his new wife. He had seen an old Norwegian using the telemark and he experimented until he mastered it in 1971 and introduced it as a member of the Crested Butte resort ski patrol in the 1980s.

 

Rediscovery of the telemark turn also is credited to a fellow named Dick Hall, a Killington, Vermont, skier who, back in the 1970s, read about the telemark in an old ski book which described it as a turn obsolete and not used anymore. Regardless of the credit for rediscovering the telemark, it is a useful if esoteric method of turning the skis from straight ahead to one side or the other, preferably before the skier hits an unforgiving tree head on (ask Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher about the results of that).

 

Anyone who has downhill skied knows that the ski boots are firmly fastened to the boards and turns are made by unweighting and leaning the body whichever way you want to turn. The telemark has to compensate for the fact that your heels are free from the skis which, of course, want to keep going straight when you want to turn. The answer is to thrust one ski forward of the other, arms akimbo, and crouch on the trailing ski leaning into the turn kind of like a plane banking for an approach to the runway. If it works as advertised, the skis obligingly will turn the way you want them to. If not, you will emulate the late Sonny Bono.

 

Or, you could be born and raised in Norway, and save me the trouble of trying to explain something that you either can Google, experiment on your own, a la Borkovec and Hall, or forget the whole thing because, with climate warming, you probably won’t have to worry about telemark turns anyway.

 

 One Christmas we visited Carrie and her husband, Ron, in Minnesota and cross-country skied at the Minnesota Zoo, gliding on groomed trails past timber wolves, moose, and incongruously a camel. The camel, which most of us associate with the searing heat of the Sahara Desert, seemed perfectly at home in subzero temperatures, which was more than we could say about ourselves and as dedicated as we were to cross-country skiing, it was a relief to shed them and head for a warm building and something hot to drink.

 

Visualize a cold winter night clear and shot with stars, the moon a pale fingernail amid the sparkle of the heavens. A snowstorm has passed, leaving 8 inches of fluffy white over Jefferson City. There is no traffic, the snowplows are not yet out, and the streets are silent—what few house lights show indicate that the inhabitants are holed up, watching television or probably asleep.

 

We lived halfway down a steep hill two blocks from a municipal golf course which was my personal cross country ski area. Given the new snow and the absence of traffic, I could ski up the hill negotiate the two blocks to the golf course and glide onto the top of a hill (Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, is built on a Missouri River bluff and is a series of ups and downs). I could spend as long as I wanted there in the night, skiing the hills and valleys of the golf course, sometimes with the family collie for company, mostly alone. It was peaceful there in the night, just me and the stars (and maybe the dog). The skis made little sound. My first set of cross-country skis required waxing to achieve grip on the snow, but later ones featured a herringbone bottom which grips the snow and allowed me to climb hills without sliding backward.

 

Thank God for this invention which obviates the necessity of waxing the ski bottoms so they will hold on upward inclines. Waxing involves coating the ski bottom with varying consistencies of wax, depending on the consistency of the snow.  It is done with the delicate artistry of a Renaissance painter creating a masterpiece for the ages. But as soon as you get this goo coated on your skis, the sun comes out, the snow softens, and the wax you applied so carefully does not apply anymore.

 

Waxing, in short, is a massive pain. I gave my wooden skis to a fellow who was a classic sociopath—the world revolved about him and he was a genius at absorption— he absorbed ideas and recycled them as his own,  anything that had the possibility of benefiting him, no matter whom he hurt in the process. I told him about waxing, enjoying the possibility that he would smear both the skis and his self proclaimed reputation for expertise in all things— but a day or two later he was pontificating about ski waxing to a credulous group and you would have thought he was born in Norway and had invented ski waxing all by himself. It was a happy day for me when we mutually decided never again to be associated with each other in any way.

 

I consigned my left over containers  of ski wax to the trash bin, bought a new set of waxless skis and headed for the golf course.

 

This is the way it used to be before we stopped having enough snow in winter to allow cross-country skiing in mid-Missouri. We still have the occasional snow and even more occasionally enough snow to call it a snowstorm— but we don’t have lasting snow anymore. It melts off in a day or two and we’re back to the rocks and red dirt that is the base of Cole County. A half-dozen sets of cross-country skis rest in a rack in our mud room, unused for years now.

 

They have seen their day and, I guess, I have too.  With my luck, if I ever have a chance to return to cross-country skiing on a star shot night with a fresh and trackless newfallen snow, and a deserted golf course calling to me, I probably will discover that Donald J Trump has bought the damn thing and is charging half a million bucks to use it .

 

That climate change is real is not in dispute, despite Donald Trump’s ignorant refusal to accept reality. Hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico and parts of the southern United States, the state of California is burning to the ground which Trump, with his typical massive ignorance, blames on poor forest management (apparently every citizen should be issued a leaf rake with his or her birth certificate so they can comb the forests clean of combustible material— a proposal that is so incredibly stupid as to make you wonder how Donald J Trump ever got past the fourth grade). Half of the 10 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred in the last year, the result of drought caused by climate change, not the result of poor leaf management.

 

But enough of the depressing news— better to remember those long ago snowy nights when the world seemed clean and glistened under starlight and there was no turmoil at least for a couple of hours when I could glide over the pristine hills and dales of the local golf course with nothing more portentous on my mind than whether we had enough hot chocolate mix at home when I racked up the skis at the front door and entered into the gentle welcome of home.

 

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  • December 21st, 2018

SILENT NIGHT

By Joel M. Vance

 

The machine itself has long since gone to the great dustbin of useless appliances that have outlived their life and practicality, along with coffeemakers, toasters, and other kitchen utensils with a built-in shelf life which give up the ghost, not with a bang or even a whimper but that simply quit working.

 

This machine was obsolete before I got it uncomfortably more than half a century ago, but one artifact from its short and unremarkable life still exists somewhere in the clutter of my audio recordings which range from 78 RPM discs barely out of the Edison era to today’s compact disc which, they tell me, also is obsolete. Forgive me for feeling more than a little obsolete myself as we close in on yet another Christmas.

 

The artifact that still exists is a recording, made with a disc recording machine, which is the way that old Tom Edison did it, and the reason that we still today can hear the voice of Enrico Caruso and other long dead historic personages. On this particular disc recording, there are no Carusos— only the Joel Vance family, father mother and son, singing “ Silent Night”. The von Trapp family we are not.

 

If you have heard Johnny Cash and the Carter Family sing “Daddy Sang Bass” you can get some idea of what we were trying to achieve on that long ago Christmas recording. Not that we would ever be mistaken for the Carter/Cash clan. My daddy was singing bass, obviously self-consciously, and mama I think was trying to be as inaudible as possible in the background, while I contributed a warbley barely post-adolescent tenor.

 

The recording machine was my parents’ gift to me for Christmas, 1949, something I had lusted over so I could record myself, the first step toward country music stardom. That goofy dream, along with the recording machine, which already had been superseded in electronic invention by tape-recording, also has joined the toasters and coffee machines of yesteryear in the dustbin of memory.

 

On this recording, I am accompanying the family choir on a Sears Silvertone, orchestra model guitar, which had the action of a fence post strung with baling wire. After a session, wrestling with this so-called musical instrument my fingers felt as if I had been pounding on them with a meat mallet, and if the old Silvertone is any indication, it’s no wonder that Sears and Company has followed its infernal recording device and condemned musical instrument into history.

 

The process of recording was to position a blank recording disk on the turntable of the machine, needle resting on what would become the first groove in the wax of the disc, set the controls for volume, tone and whatever else was involved, position the microphone so it would capture the voices of Vances, pere, mere, and squeaky kid, caution everyone to be at their vocal best and launch into the unknown.

