Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • May 1st, 2020

EELS AND OWLS FOR DINNER, ANYONE?

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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  • Blog
  • April 25th, 2020

COVID 10 CRANKINESS

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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  • Blog
  • April 24th, 2020

BALONEY AND TUMS

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • April 17th, 2020

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Joel M. Vance

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

who have owned race horses of any type?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2020

CONFESSIONS OF A SAUNTER STAFFER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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  • Blog
  • April 3rd, 2020

A HANDFULL OF SUNSETS

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

 By Joel M. Vance

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

                Still…there’s something about a brookie.

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

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

 

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

                Call it stupid.

 

                Just not in front of me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 27th, 2020

NATURE’S UNDERTAKER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

It was a revelatory moment, like when you discover that a raw oyster on the half shell, complemented by a dab of horseradish and accompanied by sip of crispy white wine, is light years finer than the disgusting blob of indefinable food you thought it was.

 

I topped a hill and there in the middle-of-the-road ahead of me was a vulture snacking on a road killed vulture— evidence that even wildlife citizens enjoy an exotic and nontraditional meal once in a while. Not that I’m advocating we replace oysters with carrion, but I am advocating that we learn to appreciate even the most apparently disgusting creatures in nature. Disregarding the revolting sight of a vulture snacking on cousin Beaky Buzzard, I confess to having been a fan of the buzzard, a.k.a. turkey vulture, for many years.

 

Given the current panic over the looming threat of coronavirus, perhaps there is somewhere in the digestive tract of a turkey buzzard chemistry that would send coronavirus back to the hidden crevices from whence it came. After all, buzzards can digest botulinum, anthrax and other toxins, even a smidgen of which, kill a human being in a heartbeat.

 

Buzzards are properly called vultures.  We probably could live without them (people do), but life would be a lot more messy.  They are the manure bug of the skies, performing a vital function…but most people don’t want to know about it.

 

Turkey vultures are as familiar in North American skies in the summer as the fleecy cumulus clouds with which they keep company.  Vultures have mastered the art of soaring and playing amid the invisible currents of air. Their airborne antics would make any glider pilot gnash his teeth in frustration when in buzzard company, for he is doomed to rejoin the earth long before they must.  Only on the ground is the turkey vulture awkward.

 

Nothing is more overcome with panicky clumsiness than a vulture when surprised by a fast-approaching automobile while it snacks on some creature which dueled with Michelin Radials and lost.  Of all the birds, vultures offer the most clear and demonstrable service to humanity.  They eat offal that otherwise could putrefy and become a human health danger.

 

A prime mystery of the animal world is how a vulture escapes the microbes that laid low his dinner, but escape it they do.  Experiments have shown that vultures have dined on enough anthrax or botulinum to have killed susceptible animals ten times over…with absolutely no ill effects, not even heartburn.

 

Yet, for all the invulnerability of the buzzardial digestive tract, I  find few ongoing studies of why.  Don’t you want to know why toxins so terrible they make warmongers blanch and terrorists thrill go through vultures like ice cream through a child? Most research into buzzard immunity to toxins dates no further back than about 2015.  Whatever neutralizing agent lurks within the convoluted colon of a buzzard must be a powerful one indeed and it’s somehow comfortingly ironic to think that perhaps the cure for cancer (or of coronavirus) can be found in the digestive processes of a bird scorned by some, ignored by most and which lives on rotted meat.

 

I found a couple of studies of how vultures routinely digest bacteria that would eliminate a human being in seconds, but both basically concluded that they still don’t know how the birds do it. Michael Roggenbuck, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen said, “our results show there has been strong adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria they digest.” Well yeah, we already knew that. But how.  Another researcher said “the avian microbiome is terra incognita.” In simpler and more common terms, “beats the hell out of us.”

 

One study showed vultures easily outdid coyotes and crows in manufacturing antibodies to botulinum toxins.  Another focused on enteric pathogens, including salmonella in the intestines of turkey vultures.  “Very little data exist on the intestinal microflora of carrion-feeding birds in general and ‘C. aura’ (turkey vulture).”

 

The highly acidic stomach chemicals in vultures routinely destroy viruses that (does the name coronavirus immediately spring to mind?) are deadly for human beings. Obviously, given the current Covid 19 pandemic, we are decades if not centuries behind in researching what vultures can do and the human stomach cannot.

