Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • October 12th, 2018

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

By Joel M. Vance

Every Sunday evening at 7 PM I open a time capsule now more than 40 years old. I do this by turning on the television set to a rerun of Hee Haw from the 1970s, where I can see in living color performances by legendary country entertainers, now mostly pages in history.

An enduring feature of Hee Haw was a segment called Pickin’ and Grinnin’ where cohosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens trade corny jokes interspersed with Clark playing an instrumental break, with the assembled group singing the chorus:

“Going up Cripple Creek, gonna have a little fun”

I never gave much thought to Cripple Creek, although I vaguely knew it was a town somewhere in Colorado, where once miners flocked, high in the Rocky Mountains hoping to strike it rich digging for gold. The town lies at nearly 9500 feet in a broad valley where in 1890 gold was discovered and a gold rush ensued that attracted 10,000 prospectors following their glittering dream. They dug $500 million worth of gold before the riches ran out and the town dwindled to a population of about 100 and became one of Colorado’s many ghost towns. It attracted the hardy few who could stand the altitude for a chance to peek into mining history.

30 years ago it was a crumbling assortment of mostly deserted buildings approaching a century old. There still is an operating gold mine in the area, but now the more than 1000 inhabitants mine their gold from the pocketbooks of tourists who flock to what has become a mini Las Vegas in the mountains— gambling is the main industry anymore and some of the casino buildings cover-up the bed of the Creek that gave the town’s name.

But there is one building that caters, not to hopeful gamblers but to the arts. It is the restored Butte Opera house where recently I saw the finest theatrical performance I’ve ever seen and those include Broadway and regional productions of famous musicals productions by local and national theater groups.

The occasion was my wife, Marty’s, and my 62nd wedding anniversary and we celebrated it by watching a magical two hour production of “Always…. Patsy Cline”, a musical which has sold out off-Broadway and in repertory company productions all over the country as well as in foreign theaters.
The musical features only two performers, one channeling Patsy Cline, the other her devoted fan Louise Seger. Both are on stage virtually the entire performance and in Cripple Creek they were backed by an outstanding cowboy band that had assimilated the Patsy Cline arrangements to the point where I felt trapped in a time warp— listening to radio from the late 1950s late on a Saturday night when the reception was good from WSM in Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry was in its true heyday (not the overproduced, pop diluted crap that passes for country music today).

This was a country music I grew up with, twiddling the dial on the old upright Zenith radio in our ramshackle Missouri home trying from about 5:30 PM to pick up a distant signal, usually contaminated by a.m. radio static, from Nashville. There were early shows in those days, before the Opry began and I remember hearing Hank Williams Senior during his brief stint, both on the Opry and in life. They’re all gone now, those Grand Ole Opry stars of the 1950s—Red Foley, Roy Acuff, Carl Smith, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Marty Robbins and…. Patsy Cline. Not to mention and not to forget Hawkshaw Hawins and Cowboy Copas who died in a plane crash with Patsy Cline.

I would haunt the radio until the closing of the Ernest Tubb record shop show after 1 AM. My high school peers probably were out on dates and few if any shared my enthusiasm for country music. To them Patsy Cline couldn’t hold a candle to Patti Page. As a social life it wasn’t much to brag about, but maybe that intense exposure to classic country in my early life gave me an appreciation for a musical dedicated to the memory of Patsy Cline that few today can share. Consider that most people today were not even born when Patsy Cline died. It is a tribute to the Cline talent that her songs and recordings became more popular after she died than when she was alive and that even today more than half a century after that tragic plane crash her voice still resonates as powerfully as it did for six short years of fame.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in country music knows that Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in 1963 after a brief (six-year) career as a superstar. Her legend now has spanned nearly 60 years since her death and her album of greatest hits has sold more than 10 million copies and continues to sell every day.

Her death, along with those of fellow Grand Ole Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas and her manager and pilot Randy Hughes (Hughes was married to Copas’s daughter), was part of a seemingly unending tragedy. Hughes flew into bad weather, which already had canceled the commercial flight that Patsy was scheduled to take, and the plane crashed 85 miles short of Nashville. They were returning from Kansas City where Patsy had done a benefit performance for a local disc jockey (who had been killed in a car wreck). Days later, Jack Anglin, half of the singing dual of Johnny and Jack ( smash hits Poison Love and Ashes of Love) died in a car wreck en route to a memorial service for Patsy Cline.

Patsy Cline spearheaded the Me Too movement long before today’s women coined the phrase. More than just the best female vocalist in any area you care to name, she represented woman power at a time when women still were accessory items in a man’s world. She took no crap from anyone. She knew what she wanted from life and she seized it with authority, yet was beloved by everyone she ever associated with— and that includes two husbands, two children, and every legendary entertainer she worked with.
At one point in the performance, Patsy, spending the night with Louise, sings a lullaby to Louise’s two kids. She is off stage when she starts the song and after she gets the kids to sleep, she appears on stage, in a robe, clutching a teddy bear, and finishes the song. If there was a dry eye in the house it wasn’t mine.

Mixing comedy with heartrending drama, Louise opines that roadhouse dancing is about as much fun as anyone can have and comes off stage while the band is playing a song with a boogie-woogie beat and Patsy is singing. Louise grabs a guy from the front row and they dance. Maybe the guy was a plant who was part of the performance, but if not—if he actually was a local— he was a regular Fred Astaire of the beer joints and the two of them got an ovation when they finished.

Most of those who see the Patsy Cline musical know only the talent of the actor playing the part of Patsy Cline and what they know of her life is what they read about. I was there when it happened. I heard her live (by way of low-fi a.m. radio) on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, standing on the hallowed spot in the middle of the stage where the featured performer was spotlighted. It’s my regret that I never saw her in person the way I have seen, for example, Willie Nelson, perhaps the last legend of that storied era of country music. Most of them now are gone and when I watch the Hee Haw reruns I can tick off the members of the cast who have died and there are more of them than those who are still alive.

According to the story, Louise Seger was so captivated by Patsy Cline’s voice on her radio that she pestered a local disc jockey to play Patsy Cline records so persistently that he finally gave in. And Seger also pursued a meeting with Patsy Cline when the already established star performed at Houston’s cavernous Esquire Ballroom and that’s how they became friends. Seger invited Cline to spend the night with her and the tired entertainer agreed.

On the night that Patsy Cline and Louise Seger stayed at Seger’s house, the story goes they sat around the kitchen table (which is part of the stage set in the musical) until 4 AM and Seger is quoted as saying we were “Talking over broken hearts, husband problems, children problems, love lost, love won. We sounded like two people writing country songs.”

We all know what happened to Patsy Cline but what about Louise Seger? It turns out she died quietly and peacefully October 28, 2004. Patsy Cline’s biographer recalls having met Seger for an interview: “We met in 1980 in Houston Texas. It was quite a scene: Louise showed up in a white Caddy convertible, and a white cowgirl outfit, with holsters of canned Buds on both sides looking every bit like a blonde Patsy!” Patsy Cline’s second husband, Charlie Dick, died in 2015. Her daughter, Julie Fudge, is the caretaker of the Cline legacy with a museum in Nashville.

There is a YouTube video of the entire production, shot from the audience, and of marginal quality but if it were a Hollywood production of the off-Broadway original it would not have half the quality of the Cripple Creek outing featuring Kelli Dodd as Patsy Cline and Rebecca Myers as Louise Seger. These two young actresses may never star on Broadway, but if not it would be a travesty. They are major league performers and outshine a video of the original musical cast. The miners of old may have been looking for gold in them thar hills but today’s theater goers found a pair of diamonds gracing the stage of the Butte Opera house.

Dodd mastered the Patsy Cline vocal sob to perfection and tore my heart out with her re-creation of Cline singing Faded Love, Sweet Dreams and other Cline classics that once came from Nashville through the static into our old Zenith and into my memory and my heart. But if anything, the night belonged to Myers as Louise Seger with more energy packed into her trim frame than a stick of dynamite. If anything, she reminded me of Betty Hutton, the original blonde bombshell of movie fame who created the role of Annie Oakley in the movie version of the Broadway stage production.

All in all, it was a magic afternoon capped off by a drive through the mountains where the aspens flamed against the dark green background of pines and the red rock bluffs added another color to the palette and Pike’s Peak loomed in the background like the massive Rocky Mountain presence that it is.

Marty and I are fans of musical productions and have been to many including The Music Man and the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. We’ve seen South Pacific and Chicago at the Maples Repertory Theater in Macon, Missouri, Marty’s home town, and Mary Poppins at the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Missouri, a rep company which has been in existence for many years and is nationally renowned.

But if we’re married another 62 years we will not duplicate the magical two hours spent high in the mountains of Colorado in what once was the location of a gold mining bonanza, in a venerable opera house, where once grizzled and weatherbeaten prospectors gathered for an evening of rustic entertainment. Some of them found gold in the hills around Cripple Creek. We found it in that old opera house and for two hours our lives were enriched beyond anything those 10,000 miners ever experienced in any given two hours of their hardbitten lives.  

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  • Blog
  • October 4th, 2018

YOU GET A LINE AND I’LL GET A POLE

By Joel M. Vance

Another lobster knows the difference; another crayfish knows the difference, but without some scale of reference you wouldn’t. Look at a photo of a lobster and one of a crayfish and you couldn’t tell one from the other. Side by side, yes, but not individually. That’s why you wouldn’t make either a good crayfish or a good lobster.

Basically, a crayfish is just a freshwater lobster, lacking size and gushy press clippings. Big ol’ lobsters are not a big ol’ deal to a Cajun, one of those displaced Nova Scotia lobster country expatriates who long ago forsook the rocky northeast coast for the sullen swamps of Louisiana where the crayfish is king.

Mostly they are crayfish except with the commercial crayfish farmers who call them crawfish. There are multiple species (at last count 42 native species in one state, and three non-native species). For many, crayfish are called, somewhat contemptuously, “mudbugs” but many species inhabit clear, cold water, lurking under flat rocks.

There’s a cruel irony in the only song dedicated to the Little Lobster, irony which hit me one sunny afternoon when I was playing the banjo and singing:

“Whatcha gonna do when the creek runs dry?
Just sit’n watch them crawdads die!”

What a terrible fate for such a cool critter! Crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, you take your pick—they are revered in Cajun Country but often ignored or considered only as prime live bait elsewhere. Even when they are called “mudbugs,” they are eagerly sought after and consumed by the descendants of Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline.”

The crayfish even starred in a memorable episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, some 50 years ago—Jed Clampett, had some crawdads shipped from home back in the hills, proving that someone among the scriptwriters had a southeastern rural background.

If you want to trace the name back and amaze friends while you’re chomping through a heaping helping of boiled crawdads, you can tell them that according to one story the name Crawfish began its life as krabba “crab” in one of English’s ancient Germanic ancestors. It’s also theorized the name comes from Old High German “krebiz” which means edible crustacean and that makes more sense. It was borrowed by Old French and became crevis or crevice “crayfish”. More modern French retuned this word as crevisse which the English promptly converted to a more palatable crayfish. Now, since crayfish crawl, it ultimately became crawfish in some regions. And crawdad is “a fanciful alteration of crawfish” according to one dictionary.

Crayfish are creatures of the wet, from lakes and ponds, to streams and even wet meadows. If it has water it can support crayfish. Some even have adapted to the complete darkness of caves and no longer have eyes or coloration. And, in contrast to sighted crayfish with a two or three year lifespan, blind cave crayfish can live for 20 or 30 years. Other crayfish burrow deep into a meadow, far from standing water, leaving tall mounds of excavated dirt above the tunnel entrance.
While a crayfish can exist out of water for some time, it is aquatic, with gills for breathing. The land-based crayfish who build tunnels, dig those tunnels deep enough to reach the water table and thus they can luxuriate in a subterranean bath full time.