 

It has been a long time since I’ve resuscitated that recording of “Silent Night,“ but with Christmas upon us, I would like to unearth it from the audio vault and hear once again my father and mother—not so much me, but those voices of loved ones long gone.

 

I’ve had two Christmas traditions in my life, one the first 14 years of it when I was born and raised in Chicago and if you have seen the movie A Christmas Story (and who hasn’t) you see the story of those 14 years. I was the living Ralphie. Virtually the only thing different was that no aging aunt gave me a bunny costume. But the careful selection of a tree (which usually looked like the one that was left when all the good ones had been selected), careful stringing of lights, the trip downtown to see the window displays at Marshall Field’s department store, the snow!, Ah, the snow! White Christmas! We had snow. Lake Michigan hulked right at Chicago’s doorstep and howling northern winds sucked up lake water and created snow that blanketed the city. Snowmen, snowball fights, angel figures in newfallen snow, galoshes, “be sure to wear your gloves so your hands don’t get cold”

 

But they did get cold, blue and numb with the cold and we didn’t care. Christmas was coming! I didn’t want a Red Ryder BB gun more than anything (I actually did get one a year or two later)–I wanted a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone guitar so I could sing like Gene Autry and maybe, if there was such a thing as a Red Ryder Colt 45 BB gun, that too so I could shoot Black Bart and his gang of old West desperados. But I settled for snowballs which, if you kneaded them long enough, turned to ice balls that were every bit as lethal as 45 caliber slugs. In summer time, we played burnout catch with baseballs so I could throw with pretty good velocity and an ice ball accurately placed could have the neighbor kid howling for his mama.

 

Once I saved the pennies from my meager allowance and bought my mother tea kettle for Christmas. She didn’t drink tea and a kettle for heating water was about as useful to her as a calf roping lariat, but she hugged me and thanked me with moist eyes and I felt 10 feet tall and every bit as noble as Gene Autry. I just couldn’t sing and play the guitar like him. That damn Silvertone. And then we moved to Missouri and a whole new world of Christmases.

 

My father gave up a middle-class salesman’s job and a comfortable apartment in Chicago for a ramshackle former railroad hotel in Dalton Missouri with an income that was, to put it charitably, limited. All the money that came in from a large farm investment went right back into the debt on the farm and what was left over was what we lived on. Christmas presents were likely to be, for me anyway, a new shirt or two and a new pair of jeans.  And that would get me through the school year. We moved from that Chicago apartment to a wreck of a building that had been built largely from timbers salvaged from an 1800s Missouri River steamboat wreck.

 

It had served in its heyday as a haven for traveling salesman on the railroad which ran through Dalton. The all too common trains still passed through the town less than 100 yards across the gravel street from where we lived. It took adjustment to deal with the midnight blare from the passing freight trains, but we got used to it.

 

We still decorated a Christmas tree. Hanging lights and tinsel and the same ornaments we had used in Chicago. Christmas tree lights were a tribulation which, had my father been a cussing type like Ralphie’s Old Man, would’ve had him fuming because when one light in a string of those ancient times went out, they all went out and you spent hours trying to isolate the offender and replace it with a working bulb.

 

We didn’t decorate the ramshackle Dalton hotel the way Ralphie’s Old Man did their suburban home because, given the condition of the old building, the weight of the kind of Christmas light decorations, common today, probably would have caused the place to collapse. And my Old Man didn’t get a wonderful leg lamp as a major award by having the winning ticket in a local movie theater giveaway, since there was no local movie theater giving away leg lamps.

 

The only movie theater in the area was the El Jon in Brunswick where I once saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys live on stage before what probably was a gene Autry Western. I didn’t appreciate that I was experiencing country music history, trapped as I was in my fantasy of becoming a future Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy.

 

  I should have realized that fantasy was only a fantasy, when I was tapped by my mother into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for our Methodist Church congregation, and a wasp fell on my neck mid song and stung me and I said a word inappropriate for a house of worship. Fortunately, most everyone was bored to insensibility and didn’t hear me or I would’ve had my mouth washed out with soap, like Ralphie when he said the forbidden word. I did however experience a Lifeboy mouthwash once when I called a little kid a son of a B. I didn’t even finish the phrase, but my mother overheard the beginning and introduced me to the concept of sucking on a bar of soap to cure me of inappropriate comment.

 

Three people in a ramshackle old building in the year just before mid century (and that is the last century, not this one) tentatively singing “All is calm/all is bright” into a cheap microphone which in turn fed into an already obsolete recording machine. Chaps, the family half springer, half cocker spaniel lounged nearby and was in her prime and had adapted to life in the country, far removed from her origin in a pet shop in Chicago Illinois, to become a consummate squirrel dog in front of my father, armed with a 22 caliber Winchester single shot rifle.

 

This was a new life for me, a city kid from birth, but a return to their roots for my mother and father. My mother was born to a pioneer family in northern Wisconsin, a land of lakes and forest. My father was raised on a hard rock Missouri farm where self-sufficiency was imperative—either that or perish .

 

So this was 69 years ago, barely past the end of World War II and not quite the beginning of the Korean War. Since then we have been in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—with no end of the latter war in sight. The world is in turmoil, the country is divided as never before, we’re saddled with a president who apparently was elected mostly by help from an enemy nation that was just becoming such when my parents and I sang “Silent Night” so long ago.

 

I remember…..

 

There is snow on the ground outside the old hotel and maybe the few Dalton kids will get together later on and sled down the hill a few feet east of the hotel, picking up speed, rocketing across the deserted street, angling left and across the railroad tracks and almost as far as the hardware store. This was when Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” meant just that. This was when Christmas was not just an occasion for a manic shopping spree, when people gathered in church whether they were churchy types or not, when everyone knew the words to familiar Christmas carols and when everyone believed in the concept of Santa Claus even when they knew better.

 

It takes the perspective of age to be able to remember that the years Immediately after the horror of World War II was an era of unbridled prosperity and that things were not just different but better. Climate change was there but we didn’t know it.  It snowed in wintertime and steamed in summer, but we had seasons and we made the best of them. We sledded and had snowball fights and built snowmen and made angels in the snow. Can’t we, as a world, take a day or two off from strife and anguish and live out the promise of the Christmas holiday of yesteryear, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background or any other consideration that muddies our lives in today’s world?

 

And we sang “Silent Night” as a family and Christmas came upon a midnight clear and we were happy and we huddled close to a microphone and sang for the ages. “Sleep in heavenly peace…..”  And that’s why I get a lump in my throat every time I hear “Silent Night” that has nothing to do sinus drainage.

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  • December 14th, 2018

TASTE TREAT?

By Joel M. Vance

Here’s the difference. When a Norwegian dies and goes to Heaven he is delighted to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner. When the rest of us die and go to Hell we are horrified to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner.

 

That is, of course, assuming that the rest of us have ever eaten lutefisk. I have— once. It was a traumatic culinary experience that, this side of the Fiery Furnace, I don’t want to repeat. Lutefisk is an ethnic dish, peculiar to those of Scandinavian extraction, and is not likely to be found in mainstream eateries. There is no such thing as a McLutifisk and, God willing, there never will be— although it really doesn’t matter to me since I never scuttle under the Golden Arches for an instant heart attack anyway.

 

For the uninitiated (and the initiation is akin to what fraternities in the past deemed Hell Week) is a dish of jellied fish that shimmers on the plate much as did alien blobs of matter in 1950s science fiction horror films. Those blobs often morphed into substances that enveloped people, houses and even whole cities. One look at a plate glistening with lutefisk is enough to make one fear for the safety of the old home place.