 

Not only are we behind in vulture digestive research, but the vulture has not been given its due as a cool bird. Well, not totally: there once existed, though tenuously, the Buzzard Council of America, founded in 1979 by a group of famous wildlife artists and outdoor enthusiasts.  The BCA grew by word of mouth until it numbered about a thousand members (I was a proud one).  Each year, America’s leading wildlife artists flipped a coin and the loser painted a buzzard stamp print.  The organization even held an annual picnic to celebrate vultures and, incidentally, indulge in what I deduce was hefty amounts of adult beverages—no doubt to spur the creative juices for the chosen stamp artist.

 

The first stamp print (in 1980) was a turkey vulture, the most common of North American vultures, painted by David Maass, the second a black vulture painted by Robert Abbett.  The third print was of a group of African vultures enjoying a snack on a defunct critter of the veldt and the fourth (and final) print featured the endangered California condor.  The Council became so popular that it began to dominate the careers of the artists and they shelved the organization until buzzard enthusiasm cooled a bit.  It has never, sadly, resurfaced.

 

A vulture’s cleanup duties are not altruistic.  They do it to survive.  Though members of the order Falconiformes, which includes hawks and eagles, buzzards rarely take live prey and really aren’t equipped to do it.  They’re slow and have feet more like chickens than like taloned raptors.  One writer described turkey vultures as “degenerate raptorial birds,” which could have been either a biological or social judgment.  The family name is Cathartidae which comes from the Greek word “kathartes” meaning “cleanser.”

 

Here is where I have to differentiate between the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Turkey vultures equal good while black vultures have proved, especially recently, to be as black hearted as they are colored exteriorly. To put it gruesomely, they are accused of and proved to be fond of pecking the eyes out of small, helpless farm animals like calves or lambs until the defenseless animal dies, after which they eat it. Blame global warming which has encouraged black vultures to migrate from South America northward to the American Midwest. Black vultures are protected by the long-standing migratory bird treaty, but can be shot if you can prove that they are fatally mugging baby livestock.

 

Do buzzards stink?

 

One historic ornithologist, Elliott Coues, thought that the vulture not only stank horribly because of what it ate, but had an intrinsic stench that so deadened its olfactory sense that it didn’t mind diving headfirst into putrefying meat; however, I have been in petting range of a zoo buzzard and could detect no aroma at all, good or bad.  An ornithologist studying a nest found its young inhabitants aromatically inoffensive until they started eating carrion.  As some wise person said, “You are what you eat.”       Vultures have little sense of proportion and will dine on a juicy chunk of long-defunct mammal until they are too heavy to fly.  Then they sit around like overstuffed middle income television watchers until they digest enough to be able to fly.

 

There is almost nothing a vulture won’t eat if it’s dead.  Leonard Lee Rue III said he’d never seen a vulture dining on another vulture; although as I said I once did and that scene has lingered with me as the epitome of something.  I haven’t decided what and try not to think about it.  However, one observer watched two turkey vultures snack on a defunct skunk and reported that they left the scent gland untouched.  Apparently even a vulture has its limits.

 

At close range a vulture of any species is of marginal beauty.  Its head is raw- skinned red and its feathers a dusty brown.  Most turkey vultures have the slightly frayed appearance of a seedy undertaker in some American frontier town whose customers generally wind up in the Boot Hill cemetery. The featherless head allows the buzzard to root around in gore without needing an industrial strength bird napkin to clean up.

 

The turkey vulture has a six-foot wingspan which enables it to stay aloft almost endlessly on thermals rising from the heating earth.  Because nature’s elevators don’t start working until the sun gains authority, buzzards rarely soar before 9 a.m.  They often sit on damp mornings with wings outstretched, perhaps drying them.

 

Vulture parents are a mixture of good and bad.  They build no nest; the female lays two (sometimes one, sometimes three) eggs on the ground, often in a cave, crevice or hollow tree. But both parents incubate the eggs for 30 to 40 days and both feed the young by regurgitation.  While it may not appeal to you nor me, pre-digested food (notice the euphemism, like “pre-owned car”) works wonders on young vultures.  They’re ready for their maiden flight in eight to ten weeks.  They’re not bad looking as birds go–covered with a fleecy white down.  But that gives way to the bleak adult plumage.

 

Regurgitation is a neat trick (so to speak) often used by turkey vultures when threatened.  Vomiting may lessen their payload so they can make a quicker getaway or it may serve the same purpose as a skunk’s fusillade. If that doesn’t work, a vulture may collapse and appear dead.  No one knows if this is a purposeful escape maneuver or the result of psychological overload. If you aren’t sufficiently grossed out, here’s another factoid— one source says vultures defecate on their feet to cool them off while another says that the acidic defecation kills bacteria (although considering that they’re gulping it down at the other end, the mind boggles).