As delectable as crayfish are for humans, they’re equally so for a variety of other critters, finned and furred. Otters and raccoons are especially fond of ecrevisse au naturale, and any angler knows that a soft-shelled crawfish hooked through the tail and drifted down a rocky run in a smallmouth stream is as close to a guaranteed strike as sportfishing gets. Use as bait has resulted in exotic or non-native species being introduced into habitats where they compete, sometimes successfully, with the native crayfish.

Accidental or deliberate introductions have had serious ecological results—the starling is an exotic as is the gypsy moth. Any introduced species does just what introduced people would do—it competes for food and shelter with native species. While crayfish largely are good citizens, their mounded burrows can damage earthen dams, gardens and fields, and some species have internal parasites which can affect humans.

Nationally crayfish farmers produce up to 85 million metric tons of the little lobsters every year—more than a billion pounds, with Louisiana and Texas the major producers. One crustaceans expert says, “Because of their roles as both consumers and prey, crayfishes are vital forces in the flow of energy and nutrients within aquatic ecosystems. Without crayfishes, the health and integrity of freshwater ecosystems would be severely damaged.”

Thus the crayfish is the “canary in the mine,” an indicator of either good or bad things happening to the water. A crayfish’s optimum water temperature is 55-60 degrees, relatively cold and coincidentally close to the water temperature favored by trout. So a healthy crayfish population in a trout stream is a good indicator that the trout are doing well also.

Crayfish are “soft-shelled” when they shed their exoskeleton (human skeletons are inside, while crayfish skeletons are outside). This molting happens several times in the crustacean’s lifetime, a lifespan that usually maxes out at three years. While it defies logic, it’s true that the older a crayfish gets the less tail meat it has compared to head mass, so the best eating size is young-of-the-year. About 15 percent of a crawdad is edible by humans. Some of the leftover can be converted to catfish food which in turn becomes human food.

It might dim the appetite of the would-be crayfish eater, but it’s fact that the little mudbugs are scavengers, often feeding on dead meat. They are omnivorous, though, and vary their diet with all sorts of juicy goodies in addition to the occasional defunct and grossly bloated catfish. Most of the diet (80 percent) is vegetative but worms are the preferred entrée.

For humans, eating a crayfish is similar to eating unpeeled shrimp. In common with other shellfish, the exoskeleton surrounds all the edible stuff. Break off and peel the first three shell segments of the tail. The “vein” (the creature’s gut) should pull free as you tug at the tail fin. Dip the tail in hot sauce and enjoy. Cajuns also suck the “fat” or mustard-yellow liver out of the head portion—a practice it’s better for non-Cajuns not to think about. One commercial species, the White River, has green fat which turns most folks off, but might be appreciated on St. Patrick’s Day.

As food crayfish are as good as it gets. They are high in protein, low in saturated fat and they are tasty. They are high in cholesterol, but also contain various vitamins, iron, calcium and phosphorus. It would take more than six ounces of crayfish meat to exceed the American Heart Association’s accepted daily cholesterol limit (300 milligrams). For the mathematically inclined, a three-ounce serving of crayfish tails contains 178 milligrams of cholesterol and would be slightly less than an average serving.

And a 3.5 ounce serving contains only 75 calories for those who count such things. Of more concern would be anaphylactic shock for those allergic to shellfish. Anyone with a shellfish allergy should stay far away from cooking or eating crayfish or even using any utensils or anything else used in the preparation of a shellfish meal—it’s the most common food allergy and a reaction can range from mild to fatal. While it’s not common, such allergy can occur anytime, even if the victim never before has reacted.

But allergy and cholesterol whim-whams aside, many thousands of Cajuns and apprentice Cajuns gleefully dive into a heaping mound of crayfish, a crayfish etouffe, jambalaya or any of the many recipes where the mudbug flourishes with no more serious repercussions than a need for bicarbonate of soda.

The simplest recipe is boiled crayfish. Drop live crayfish in a rolling boil of seasoned water (crab boil or any of the many seafood seasonings will do) and rescue them when they float to the top, now a bright orange color.

It takes about seven pounds of crayfish to produce one pound of tail meat and the average serving is between three and four pounds of whole crayfish or five or six ounces of tail meat per person per meal. Obviously the serving depends on the appetite of the person. In 1991 a fellow named Steve Luman ate 30 pounds of crawfish in 30 minutes. The contest was co-sponsored by Weed Eater.

The easiest way to collect a meal is to buy the meat (you can buy live crayfish on the internet for between $5-$6 per pound) but if you want to get them yourself, a bait seine with two energetic youngsters, one on either end, is the weapon-of-choice. Someone upstream kicks over rocks and the disturbed crayfish drift into the net.

A slower and less ecologically-intrusive method is to carefully lift rocks in the shallows of clear streams and either hand grab the crayfish hiding below or position a dip net just behind the little fellow and feint at his upraised dukes. He’ll flip backward, right into the net. Put the rock back where it was, haven for the next resident.

And if you do collect your dinner from the stream or pond, refrigerate it immediately, but not below 38 degrees or the crayfish can die. Make sure they have oxygen and either eat them within 24 hours or freeze them cooked. Discard any dead crayfish before cooking.

Given that it takes a bunch of crayfish to feed a hungry horde of shellfish lovers, it is necessary for the little lobsters to practice crustacean love often and productively. A female crayfish will lay from 400 to 800 eggs.

Crayfish love occurs in fall and winter. The mating is both conventional and peculiar in that the male, after depositing sperm in the female, plugs her receptacle which serves both to keep sperm in and other males out. After the female lays her huge clutch of eggs, she fastens the egg masses to her swimming legs, called swimmerets, and hides until they hatch in a few weeks.

As is true of all prolific creatures, mortality is high—just about every fish that swims relishes a juicy crawdad, not to mention four and two-legged predators and even the occasional winged one.
Crayfish are largely a creature of the eastern half of the country—almost all of the estimated 350-400 species (no one knows for sure how many species there are) exist east of the Rocky Mountains and more than 90 percent of those are in the southeastern United States—oddly there are no crayfish in Africa.

But you’ll find them in every corner of Missouri, dukes raised, ready for a fight, ready to help you catch the smallmouth bass of a lifetime, ready to indicate the health of your favorite river, ready to grace your dinner plate with a heap of their peers—all-around good fellows.

“You get a line and I’ll get a pole
And we’ll go down to the crawdad hole….”

-30-

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  • Blog
  • September 27th, 2018

THE SHUFFLE OF TIME

By Joel M. Vance

In 1956 my favorite aunt gave me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch as a college graduation present. Armed with a diploma and a Rolex I was prepared to ascend into social circles where surnames were followed by academic designations and wrists were circled by Rolex watchbands.

My eyes, a charming bright blue, have been likened to the late Paul Newman’s famous orbs (although the rest of me is closer to Alfred E. Neuman). That’s one link between me and Mr. Newman; the other is that he was a fan of Rolex watches and wore one when he drove his race car in competition. I wore mine when I drove my Hillman Minx to work. James Bond also wore a Rolex in Ian Fleming’s spy novels, as did Sean Connery when he played the famous 007 in the movies. We both have thinning hair and a Rolex and that ends the similarities between me and Sean Connery.

My Rolex was a status symbol far advanced from a bachelor’s in journalism and was the only status symbol I owned. I did not have a Cadillac or a membership in the country club. I owned no stocks or bonds. My starting newspaper salary was $65 a week, nothing extra for overtime. My savings account consisted of a slowly-maturing $50 War Bond, bought by my parents when I was a toddler.

The Hillman Minx was a British import, cheap and with an engine which quite possibly consisted of a pair of geriatric gerbils running around in a cage which somehow propelled the car at a blistering 25 mph. Maybe I didn’t have a Paul Newman racecar, but I did have a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and I could hang my arm outside the window of the Minx (which I had to do to signal turns since there was no turn indicator among the car’s accessory items) and let people see my glittering status symbol.

I had a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and it guaranteed I would know what time to show up for work and what time to quit. It functioned as an elegant starting block in the race of life, a sprint to where I would activate its self-winding mechanism through vigorous clipping of bond coupons.

And then it died. It just quit running.

My Webster Collegiate dictionary, the one I got with my degree and my Oyster Perpetual, defines “perpetual” as “Lasting or enduring forever.” Apparently Rolex’s definition varies from Webster’s because, about 30 years into the life of the Perpetual it died in the words of T.S. Eliot: “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

I quoted this to a watch repair man, showing him the stilled second hand. “It whimpered when it quit?” he asked in astonishment.

“No…that’s a literary allusion…nevermind,” I said. “Can you fix it?”

He kept it quarantined for several days and then told me that he couldn’t get parts for it anymore, that Rolex did not make them for a watch not even 50 years old. “You mean that a perpetual watch is dead in less than half a century?” I said. “That’s not my idea of perpetual.” He shrugged and said, “I’ve got some really good watches for $100. Run on batteries.”

The watch he suggested was made by the Mallard watch company. This seemed a good omen because I am a great fan of duck hunting, especially for mallards, among the best of ducks on the dinner table. A mallard drake is almost a trophy bird when it comes to duck hunting. According to their promotional material the Mallard watch is “built for action, and for life!” Sounded like a good fit for me because at the time (when I was less than decrepit) if not exactly built for action, at least I was ready for it.

The Mallard also touted that “you won’t find these fine watches in big-box or discount stores”. If there is anything that I avoid like the black plague or underarm odor it is big-box and discount stores. A day when I am not in Walmart is a day in the sunshine.

Mallard watches are the brainchildren of a fellow named Jules Borel, a Swiss watchmaker, who immigrated to the United States in 1920 and opened a watch repair shop. The business grew as a supplier of parts and tools for the watch industry and eventually Borel came out with his own line of watches which for whatever reason he named the Mallard. Mr. Borel did not choose the glitzy confines of Manhattan as his home base; instead he chose Kansas City as his watchmaking home, in my home state, Missouri, proving that you don’t have to be uptown to be a down-home feller.

So I plopped down my $100 and went home with my Mallard. At this moment I can look at my wrist and tell within a few seconds exactly what time it is in my universe because after more than 30 years the Mallard keeps the kind of time that Mr. Rolex and his fellow horological legends can only aspire to.

The Mallard has been sweated on, been through the hell of 1000 grueling hunts in inhospitable hells, traveled thousands of miles on the road– and it keeps time the way time should be kept, accurately and without failure. Without a whimper and a lost moment never to be regained.

On the other hand, the Rolex went back into its original case and got stuck in a drawer with old pocketknives, my expired passport with the photograph that makes me look like Osama bin Joel, decorative belt buckles and lint-covered breath mints. There it has languished for a couple of decades while my Mallard continues to be a highflying exemplar of a watch which marks time with nary a missing second.

I sneered at the audacity of Rolex to call any watch “perpetual.” It’s arrogant to label any watch “perpetual” unless it has been around since the time of the Pharaohs. And I haven’t seen any hieroglyphs of Tutankhamen sporting a wristwatch. Rolex is more than 113 years old, founded in 1905.

It’s actually English, not Swiss, in origin. One story about the origin of the name is that founder Hans Wilsdorf thought that “rolex” is the sound a watch makes when it’s being wound. Mine, of course, made a tiny whmper (actually, I would’ve settled for a whimper rather than dead silence).

A Rolex watch has been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and to the top of Mt. Everest. Mine never went higher than the highest spot in Missouri, Taum Sauk Mountain (1,772 Feet), or deeper than six inches in a trout stream when I stepped on a condemned slippery rock, did an acrobatic pratfall that would have gained the envy of Buster Keaton, and the watch flew off my wrist and plopped into the water.

In 1927 Mercedes Gleitze was the first English woman to swim the English channel and she did it with a Rolex Oyster watch tied around her neck. Although she nearly died of exposure, the watch was in perfect shape after 10 hours submerged. Chances are then my watch’s short dip in Roaring River creek was not what caused its fatal illness.