 

There is an ill logic in lutefisk from the get-go. The concept is to desiccate fish after they emerge sensibly damp from the water in which they live, then rehydrate them through the use of toilet bowl cleanser (lye) and then eat them. I grew up believing that when you catch a fish in its moist condition, you eat it then not after you parch it and resurrect it. Perhaps there is some sort of Biblical parallel here that I missed.

 

I know someone is going to tell me that drying fish is a way to preserve them especially on long ocean voyages to discover new worlds. Thus, the Vikings were able to load up their ships with dried fish and head out for Manhattan so they could inflict Native Americans with lutefisk.

 

Pres. Trump with his usual erratic grasp of reality recently said that this country needs fewer immigrants from places he deemed as “shithole countries” and import more immigrants from Norway. I would suggest that Trump be weaned from big Macs and be forced to eat a heaping plate of lutefisk, every bite, which, I would be willing to bet, would temper his enthusiasm for immigrants from Scandinavia and possibly even engender an affection for shredded chicken quesadillas, to which I am addicted.  I have to say that if I were an immigrant stopped at the southern border of the United States and ordered to eat lutefisk before being deported, I would say, “Please take me to the nearest Taco Bell and give me a bus ticket heading south.”

 

In the fairytale, a princess kissed a frog and it turned into the vintage Brad Pitt. The process by which a fish especially a dead one, is turned into lutefisk sounds like a research chemist’s worst nightmare.  At least the frog wasn’t dead, a circumstance of great relief for the princess. In the case of the dead fish, all it took was a hungry Scandinavian, origin lost to history, who wasn’t fussy about what he ate and the process by which it arrived on his dinner plate.

 

Children, even babies, when plagued by an inability to fill their nappies, often are dosed with cod liver oil, a ghastly remedy for all that ails toddlers who usually bring kicking and screaming to new levels when confronted with a spoonful of the puréed residue of a dead codfish.  Cod liver oil is portrayed as a miracle cure for all that ails the little ones and there are even are capsules of it flavored like bubblegum. You try convincing a five-year-old that the pill you’re holding actually is Double Bubble and you are well on the way as a parent to creating an adult who not only no longer believes in Santa Claus, but also does not believe that Donald J Trump is God’s representative for the Second Coming.

 

It is the codfish, liver and all, in dried form which constitutes the bulk of lutefisk— but not without first undergoing a chemical transformation last seen when Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. Or think of poor Lawrence Talbot as the Wolf Man howling at a full moon and sprouting facial hair all the way down to his toenails.

 

Here is how you too can create lutefisk: acquire a dead codfish (you can use ling or turbot, according to Wikipedia) and dry it by hanging it in the sun until it looks like the tongue of an old boot.  You can dry fish in your oven, but anything baked you serve guests for decades to come is likely to have the faint aroma of something that you scraped off the deck of your rowboat.  In my Missouri home waters we have fish such as largemouth bass, bluegills, and even trout— not cod, ling or turbot.  And while our native fish often make it to the dinner table, it is as beloved entrées not jellied lab experiments.

 

Anyway, you dry your dead fish and you’re well on the way to lutefisk. Now you soak the dehydrated fish in cold water for five or six days, changing the water each day. Now comes the part that should daunt you, if you already are not so bemused that you have dismissed the theory that the Vikings discovered America rather than Columbus because they must have all died of ptomaine poisoning somewhere near Greenland.

 

Enter the part of the process involving toilet bowl cleanser. Plunk your soaked fish into a solution of cold water and lye for two more days. Wikipedia says that at the end of the two days the fish is caustic. The definition of caustic is “a corrosive substance which will damage or destroy other substances with which it comes into contact by means of a chemical reaction.” How does that tingle the old taste buds? You have now reached the stage of meal preparation where your dinner theoretically can eat you rather than the other way around.

 

One thing to remember— if, as a non-Scandinavian, you are revolted by lutefisk and can manage to sneak off to the restroom with your plate full of it, you can flush it down the toilet, confident in the knowledge that not only are you ridding yourself of a noxious substance, you also are sanitizing the potty.

 

Obviously, you need to defuse the entrée and this is done by soaking the lye infused fish in cold water for an additional two days to remove the caustic lye. Note that the application of cold water is essential in preparing lutefisk. If you watch any of the various Alaskan television shows where dried fish is common, you might deduce that cold is an essential part of Arctic food preparation. Cold air combined with cold water is common in Alaska, but not so much in, say, Florida  which may explain why you rarely if ever will be invited to a lutefisk dinner in Key West. There, ask not for lutefisk and lefse but settle for a grouper sandwich.

 

Note also on the Alaska television shows that dried fish rather than becoming lutefisk is fed to the sled dogs. So far, Purina does not offer Lutefisk Kibble as trail food for teams entered in the Iditarod.

 

It’s not that I have an aversion to ethnic food. Actually I have embraced exotic dishes from other cultures many times. I once ate rattlesnake which was like chewing a piece of garden hose—it seemed to grow larger the more I chewed. I also once sampled escargot, a French delicacy, but could not escape the feeling that I was dining on garden slugs. Having once stepped on a garden slug barefoot, eating one was not a pleasant experience. Some foods are meant to be sampled once and only once. As one fellow said about lutefisk, “I tried lutefisk twice—once going down and once coming up.”

 

There are two traditional side dishes, designed to make lutefisk palatable to the hitherto uninitiated— Swedish meatballs (delectable) and lefse which eaten by itself, is kind of like pizza dough left uncooked and untopped by anything (i.e. tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms, or cheese). Lefse can be made palatable by generous applications of butter, jelly, jam or preserves. The meatballs are good enough that perhaps the Vikings made it to Nova Scotia on them alone, the lutefisk having given out before they all died of gastric agony.

 

 

Once, on a ruffed grouse hunt in northern Minnesota I attended a lutefisk dinner at the local Lutheran Church.  The church basement was crowded, tinged with the delicate aroma of Scandinavian cuisine simmering on the kitchen stove. We gathered around a bench which I shared with a beefy Norwegian who stared at a plate glistening with a heaping serving of lutefisk as if he were staring through the gates of Paradise. I am willing to bet that his surname no matter how it began ended in “son”. This, being a house of worship, it was obvious to me what he was worshiping at the moment. Also in a house of prayer, I was silently praying for deliverance from what he was eating.

 

He plowed through the heap of fish Jell-O making occasional sounds of orgasmic pleasure. He slathered butter both on the lutefisk and lefse and they vanished as if by magic. There was no sound of chewing— just gurgles of gratification.  Almost before he had begun, he was finished. I toyed with my lefse, ignoring the lutefisk, half afraid it might come to life.

 

My Scandinavian friend (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Finnish—they all eat lutefisk) stifled a satisfied belch, rose and said, “by dang, dot’s gude lutefisk. Tink I’ll git some more before dey run out. You vant some?” He looked suspiciously at my untouched lutefisk as if suspecting I might be a foreigner from someplace south of The Cities. I certainly had zero desire to fight him for any lutefisk leftovers— after all, it was a church basement, and you don’t want to fight a Minnesotan anyway for fear a hockey game might break out.

 

I resisted saying, “Yah sure, you betcha!” And settled for a simple murmured “no thanks.” And he lumbered away toward the serving counter.  And thus ended my one and only lutefisk dinner, not with a bang but a belch, the soothing aftertaste of Swedish meatballs in my mouth, and a lingering hint of fish Jell-O in my nasal passages.

 

Uff Da!