 

One playful ornithologist trapped several vultures and the birds, after realizing they couldn’t escape, all keeled over, whereupon the birdman decorated them with streamers, paper collars and colorful anklets, then freed them.  Barring accident (power lines are one threat, autos that surprise engorged birds another) a vulture can live a long, long time.  There are records of vultures living more than 100 years.

 

Ornithological literature does not abound with information on turkey vultures.  Most ornithologists seem slightly discomfited to be dealing with the birds and race through their meager life history as if rushing guests past a messy room.

 

Some writers are positively antagonistic to vultures.  The authors of Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America Edward Forbush and John May, said, “your Buzzard is a cowardly fowl and intends to take good care of his precious skin.  They often gather thus, not only about dead animals, but also about the sick or disabled when death seems imminent.  If the death of the victim seems assured, they approach their prey.  Over what follows, let us draw the veil.”

 

Ornithologists seem to feel honor bound to say something about vultures, though they’d rather be rhapsodizing about nightingales, so they salt their prose with apologies and disclaimers, then invariably speak of the bird’s grace on the wing.  It’s as if a historian were to write in graphic detail about the atrocities of Attila the Hun, then conclude, “But he was good to his mother.”

 

It’s true that a buzzard is not beautiful–but surely there must be a homelier bird somewhere.  Consider the superbly functional design: featherless head and neck, the better to shed gore.  Beak as sharp as poultry shears.  Raspy tongue to extract delicate morsels with the adroitness of a seafood gourmet picking at a lobster, feathered ruff a biological bib.

 

I find vultures much maligned, fascinating and likable.  They mind their own business, harm no one, perform a useful function without complaint and under working conditions that would have union workers on violent strike.  They’re poetry in motion and they seem to have a bit more brain than the average bird.

 

The one buzzard I was privileged to pet was a captive, fed on hamburger and, for all I know, chips and soft drinks as well as a refreshing concoction of anthrax and botulism bacteria.  It was curious, clever and friendly.  No buzzard ever started a war, though if there is an Ultimate War they will be in attendance after the gods “draw the veil over what follows.”

 

One thing is certain, if a pandemic ever wipes out the last Adam and Eve, standing over the carcasses will be a vulture and a coyote squabbling over the tidbits. Were buzzards ever to fade from the skies our eyes would be the poorer.  Were they to change their diets, our health would be the poorer.

Up the buzzard!

-30-

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  • March 20th, 2020

TRIPPING DOWN MEMORY LANE

By Joel M. Vance

 

It was the most important piece of furniture in our Chicago apartment, otherwise furnished with typical middle-class equipment, some so old that I remembered when an ice wagon delivered blocks of ice for keeping perishables in an ice box to be chilled during Chicago’s steamy summers. But old didn’t mean antique, just old. The radio, a Zenith console model, would be a collectible antique today— but in the nineteen forties it was a magic carpet transporting me to worlds unknown and barely imagined. It was a magic portal to an exotic world of promise.

 

I lived by and for that radio, a kid plagued by a succession of childhood diseases that, each time I encountered them, sent me to bed for a week or two, safe from school (where I probably picked up the germs to begin with). I don’t know if it is still common practice or not but in those days, at least with measles or mumps or chickenpox (I forget what one or ones) you had to stay in a darkened room for fear sunlight would damage your eyesight. That left you in the gloom with the radio for company, unable even to read a book.

 

So I spent long days in the company of One Man’s Family, Stella Dallas, Backstage Wife, all part of a multitude of soap operas that spun out endless tales of woe and misery well beyond the scope of a seven-year-old to understand but maybe comforting in the knowledge that no matter how much I longed to claw at the poultry pox that deviled me, those unseen folks on the Zenith were worse off than me.

 

Zenith radios date to just after the end of World War I and by the nineteen thirties they were preeminent. Our Zenith probably was born in the mid to the late nineteen thirties and probably was produced in Chicago which was a hub for the corporation. Today vintage Zenith radios are highly sought after by collectors and can sell for many thousand dollars—the top-of-the-line model has gone for as much as $50,000.

 

It was on our Zenith that news came on December 7, 1941, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. In one of the ironies of history, Zenith became a victim of the modern electronic corporate war and was sold to the South Korean LG Corporation in the nineteen nineties and thus now is an Asian corporation rather than a product of the Midwest United States.

 

Our Zenith had two shortwave bands and sometimes, late at night, when my parents were asleep, I would tune in to one of them and carefully, like a safe cracker feeling for the tumblers on a difficult lock, delicately probe the frequencies hoping to hear a distant, static- garbled voice, speaking in a foreign language.