One watchmaker took it apart and said the self-winding mechanism was worn out. Self-winding is an invention of 1923 (1931 on a Rolex). A tiny balance wheel swings back and forth with the motion of the wearer’s arm and powers gears and other mysterious stuff that winds the mainspring.

I can see that if I were operating a jackhammer 15 hours a day it might stress the self-winder into exhaustion, but I’m just your average couch potato, occasionally raising my arm to grab a Bud or another nachos. My winder should last a thousand years (actually, being “perpetual,” it should last forever—just ask Mr. Webster).

Years passed and my Rolex moldered among the detritus of my life, a pearl among swine, albeit a pearl that told the right time only twice each 24 hours. I ran across it while searching out my fifth grade report card which had a breath mint glued to it and decided to beard the horological lion in its den. I called the New York Rolex headquarters and spoke with a gentleman whose accent reflected advanced educational institutions where the annual tuition equaled what I spent in four years at the University of Missouri and who doubtless spent more on one sneaker than the cost of everything in my closet.

He told me that Rolex did not make parts for that watch anymore but I was too intimidated by his smarmy accent to ask why in the hell a watch with “perpetual” in its name would be outdated in half a century. He gave me instructions on mailing the watch to them in a tone that resembled the way one speaks to children who can’t quite grasp long division, a mixture of pity and resignation. He seemed to imply that if it came from Missouri it probably was dysfunctional because it had become clogged with horse manure.

The ensuing estimate allowed that Rolex possibly could make my watch functional again though it never would keep Rolex Time and who knows how long the duct tape and Elmer’s glue would hold? Cost? About $1,000.

That would have bought 10 of the Mallards I could have bought to replace the defunct Rolex, but I didn’t bring that up—had he known I’d defaced my wrist with a $100 watch he probably would have hung up on me.

The Rolex went back among the rusty pocketknives for several more years and then I read an article about a rural watchmaker who specializes in Rolex repair. He was in the tradition of shade tree mechanics who are open a couple of days a week if they feel like it, but who can turn a 1923 John Deere tractor into a competitive NASCAR vehicle.

I explained my plight and said Rolex wanted $1,000 to maybe fix my watch. “They want you to buy a new watch,” said the little watchmaker, who I think was named Geppetto, although I may be confusing him with another craftsman. As it turned out, I needed Geppetto, the woodworker who turned Pinocchio into a real boy, more than I needed a watch repair man. I never met the guy but if you remember the Pinocchio story, every time the wood kid told a lie his nose grew longer. I couldn’t see the watch guy over the phone but I suspect maybe his nose lengthened as we spoke.

Commenting on the $1000 Rolex estimate I said, “Yeah, I’ll send it off to them right after I buy the surplus aircraft carrier and renovate it as a luxury liner.” The heavy sarcasm flew past him like a Nolan Ryan hummer.

But I was paying him to fix watches, not to appreciate subtle humor and after I sent him the watch and $200 he returned it running with James Bondian éclat. I practiced my Paul Newman chuckle as I slipped the Rolex back on my wrist. The second hand lurched around the dial and the watch gave every appearance of actually telling time for the first time in decades.

The refurbished Rolex ticked on, …picking up about 10 minutes a day, apparently what the Rolex folks consider Rolex Time. Perhaps it was trying to make up the lost years. The repair job lasted, as best I remember, for about a month and then the Rolex returned to its natural state—inert. Back in the drawer with the breath mints. The passport still is expired and so apparently is the Rolex.

The Mallard, meanwhile, is back on my wrist where it belongs and back in a duck blind where a Rolex wouldn’t be caught dead (well, if it was my Rolex, it would be).
-30-

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  • Blog
  • September 21st, 2018

DROP THE HAMMER ON BRETT

By Joel. M. Vance

I had sworn off of writing about Donald J Trump in this blog because it was too much like the old joke about the reason for hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you quit.

And it seemed like such an exercise in futility because today’s outrage is superseded by another one even before the electronic ink has time to dry. It is as if Steph Curry, launches one of his patented 35 foot three point bombs right on target only to see the entire backboard rim move 2 feet one direction or the other just as the ball gets there.

What more can you say about this sociopathic nut job that isn’t said nearly every day by anyone with enough perspicacity to see through the deluge of obfuscating garbage dumped by him and his supporters. The man is truly evil, the absolute personification of the anti-Christ. One (this one anyway) wonders how the guy can walk around a golf course and not worry about a sudden heavenly lightning strike taking him out. Of course, fatso doesn’t walk around the golf course anyway—he rides in a golf cart, his preferred mode of transportation since he spends more time in one that he does in the oval office pretending to be the leader of the free world. His main worry in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence was whether or not his golf course in North Carolina had been harmed.

So, setting aside my disinclination to pick on the easiest target on the political landscape and feeling particularly dyspeptic today, and despite the wonderful news that Mary Poppins is returning to the silver screen at Christmas time (and where the hell were you Ms. Poppins when we needed you to fix all that was wrong with the 2016 presidential election) I’m going to write once again about the blathering blimp.

Trump and his sycophantic coterie of supporters are trying to ram through the elevation of Brett Cavanaugh to the Supreme Court which would further tilt the ultimate check on congressional and presidential misdeeds toward acceptance of their incompetence and toward a government that would bear no relationship to what was created 250 years ago and which has somehow managed to endure periodic assaults on its integrity ever since.

Not only would the Supreme Court be seriously capsized toward the extreme right wing of the political landscape, it would feature not one but two sexual predators (if you have forgotten, we already had one in Clarence Thomas). So how would a court with a couple of good old male supremacists as the swing voters rule on issues such as gender equality, a woman’s right to choose, and other hot button women’s issues?

I signed and reposted a petition on Facebook which said “we already have an accused sexual predator in the White House. We don’t need another one on the Supreme Court.” The reaction was immediate and virulent with nearly 60 comments almost none of which was suitable for family consumption— I had prodded the extreme right and the reaction was extreme. But, hey, these are the folks who hear black helicopters anytime someone in the neighborhood starts a riding lawnmower.

I thought about and discarded many really nasty replies but settled for saying simply, “I’m glad to see that the First Amendment is alive and well”.

That there will be extreme and no doubt ugly pushback from the Cavanaugh and Trump supporters against Cavanaugh’s accuser goes without saying (they already said it to me). One unnamed defender says that nearly any guy could be accused of something. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller describes the situation as “a hiccup”.

Unfortunately, there is an element of truth in those statements but the difference is that most guys who have made a pass at a girl sometime in their past (and most have) have backed off when the girl said no and it is no defense to excuse what amounts to an attempted rape by saying, “hey, it’s just a guy thing”.

The woman in question, Christine Blasey Ford, now is an adult—but at the time the alleged incident occurred she was 15 years old and she was at a party where beer was available and consumed and where there was no adult supervision. In that situation it would be highly unusual for a frightened teenager to report the incident either to the authorities or to her parents. But it left a mark on her that has persisted into adulthood and resulted in her seeking counseling— from which she has notes that provide a written record of what happened, how it happened, and how it affected her entire life.

There is absolutely no benefit to her now at the age of 51 to come forward with the story unless it is true. To risk going public with a shameful incident from the past makes no sense unless it is true and she knows full well that she is setting herself up for ridicule , not to mention physical threat, from the right. It has already started. Proving that the rotten apple does not fall far from the tree. Trump’s kid, Don Junior, mocks the allegation by posting a photo of a crumpled up piece of notebook paper with a scribble message which says “Cindy will you be my girlfriend, love Brett.”

This is a classic Trump response to an accusation. Discredit the accuser, throw dirt on the evidence and try to ride it out—he already has told his dear friend Sean Hannity that he feels he has survived the damning effect of the Bob Woodward book, and the uncomfortable fact is that he probably has.

Donnie Junior’s clumsy attempt at sarcasm exposes Junior for the chip off the old blockhead that he is. Talk about a dysfunctional family! I wonder what the legitimate women in Trump’s life think about the old sexual predator’s excesses—Melania, Ivanka, and Tiffany? Perhaps the goldplated lifestyles they lead is enough excuse for them to ignore their patron’s sleaziness. At least one source has said that Ivanka has told her father to drop Cavanaugh—arguably she is the smartest one in the family and, considering she is listed as a trusted advisor, Trump would be smart to take her advice.

The right-wingers will try to excuse Cavanaugh by saying that it happened a long time ago and will imply that he should be forgiven for youthful indiscretion if indeed it did happen. But we’re not talking about a DWI like that that George W. Bush incurred or someone smoking a joint in college (like Bill Clinton—but he didn’t inhale—yeah, right) or some other socially unapproved behavior of long ago. We’re talking about a physical assault on a 15-year-old girl. And there should be no statute of limitation on anything like that, especially when it concerns an appointment to a position with the potential of affecting the entire course of the country possibly for decades to come.

Presumably most of the senators who would vote on the suitability of Brett Cavanaugh to be a Supreme Court justice have families and at least some of them will have had girl children. How would they feel if it had been their 15-year-old daughter who was assaulted? The all-male Republican half of the committee is running scared and reportedly would not question Ms. Ford directly, but would find women among their aides compliant enough to do the dirty job with the old white guys feeding them the inappropriate questions.

It’s not exactly a secret that society is male-dominated and has been since biblical times. I once went to a wedding where part of the vows demanded that the bride pledge to be subservient to her husband in all things— and this was demanded in the name of God and in a holy place. I’m still steamed about this blatant nod to male domination done under the guise of religious dogma. According to the religious right a woman is no more than a spare rib, ripped from a snakebit Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Not that Donald J Trump, the Groper in Chief, has any devotion to religious belief, having lived his entire life in opposition to most of the precepts of recognized religion. Makes you wonder why a lightning bolt hasn’t turned his golf cart into a Viking funeral pyre.

Elizabeth Warren, I think the most respected woman in politics today (sorry, Hillary, I never did have that much respect for you) , had this to say about the Cavanaugh nomination, “There is already a long list of reasons why Brett Cavanaugh should not be allowed anywhere near the highest court in the land (and I’ll bet that list would be even longer if Republicans weren’t still hiding over 100,000 pages of Cavanaugh’s work in the George W. Bush administration).”

The far right, especially the religious right, is fond of maintaining that the founding fathers intended a Christian government, ignoring the fact that the founding fathers set up a three-part government whereby the president would be prevented by Congress from becoming a leader with kingly powers, and the Supreme Court would oversee the other two branches of government to prevent them from accumulating excessive power.

And the same founding fathers adopted an amendment to the Constitution that guarantees religious freedom and said nothing about Christianity being a dominant religion—in fact a number of the founding fathers specifically warned against adopting any single religion as an official one.

Predictably, Orrin Hatch, the Neanderthal senator from Utah has pooh-pooed the accusation, sneered at Ms. Ford as a ‘mixed up person” and said that he implicitly believes Cavanaugh’s version of what—he thinks— didn’t happen. Hatch was prominent 27 years ago when an all-male Senate hearing committee humiliated Anita Hill, the accuser against Clarence Thomas.

Hatch said the same things then that he is saying now. He was wrong then and he is wrong now— an out of date, over the hill, misogynistic cretin who never should have been elected to any office, much less the high office of the Senate. His doddering colleague Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, has done his best to push the vote for Cavanaugh through, scheduling a hearing for the two combatants, offering a single date and saying that if Ford doesn’t show up the vote should happen quickly. I hope it works out and that the world sees incredible woman tell an all too familiar story of sexual misconduct, rubbing the face of those who belittle her in their own mess.

Considering that the Republicans wouldn’t even consider a hearing for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, the unseemly haste with which the Repubs are trying to shoehorn Cavanaugh onto the court is beyond suspicious—it’s just flat out political and everybody with a brain should know it and be disgusted.

I’m posting this two days before accuser Christine Ford and Cavanaugh were scheduled to testify before the committee to tell their diametrically opposed stories. It’s worth noting that Ms. Ford has passed a lie detector test administered by a former FBI agent, and that she has notes from a psychologist who treated her for trauma associated with what Cavanaugh’s defenders deny happened. She also has witnesses whom she told about the incident contemporaneously.