 

 

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  • December 7th, 2018

THE SOUTH RISES AGAIN

By 
Joel M. Vance

Well, it’s official, the United States Senate welcomes into its ranks the state of Mississippi’s most prominent aficionado of public lynching, reaffirming Mississippi’s status as the nation’s most prominent bastion of racial intolerance.

 

Anyone who read the news over the last several weeks before the runoff election in Mississippi, knows that Cindy Hyde-Smith commented that if a supporter “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” This was taken by many as a reference to Mississippi’s leading role as a hotspot for African-American lynchings over the last century and, although Ms. Hyde-Smith apologized, sort of, the mud clung to her, along with several other racially insensitive episodes— wearing Confederate paraphernalia in the Jefferson Davis Museum, attending a whites only school, and sending her daughter to another one.

 

All these clues pointing to the possibility that Ms. Hyde-Smith is not exactly a paragon of racial equality made no difference to the majority of voters who upheld Mississippi’s reputation as the capital of racial intolerance in the Western world.  Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose resemblance to Margaret Hamilton made up as the Wicked Witch of the West, save for the fact that she is not green (and, for God’s sake, don’t color her black) is remarkable, defeated Mike Espy, an African-American, for the interim Senate seat vacated by retired Thad Cochran.

 

It was a runoff election that was closer than it was supposed to be in Mississippi where the world redneck population routinely elects racist candidates, and has done so since Republicans were Democrats. I know this is true because from 1956 to 1959 I lived and worked in Montgomery Alabama, a similarly racist state, and was surrounded by the racial turbulence of the time— it was kind of like swimming in a cesspool.

 

When I worked in Montgomery, the South was solidly Democrat and solidly segregated and solidly represented by such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and, especially, the White Citizen’s Councils, which really were no different than the Klan except they didn’t cover themselves with bedclothes. The poster child for Alabama was Bull Connors the police chief of Birmingham, who turned police dogs and fire hoses loose on civil rights workers who were there to get black voters registered.  Elected representatives of the South as I experienced it were universally white andwere an All-Star team of historic racists, including Mississippi’s own Senator James Eastland.

 

Eastland was a Mississippi senator twice—once in 1941, and then from 1947 to 1978. He teamed with John Stennis who also was a Democrat for 36 years. Eastland was the son of a cotton planter and, as an ironic twist of history, began his Senate career as an interim appointee in 1941, serving out the term of Pat Harrison who died in office— and Ms. Hyde-Smith likewise is serving as an interim appointee.

 

The fact that Eastland was a Democrat, Hyde-Smith a Republican is meaningless. Between the 1950s and now the South underwent a convulsive party shift during which Democrats became more progressive and racially tolerant and the reverse was true for the Republican Party. Sure, Mike Espy is a Democrat but that doesn’t mean that the South is reverting to its Democrat heritage. Mike Espy is an African-American and served in the Obama administration. He is black and I can’t help but feel the historic racial animosity is why Hyde-Smith edged him out. Perhaps it is consoling in the fact that the race was closer than anyone expected but that still is small consolation when a white person with a history of racial intolerance goes to the Senate and the far more qualified candidate is defeated.

 

There is much that I admire about the state of Mississippi. Some of the greatest blues musicians in history hailed from the Delta region of the state, especially Mississippi John Hurt, a gentle innovator who developed a fingerpicking blues style unlike that of any of his contemporaries. And that same Delta region produced and continues to produce some of the finest duck hunting in North America. And let’s not forget some pretty good writers— William Faulkner for starters, Eudora Welty, whose short stories are as good as short stories get, and, despite his nickname, renowned playwright Tennessee Williams. How about Richard Wright whose landmark book Native Son is among the best novels ever written by an African-American….or anyone else

 

In 1890 Mississippi passed a state constitution which included  poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries to exclude African-American voters. There have been enough reforms over the years to allow African-American voters a muted voice in Mississippi politics—enough that Mike Espy became a serious challenger to a white candidate, but the state still retains enough of its racist identity to deny black people a voice in the United States government. For Espy to have won the Senate seat, he needed the majority of African-American votes plus a percentage of white voters, maybe as many as a quarter of those who went to the polls. He didn’t get it. Thus, the American system of “People’s choice” operated, but you have to question whether the way it worked is to the benefit of everyone in the country. The Republican ruled Senate continues to be a good old white boys club. There are 42 white male Republican senators and, although there are several woman Republican senators, only one is African-American.

 

The South, during my interminable three years living there was a stewpot of social injustice. Alabama featured such political lowlifes as George Wallace and James Patterson. There was Orville Faubus in Arkansas, Strom Thurmond in South Carolina (who fathered a child with a black family maid) and, of course, Eastland in Mississippi—all paragons of white supremacy, trading their hooded robes for the conservative garb of political leadership. Occasionally, a shaft of racial reform pierced the storm clouds of racism like a ray of welcome sunshine—but those moments were rare.

 

Alabama’s goofy governor, Big Jim Folsom, ignited a firestorm of criticism when he invited black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stay in the Governor’s mansion. But everybody knew that Big Jim was a nutty drunk and forgave him his trespass. And in the next door state, Louisiana’s governor, Earl Long, was a free thinker (with emphasis on the “thinker”) who crusaded for improved teacher pay, minority voting rights, and expanding school lunch programs.  Folsom said this, “As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them.”  Unfortunately, big Jim died long ago and his legacy is more as an eccentric oddity, rather than a progressive.

 

Now, Alabama features such political senatorial wannabes as Roy Moore, a pedophile who was so odious as a candidate that even the endorsement of the racist President, Donald J Trump, couldn’t save him. It’s worth noting that Trump, whose father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, also traveled to Mississippi to stump for Hyde-Smith. I admit that it’s not fair to saddle the son with the sins of the father, but in this case the father set up his arrogant kid in business and together they forged a history of corruption in both business and politics which should permeate every voting booth in the country with an unbearable stink. But in places like Mississippi, too many voters just hold their noses and checkmark the box marked GOP. Does that stand for Grand Old Party or Grungy Old Putrid?

 

Earl Long once joked that “One day the people of Louisiana will elect good government and they won’t like it!” Long was rewarded for his progressive mindset by, among others, his wife who tried to have him removed from office on the grounds of mental instability. For a while he was confined to a mental institution. His legacy as a reformer is largely forgotten, but movie aficionados remember actor Paul Newman portraying him in the 1989 film Blaze about an alleged affair burlesque Queen Blaze Starr had with Long.  So, the southern political scene during the tumultuous days of civil-rights awakening, was enlivened by the notoriety of a couple of screwballs. By contrast, Cindy Hyde-Smith coughs up a pale imitation.

 

Lest you think that Mississippi has narrowed its racial divide in the years between James Eastland and Cindy Hyde-Smith, it was not that many years ago that Mississippian Trent Lott, once a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in 1972 and who ultimately became the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and later the Republican Senate majority leader said at a function honoring Strom Thurmond, “We’re proud of voting for Strom Thurmond for president in 1948. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either”

 

That remark earned him a rebuke from his Republican president George W. Bush and ultimately forced his resignation as Majority Leader. He quit the Senate in 2007 and today is a lobbyist. Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen conned Lott into filming a television promo supporting a fictional program calling for arming gifted children, ages four through 12, called “Kinder Guardians”.  Lott actually said “It’s something that we should think about America, about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens—good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.  Lott obviously shares a tendency with the President of the United States, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and other prominent Republicans to let his mouth run away with common sense.