 

Imagination kicked in. Was this some frantic sailor far out on the ocean in the midst of a terrible storm, 40 foot waves crashing over the bow of his foundering ship, the vessel plunging precipitously into the huge troughs between waves as he frantically sent out signals begging for help—but only heard by a seven-year-old kid located in the middle of the United States. On the other hand, speaking from the viewpoint of an adult, it probably was some totally bored seaman gossiping with another equally bored ham radio enthusiast who happened to speak the same language, both complaining about how bored they were.

 

Today’s kid is burgeoned with a stampede of electronic devices that feed him or her with a constant and overwhelming avalanche of entertainment and information— cell phones, big-screen television, computers, IMAX and probably other plug-ins that I, dinosaur that I am, don’t even know about.  But,  today’s kid can’t jumpstart his or her imagination and create from voices on a radio a thrilling story of yesteryear (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!”) Hell, it was food for the ears!

 

Ah, the Zenith. It was a constant presence through my preadolescent and adolescent years, and then it traveled with us when we moved to Missouri through my teenage years into young adulthood. You didn’t just listen to radio in those days; you participated in it. You had to imagine. No one was bombarding your senses with pictures. When Fibber McGee opened his cluttered closet, as his wife Molly shouted a warning and there was a resounding crash, you imagined the cascade of objects that tumbled out.

 

Aside from the  chaotic crash of his closet, Fibber, in common with several of the radio shows of my childhood had an eccentric cast of characters with whom he engaged each week. There was Mayor LaTrivia, the mayor of the town in which Fibber and Molly lived (for some reason I don’t remember the name of the town, but indelibly engraved on my memory is their street address— 79 Wistful Vista). Living just down the street was Wallace Wimple, a birdwatcher who was extremely proud of his bird book (pronounced with explosive B’s). Never seen or heard was Myrt, the telephone operator with whom Fibber conducted a one sided dialogue which invariably began with him saying “Operator, give me number Three Two Zero…. Oh, is that you, Myrt? How’s every little thing, Myrt? What say, Myrt?”

 

After which, Fibber would repeat to Molly what Myrt was saying. Molly had a catchphrase, “Tain’t funny, Magee!” Although it was and the show was the most popular on radio at the time.

 

This was when you had to go through an operator to make a phone call—no direct dialing in those antediluvian days. Years later, when I was sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger I could direct dial all the towns whose teams I covered except for Laddonia who retained an operator who, like Myrt, I never saw but who invariably answered my dialtone by declaiming “La-Doan-E-Ah!” I was always tempted to say, “oh, is that you Myrt?”

 

Equally entertaining as Fibber and Molly with their multitude of odd characters, was the parade of oddballs who populated Allen’s Alley. I remember them as if they were neighbors of ours, first in Chicago and then when the radio moved along with us to Missouri in tiny Dalton. I guess the radio didn’t make the last family move which occurred when I was in college. I don’t know if my parents sold it gave it away or simply moved from their home in Macon Missouri a few miles west and left it behind. Whatever the reason it vanished from my life and I miss it.

 

I miss the familiar Allen’s Alley voices: Titus Moody, the Down Easter from Maine who greeted  Allen with a dry “Howdy, Bub.” Some of the characters today would be politically incorrect— the Irishman Ajax Cassidy who never met a drink he didn’t like, the Jewish  Mrs. Pansy  Nussbaum who would exclaim “you were expectink maybe Weinstein Churchill?” Or Sen. Claghorn, a blustering and unregenerate Confederate Southerner who wouldn’t drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or go to Yankee Stadium.

 

We didn’t know they were politically incorrect and they actually weren’t that far off from people we knew. They were funny at the time although they wouldn’t be today. It was a more innocent time, before the tumult of the nineteen sixties and the outrages that have dirtied every decade since. We may be better for it as a society, although enduring the Trump Era makes me doubt it. I still wonder about that storm tossed sailor whose  scratchy voice struggled through the speaker of the Zenith—was he in peril or not, and if so was he saved or claimed by the cold depths of the ocean.

 

These motes of memory stick in the mind’s eye like pieces of grit blown there by the winds of time, little irritants of useless information—the jumble of nuts and bolts that you save because they might come in useful someday but never do. However, life’s lessons sometimes are mixed in among those tattered remnants. For example, long before there was a popular television series called “Cheers” (where everybody knows your name), on the old Zenith there was a program about a bar, possibly at the same address where Cheers would be in the future, and after all these many years I still can tell you exactly how each episode began: a telephone would ring, and a voice would say “Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speaking, Duffy ain’t here.”