Ms. Ford rightfully has claimed that the FBI should conduct an investigation before any testimony by her and Cavanaugh. But the big fat fly in the ointment is Donald Trump who apparently is the only one who can involve the FBI. Chances of him risking an investigation which would implicate Cavanaugh are about as remote as him admitting to any of his own sexual predations.

And Trump’s Senate lapdog, chairman Grassley is trying to mousetrap Ms. Ford by saying that if the doesn’t testify on Monday with only two witnesses—her and Cavanaugh— and without an FBI investigation, the committee vote will go on.

. He’s betting that his political game of chicken will work. In other words there will be no witnesses called, no chance for Ms. Ford to offer any evidence other than her own word—and you can guess how that would play with a bunch of doddering old man Republicans. I wonder how the two woman Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom try to maintain a reputation as champions of women’s rights, will vote when push comes to shove.

The Republican old white guy half of the judiciary committee has two members who also were associated with the humiliation of Anita Hill during the hearing for Clarence Thomas. And both of those guys, Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, have said there was no reason to hold a hearing on Ms. Ford’s allegation and that maybe a simple phone call would settle the matter.

It’s too bad Ms. Ford won’t be able to call possibly the most expert witness to testify— Donald J Trump the Groper in Chief who has bragged about his ability to assault women without subsequent consequences and who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 14 women and who paid off a porn star and a Playboy model so they wouldn’t tell stories about their misadventures with the King groper.

Cavanaugh would bring to the table a defense which largely consists of echoing Donald Trump’s own advice on how to deal with accusations of sexual misbehavior : “you’ve got to deny, deny and push back on the women,” Trump is quoted as saying “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”

That’s a quote from Bob Woodward’s best-selling book, titled Fear, a chronicle of the twisted world of Donald J Trump. Woodward a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and half of the team that exposed Richard Nixon’s crimes and led to his resignation from the presidency is the most respected reporter of his time and if he says it you can take it to the bank.

Let’s hope that in this case “deny” means what happens to Brett Cavanaugh’s nomination to become a Supreme Court justice.

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  • September 14th, 2018

MY POETIC PAPER DOLL

By Joel M. Vance

Before Barbie came along in three dimensions to capture the imagination of the nation’s pre-teenage girls, there were paper dolls in two dimensions— Brenda Starr and the like could be dressed with designer clothes cut out from paper along dotted lines and presto! The little girl would have her favorite cartoon character dressed in the latest fashions. So popular and widespread was this preadolescent activity that the Mills Brothers sang “I’m gonna to buy a paper doll to call my own/a doll that other fellas cannot steal”.

Margaret Menamin (Eshbaugh, her married name) carried this childhood activity into adulthood and became— among aficionados of paper dolls— the acknowledged leader of dedicated collectors of such esoteric material. Few outdoor writers in the Outdoor Writers Association of America know that the author of the prayer that opens and closes the organization’s annual conference was written by Margaret Menamin.

Although she never was a member of OWAA, she had deep roots in the organization and strong ties to a number of the pioneers within the group. She was an honored and award-winning poet—published and cherished by those who love poetry— in addition to her odd hobby of collecting paper dolls. But Margaret was a long way from a little girl who never grew up. She possessed a bawdy sense of humor and, belying her moving beautiful OWAA prayer, she also wrote some verse that might shock the socks off of some of OWAA’s more uptight members.

The secret song of caves, the throbbing lust
Of roused volcanoes rising underground,
The laughing rain, the ardent pulse and pound,
Of savage rivers soaking thirsty dust.
Then came hot hailstones on me like a flood
And I could read the poems of your blood.

Only a sample and one of the more innocuous sonnets from Margaret’s series of passionate and erotic tributes to remembered love.

I have a copy of the published but extremely rare–there were only 50 copies by a now defunct publisher in the original edition–manuscript of a long series of sonnets titled Sonnets for a Second Summer which celebrate in eloquent Shakespeare-worthy verse the joy of physical love.

The verses are impossible to read without falling in love with the woman who so eloquently captured the spirit and feeling that is in that poem/prayer which opens and closes every OWWA conference. I never met her in person, But I heard stories about her from Jim Keefe and others and it is one of my great regrets that I never got to hang around with her and swap outrageous stories.”

Menamin delighted in telling a story related to her by a mutual dear friend, Mitch Jayne, who was the bass player for the Dillards bluegrass band, also known as the Darling family on the old Andy Griffith show. Mitch, an accomplished writer and novelist (his book Old Fish Hawk was made into a fine but forgotten movie) once had a Weimaraner to which someone wanted to breed. Let Margaret take up the tale from there: “Apparently this was one dumb dog. And Dutch, the Weimaraner, didn’t understand. Mitch was down on the floor, on all fours, showing Dutch the motions, hoping Dutch would catch on, which eventually Dutch did, after Mitch had developed sacroiliac trouble and possibly a strange propensity for “doing it dog style.” (Forgive me, I couldn’t resist that.)”

In 2009, Menamin began feeling poorly and went to the doctor. She emailed me, “I have been dealt a terrible blow.” She had been diagnosed with leukemia, and within a month she died. She was survived by her husband Robert Eshbaugh, a daughter and a son and four grandchildren. And, although most wouldn’t know her name, she is survived by at least two generations of OWAA members who either are inspired by her eloquent poem—or should be.

When OWAA created a writing workshop, OWAA member Pat Stockdill was inspired to name it Goldenrod, a tribute both to the OWAA prayer, and to its author Margaret Menamin.
Menamin was mourned on several websites by those who knew her and by those who wished they had. No one summed it up better than a fellow who said, “I loved her. We all did. She was one of the supreme unsung poets, the epitome of generosity and class, a great mind and, a great heart. Her passing has left an immeasurable void.” By then her OWAA mentors, Werner Nagel and Jim Keefe were gone and I felt, though I never met her in person, as if I had lost a lifelong and dear friend. I once wrote a profile of Menamin for the OWAA newsletter and it is reproduced here—with the understanding that all the present tense mentions now are past tense.

“In autumn when the leaves are brown/
they fall all around the town.”

As poetry it falls somewhat short of a Shakespeare sonnet, but it’s pretty good for a second grader. Now that the second-grader has grown up she has written a poem that is far more familiar to any OWAAer who ever has attended an annual conference.

The poem contains this phrase, “I am the goldenrod, the grain, the granite …” The OWAA prayer opens and closes every conference; it is prominent in the directory. It was written nearly 40 years ago by Margaret Menamin, then a Missourian, now a Pennsylvanian. Menamin has had several careers, mostly as an old-school newspaper writer, but her love of and writing of poetry has been a constant.

About that first poem she says, “I was so delighted with the idea that I could make a poem that for a long time it didn’t occur to me that I could make more than one poem. I just kept adding to that one, and it got longer and longer. Fortunately it no longer remains anywhere, even in my memory.”

Menamin was born in a rural area of Missouri’s Washington County, which still is as rural as it gets in the Show-Me State. Her family moved to Steelville, on the banks of the Meramec River and she graduated high school there and entered the University of Missouri at 16, the youngest freshman on campus. “I certainly didn’t look like a college girl,” she says. “I was still buying my clothes out of the ‘little girls’ pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog.”

She felt out of it among the older students and dropped out after a year and began working as a printer’s devil – a print-shop apprentice – at the Crawford Mirror in her hometown (this still was the days of hot type set on the incredibly complex Linotype machines).
Next she became clerk of the Crawford County probate and magistrate courts for a decade. She married and had a daughter and a son, and began selling poems to Seventeen Magazine and saw her first poems published in The Missouri Conservationist, the magazine of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

That was her entrée to OWAA – Dan Saults, Werner Nagel and Jim Keefe, stalwarts of OWAA, all worked for the magazine and all became friends. She also knew Don Cullimore, OWAA’s longtime executive director. (The OWAA headquarters then was in Columbia, in a building owned by the late Buck Rogers, OWAA’s 1972-73 president.)

“How I miss Jim Keefe,” she writes. “So many times during the day I encounter an odd news item, a funny typographical error, a beautiful poem or just something I want to run by him and think, ‘I must show that to Jim.’ One never gets used to such a presence being absent.”
Nagel, who also was the founder of OWAA’s Circle of Chiefs, urged her to write a poem that could be used as an opening prayer for the OWAA conference. “I think he did it specifically with the idea of obtaining some recognition for my poetry by OWAA. Who knows?”

Uncle Homer Circle, who was president of OWAA at the time, also urged her to write a poem of invocation. “I felt we needed one to replace those which tended to be biased toward one religion or another,” he said in a letter to Jack Kerins. Circle had been charmed by an “Outdoor Prayer” that Menamin wrote which says in part: “… allot me some small earthly spot/Where I may feel the rain and wind and sun./ If Heaven be lovelier than the soil I stroll/I could not hold it in my shallow soul.”

OWAA adopted its prayer/poem on June 22, 1967, Margaret Menamin’s birthday.
“OWAA’s acceptance and use of the poem has been an ongoing honor to me,” she says.
Today she lives in Pittsburgh and wild turkeys come to her driveway to be fed. “They watch for me and as soon as I open my side door they come running.”

She never has been a member of OWAA, though she belonged to two regional outdoor communicator groups, Missouri Outdoor Writers Association and Great Rivers Outdoor Writers.
After her court clerkship she and her family moved to Rolla, Mo., site of OWAA’s 1954 conference, the hottest on record. There she did just about everything for the Rolla Daily News, including writing all the paper’s editorials for several months. The editorials and her personal column both took first place in the Missouri newspaper competition.

Today she works from home, transcribing medical reports, a job she did full time for 14 years. She has won several awards with her poems. OWAA freelancers can identify with one facet of her career: She was established with a magazine which had published a number of her poems – but it went out of business.In addition to her husband, there are two children and four grandchildren.

Although it wasn’t written for OWAA, the last two lines of a poem titled “Death Watch” could be a caution not just for her family, but also for everyone:

“The earth has grown too fragile./
Must it break along with all things loved for beauty’s sake?”

Goodbye Margaret and rest in peace.

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  • September 8th, 2018

STUPID EGG TRICKS

By Joel M. Vance

A few years ago I wrote most of a book about eggs. I’m fascinated by eggs. They are the beginning of all animal life and they permeate our lives like few other food items. But the egg book idea was greeted with what I can only call massive indifference and it rests in my computer today like a tired old dog in the sunlight.

So, in the interest of educating you about all the intricacies of the egg, here is one chapter of a book that very likely never will see the light of day—at least in the form of royalty checks made out to me.

Stupid egg tricks

Check any fourth grade classroom in America and chances are you’ll find something going on with eggs, from the kids watching a chick hatch to doing science experiments like changing the air pressure in a bottle to suck a hard-boiled, shelled egg into the bottle.

Actually, the egg is pushed from the outside when you burn a piece of paper inside the bottle and that causes the air pressure inside to lessen, the outside air pushes the egg inside and everyone goes, “Ooooaaahhhh!” and the science teacher preens.

The bottle neck has to be just slightly smaller than the egg. Larger and the egg merely falls in and no one is impressed; too small and no matter how much the eggs huffs and puffs it won’t go in. Anyway, that’s just one of a host of tricks more interesting that seeing how fast you can make two over easy disappear at the Dine In Diner.

You can do Stupid Egg Tricks at parties, too, especially if you don’t care whether you’re ever invited to one again. While most egg tricks reveal a scientific principle, they rank with putting a lampshade on your head and reviving the Dr. Pepper jingle (“I’m a pepper; you’re a pepper; etc.”) while everyone at the party desperately grabs for another stiff drink.

Of course there are commercial egg tricks—make eggs supposedly come out of your mouth or your ear, or disappear. But either you have to buy the paraphernalia or learn prestidigitation. Both involve more work and expense than the average half-drunk party clown wants to invest.