 

At the same time there was a glimmering of hope with Folsom and Long, other politicians around the South were taking more traditional racial stands— literally. George Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in 1956 to prevent Autherine Lucy, an African-American, from entering. James Meredith was just as adamantly barred from entering the University of Mississippi in 1962. And Orville Faubus in Arkansas was doing his best to keep nine black children from attending school at the all white Little Rock Central high school in 1957. The southern tradition of “separate but decidedly unequal” was in full flower.  As a side note, when George Wallace ran for president in 1968, he got nearly 207,000 votes in Missouri, mostly from rural areas.  To this day, my home state, Missouri, has an uncomfortable cadre of racists.

 

My high school, from which I graduated in 1952 , still was segregated eight years after the Supreme Court decision and would be for some time thereafter. In fact, the local school board, withdrew the school’s basketball team from a tournament because it featured a team from a black school. So, Mississippi had no monopoly on racial inequality. And, in fact, there are fewer de facto segregated schools in today’s South than there are in the nation as a whole.

 

School segregation largely is no longer an issue in the South—but the fact that Hyde-Smith chose to attend (and send her daughter to) a segregated school is an issue. Segregation in public schools legally ended in 1954 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. The yearbook at Hyde-Smith’s segregated school was titled The Rebel.

 

Once, en route to a meeting in Florida, my wife, Marty, and I spent a night in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is a pleasant town of pleasant people, but there is a dark cloud over it which never will dissipate, the legacy of an incident in 1964 when a black church was firebombed and burned to the ground, one of 37 churches and 30 businesses that were burned in Mississippi by white supremacists. Three young civil-rights volunteers including one from Mississippi, were in Neshoba County trying to register African-Americans so they could vote.

 

A sheriff’s deputy pulled the three over and they vanished and 44 days later their bodies were discovered in roadside dirt pile. They were killed by the self-styled “white knights” of the Ku Klux Klan. If you think the Klan types have vanished , think back a year or so to Charlottesville Virginia where, according to Donald Trump there were some “very good people” among the white supremacists who organized what they called a “unite the right” rally during which one of these “white knights” rammed a car into a group of counter protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.

 

It’s unfair to blame a town for what happened more than half a century ago, but I was relieved to get out of that sunlit Mississippi town just as I was relieved to get out of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. Today, my old high school has long been integrated and Missouri, Arkansas, even Alabama are far more racially balanced than they were so many years ago.

 

Mississippi has given us great literature, great blues, and a history of oppression of black people by white people. Pick any two of three and decide how the state shakes out today. Mississippi? Ask Cindy Hyde-Smith or Trent Lott.

 

 

 

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  • November 30th, 2018

STICKS AND STONES…..ETC

By Joel M. Vance

I have to confess that the first time I picked up a pair of chopsticks, it was every bit as daunting as if I were picking up a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse. The two wooden sticks were fused together so tightly that with my spindly arms straining, grunting like a rooting hog, I feared that this initial excursion into exotic culinary territory was doomed. The sticks snapped apart with a percussive crack that caused several diners to consider diving under their tables, sure that a mob hit was in progress.

 

The only assault was on my sushi rolls and for a while I looked like someone trying to pick up marbles with a pair of wet noodles. Since, I have become reasonably adept at the use of chopsticks, although if I still were in the dating game I wouldn’t dare take a date to an Asian restaurant, much less try to impress her with my savoir-faire. I have enough trouble with knife and fork without tempting fate by using a pair of flimsy sticks to fling food into my mouth. Chopsticks can be downright scary. 

 

While it’s perfectly acceptable in an Asian restaurant to pick up your miso soup bowl and slurp from it, if you tried the same thing at a White House dinner you’d probably languish in Fort Knox under armed guard for the rest of your natural life. In an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff would merely hide smirks and continue to serve you with scrupulous politeness— they are used to show off Yankees making fools of themselves.  Oddly, our local Chinese restaurant does not even offer chopsticks as an option—perhaps they saw me coming.  It is in the local Japanese restaurant that I dazzle people with my adroit use of the wooden sticks, much as Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra with one half of a pair of chopsticks.

 

Asian eating culture is often vastly different than that of us white bread Americans. It’s all very well for Andrew Zimmern to pluck parboiled sheep’s eyeballs from a bowl of some exotic dish with a pair of chopsticks because after all he’s Andrew Zimmern and expected to do things like that. But for the rest of us wielding a pair of chopsticks is every bit as exotic as watching cricket and understanding what’s going on.

 

I once read a hilarious essay in the Chicago Tribune about how to use chopsticks and used it for years as a perfect example of the best how-to article when I was teaching writing classes. The author, Charles Leroux, invented a klutz named Marvin who was hopeless with chopsticks but ultimately became an expert using a pair of ivory chopsticks like a pool shark equipped with a custom cue stick.

 

Marvin could’ve been me at the time, a fork wielding Midwestern WASP with no more idea of how to use chopsticks than I had of how to twirl spaghetti onto a fork in the Italian style. I couldn’t even eat food off the back of the fork as the English do. The idea of plucking tiny morsels of food with a pair of oversized toothpicks seemed as impossible as using a forklift to pick up pebbles.

 

Leonardo da Vinci does not show us what eating implements the disciples and Jesus were using at the Last Supper. But it’s interesting if not blasphemous to speculate that some if not all were using chopsticks, for after all, chopsticks were invented long before the birth of Christ. Probably not–the odds are against it for several reasons. Primarily, chopsticks historically were Asian in both origin and use.

 

Most Asians have no problem scooping noodles into their mouths with ease.  I have watched my dear Thai friend, Noppadol Paothong, scooping noodles into his mouth with chopsticks and it seemed no trick at all until I tried it–but I was quickly back to my trusty fork. At first I tried twirling the noodles around the chopstick ends, but since I had not mastered the same trick on Italian noodles, using a fork, I was faced with what Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

He was talking about dealing with the Russians, but perhaps he came up with the idea after flipping noodles down Queen Elizabeth’s scoop front dress at a state dinner.  I solved the noodle problem by ordering only dishes featuring solid objects that can be seized with chopsticks. I leave the noodles to Nop.

 

 Try picking up one grain of rice with chopsticks and you will spend all day  scooting it around on the plate, but the Chinese have solved that problem by creating sticky rice which clumps in convenient bite -sized chunks, easy to capture with a pair of chopsticks.

 

Rice is the almost inevitable companion of all Asian dishes and there is a reason for that.  Aside from being nutritionally beneficial, rice is there for a reason. It is said and probably true that to stave off the legendary “hungry an hour after” effect of eating Asian food you should pack in the rice. By itself, sticky rice is pretty bland fare, but enlivened with invariably spicy Asian additives it makes for an eminently satisfying meal.

 

I’m willing to bet that the reason behind Asian cuisine being legendarily spicy is that the incendiary aspect of most Asian dishes is to offset the blandness of the rice. I eat at a local Thai restaurant which offers a heat scale of one to five. I’ve never dared to go beyond two and I have a feeling that five would have me emulating Puff the Magic Dragon.  I once was a queasy witness in college to what passes for high-class humor in a dormitory. A friend lit the gaseous nether region effusion of another fun lover and a bright blue flame appeared. Try the same thing in the wake, so to speak, of a number five Thai dish and the result likely would be a mini version of Mount Saint Helens.

 

Chopstick etiquette varies from country to country but it is widely accepted that one does not spear morsels of food with a single chopstick like a torero sticking a fighting bull with a banderillo.  Likewise you don’t lay down your chopsticks so they point at a dinner companion while you slurp down a mouth full of Sapporo Beer— that’s like laying a loaded revolver beside your plate pointed at your companion. Instead you lay your chopsticks in a rest, an accessory item. If you don’t have a rest you can fold up the paper envelope in which the chopsticks came and make one.  And the sticks should point out and never be planted in the mound of rice like someone digging postholes.