 

There are things I desperately want to remember in case they are needed, but that I cannot. For example I would love to be able to recite my favorite poetry. “Casey at the Bat,” “the Cremation of Sam McGee,” and especially “the Jabberwocky.” And Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address probably would be more impressive to listeners than a recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary tribute to a talking bird, but there it is.

 

However, there is one tidbit of information I have never forgotten thanks to an obscure movie starring, I believe Ronald Colman (not sure—I’ve forgotten). At one time it was necessary for me to memorize my college student ID number, another time my military service number, and my rifle serial number. All those have been washed out of my mind’s eye by the Visine of forgetfulness. But thanks to Mr. Colman I still can tell you one vital number (well, I won’t because it is supposed to be a vital personal secret, although the Russians probably know it). Mr. Colman was a contestant on a Jeopardy-like radio show and he won consistently week after week, piling up money answering questions that no human being should be required to know until it came to the ultimate grand prize question which was…. What is your Social Security number? Instant funk! It was a life lesson that has stuck with me through the decades.

 

Ultimately, radio drama gave way to television and the voices that shaped my life became silent overwhelmed by what one critic called “chewing gum for the eyes.” As always, the acerbic Fred Allen summed up television succinctly, “you know television is called the new medium and I discovered why they call it a medium—because nothing is well done.”

 

Allen also observed, “I don’t like furniture that talks,” although I suppose that also could have applied to the Zenith radio. But, considering the endless list of dopey reality shows available today, Fred Allen hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head when he observed about television, “Television allows people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.”

 

Walter Winchell dramatically began his evening newscast with a burst of Morse code and the rapidfire words, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” Perhaps he was talking to that storm tossed sailor as well as Mr. and Mrs. America. The sailor is long gone if he ever existed many of the Mr. and Mrs. Americans have joined him in the dust of time.

 

And so has my beloved Zenith and perhaps it’s fitting to close with the words of Red Skelton, a radio fixture before he emigrated to television where he continued to close his show by saying, “Good night and may God bless.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • March 12th, 2020

ROUGH AND READY

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

Considering the precipitous plunge of the stock market, I have a tip for would-be investors. Our savvy business leader Donald J Trump, who used to spend more time practicing bankruptcy than he did at anything other than playing golf, recommends that investors, rather than running for the exits, spend more money buying stocks.

 

Okay, so I don’t know squat about the stock market, but I do have a surefire investment tip. You may have read that people, in blind panic over the potential spread of coronavirus, have been stockpiling toilet paper. Our son-in-law recently went shopping in Colorado Springs and the shelf normally containing Charmin and other paper products euphemistically titled toilet tissue, was bare.

 

Now, here’s my stock market tip: those of you with country roots may recall or have heard that in the absence of toilet paper and when the Sears and Roebuck catalog got down to the last few pages, our rural forebears resorted to more primitive methods of cleaning up after a trek to the little house out back. Among those emergency sanitary measures was the corncob— the very thought to a modern mind is enough to cause incipient hemorrhoids, but in olden times you made do. You see where I’m going with this don’t you? Here is a chance (assuming there is on the futures market an entry for corn byproducts) to clean up so to speak (I probably should apologize for that pun, but won’t).

 

There always has been a thriving market for corncobs in my home state, Missouri. Washington Missouri, a charming town on the Missouri River, blissfully and thankfully far removed from the similarly named seat of insanity located far to the east but with the same name, is the home of the corncob pipe. Corncob pipes have been made in Washington for 150 years at the Missouri Meerchaum Corncob Pipe Company, handcrafted for six generations.

 

The company grows its own corn on 150 acres, from corn hybridized, in cooperation with the University of Missouri’s agricultural school to create the best cob to be crafted into a smoking implement. Pipes range from about $17-$50 depending on how fancy you want the finished result to be. The company does not, nor would I expect them ever to advertise a secondary use of their cobs for you-know-what.

 

So now we come to the situation which everyone is sweating (hoping that the sweating is not a symptom) that of coronavirus becoming a pandemic of the magnitude of so-called Spanish flu which killed millions of people worldwide in 1918. That death toll seems unlikely, given the statistics that 80% of coronavirus victims have only a mild case, another 14% something more severe, and a final 5% suffer a fatal case. So an infected person has a 95% chance of surviving. Sounds like good odds, unless you’re in that 5% category.

I don’t know where I read it or heard the comment but considering the incompetent bumbling of the government in organizing efforts to contain coronavirus, it seems appropriate “they couldn’t organize a fart after eating a can of beans.”