It’s always fun to try to balance a hard-boiled egg on its end. Supposedly eggs balance better on the equinox, so you might want to wait for a Spring Fling party to try this. Do it before everyone sheds clothing and cavorts around the May pole because it’ll be easier to get people’s attention. Some claim that it doesn’t matter when you balance the egg as long as it was laid on the equinox. There are many, many other partygoers who don’t give a shit either way.

Here’s another one to send your friends into terminal apathy: boil an egg for five minutes and let cool. Dissolve alum in a tablespoon of vinegar and write a message on the egg (“Yes, I know this is stupid” might be appropriate). When you peel the egg later the message should be on the white of the egg. But it doesn’t always work and if it doesn’t the failure might discourage you from trying future egg tricks.

That would be good.

But aficionados of egg tricks are not easily discouraged. You’ll find a life-of-the-party who insists on demonstrating the incredible strength of the egg by squeezing a raw egg with all his strength. The egg will not break. This works because of the egg’s resistance to equally-applied force (we’re getting into physics here and I barely scraped by high school physics, so just trust me, okay?). But if you are wearing a ring or if the egg has a crack, your hostess is going to be hysterical when she sees a raw egg splattered over the carpeting she just had cleaned for $1,000.

Cry, “Never fear!” before she goes for the .38 used to terminate burglars and idiot party clowns. “I’ll just scrape up the excess and wash the carpet.” Scrub with dishwashing liquid, a teaspoon to a half-pint of warm water, followed by a solution of a tablespoon of ammonia to a cup of water.

“See! All gone!” Then get the hell out of there.

If the burly husband of your hysterical hostess grabs you by the scruff of the neck and hauls you to the middle of a large body of water, then pushes you overboard, better hope it’s the ocean because you’ll float more buoyantly in salt water than fresh.

So will an egg. There are several tricks involving eggs in salt water and eggs in fresh. Tell a friend you have magic powers (make sure the friend is either young, dumb or incredibly gullible). Slip an egg into a glass of water and watch it sink. Then tell your dumb friend to close his eyes (“his” because girls are far too intelligent to fall for something like this).

Substitute a glass of salt water, fish the egg out of the plain water and hide that glass, then slip the egg into the salted water. Depending on the amount of salt the egg will float partly or all the way to the top of the glass. Mutter “Abracadabra” or some such nonsense, then tell the friend to open his eyes.

“Sumbitch!” he exclaims. “I need a drink of water after that.” And he goes to where you’ve hidden the fresh water glass, smirks at you, and drinks it. If you can think to say, “I hope you didn’t taste the arsenic in there,” you have a future as a class clown.

Of course egg throwing is a time-honored way to express yourself—possibly more demonstrative than writing inflammatory rhetoric that no one reads; certainly better than fulminating in the woods where only the rabbits cower in fright.

The Chinese consider egg throwing a time-honored method of expressing displeasure at official activity, although engaging in it in Tiananmen Square under the Chinese Communist regime is not a wise idea.

Works fine in Poland, though. Former President Bill Clinton once was hit by an egg and it wasn’t even thrown by a Republican Congressman. It was a Polish teenager who apparently disagreed with the idea of economic globalization. The cops arrested the kid, but didn’t simply shoot him.

The United States is not exempt. In late January of 2004 a disgruntled citizen lobbed an egg at the mayor pro tem of Houston. Robert Horton, who apparently is a frequent visitor to City Council meetings, said, “I’m the one who pays the cops. But, hey, they can’t seem to recognize the boss.”

Another familiar at council meetings is a man who claims he is going to record an album with Michael Jackson and yet a third who claims to be the president, only prevented from taking office by the Mafia. Clearly Houston is the seat of alternative government. Humpty Dumpty would have been completely at home among all the other crackpots.

But Houston isn’t the only city with egg on its governmental face. Three juveniles and an older man egged the homes of four Oxford, Ohio, city council members back in 1998. The council was involved in the demolition of a 76-year-old water tower that, apparently, the quartet of egg lobbers did not want to see demolished. “Democracy has failed,” read notes left on the doorsteps of the egged politicos. “Save the water tower or die.”

Egging is somewhat less ominous than a death threat and the four were arrested for (and I love this legalese) “aggravated menacing and criminal mischief.” Mischief always is such a rollicking word, carrying the implication of good fun. “Aggravated menacing” sounds like in-your-face carried to the point where your face has cleat marks on it.

That’s just one example of egg throwing to make a point. It’s possible Proto Man threw eggs at the cave of his rivals, but more likely he bonked his drooling enemy with a sizeable rock. Carries more authority than a fragile egg.

Bath, England, had a rash of egg throwers some time back. One target, not fully explained or at least not to my satisfaction, was “a group of tap dancers.” I don’t know if they were targeted as they danced or not, but it would have made a great show. “Some one is getting hold of copious amounts of eggs and throwing them around,” said a policeman. “I’m fed up with this.” He asked shopkeepers to keep an eye out for anyone buying eggs in bulk, though he didn’t specify when egg buying became copious.

In yet another English to-do involving eggs, the police stopped a bunch of youngsters trying to egg participants in a parade at Tranent. An American cop would have commented stiffly, using cop jargon: “The juvenile perpetrators were observed in the act of throwing eggs and were apprehended.” But PC Pamela Black summed it up this way, “There was a bit of a carry-on but we spotted the culprits, gave them a flea in their ear and confiscated the eggs.”

Less amusing was a confrontation in North Hollywood when some young males in a Suburban began throwing eggs at a documentary producer named Michael Craven. He blocked their vehicle, got out…and they ran over him. Egg throwers can be guilty of more than aggravated menacing.

Egg throwing even has changed the course of government. In 1917, the prime minister of Australia, on tour in Queensland, was egged by demonstrators at Warwick, possibly Irish nationalists or members of the International Workers of the World, the IWW or Wobblies. Queensland at the time was a rebellious province and the police refused to arrest the egg throwers.

The PM, William Morris Hughes, formed a commonwealth police force to protect him and future PMs—an agency similar to the American Secret Service. That force evolved into today’s Australian Federal Police who helped Warwick celebrate its splattery past in 2001 with a reenactment of the egg throwing.

Earlier I spoke of eggs squeezing without breaking it as a cute parlor trick. As a matter of fact, YouTube features a video of a burly guy cradling an egg between his hands and squeezing as hard as he can—without breaking the egg. Apparently it depends on how the egg is placed with the ends in the hollow of the palms.

And there is a video of some guy showing various egg tricks including the sucking-into-a-bottle showstopper and trying to pile weights on an upended egg to see how much it takes before the egg shatters. He also mixes some sort of substances in a bottle, places an egg end on atop the bottle and waits for a chemical reaction to shatter the egg like a hand grenade. But there is an on-screen caution. “Don’t try this at home”. Not recommended for viewing by elementary school kids who are notoriously curious.

Given a kid’s insatiable curiosity about forbidden pleasures (Swiping a sip of Mommy’s martini when she is so blasted she doesn’t see you do it, sneaking a peek at Daddy’s Hustler magazine), it’s wise to shield them from instructions on how to make an egg bomb. We should also probably deny the fourth-grader in the White House from access to YouTube lest he point an exploding egg in the direction of North Korea and inadvertently start World War III.

If you’re into egg throwing as a sport, see how far you can toss one without breaking it. The Guinness record is 317 feet 10 inches. That’s a throw from right field to home plate, but it had better be into a barrel of goose down, not a catcher’s mitt. If your arm is shot, try for the record of standing eggs on end. Taiwanese elementary and junior high students stood 602 eggs on end in 10 minutes in 2001 to make the Guinness book.

This proves the often-quoted belief that Asian students are far advanced over American youngsters because the Taiwanese little kids beat the previous record of only 467 set by a bunch of Colorado elementary school kids.

Asian teams usually win the Little League World Series also. What this proves I don’t know and, like most stupid egg tricks, almost no one cares. Especially publishers of books about eggs.

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  • September 1st, 2018

MUNCHING ON GRASS SEED

By Joel M. Vance

Maybe the analogy is flawed but those of us who have an addiction to wild rice cherish our connections to that delectable dish as avidly as does a crackhead cherish his back alley connection.

My guy quite likely has gone to the great rice beds in the sky by now— last time I saw him he looked as if they were a day or two away from paddling his canoe into eternity. But he was our connection to top-quality wild rice. And that is a connection to be as cherished as a map to the exact location of the Lost Dutchman gold mine. You would not have recognized his place as a retirement home for a Fortune 500 entrepreneur. The front yard was decorated with a collection of rusted out pickup trucks defunct refrigerators and other obsolete appliances that, we found out, served as repositories for his annual harvest of wild rice.

The house and yard basically defy description. If you have seen the movie Deliverance, you’ll get some idea of what the place looked like. Every time we stopped to buy rice, I expected to hear the sound of a banjo and see a genetically impaired kid sitting on the porch. I had my guitar in our truck, but I wasn’t about to get it out— I was there to buy wild rice, not to buy trouble with people who looked as if trouble was a major hobby.

God knows what was inside the house— when we knocked at the door, more than a little apprehensively, he would appear behind the screen which had holes in it big enough to admit small birds, looking as if he were in the throes of a massive hangover, but when we asked if he had any wild rice to sell, he would totter over to one of the decrepit pickups pry open a rusty door and retrieve bags of rice in whatever amount we wanted.

It was the prime stuff—wild rice varies in quality from almost black colored farm raised rice, to almost white prime rice from remote lake beds where Native Americans still thrash it into canoes. His was a pale tan color, obviously the best of the best and the taste was incomparable. My son-in-law, Ron DeValk, tried for years to inveigle his way into the house to see what was there, but the guy guarded his entryway like the gatekeeper at the castle of the Great Oz. We’ll never know what other treasures might have been inside because the last time we stopped to buy wild rice, there was no one home and the house and yard seemed abandoned. It was as if we had finally stumbled into the Lost Dutchman mind to find that, instead of gold, it was filled with rusty tin cans and empty beer bottles.

Rice beds also serve as hotspots for duck hunting. One avid rice bed hunter says,
“You have to enjoy paddling. From the beginning of the day until the end (minus a few snack breaks) we paddle. It’s not hard work and the thrill of going around the next turn and anticipating a flock of woodies or teal jumping keeps the adrenaline going.

“Since you paddle through the wild rice camouflage isn’t nearly as important as it is to the duck blind guys. The ducks we hunt aren’t looking down on us. You have to be quiet and keep below the top of the rice stalks. I prefer plastic boats because they’re quieter than aluminum, fiberglass, or Kevlar. The gunner has to be ready at all times and listen for ducks jumping because most of the time ducks see you before you see them.

“Rice seems to grow in cycles: some years a pothole can be so full of rice that it looks like a wheat field and other years it is too thin for ducks. Scouting is part of the fun of hunting–drive around the weekend before opener and find your spot. We’ve set up decoys maybe five times. Jump shooting requires the guy in the front to be ready. Ducks are flying away from you so they don’t need much lead and the breast meat never gets shot up.”

You also can park your boat in a rice bed, concealed by the towering rice stalks, throw out a few decoys and hunt as if from a traditional blind. Three of us were hunting in a rice bed in a northern Minnesota lake, our boat tucked into the thick golden grass with a few decoys in open water. It was a sharply cold morning with a good breeze to tickle the decoys, but the ducks were scarce. My half-asleep buddy reacted instinctively when a ducklike bird flashed in front of the decoys, made a beautiful right-to-left crossing shot….and picked up a defunct coot to the derision of the rest of us.

We, of course, insisted he cook and eat it and I suggested the traditional coot recipe: Place coot on a plank and roast for several hours, then throw away the coot and eat the plank. A gourmet cook, he instead marinated the coot breast along with woodcock breasts in olive oil spiced with Cavender’s Greek seasoning, then lovingly wrapped each chunk of dark meat in bacon, roasted the result and served it on a bed of wild rice.