 

I don’t pretend to be an expert at eating with chopsticks. There always is a moment of fumbling with the two wooden sticks before I get them situated in my hand, ready for combat.  And every now and then I have to adjust my grip, like a baseball player choking up to bunt.

 

I am overly fond of a local Japanese restaurant that features sushi rolls to which I am as addicted as a meth head is with his fix. Sushi rolls are ideally constructed to facilitate being picked up by chopsticks. Even a beginner usually can grasp a sushi roll with the sticks and convey it to his or her mouth. Dipping it in a sauce is a bit more daunting, but not impossible— and I usually do dip, either into a sort of thousand Island concoction, or soy sauce spiced with wasabi.

You have to be careful using wasabi, an atomic substance which assaults your sinuses as if you had stuffed a hand grenade up your nostrils. Wasabi is related to horseradish and mustard, but to those condiments it is like a lady cracker compared to a stick of dynamite.  It supposedly hammers the bacteria that causes food poisoning and I can visualize some poor microbe screaming in agony as it succumbs to a wasabi attack.

 

Most people—me included— confuse sushi and sashimi. According to Japanese custom sashimi, raw fish sliced thinly, is eaten with the hands, while sushi, fish rolled with rice, is eaten with chopsticks. And a sushi chef will dab the roll with wasabi in preparation. In case you’re wondering what the pink colored sweet vegetable next to the wasabi is, it’s pickled ginger, used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi.  There is a daunting list of ritual connected with how to eat sashimi and sushi, including how to show your appreciation to the sushi chef if you are eating in front of him.  For example, never rub the sticks together— it is considered terribly impolite and you’re not trying to start a campfire.

 

The essential question of course, in case you don’t want to look as if you’re practicing for a knife fight, is how to hold chopsticks. Pick one up as if you were picking up a pencil between your thumb and index finger. The other stick should fall naturally beneath the first one manipulated by your ring and middle fingers (the middle is the one that you use to salute Donald Trump when his image appears on your television set). The little finger is a spare in case you have some sort of industrial accident and lose your ring finger. You can reach down with the two sticks and squeeze a morsel of food between them with a sort of pinching motion.

 

It’s considered bad form to dip into a communal bowl of food with your sticks. Instead, there should be serving chopsticks available to transfer food from the main bowl to your plate or bowl. Soup?  The Chinese long ago caved in to necessity and use spoons for marvelous miso soup (I could drink that stuff all day long).  There is no social disgrace in picking up the bowl and drinking from it. When it comes to noodles, or other slippery food, it is accepted to bring the bowl close your face and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel to scoop with.  Or you can Kung Pao chicken out as I do and leave the noodles to your Asian dining companions.

 

Chopsticks even have made their way into popular culture with a song, if you can call it that, by a rap group and with lyrics that are obscene and repulsive. At the other end of the spectrum, chopsticks are the subject of a Sesame Street session, illustrating in music how tiny tots can solve the mystery of those funny wooden sticks. “Two little sticks and they’re made out of wood/and they help you to pick up your lunch/and if you practice then you’ll get good/and you’ll find that you can pick up a bunch to munch”

 

Every budding concert pianist, of course, starts his or her musical career by learning to play “Chopsticks”. The original name of the piece was “the Celebrated Chop Waltz”. It dates to 1877 and was written by Euphemia Allen.  The piece has been used many times in movies, including one of my favorite films “The Seven Year Itch” where Tom Ewell played a duet with Marilyn Monroe and tried fruitlessly to kiss her. His romantic haplessness was the parallel personification of someone in the initial throes of learning to eat with chopsticks. That movie spawned the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up around her hips, a cinematic moment certainly more memorable than Tom Ewell’s fumbling attempt to play “Chopsticks” on the piano.

 

Meanwhile, chopsticks will continue to flourish in countries where they have flourished for centuries, and will appear sporadically in the Western world— but don’t expect when you pull into your local McDonald’s and order a burger and fries to have the pimply faced, minimum wage waiter ask “Y’all want chopsticks with that?”

 

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  • November 22nd, 2018

CONFESSIONS OF AN OMNIVORE

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

I am a hunter and I make no apologies for that.  But I hunt to eat…or I eat to hunt.  There is, in my genome, the genetic matrix of the hunter/gatherer.  I am never happier than when I’m in the garden in spring, watching the green sprigs of new life, or when I’m in the field with a shotgun and flushing birds to be shot.

 

Man wasn’t granted canine teeth for chewing gum or gnawing on carrots.  They are for tearing meat, although they do work fairly well on carrots and Doublemint.  I am, along with bears and raccoons, an omnivore.  Carrots or meat, it’s all the same when hunger strikes, but even better is carrots and meat.

 

So I raise a garden and when the oak leaves blush and frost rimes the prairie grass, I follow bird dogs and carry a shotgun.  I hope to kill quail, pheasants, ruffed grouse, woodcock or any of several other game birds.  Or I crouch in a rude blind, shivering in bitter cold, in hopes that migrating mallards or gadwalls will come to my plaintive call and bobbing set of decoys.

 

And yes, there is a certain sadness when a vibrant creature lies dead on the ground or on the water.  Taking life is not something done lightly.  Killing solely for sport is an iffy proposition—I don’t shoot crows or prairie dogs or anything I don’t plan to eat.  Some do and I don’t criticize them.  I just choose not to do it myself.

 

Those opposed to hunting argue that today we don’t need to kill for food, save in the most dire circumstance, that the IGA Supermarket provides us with everything we need.  Of course those chops and chickens at the supermarket once were part of something living, breathing and with more life to live than was granted by the butcher.

 

But that’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.  Another argument is that we don’t need meat, that we can eat vegetarian.  That is not an option, at least for me.  I crave fish, fowl and game.  I am the legatee of Neanderthal man, crouching in the mouth of a rude cave, fearfully gnawing on a haunch of something he managed to kill. My hunting tools are far more sophisticated than Joe Primitive and I employ more subtle ways of cooking than charring raw meat over a smoky fire, but the result is the same—a full belly and a temporary sense of well-being.

 

Too many in modern society will snack on the flesh of once-living creatures with no thought of how their food got to the plate.  I do know because I caused that transformation.  I have shot my entree to death and this is a tragic circumstance to many.  I believe that animals (including birds) are born to die. There are predators and there are prey and since I have those canine teeth I ease comfortably into the predator camp.

 

My ideal meal is a venison roast, cooked rare, with vegetables that I have grown in my garden, prepared by me or my wife, and served to treasured guests with a fine bottle of cabernet or shiraz.

 

We sit in the dining nook, overlooking the lake where we fish in summer, ice skate in winter.  We live off the lives of other creatures.  It has been this way since Man first slogged out of the primeval mud and it’s not likely to change in my lifetime.

 

Quail are my delight.  These little eight-ounce birds are as tender as a baby’s cheek, as are their larger cousins, ruffed grouse.  Pheasants have tough legs because they would rather run than fly, but the bosom of them is succulent to the max.

 

Wild turkey doesn’t need butterballing or whatever it is the processors do to give a tame bird some flavor.  These lordly kings of the wooded ridge are tender and flavorful and the invariable comment from senior citizens with a rural background is, “Why, that tastes the way turkey tasted when I was a kid!”

 

Most Americans, at least urbanites, never have eaten wild game.  At best they might have experimented with farm-raised venison.  But those animals are pretty much cows with antlers, fed the same rations as feedlot steers.  They haven’t dined on acorns or wild succulents that lend a tang of the wild to the innate taste of the meat.