 

The key to finding out if you have coronavirus, flu, or the common cold of course is testing. But testing so far in the United States has been a bureaucratic nightmare, a tangle of red tape and confusion symptomatic of most efforts by the Trump administration to do anything. Trump says anyone can be tested if they want it while doctors struggle to get test kits despite promises that millions will be available within days (they aren’t and won’t be). The United States has tested about 5000 people so far in contrast to other countries where twice that number are tested every day.

 

Trump recently and reluctantly visited the Centers for Disease Control before enjoying a weekend playing golf at Mar-a-Lago and gladhanding his adoring big-money donors. Considering that frequent handwashing is the most often quoted defense against coronavirus, it’s somewhat astonishing that Trump would allow himself within shouting distance of a virus but he was quick to assure the public that he is the healthiest president in the history of the United States and since he has had no symptoms, he doesn’t need to be tested. No sniffles, no foul.

 

And to further assure his mindless base that he has the situation under control, he bragged that “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of the doctors said, “how do you know so much about this?” Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.” Aside from smarmy praise from Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, who obviously gets paid more to be an ass kisser than he does to be a CDC director, I suspect that rather than being “surprised” by the president’s medical knowledge, health professionals on hand were, to choose a better word, “appalled”.

 

“I don’t think it’s gonna spread. I think it probably will, it possibly will. We’ll have to see. It might spread a little, it might be a lot, I really think it won’t… Ebola makes you dissolve but this is like the flu—did you know that thousands of people die every year from the flu? I bet you didn’t know that, but we are ready.”

 

Amid this babel of nonsense is the fact that most people do know that thousands of people die from the flu every year and the Healer in Chief really should also because his own grandfather died from it in 1918. An essential difference between the two diseases is that there are vaccines and treatments available for the flu, but it will take a year or more to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, if indeed we ever can. To minimize coronavirus by saying that more people die from flu than do from the emerging virus is irresponsible and misleading. Many more people die from auto accidents than do from coronavirus…. So far. But the threat from a global coronavirus pandemic is obvious to virtually everyone except Trump and his dimwitted base.

 

Haven’t had enough Trump goofy speak? Here’s Trump is keeping up with coronavirus: “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you could possibly imagine. Many contingencies. A lot of positive. Different numbers, all different numbers, very large numbers, and some small numbers too… It’s really working out and a lot of good things are going to happen.”

 

One of the late-night comedians theorized that Trump will solve the threat of coronavirus from Mexico by moving the slats on his mostly nonexistent wall closer together so the virus can’t get through. It got a laugh, but don’t discount Trump proposing something every bit as ridiculous. Actually, Mexico has reported six coronavirus cases, unlike our northern neighbor Canada which has so far identified 93 cases and one death. As I write this United States case total has topped 1000.  Trump’s illlogic is mindbending. Criticized for not consulting with foreign leaders before announcing a travel ban from their countries, he equated the lack of contact with them to them raising taxes on American products without letting him know.

 

In case you have forgotten, now that Trump has declared himself a medical expert who amazes the nation’s healthcare professionals, he also is master of nuclear physics: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons, and other things, like lots of things are done with uranium, including bad things.” And in case you also have forgotten, this is the person who has his finger on the nuclear button and a quick temper. We may not have to worry about a coronavirus pandemic if Trump gets up some morning, watches Fox and Friends, and decides to rid the world of their mutual enemies.

 

At least Trump doesn’t have to worry about closing down Trump University as Harvard and other major educational institutions have done or are threatening to do—TU is as defunct and as decomposed as a Trump steak. You could lift a glass of Trump wine to mourn the failure of yet another Donald Trump business foray…. Oh, wait! That failed also.

 

So, until Trump (or more likely) healthcare professionals come up with effective treatments for coronavirus, stick with the widely recommended preventives: 1. Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds; 2. Avoid crowds; 3. Stay home from work if you’re sick; 4. It’s probably impossible but the recommendation is to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; 5. If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care. And I would add, frequently use hand sanitizer—if you can find any (apparently it has widely gone the way of toilet paper).

 

If you’re worried about your retirement income spiraling down the drain as the stock market continues to tank, you might follow Trump’s advice and invest in a diverse and time-honored way, cherished by all con artists. Gather your Trump loving acquaintances and offer them the deal of a lifetime. Tell them you own a bridge in Brooklyn that just happens to be for sale for a nominal amount. You will let them in on this one time offer before the stock market recovers. Tell them Trump has been pulling similar scams for many years and they will be scuffling among themselves to buy in.