We loved it, not knowing coot from ‘cock. When he sneered that after all our insults we had relished his cooked coot, I suggested it wasn’t the coot but the wild rice that we were cheering. Maybe it was—we’ve had wild rice at every wild game dinner since but no more coots.

Actually wild rice is not a rice and much of it these days isn’t all that wild, but wild rice is a boon both to man and duck. It is an aquatic grass unrelated to rice. Today much wild rice on the market actually is grown in carefully established beds and harvested by machinery.

But traditionally, as done by Native Americans and old time ricers, wild rice was a two-person operation in a canoe. One poled the canoe and the “knocker” used two sticks, one to bend the rice stalks into the canoe, the other to knock the seeds off. That method takes only a fifth of the available seed and the rest falls to the bottom to generate the next year’s crop.

Some wild rice grows in nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains, but northern North America is the heart of the seed and Minnesota among the Lower 48 states is the heart of the heart. No state produces as much wild rice as Minnesota and the preservation of rice beds and traditional ricing is a cooperative venture between the Department of Natural Resources and Native American tribes. Various conservation groups also chip in money and time.

Worldwide there are four species of wild rice—one in Asia; the other three in North America and of them all the one that grows in the temperate and boreal regions of the United States—think Minnesota—is the most cherished. It has been a staple in Native American diet for centuries–archeologists find traces as far back as 12,000 years. Many varieties of Zizania aquatica, the most-cherished species, exist, depending on water depth and other conditions. Most flourish in from three to eight feet of water, with a mud bottom.

The traditional method of harvesting wild rice now totals about a half-million pounds annually nationwide, far less than the estimated 18 million pounds raised commercially. Traditional ricing has declined steeply in the past 30 years, but Minnesota protects its historic methods by law. Even so, ricing permits have declined from a peak of about 12,000 annually to 2,000 today (an estimated 3,000 Native Americans who don’t need permits, swell the ricer total to about 5,000). Blame it largely on commercial competition, but also on competition from television, MP3s, cell phones and the other electronic addictions that seduce today’s youngsters away from the outdoors.

Today real wild rice (and by Minnesota law the label has to state it was collected by traditional methods) sells for as much as $10/pound. Of that the ricer gets between three and four dollars, the processor another dollar. Add in transportation and other pre-market costs and the profit margin is not great. Ducks are but one wildlife family that homes in on wild rice at dinnertime—an estimated 17 species that the DNR considers “species of greatest conservation need” eat or procreate in rice beds.

Given the state’s many wild rice lakes, it’s no wonder Minnesota is a duck magnet. So it makes sense to manage the rice beds both for human and avian food. The most cherished duck species—mallards and wood ducks, as well as ring-necked ducks—thrive on wild rice, but it also is food for black ducks, pintails, teal, widgeon, redheads and lesser scaup. One study indicated that wild rice is the most important food for mallards in the fall.

Sixty percent of the natural rice lakes in Minnesota are in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itaska and St. Louis counties and they produce 70 percent of the traditionally-harvested seeds, but there are wild rice lakes in 55 Minnesota counties, some 1,300 of them totaling more than 64,000 acres. Before 1970 Minnesota accounted for half the global production of wild rice; now, thanks to commercial beds in other states—notably California—the Minnesota contribution is 10 percent.

The relatively few dollars dedicated to wild rice management have two intertwined aims—managing water levels to promote rice health and control of the beavers that raise water levels. It wasn’t so long ago that beavers, the furbearer that sucked the pioneer trappers westward, were almost extirpated from much of their range. Now they are a scourge on wild rice, damming small streams and flooding wetlands so deep that the rice can’t germinate. Coupled with wet years that raised lake water levels, the beaver invasion aided a precipitous drop in wild rice production in the 1990s.

Consequently rice and waterfowl managers have declared war on the flat-tailed busybodies. Ducks Unlimited and the DNR have cost-shared on beaver control. The object is to keep water levels low enough to germinate the rice and keep beavers few enough to stop them from plugging wetland outlets. A return to more normal rainfall years has helped lower lake levels to the depths rice needs to germinate and thrive. DU in 2008 spent more than $61,000, mostly to pay trappers to terminate beavers on 123 Minnesota wild rice lakes totaling nearly 39,000 acres. The DNR chipped in $6,500 in 2007 for rice seeding.

But compare the money for traditional wild rice bed management with what the federal government authorized for the commercial rice farmers: nearly $323,000 for research on shattering resistance, disease prevention and seed storage. Funds for rice lake management depend on sales of ricing permits and matching funds from conservation groups. Wild rice is to Minnesota is as corn is to Iowa. It is a symbol of the state and a cash crop as well. A DNR report says that unprocessed rice has ranged from a dime a pound in 1940 to $2.17 in 1966 and that 1966 figure in today’s dollar is a $12 million crop.

To a duck wild rice is as good as it gets and a rice-fed duck on the table is second to none. Historically, canvasbacks from Chesapeake Bay fed on wild celery and were a staple in the finest New York restaurants, the best of the best eating duck. But the celery declined as did canvasbacks (and the ducks abandoned their vegetarian ways for an animal diet and became less tasty).

In traditional ricing the team member in the stern poles the canoe through the rice, picking the route to maximize seed collection and minimize running aground or getting tangled in the thick vegetation. The raw seeds are a long way from the dinner table. They go to a processor who tumbles them to remove the outer husk. Depending on how much of the outer coating is removed in the processing, the seed can be black or nearly white. The blacker the seed the longer it should cook.

Cooked wild rice should retain a bit of crunch. Cook it too long and it turns to mush. “There’s no set time to cook it–it’s a matter of experience. Always use chicken broth instead of water—makes a much richer dish. And if you make your own stock all the better. Like regular rice it puffs up when cooked at a ratio of four or five to one. So a cup of wild rice will make at least four cups of cooked.

There’s no shortage of recipes for wild rice—Google “wild rice recipe books” and you’ll find a library’s-worth. Leftover rice, assuming there is any, can be turned into soup to die for.

Wild rice has filled some of the void left by wild celery. As good as wild rice is inside a duck, it’s equally as good outside, as a side dish to a duck dinner. So, any waterfowl hunter owes it to himself to try sneak shooting through a wild rice bed….and to serve the day’s bag on a bed of wild rice.
It goes great with coot.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • August 25th, 2018

PAT

By Joel M. Vance

Two little boys about six years old, blond and wearing overalls, standing side-by-side stiffly self-conscious in front of the camera. Each is holding a stringer aloft and each stringer has a tiny sunfish on it, the product of a fishing trip to Little Birch Lake—probably off the rickety town dock which no longer exists.

The site is Birchwood Wisconsin and I am the taller of the two little boys. The other one is Pat Catman, my first cousin and 24 hour playmate anytime I was in Birchwood. We are in the front yard of our grandmother’s house.

Pat is older than I am, a fact he loved to point out. He was born on August 7, 1934, and I was born September 25, 1934, which made him about seven weeks older than I am. I would like to say that my tiny bluegill or lake perch (they are so small it’s impossible to tell the species) is larger than his, but neither one is in the ballpark of much larger fish we will catch during the next more than seven decades.

Pat died July 5 and there may be some obscure symbolism in the fact that it was one day after the nation’s most revered patriotic holiday because Pat was a Marine veteran of the Korean War. He never shared any of his memories about the war with me, although he possibly did with his widow Kathy and his son Rocky and daughter Terri. But it is a fact that few if any Marines escaped Korea without seeing intense combat. If the US Marine Corps, as it always says, is looking for “a few good men” it certainly found one in Pat.

He had every reason to avoid the Marine Corps because his older brother Mike was a Marine in World War II and island hopped across the Pacific engaged in the horrific battles that the Corps endured. They didn’t call it PTSD in those days— shell shock or battle fatigue— but the effect was the same and Mike suffered from it to the end of his days. My father picked Mike up at the railroad station in Chicago after he was mustered out and when a car backfired as they were walking down the sidewalk, Mike reflexively hit the dirt— not the dirt of some obscure Pacific island, but the grit of a Chicago sidewalk.

Pat and I shared childhood together before we diverged and rarely spent time together over the next seven decades. Sometimes there are echoes of shared experience that sound over the passage of time and one such was a night in Birchwood when my wife and I were spending a vacation there. I was just leaving the Bluegill Bar, which was founded by my uncle Hud Soper, brother of my mother and Pat’s mother. The Bluegill (called Hud’s Bar then) was where Pat and I swiped a couple bottles of beer from the store room and scuttled out to the outhouse behind the bar to enjoy a forbidden pleasure. The third member of this preadolescent Three Musketeers was Sam Soper, another cousin, younger than Pat and me, and the little kid who tagged along and considered himself lucky if Pat and I included him in in our adventures.

The beer tasted awful, hardly worth the effort we put into swiping it. And here I was 75 years later going out the front door of the bar instead of the back door. A bulky stranger blocked my way and I stepped to one side to get around him and he did the same and I thought “uh oh!” There was a second guy with this bruiser who just grinned as if he were anticipating the enjoyment of watching me get beaten to a pulp. I knew that if the fight that appeared to be brewing started I was doomed.

“You don’t know me do you?” Asked the big guy and I quavered “Nnnnnnoo.” He grinned and said, “Sam Soper— and this is Pat.” They were all grown up and, fight avoided, we went back inside for more beer—and this time we didn’t have to sneak it out of the back room and drink it in the outhouse (the Bluegill had upgraded to an indoor toilet by then).

I saw Sam and Pat one more time some years later when our whole family stayed in Birchwood for a week and we gathered at Pat’s house on Little Birch Lake and talked over old times. Sam especially was convinced that the fictional boys in my book “Grandma and the Buck Deer” were the three of us and that the outrageous adventures I created for the boys actually were true. Some of them, as outlandish as they were, weren’t that far off from what actually happened.

Sam died a couple of years ago and now Pat is gone and the memories crowd in. There was a time that Pat picked up a ladyfinger firecracker that didn’t explode and he stuck it in his mouth and said “look at me! I’m smoking!” In an instant he was because the firecracker went off searing his mouth and stopping up my ears. He healed after a few days and my ears unplugged and we went back to roaming the streets of Birchwood and doing things that our parents would’ve been horrified by if they had known we were doing them.

We jumped out of the hayloft of a barn behind Pat’s mother’s house into a skimpy pile of hay, never stopping to consider that something like a pitchfork may have been hidden in the hay. Fortunately, we survived that leap, no doubt imagining we were Superman or Batman, rather than two goofy kids trying to survive adolescence.

Some of our adventures bordered on illegality beyond swiping a couple of really bad beers. Once, we were prowling in the attic of a barn behind Uncle Hud’s house when we discovered a couple of slot machines. Maybe there had been a day when slot machines were legal in a drinking establishment, but they weren’t at the time we made our discovery. So Uncle Hud had stashed them there perhaps against the day when they would be once again be legal. And he hadn’t even bothered to empty them from their accumulated coins.

So Pat and I liberated a stash of quarters and then there came the problem of how to account for them. If we got an allowance from our parents it was minimal and we had no independent source of income to account for a sudden flush of wealth.

That night my mother walked up the road into town with us and I pretended to find a quarter in the weeds alongside the road. My mother appreciated my good fortune, but when Pat pretended to find another quarter a few feet farther, on even though my mother was not noted as a world-famous detective, she quickly deduced that such coincidental good fortune was suspicious. It doesn’t take long for a mother to break down a flimsy alibi hastily concocted by a couple of juvenile slot machine robbers and we both were hauled before the stern presence of my uncle. Apparently we escaped a life sentence.

The sinew of the Soper family is threaded through the history of Birchwood. Grandma and Grandpa Soper emigrated to Birchwood at the beginning of the 20th century, coming overland from Argyle, Wisconsin, in a covered wagon. My grandmother ran a restaurant for the loggers who were busy cutting down the forested hills around the 20 mile chain of lakes on which Birchwood and a couple of other towns were established. My grandfather served the loggers two ways— he was the town bootlegger and if they got too obstreperous from his strong drink, he also was the town marshal.