 

It isn’t “wild” or “strong.”  The so-called “wild” taste of wild game usually is the result of poor handling, not an intrinsic strong flavor.  If the cook is put off by the prospect of gaminess, he or she can soak the meat in milk for a couple of hours.  Duck breasts and venison both benefit from this.  Brining will moisten white-meated birds, making them less likely to dry out in the cooking (overcooking is a common error among neophyte wild game cooks).  A cup of salt to a gallon of water makes a good brine.  Cover the bird with water, brine for several hours (overnight is not too long).  Rinse thoroughly before cooking.

 

Another culinary trick for fileted duck breasts is to dredge them in olive oil on both sides, sprinkle liberally with Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.  Grill the breasts and you’ll think they’re prime beef filets.

 

Here’s another recipe for any dark-meated bird: marinate in refrigerator for 12-24 hours (½ cup Worcestershire sauce, ¼ cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon garlic powder).  Sauté two cloves crushed garlic and one small diced onion in two tablespoons of butter until onion is clear, add meat (duck breast size or smaller) and cook in a cast iron skillet over medium heat for five minutes, turning often (the meat, not you).  Add a cup of sliced mushrooms and continue cooking until meat equals your beefsteak preference.

 

That recipe is thanks to Tom Huggler, a Michigan outdoor writer/gourmet cook, and is from Campsite to Kitchen, a sadly out-of-print cookbook published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

 

If you prefer your duck to taste like duck any recipe from the many wild game cookbooks listed will work.  Choose one that tickles your fancy.  Duck should be cooked rare; goose medium well.  All wild game benefits from a side dish of wild rice.  The best wild rice (which isn’t rice, but a marsh grass seed) is very light in color.  The blacker the seed the farther it is from the wild rice beds.

 

I buy rice in northern Minnesota from a really nice hermit whose front yard looks like Fred Sanford’s and who always seems to be suffering from a massive hangover.   Wild rice stores well, either frozen or sealed in jars.  It’ll keep for years.

 

There are wild ducks that eat good and there are those that the dog would spurn.  “Puddle” ducks, those that spring from the water and like small bodies of water, generally are the best eating.  They include mallards, every hunter’s favorite duck; and gadwalls, wood ducks and teal.  Some ducks simply are not good eating.  The worst I ever tried was a bufflehead, a chunky little duck that looks like a flying butterball, but tastes like a flying garbage can.  The king of food ducks is the canvasback, sadly declined in population to where the limit is one, but the chances are you’ll never have a chance even to see one, much less reduce it to table

 

Two game species that have not declined are white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, both of which number at least as many and probably more than they did in the days of  John Smith and Pocahontas.  You have three choices on acquiring wild venison: 1. Kill it yourself; 2. Beg some from a hunter friend; 3. Hit one with your automobile.  The first two choices are preferable to No. 3.

 

Venison roasts are lovely.  Steaks are easily overcooked, as are ribs.  Best of all is the backstrap muscle—the tenderloin.  It will melt in your mouth.  It needs no trickery to make it tasty.  Cook as you would a beef filet.

 

The latest fad in wild turkey cooking is deep fat frying.  It takes a powerful amount of oil in a huge vat, over a fierce fire…but the submerged turkey emerges from its dip succulent and moist.  And instead of roasting for hours, a 10-pound bird is done in less than one hour.   Peanut oil is the preferred liquid, but safflower or canola also will work.  It definitely is an outdoor exercise because of the danger of fire from hot oil splashes (which also are dangerous to the chef).

 

The wild turkey is the bird that Benjamin Franklin recommended as the American symbol and it is the voice of spring, announcing atop an oak-hickory shrouded ridge that it is the meanest son of a bitch in the known world (which for a turkey may be five or 10 acres).  A wild turkey in strut, centered on the bead of a full-choke shotgun, is a vision to raise hackles and make strong men question their certainty about life, longevity and planetary orbits.

 

But as a prey creature, a wild turkey stands above all else.  Deer, elk, all the “trophy” animals, are victims of circumstance.  You may stalk them, but in the end you shoot the equivalent of cows in a pasture. A wild turkey is different.  You prey on a gobbler’s springtime lust to lure it to a call.   Perhaps you can do the same with an elk or a moose, but it is mandatory with a spring wild gobbler.

 

You hear the first gobble of the morning before daylight, a bird roosted high on a thick white oak branch who came awake early because a barred owl said it owned the woods.  “No way, you piddly little squirt!” declaims the gobbler and the game is on.  You softly intone seductive hen calls that will melt a gobbler’s caution and you continue to pillow talk until he flies down into the sharp spring morning and comes looking for the hen he plans to bed.

 

And that is me, armed with a Model 12 Winchester, full choke, that dates to 1916 and a powerful hunger for wild meat.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

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  • November 16th, 2018

…..DON’T ASK ME!

By Joel M. Vance

Okay, the election is over. We all are disappointed to tears or elevated to joy. Time to get back to the realities of life, like cowboy bars.  There are bars and there are bars. There is the “Cheers” bar where the same group of regulars gather every day to knock back a few and listen to Cliff Clavin  pontificate  on dubious theories and watch Sam Malone try to make out with his latest squeeze. Then there’s Duffy’s Tavern for those of you with long lives and longer memories who recall the opening: “Duffy’s Tavern where the elite meet to eat. Duffy ain’t here. Archie the manager speakin’.”

 

And there are roadhouses, distinct from cowboy bars although both are far more likely to serve beer in pitchers as opposed to cocktails with fruity little umbrellas in them. Anyone asking for a Manhattan or a James Bond martini, “shaken not stirred”  in either of them would likely wind up in the parking lot with multiple bruises.  Both have music and dancing but there the similarities end.

 

A roadhouse is far more likely to feature the music of a jukebox, whereas the cowboy bar is more likely to host a live band. And, while beer drinking is the preferred form of exercise while seated, active participation in Terpsichore is so de rigueur the beer often goes flat while the table occupants are busy figuratively cutting rugs (although no carpet ever adorns the scuffed wood floors of either roadhouses or cowboy bars).

 

I have had a lifelong aversion to barroom dancing faster than what we called buckle polishing  since a traumatic incident in 1955 in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I, filled with misplaced confidence after a couple of beers, dared to ask a beer joint queen to dance with me, possibly to Fats Domino’s spirited rendition of “Ain’t That a Shame?”. The shame, it quickly turned out, was mine when the girl stopped mid-dance and snarled “What the hell are you doing?” Two things were obvious to me. She knew what she was doing— and she knew I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Her words stuck a psychological stiletto in me which has lasted now for some 60 years.

 

I’ve tried nearly everything to cure myself of this psychosomatic roadblock short of psychiatric treatment, which costs far more than the beer that doesn’t go flat while I sit at the table and watch the active dancers, often with my date as a participant. How I wish I could equal my wife Marty (my date of 62 years) as she pirouettes and gracefully spins like the vintage Ginger Rogers.

 

She loves dancing and has since her teenage years frequenting Louie’s Sweetshop, a Macon, Missouri, ice cream parlor hangout for the teenage crowd, with no beer, but a jukebox and a throng of dance worthy Macon high school teens who could easily have outclassed the gum chewing teenyboppers of Dick Clark’s Bandstand.