 

But, just in case, don’t forget to stock up on corncobs.

 

P.S.: our local grocery store is out of toilet paper.

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  • March 6th, 2020

RIVER STORIES

By Joel M. Vance

 

Rivers have voices. Sure they do. You know they do. If ever you camp on a gravel bar at night beside a stretch of fast water, you have heard the whisper of the river. Maybe it’s the gurgle of water pushing at a snag or the murmur of water piling up at the rocks downstream, but the voice is there. There are stories to be heard and retold in the sounds of the river—at the very least memories to be played again and again in the minds of tomorrow.

 

The Couderay River is a small stream in Northwest Wisconsin. Once I stopped at Billy Boy dam, allegedly named for a long ago Ojibway chief, and cast into the wash below the dam and presently a fish hit hard and fought fiercely for a few minutes until I landed it. It was a sub legal muskellunge and I released it.  Across from me on the far bank was a tarpaper shack.  A couple of Native American children played in the yard and I wondered how the family could endure the sometimes brutal cold of winter in such a ramshackle setting.   I continued on to another, larger river to the north, the Bois Brule, known as the River of presidents because several of our nation’s leaders fished in it at one time or another.

 

Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower all wet a line in the Brule at one time or another. One of the guides was rumored to have dallied with Coolidge’s wife while the notoriously taciturn Silent Cal was occupied on the stream.  But Cal was before my time, so I chose Mr. Eisenhower, among my most favorite presidents, to be featured in one of my fictional stories translated from river conversation.

 

The Brule is a storied river and the stories are there if you listen to the whisper.  The story I heard became the final story in my book, “Billy Barnstorm, the Birch Lake Bomber.”  My often hapless hero, Bobby, heads for the Brule in his decrepit pickup, Rocinante, (named for the addled would be knight Don Quixote’s spavined horse) and stops at Billy Boy dam en route where he meets a beautiful teenage Native American girl who invites herself along on his trip. They float the Brule in Bobby’s canoe and she seduces him and then abandons him. For her it is an insignificant incident; for him it is a transcendent moment. He runs after her, but she has vanished, and he stumbles onto the bank of the Brule, totally disoriented, only to encounter the president of the United States and a surly Secret Service agent, fully prepared to shoot him on the spot. You’ll have to buy the book to get the details, but that’s the bare-bones of a story whispered to me by two Wisconsin rivers.

It just takes a little imagination to fill the gaps and, for the record, there were no beautiful Indian maidens at Billy Boy the day I stopped and no presidents fishing on the Brule when I continued on. But imagination is a wonderful thing and all it takes is a few rivers whispering untold stories.

The Couderay is a sweet little river, not very long and totally without daunting rapids, unlike the Brule which has a couple of class III rapids interspersed among its many tranquil pools where the good angler can find brown and rainbow trout and, in season, spawning coho salmon fresh in from Lake Superior.

 

The Couderay was the last place I fished with George Mattis. George was considerably older than I, a high school classmate of my mother in Birchwood. George had written a book the first time I met him, and was trying to peddle it to a publisher. He was a journalism graduate and had newspaper experience and was writing an outdoor column for couple of local newspapers. I was dubious about the possibility he would find a publisher for his book about white tailed deer hunting since there already were countless other books on the same subject. On our next fishing trip together George told me that the Outdoor Life book club had accepted his book.  It turned out to be the best-selling book they ever published and I’m quite sure George made a mint of money from it.

 

We went fishing on a local lake for trout and George accidentally dropped his Wheatley fly box into the Lake where it promptly sank out of sight. George moaned as if someone had dropped a towering oak tree on his brand-new Mercedes (which I suspect he could afford from the royalties on his deer hunting book, except that he continued to drive a tiny compact, years old and without power windows steering or any other accessory you find on the lowest end Mercedes). “A friend in England gave that fly box to me during the war,” George said. He was a World War II vet, proud of his service so much that his rank and time of service are inscribed on his tombstone.

 

George largely was the inspiration for a story I wrote about trout fishing on Thirty Three Creek. Bobby goes fishing with his uncle Al, a combination of George Mattis and my Missouri uncle Roy Finney. Uncle Al is featured in many of my stories of the fictional town of Birch Lake which, in reality, is Birchwood, my mother’s home town. It’s a ghost story and appeared in my book “Autumn Shadows” and perhaps someday on a stream, not unlike Thirty Three, I will glimpse the ghosts of George Mattis and Roy Finnell, both of whom have faded into the autumn shadows.  Once again a body of running water inspired a story.