The Soper grandparents had nine children, four boys and five girls. One boy, Orville, had his leg amputated on the kitchen table after a tree fell on him and his fascinated sister, Viola (Vic) was inspired to become a registered nurse. In the 1930s, Howard (Hud) opened Hud’s Bar, now renamed the Bluegill Bar, and his brother Foster (Bud) was the bartender. Later, Hud would build a resort on the north shore of Big Birch Lake and Bud would open a bait and tackle shop across the street from the Bluegill. The fourth brother, Myron, left home during the Depression and never was seen again. My father hired a private detective to track him down and the detective reported that a hobo killed somewhere out West, either by falling or being pushed from a train had papers identifying him as Myron Soper, but that’s where his story ended– except for a family legend which Bud’s son, Foster (the Second as he terms it) tells it: “Urban legend has it that Myron, known to be an especially “capable” boxer, took on two of Al Capone’s men who had come to Birchwood seeking drinks and adventure. After Myron dutifully handled them to a point of submission, they are said to have threatened that if Myron was still in town by the time the sun came up, he’d be snuffed out! That night, Myron vanished and was never heard from again, and Gramma Soper would look for him every time there was a knock at the door!”

One of the girls, Nellie, died in childhood from a minor wound which she got while swimming at the dam on Little Birch Lake which became infected— there were no antibiotics in those days and infection often was a death sentence. Three of the girls migrated to Chicago–Vic, Margaret (Mugs) and my mother (the only one of the girls without a nickname). Pat’s mother Lillis (Pill) stayed in Birchwood. Ultimately, Vic and Mugs ended up in old age living together in a house on the south shore of Big Birch Lake entertaining an endless stream of family and friends—it was the social epicenter of Birchwood.

Pat and Kathy would retire to a tidy home, on Little Birch, across from what once was the town dock where Pat and I caught our little fish. Pat’s sister, Mavis (of course she also had a nickname—Sammy) was my babysitter for a time before I became big enough to catch little bitty fish with Pat.

After he left the Marines and retired to Birchwood, Pat continued the Soper dominate presence in the town–he drove a school bus for 20 years and also served two terms as what they call the president of the town–the mayor. In addition to Rocky and daughter Terri, Pat and Kathy had three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

After Pat’s memorial service at St. John’s Catholic Church in Birchwood, family and friends did the only logical thing to celebrate the life of the man who had become the patriarch of the Soper clan— they gathered at the Bluegill Bar to swap stories and anecdotes about Pat’s life. Maybe some of them involved three little boys and their youthful adventures, but who was left to tell them?

Rocky wrote and read a eulogy to his dad that says in part:

“When we were kids, he used to tell Terri and me that the Marines were the strongest men—and I believe my dad was the strongest Marine. My dad was my hero. He taught me how to throw a football, baseball, how to shoot a basketball, catch a fish, shoot a deer, how to drink a beer, and most importantly, how to treat people, and how to conduct myself as I went through life. In other words, he taught me how to be a man.

“Terri was always “daddy’s little girl” he used to call her “Mutt”. In high school the boys started hanging around. They had a pretty high bar to meets Dad’s standards.

“Mom was his rock, his reason for living. With her at his side, he was invincible, and he was her knight in shining armor. A love story, worthy of a Hollywood movie, it was love at first sight. She was his high school sweetheart. They had to sneak away to get married–and they stayed in love to the very end.

“If done right, the bond between father and son is stronger than the strongest steel. Dad did it right, he’s the man that built me, and every day, I will try to live up to his standard. We will all miss you, though your presence and influence will always be felt. You fought the good fight, Marine. You earned some R&R.”

When I read Rocky’s eulogy, through tears, my mind went back more than seven decades to two little boys and two little fish. Our paths widely diverged over the years but they always seemed to lead back to Birchwood and I hope that wherever Pat’s R&R is, it includes catching a lake perch while fishing off a rickety town dock, miraculously restored, and, Pat, I admit your fish is bigger than mine.

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  • Blog
  • August 20th, 2018

IT’S IN THE BOOK

By Joel M. Vance

I started bird hunting in my 20s but only started keeping a diary or a daily log of my adventures in the field I half a century later. 50 years lost. Not totally lost, of course. The years cough up bits of themselves. The memories are conveniently skewed so my shooting recalls better than it was, and the dogs of recollection are far more efficient than the dogs of actuality.

The real value of a diary is in the narrative, that spot, however extensive, where you relive your impressions of the day. I tried to go beyond the dog-and-shot brags to the real meaning of the hunt.

Golden hemlocks flaming in an alder bog? A grouse fanned on the ground in front of the dog? The pup tentatively bug-eyed on his first woodcock? The ghost buck that you glimpsed, but didn’t shoot at (or the snort in the night just before dawn and legal shooting hour)? The turkey that came in behind you so close you could hear his measured footsteps in the dry leaves and his spit-and-drum?

“Really nice day,” I wrote back in 1986. “Good dog work, good shooting, good guys to be with. Andy is so much fun to hunt with. I’m lucky to have such a fine son and good hunting buddy.”
Andy is halfway through his 40s now and I am half way through my 80s. And 1986 was more than 30 years ago. It’s not so much what was written but that it is a remnant of life of importance to me, certainly, but potentially for those who will read it long after I am gone.

This is the stuff that needs telling so you can recall it once again…or so someone else can. Maybe you never again will crack the pages, but someone will. Your son or daughter, your mate, maybe your hunting buddy, grown old and with eyes too dimmed to see the flicker of a buck’s tail in the dark woods, but not dimmed to where he can’t read about those times you enjoyed together.

I remember the first quail I shot. It flushed under my feet as I struggled out of a Chariton County gully and I got the old Stevens single shot half-mounted and pulled the trigger.

That gun was the bastard child of the Missouri state animal–my all time favorite equine, the mule. It kicked me back down the slope of the ditch and the top lever ripped a chunk of meat out of the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. My memory tells me I killed the bird and perhaps I did, but it’s more probable that I created a dead bird as the consolation for having maimed myself.

Memory is far more certain of the fact that a large Labrador retriever ate the first rooster pheasant I ever shot, filching it from the tailgate of my station wagon where I’d left it while I went looking for someone to brag to.

And I remember shooting two boxes of shells on my first dove hunt without scratching a feather. “That’s all right,” said my host. “It’s not uncommon at all.” “Then why do you have a limit?” I grumbled sourly, indicating the pile of defunct doves on the tailgate of his vehicle, and he had the grace to blush.

I should have been writing all that down, the defeats as well as the triumphs, but I didn’t, not for all those lost years. There were the thousand and one hunts that Foster Sadler, my best friend, and I made together–trips to the Dakotas for prairie grouse, camping along the ridge in north Missouri where the turkeys prowl.

Foster’s pointer, Joe, was the first bird dog I hunted behind. I spent half of the hunt jumping when Foster or his father would scream, “Joe! Cut your head in, dammit!” thinking they were shouting at me. Mr. Sadler not only was the school superintendent, but also our basketball coach and I was not his most apt benchwarmer.

Most hunting diary entries are dull enough to put an insomniac to sleep: “Two coveys. Big one in beanfield flushed wild, up to road. Ginger pointed 3 birds. Guff found dead bird. Andy missed, I missed….” And so boringly on.

Nothing much changed in my shooting, I see (one for five that day), but Andy certainly is better than the 0-for-2 of that 1984 opening day of quail season. Later on that year, I see we put up a bunch of woodcock at the Stringtown access. It was a consistent woodcock producer then, but the pole thicket grew out of favor with the little bogsnipe and now you won’t find them there (which is why I have no compunctions about naming the place–you couldn’t have dragged it out of me with white hot branding irons in 1984).

There are other reasons for keeping a journal. There always is the chance that you’ll become famous and someone will plunder your past for archival material. Thoreau would be just another nut living on chokecherries if it weren’t for his journals. Lewis and Clark are familiar to us because of their daily jottings. Journals don’t have to be literary efforts. They are a sketch of your thoughts, your experiences. They recap the day as you saw it, in whatever detail you care to supply.

For the literal-minded, a journal is a dry recitation of statistics. My father, not given to imagination, carefully recorded the weather conditions in his journal. He might mention that he and Chaps had treed and shot two or three squirrels in the Bend. Little Chaps was the product of an affair between a cocker and a springer spaniel. She was the quintessential squirrel dog. She treed them and barked until my father appeared with a .22 single shot Winchester.

That team accounted for many a squirrel over the years, but what did my father think about his relationship with the faithful little dog? I’ll never know, for he didn’t write it down, only that it was dry, but looked like rain, and the temperature was 75 degrees. The corn was made and the beans looked good. My father was a farmer first, a hunter second.

But my dogs raced through my journal pages, muddy and bloody, triumphant and chagrined, sometimes heroes, sometimes goats. They were my partners and I wrote their entries for them. It was a ritual. Each evening, after I cleaned birds and ate, cleaned the shotgun, took a shower, I got the diary out. I always paused a moment to collect my thoughts–but as much as anything to savor the pleasure of this ritual. There was a woodstove in the family room and I would open the doors to let the flames flicker hypnotically.

I could feel the soft warmth of the stove, the pleasant ache of my legs and arms after the long day. Sometimes I would read the previous hunt’s entry, though it still was fresh in mind, just to contrast that one and today.

Occasionally, some event is so transcendent it leads my entry, but mostly the writing is chronological, a progression of events. “What a wonderful day! Hunted deer early and shot at a spike buck at 30 yards. Had crosshairs right on his chest and missed. Saw a huge gobbler on way home running across Highway C. On to quail at H-C. Bumped a river bird and dumped it nicely. Ginger found it in the prairie grass. Missed an easy shot at another, then doubled on a double point. Missed a pointed bird on first shot, nicked it on second and lost it. Scrivner Road–saw a covey fly out of milo and land, circled them and Guff pointed nicely. Hit one of two on covey rise. Didn’t follow. Then saw about 40 turkeys and another covey that flew out of milo across river. No shots. Beat Andy one-on-one in basketball…twice!”

I found later the scope on the deer rifle had been mis-mounted and the gun was shooting ‘way off. The “river bird” was one from a covey that invariably flew a sizable river out of range. Killing any of this covey is a triumph.

Andy was 16 then, lean and tall, and I was 52, short and, well, flabby is a fair word. But I nailed him twice on the basketball court. That day was a jumble of unrelated events that, in total, brightened my life for a time.

Lined Big Chief tablets or a three-ring binder notebook will work as a journal, but they aren’t exactly pretty and they deteriorate. A formal log is an incentive to use and it also is more durable.

One hunter I know uses accountant’s ledgers, bound in pebble-grain imitation leather. There also are commercial shooter’s diaries. What you put in a diary is subjective. Some enter weather, scent conditions, the minutiae of fishing and hunting. It may help to know that the water reached 62 degrees on April 17 last year if you’re trying to figure out when to start crappie fishing. But it may not if this year is colder or warmer than last year–a thermometer will do you more good than year-old information. On the other hand, it will be of interest to read that “today I caught the first crappie of the season in shallow water, earliest ever.”

Covert locations and detailed maps are helpful if you have a brain like a sieve and are prone to forget where you killed a limit of woodcock in 45 minutes. I may forget my children’s birthdays, but I damn sure never forget a limit covert. Sketch maps are most helpful when there aren’t many landmarks and the turns are tricky. I’ve been into some northwoods coverts where you either know the exact route, within a couple of yards, or you flounder hopelessly in alder bogs. One involves a beaver dam crossing; another is through a hemlock thicket. There are no alternative routes. There is the right trail or there is the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Here is what should go in a shooter’s diary: the date of the hunt, weather conditions, companions (most important), the area hunted, guns and loads used, the hunt results. If it’s a bird hunt, list the dogs and if you’re box score oriented, you can list finds and retrieves (and backs, too, which are like assists in hockey and basketball), and shots fired and species bagged for yourself.
I’d rather rely on memory when it comes to shooting success. Time blunts hard edges. Actual figures tend to depress.