 

Every time the movie Swing Time appears on television I watch it. Ginger Rogers is a dance instructor who is assigned Fred Astaire, with whom she has had a previous disagreement. Fred pretends to be a bumbling incompetent at learning to dance and she is exasperated with him until, like a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, he becomes Fred Astaire and they in turn become Fred and Ginger and not once does she stop him and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

I have tried the Astaire approach to dancing many times over the years and have the bumbling Fred part  down pat; however, so far, my butterfly remains locked up in an impenetrable chrysalis. Mr. Astaire summed up my lifelong attitude toward dancing perfectly in 1936 in the movie Roberta when he memorably sang “I won’t dance, don’t ask me” and summed up his reluctance this way: “I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor.”

 

Of course he finally did get coaxed to the floor and proved that not only he would dance, but that he was not absolutely stumped and instead was Fred Astaire. The few times that I have been coaxed to the floor, mumbling “I won’t dance, etc.” I proved conclusively that I was stumped. Many have tried to turn my feet from stumps to Cinderella’s slippers and have failed , from my mother to my wife.

 

The mother part began on the rickety floor of the Dalton Hotel, the ramshackle one time railroad hotel where we lived as a family of three people and a small dog in 17 rooms during the 1950s. There are few things more intimidating than dancing with your mother.

 

My parents were products of the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper Era, who abandoned their origins in the boondocks of Wisconsin and Missouri for the flamboyant lifestyle of Chicago in the Capone years. They would go to nightclubs  for dancing and the kind of upscale revelry only seen in the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, leaving me in the care of a babysitter who, as best I can remember, was so geriatric as to barely be able to negotiate our apartment, not to mention too feeble to teach me the Charleston. It was left to my mother to indoctrinate me into the mysteries of the foxtrot.  Waltzing was best left to the fans of Wayne King, the Waltz King, and his orchestra, heard on our Zenith upright console radio. I could imagine people waltzing or foxtrotting in a ballroom high atop some exotic hotel in some distant city— but not in Dalton Missouri population about 200 which had no hotel other than the decrepit white elephant in which we lived and which was about as exotic as the noisy feed mill that was directly across the dirt street.

 

So, my mother and I, squared off in the Dalton hotel, a 78 RPM record tinnily sounding a danceable melody on my record player which, to that moment, had played only Hank Williams laments. Elsewhere, my high school classmates were jitterbugging and, for all I knew, even waltzing. But I was gingerly trying to coordinate my feet with the music and with my mother’s instructions all of which left me in the same mental state I suffered when our algebra teacher tried to explain how “a” equaled “b” over “c”– that is to say helpless confusion and an almost overwhelming urge to burst into tears.  “You take two steps to the left, one to the right,” mom said. “Then you do it again.” She dragged me in a sort of circle around the rickety floor and it must’ve looked the way it looks when a dog’s owner tries to drag him in the door to the vet’s office for a series of painful shots.

 

There was no attempt to explain dancing to the musical beat or naming the name of this simple exercise which I assumed to be the foxtrot. I’ve never seen a fox trot, but I would suspect one doing what I was doing of being afflicted somehow, possibly with rabies.  If you have seen the movie Frankenstein, the original from the 1930s, and watched Dr. Frankenstein’s monster lurching through the countryside creating havoc, you will know what my dancing looked like. Or perhaps it looked like a wind up mechanical toy with a defective mainspring.

 

In Keytesville high school there were a few guys who could fast dance and they were universally despised by those of us relegated to the sidelines. All the girls knew how to fast dance and frequently danced with each other, an in your face insult to those of us brooding out of the action. Up the road, in Macon, where Marty thrived, all the guys knew how to fast dance because they had Louie’s Sweetshop as a training ground.   I lived six miles down the road from Keytesville in Dalton where there was no jukebox, no Louie’s Sweetshop and where gilts and heifers were far more common than available human female dance partners.  Even had my mother been capable of teaching me to fast dance, she was a graduate of the era of the Lindy Hop and out of the dancing mainstream by the time the Jitterbug came along.

 

Fast forward 60 years or so—not too fast or I can’t keep up— to the present time.  Marty and I are fond of sitting on our deck on a soft summer night, the stars sprinkling the sky, our outdoor speaker tuned to a 1950s rock ‘n roll reprise , enjoying a glass of wine, each other, and our cherished memories. Marty’s memories are of dancing at Louie’s Sweetshop, possibly to the same melodies now echoing across the Cole County nightscape, while mine are not of dancing, especially with my mother in the Dalton hotel—although I could have been listening to those same rocking melodies and wishing my feet knew what to do with them. But I probably was listening to the St. Louis Cardinals with Harry Caray shouting exuberantly “it might be—it could be— it is! a home run!”  We have our priorities and I didn’t know Marty and Louie’s Sweetshop existed then but I did know everything there was to know about the St. Louis Cardinals. And, while Stan Musial often danced around the bases, he didn’t do it to a boogie beat.

 

Every so often now so many years later on our deck, emboldened by wine, the romance of the stars, and the presence of Marty, I will say “let’s dance!”  And I clumsily stumble around the deck trying to emulate what Marty does so effortlessly. To give her credit and, as a measure of our everlasting love, she does not stop me in my tracks and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But after a few fumbling steps, it is painfully obvious that I still do not know what I’m doing, and we go back and sit. Once, on the deck late at night, I saw what I am certain was an unidentified flying object—a bright light which arced across the sky and was not an airplane or a satellite or anything I have ever seen before. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps aliens would land and somehow through superior, alien intelligence,  plant in my mind and body the ability to dance fast.

 

And now we come by circuitous route to cowboy bars.  We have arrived at a point in life where (and I have photos to prove it) Marty is fast dancing with our married grandson, while I sit ringside, and stare moodily into my rapidly going flat beer. I have done so countless times in roadhouses stretching nearly nationwide, and in a few cowboy bars as well.

 

. The occasion was a night out in the mountains of Colorado at a bar called Crystola where a live cowboy band delivered high-energy dance music to an enthusiastic local crowd. Woodland Park, at 8500 feet of elevation, is high enough that, for the geriatric crowd, even shambling from the bedroom to the john (a frequent occurrence for us elderly folks) is enough to get you out of breath. Fast dancing is for teenagers and those acclimated to living with minimal oxygen.  Crystola is notable for having a huge cutout of Johnny Cash giving the finger behind the bar and a portrait of a naked woman on the ceiling, obviously visible only to someone passed out on the dance floor (which I figured I would be if I tried fast dancing at 8500 feet).

 

Our daughter, Carrie, and son-in-law, Ron, had promised us a surprise anniversary present—which turned out to be the night at Crystola.  Was that a strange anniversary present or did they perhaps sense something epochal blowing in the thin mountain winds?  There, at the age of 84, and at a celebration of our 62nd wedding anniversary, I decided that enough was enough

 

I watched entranced as a thirtysomething father and his adolescent daughter flawlessly emulated one of those boogie-woogie couples from 1940s black-and-white movies, twirling, whirling, and executing acrobatic dance moves that would have left Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse speechless with admiration.  And Marty danced with grandson Nickolas, the years falling away like autumn leaves and Louie’s Sweetshop lived again.

 

“Enough is enough!” My inner self shouted to my outer self, especially my feet. And I hadn’t even had a sip of beer when I jumped to my feet, grabbed Marty by the hand and said “Let’s dance!” She looked at me as if I had grown a second head and followed me onto the dance floor. Somewhere the spirit of Chuck Berry was writing new lyrics: “Roll over Little Richard/tell Fats Domino the news!”

 

Well, I won’t say that I suddenly turned into Fred Astaire, playing a con game with Ginger Rogers, but I managed to get through a dance or two with my beloved and without having to relinquish her to the educated feet of our grandson (although my knees ached for several days afterward). Perhaps a new day has dawned.

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