 

It was late in the evening when Foster Sadler and I eased our canoe to an inviting gravel bar on one of the many rivers that we shared together—so many that I have forgotten the name of this particular one, but not what happened and how it inspired yet another ghost story from “Autumn Shadows.”

 

I was wrangling cooking gear up the gravel bar where we were going to set up our camp tent while Foster bent over the gunwale of the canoe. I heard a cracking sound and turned to see a sizable tree that had chosen that instant in time to topple, beginning to fall directly toward Foster and I had just an instant to yell a warning. Foster straightened and the tree grazed his back as it landed with a thud and splashed partly in the river. Aside from a scrape and a bruise, Foster was uninjured.  If he hadn’t reacted to my shout, the tree could have broken his back or even killed him.

 

That was one half of a story but I needed a gimmick to flesh it out. I remembered that John Voelker, the author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout fisherman had referred to his favorite fly as “a little bitty brown thing.” I incorporated that favorite fly with Foster’s near fatal encounter with a falling tree and the result is another autumn shadow from the ghost book.

 

If it seems that I create stories from adversity and misfortune, it goes back a long way to when my wife, Marty, went to our family doctor during her first pregnancy for a routine checkup. She was sitting next to a woman in the waiting room who was cradling an injured arm. Marty asked what had happened and the woman mumbled something unintelligible. Marty asked again and the woman shamefacedly confessed that she had been shooting a game of pool in the family rec room with no one home when the cue ball became lodged in a ball channel. She fished for it, couldn’t quite reach it, pushed her hand further into the channel and her elbow dropped into the pocket and she was trapped, as effectively as a raccoon reaching for bait in a coon trap. She had to wait all day until someone came home and called paramedics to rescue her. They had to dismantle the pool table to free her.

 

When Marty told me the story and I quit laughing I realized that for a short story writer, the situation was pure gold. It became one of the stories in my first book “Grandma And The Buck Deer” after first being published for some nice money in Field and Stream magazine.

 

Once I was stuck for an idea for a humor column (the operative word here as it turned out was “stuck”). I remembered that once I had hooked myself while fly fishing for bluegills with a popping bug in the skin over the breast bone. I remembered the trick of looping monofilament over the shank of the embedded hook, giving a backward jerk of the loop, at which the hook is supposed to slip loose without leaving a mark or a bloody wound. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see what I was doing—try it some time looking at your mid chest without eyestrain. I found a mirror and tried the idea hoping to avoid self-mutilation. But everything is backward in a mirror and after imitating all of the vintage Three Stooges, I gave a hopeful pull and, miracle of miracles, it worked!

 

So I had the foundation of a humor column, but more in the nature of a how to—nothing there to form the basis of humor. So I polled some of my outdoor writer friends for funny experiences they had had with hooks. Every angler at one time or another has barbed himself or someone else. Sure enough, my dear friend the late Mike Levy, outdoor editor of the Buffalo New York newspaper came up with an incomparable anecdote.

 

He had taken his small son bluegill fishing and it was getting late and almost dark, time to go home. The youngster was fooling with a large fishing plug, bristling with treble hooks, and got his line tangled. Mike, good daddy that he was, began to straighten out the mess when the youngster somehow jerked his fishing rod and one of the treble hooks on the plug neatly impaled Mike’s right thumb. In pain, he reflexively pulled away with his left hand, neatly impaling his left thumb on a treble hook at the other end of the plug. A unique dilemma. “Have you ever tried to drive with both hands hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

 

The rest of the story, equally funny, if you’re not the hooked angler, is grist for another blog, but the incident obviously was grist for a short story, featuring my eternally beleaguered hero, Bobby. But I needed a hook, so to speak, on which to hang the story as well as Bobby so I remembered an incident when I was fishing on the Chippewa River and glimpsed a muskellunge rising from a pool like a Polaris missile only to sink silently back into the deep. The story is a chapter in my book “the Exploding Elephant.”

 

I wrote it, first using the original Mike Levy anecdote in my humor column, then I sold the subsequent short story for an impressive sum, then entered the short story in a contest and took first place for $500 prize money, then included the story as a chapter in the book.

 

When I told Mike, having the grace to be somewhat ashamed about how much money I had gleaned from his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again.”

 

So listen to the murmur from the river. There are stories in those mutterings. But be wary of fishhooks, especially if attached to little bitty brown things or great big Pikie Minnow plugs, and of letting your significant other shoot pool with no one else around.

 

On the other hand, the one not attached to a fish hook, you might miss some wonderful stories.

 

 

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