Sometimes one mood overrides everything and it is the bulk of the entry. “The pits! Dropped Nikon motor drive in creek. Then Ginger rolled in something long dead and stinking. Guff and/or Ginger bumped the only covey we found and the birds vanished. Jo rolled in something worse than Ginger did. Toby rolled twice in cowflops and ate horseapples twice in the first 200 yards of the hunt. It’s a wonder lightning didn’t flash out of a cloudless sky and the last voice we hear is huge and booming, growling, ‘I don’t know, guys, there’s just something about you that ticks me off.'”

I suppose the super-organized keep a log for each activity: Hunter’s Diary, Angler’s Diary, Shooter’s Diary, and so forth. There even are computer database programs which invite you to fill in the pertinent information for a given outing. Then you can call up information in various relationships, even print it out. But that seems stiflingly technological. I don’t want a journal to help me kill more or even kill better; I want one to help me remember.

One friend is meticulous. His log is a model to which the rest of us can only aspire. He draws neat sketch maps of grouse coverts that look as if Rand and McNally did them. His printing is monastic, elegant and ornate. I suspect he’d decorate with gold leaf if he could afford it.

My diary, in contrast, is a scribble which looks like the prescription file at a pharmacy. There are blots and beer stains and what looks suspiciously like shreds of last year’s woodcock dinner.
But it is legible to me most of the time and that is what counts. There is an entry from Nov. 21, 1984, which tells me it was “Beautiful–sunny and 40s.” My hunting partner was Foster Sadler, first time we’d hunted together for a long time. He’d had some problems and we just hadn’t gotten together. But now we were out and he had his old Parker and I shot my L.C. Smith.

Just a couple of old friends with old guns. The dogs didn’t work well. Foster shot a wild flushed quail for the only bird of the day. But I didn’t mind. It was enough being out with a friend of nearly 40 years. We found a small stream on the back side of nowhere and made plans to fish it come spring. A few weeks later, I find an entry that begins: “The perfect day…” and goes on to detail a long, solitary hike across the ridges of a favored hunting area. “Everything was simply fine,” I wrote. “I’m proud of my pups and feeling more relaxed than for a long time.”

The next entry was five days later and it is terse: “No hunt. Today is the day I lost my hunting buddy, Foster. There’s no space here to record 37 years of memories.”

It was cold and cloudy.
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  • Blog
  • August 12th, 2018

MOVABLE WILDLIFE

By Joel M. Vance

Non-migratory wildlife being, well, non-migratory is subject to the same problems as people when the neighborhood goes to ruin. It’s difficult if not impossible to pick up and move to a better ‘hood.

Ducks, geese, other peripatetic types, can light a shuck for new territory—but how can you fill a wildlife vacuum with animals that don’t want to move?

Fortunately wildlife biologists have invented an array of methods to get wildlife from here to there and the result is a series of remarkable comebacks of endangered or threatened wildlife species by trap-and-transplant. They’ve been trapped by an array of schemes, some right out of a Three Stooges comedy.

It all started with a device designed for a migratory species. Sir Peter Scott, son of the famed explorer Robert Falcon Scott (who froze to death during an Antarctic expedition in 1912) devised a rocket net that could be fired over waterfowl.

The birds then could be banded, aged, sexed and otherwise studied. Rocket nets worked when they worked…but often they misfired or tried for a space launch. Scott wrote about his adventures and misadventures with the rocket net and a pair of innovative wildlifers at Missouri’s Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, manager Herb Dill and staff member Howard Thornsberry, read what he wrote.

Thornsberry, a mechanical marvel, devised a “cannon” which more resembled a mortar. It fired a dependable missile at a dependable trajectory. The “missile” was a weight attached to the leading edge of a net. A pair of mortars, fired in unison, would launch the net over baited birds.

Since Dill and Thornsberry began using their net in 1950 to capture Canada geese for tagging and study, the cannon net has become a staple in the wildlifer’s arsenal, used to capture both deer and turkeys. Sandhill cranes and tundra swans also have fallen for bait and been netted.

Box traps are as old as the country and still are in use—in fact, box traps were the trap of choice for Dill and Thornsberry before the advent of the cannon net. But the drawback for flock creatures was that box traps don’t catch enough animals. Instead of one goose or turkey at a time, the cannon net can catch 25-50.

Trapping gathers animals for transplant to suitable, but uninhabited habitat also allows researchers to equip the critters with tracking devices so they can be studied. Sometimes the motive is to thin a population of animals that have become nuisances.

Urban wildlife problems are a relatively new phenomenon and, faced with increasing incidence of people vs. critter, biologists have two choices: either kill the offending animals or relocate them. Relocation is the usual (and more desirable) choice.

What do you do when a 1,600-pound bull moose invades your city? Anchorage, Alaska, has faced this situation. Other than hunters, the only predators on moose are wolves and vehicles (about 160 collisions a year in the Anchorage area). Wolves by their nature are rural residents, not city dwellers…which leaves the Anchorage moose with only one predator, the SUV, and as powerfully-built as four-wheelers are they don’t stand up well to a collision with a moose.

Alaska sees a thousand or more car-moose encounters each year and the moose toll is more than 500. Several people also die. So, while back country moose populations in Alaska have declined in recent years, the city herd has increased dramatically…and with increasing friction between the animals and those to whom a moose is an accident waiting to happen.

Gray wolf restoration in Yellowstone is a fact. Controversial or not the reintroduction there produced a rare alliance against the project between the Sierra Club and ranchers—Sierra arguing that the introduction of trapped and transplanted Canadian wolves would dilute the gene pool of any indigenous wolves remaining, and ranchers simply not wanting large predators. But the project went ahead, beginning in 1994 after a number of court challenges.

There even was controversy over how to catch wolves: trap, live-snare, tranquilizer darts from helicopters, or nets fired from helicopters. The biologists decided to dart wolves in Alberta and supplement with wolves neck-snared by trappers (the snare has a stop to prevent strangulation). After all the court battles, biologists captured 33 wolves in the first go-around, one of which died.

Two decades later wolves still are at the center of a controversy over whether they should be managed as trophy animals or “delisted” in much of the state, to be taken at any time in any numbers. Regardless, the capture methods and the reintroduction both were highly successful.

Some years ago a wolf release in Minnesota involved transmittered animals. When one signal became stationary, wildlife officers investigated and found that a farmer had shot the wolf, discovered the transmitter collar and then panicked. Not realizing the transmitter continued to broadcast, he buried the wolf in his manure pile. He was fined but he got to keep his manure pile.

In Wyoming the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed nearly $400,000 through 2003 to wildlife management, which includes elk transplants. Counting cooperative contributions, the total is more than $1.5 million.

Wyoming Game and Fish used cannon nets for sage grouse. Researchers studying West Nile virus in sage grouse in Powder River Basin night netted sage grouse with a spotlight and a big dip net. Wyoming also has used just about every capture method for a variety of wildlife. Including pronghorn antelope caught for relocations to other states where large numbers (more than 30) are needed are driven into a big corral trap by helicopter. Other big game animals are generally darted, but researchers used clover traps for some things like deer and elk and have used drop traps baited with apple pulp for capturing large numbers of bighorn sheep. Ferrets are live trapped with a special long, narrow trap that looks like the usual Havahart or similar live traps.

Grizzly bear relocations (usually related to human/grizzly or livestock/grizzly conflicts) within the Yellowstone Ecosystem are via culvert traps or snares and then immobilization via dart gun or jab stick.

As retired Montana game warden Louis Kis found out in 1987, a culvert trap can work both ways. He was relocating a grizzly bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photographer Richard Smith was along to record the release. The bear, instead of heading for the woods, turned on the trap and dragged it, and Kis who was standing on it, out of a truck bed.

The bear grabbed Kis by the leg and Kis grabbed his .357 pistol and emptied it, somehow managing to avoid shooting himself in the leg. He killed the bear, thankful to be alive, although his leg was broken. Smith, whose first instinct was to help, realized a motor-driven camera wasn’t much of a weapon against a ticked-off grizzly bear and did what photographers always do—he kept shooting until he ran out of film. Kiss got mauled, but Smith made considerable money off the photos of the attack. Usually the trappers win, but not always.

Some years back a Canadian moose tagging team was working from a helicopter. The procedure was to herd the moose into a lake deep enough that the animal had to swim. Then the chopper could hover above the swimming moose while a biologist leaned out and clipped an ear tag to it.

The idea worked well…until the moose reached a submerged island and lurched out of the water, dumping the helicopter on its side. Fortunately no one was injured, but the pilot and biologist had to swim to shore and hike for help.

Among the more unusual trap ideas is a mailbox, used to snare ruffed grouse. Male grouse use a “drumming log” to advertise their virility. The male finds a downed tree, preferably with a bit of overhead cover to discourage hungry horned owls, and “drums,” a wing beat that sounds like a distant tractor starting up.

Mating males are competitive. Grouse trappers placed a common rural mailbox with a mirror inside on or near the log. The grouse would glance inside the box, see what appeared to be a competing male, and charge in to do battle, tripping a door behind it. The device worked on male birds, but a population of males won’t proliferate. So the trappers devised a miniature version of the corral, used by Westerners for decades to trap wild horses. Grouse prefer to walk unless they must fly, so the trappers placed 50-foot, 18-inch-high chicken wire fences or “leads” which led to a wire cage on either end.

A wandering grouse would reach the fence and, like someone looking for a gate, amble along it into the cage from which it couldn’t escape. A similar technique is used for geese during their molt period or before goslings can fly. They’re herded into a corral, chased down, captured and tagged or transplanted. It’s a raucous scene, often involving bloodletting—that of the biologists who are flogged and clawed by angry geese (wrestling an eight-pound Canada goose has many similarities to wrestling a bobcat).

Earlier researchers relied on tagging (a leg band or a visible colored plastic tag on the wing), hoping that observers would report sightings or dead animals. These days radio telemetry is the key method. Transmitters allow biologists to track the activities of everything from timber wolves to bobwhite quail.

Wildlife capture inevitably runs afoul of animal rights activists who focus on the stress and occasional mortality associated with capture. An elk that wandered into Missouri some years ago was dart tranquilized because of local fears about Bangs disease. The elk died…and proved negative for Bangs. But wildlife management is predicated on the health of the population, not the individual. While some individuals may die during a trap-and-transplant project, the ultimate judgment rests on the establishment of a viable population—and there have been far more successes than failures.

In fact, some of the successes have become problems. Giant Canada geese, which once were thought to be extinct, now are thriving to the point of being pest animals, especially in urban areas where they can’t be hunted. They munch on gardens and foul golf courses with droppings. And a 15-pound gander protecting a nest can be a ferocious adversary.

River otters (captured with leg hold traps which are, according to animal rightists, cruel) have been transported hundreds of miles, released…and have established healthy populations in 18 states. Lee Roy Sevin in Louisiana used leg hold traps to capture river otters which he sold to wildlife agencies around the country. Missouri’s river otter restoration has been so successful that the animals have become a localized nuisance.

Since an initial release of 20 otters in 1981, the Missouri otter population has reached at least 10,000 animals and they are being accused of depredation on fish hatcheries and the smallmouth bass population in small streams. A couple of otters loose in fish hatchery pools can do major damage and otters in steam headwaters will eat fish as long as the fish are available

“If an otter wants to catch a fish in open water the fish doesn’t stand a chance,” said the late Glenn Chambers, retired wildlife biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, and “father” to captive river otters for 30 years. Missouri’s otters are a remarkable wildlife restoration success, despite the problems. More than 5,000 otters have been trapped for their fur, yet the population remains healthy—a population that did not exist 20 years and more ago.

So it is with the mammal version of catch-and-release: today’s triumph may be tomorrow’s problem…but that’s better than having nothing left to create the problem.
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