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  • Blog
  • November 22nd, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


In1954 a film hit the silver screen (and it was silver in those days—black and white) which presaged an event that recently went on a few yards from the window I’m looking out as I write these words. All over the country, testosterone-poisoned male teenagers drooled over a young actress named Julie Adams as she (pardon the suggestive phrasing) breaststroked frantically to escape the deadly clutches of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.


We drooled every bit as copiously as the creature itself as the lissome Ms. Adams in her (unfortunately, for the days before far more revealing movie costumes, and again forgive the cheap pun) titillated us with her chaste white bathing suit.


Perhaps it was this memorable 1950s horror movie that inspires my lifelong fascination with air breathing creatures who choose to live in aquatic environments. After all some time back, the first of them escaped the ocean, crawled up on land, developed legs and the ability to think progressively. The ones left behind in the primal ooze became politicians.


All of this is prelude to what this blog is about, not confessing youthful  lustful thoughts (as opposed to geriatric lustful thoughts) but about a wildlife encounter I never thought I would experience.


A river otter appeared on our pond. My wife, Marty, insists on calling  the one acre body of water a lake, but whatever the designation it recently became occupied by a river otter. Possibly it was a young male searching for new territory, as well as searching for a female with whom to set up housekeeping. I originally wished them well and prosperity— but, the more I learned about otters….not on my pond.


Young wildlife males frequently go walkabout from territory dominated by older males, searching for otterly unoccupied terrain. A long time back, biologists, documented a young white tailed buck that had traveled at least 100 miles from near Kansas City, to central Missouri. Bullfrogs and snapping turtles frequently migrate cross country looking for a pond such as ours. We welcome the bullfrogs, but the snappers can go elsewhere. An otter, while evidence of a wildlife reintroduction success, also is a major problem waiting to happen.


We have plenty of bluegills and far too many young largemouth bass, so this otter had a set table for as long as it was allowed to sport where we swim in summer and ice skate in winter. Son Andy was less welcoming at the prospect of the otter deciding to overindulge on either of the eight pound largemouth bass that he has caught and released several times over the last couple of years. And the more I learned about otter ecology, the less thrilled I was by our visitor.


Likewise, there are a number of channel catfish that are nearly as large as the otter and I hoped that there would not be a mini confrontation like Godzilla versus Rodin beneath the waters of our pond/lake. 


I once attended an otter release and the animals, confined in cages, awaiting their introduction to new homes, were not happy and there was much snarling and display of teeth, accustomed to ripping flesh from prey animals. Once the gates flapped open, the animals didn’t stick around to be patted and fussed over, they lit a shuck for the water and, like creature from the Black Lagoon, were gone in an eyeblink.


The release was part of a Conservation Department effort to restore otters to Missouri, one of a number of outstandingly successful wildlife re-introductions.  The idea of a restoration program began in 1980 and took root in 1982 with the release of a few otters caught by a Cajun trapper in Louisiana. At the time there were estimated less than 100 otters left in Missouri, remnants of a once common animal, relegated to the to the equally almost vanished wetlands of the Bootheel.


The introduction of wildlife into unfamiliar habitat carries with it risks as proved by history. For every ringnecked pheasant success, there is a disaster like the starling or the gypsy moth that proves to be irretrievably misguided. It makes sense to try to restore an animal once native to the habitat, but not to introduce some creature either ill-suited to or competitive with the resident ecosystem.


Missouri has become a leading state for whitetailed deer and wild turkeys, both native to the state, and both outstanding reintroduction successes. The late John Lewis, godfather of the wild turkey reintroduction program, told me early on he would be happy if half the state’s counties developed a turkey population. Today, the big birds proliferate statewide, and the spring turkey season is nearly as celebrated as the fall deer season.  Chances are a wild turkey will grace next week’s Thanksgiving table on hundreds if not thousands of Missouri households.


The long-term goal was to establish a population of perhaps 10,000 otters statewide. Over the next 11 years, the conservation department released 845 otters in 43 streams in 35 of the state’s 114 counties. The otters, horny rascals that they are, responded with a frenzy of copulation and began multiplying like especially virulent bacteria in a petri dish. In a few short years the population topped 15,000 statewide and not only were river otters once again viable members of the wildlife community, they rapidly were becoming a potential disaster.


In fact, my otter, if it were to take up even semipermanent residence, would be a ticking time bomb. Dave Hamilton, the biologist in charge of the otter reintroduction program, had this to say about the Frankensteinian critter he had pioneered: “the state’s numerous farm ponds, most of which contain a combination of largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish, provide lots of recreational angling for kids and adults. We sure didn’t see these ponds as providing good habitat for otters, nor did we see the impending train wreck that otter depredation of the fish in these ponds would cause.”


Hamilton wrote that calls began to pour in about farm ponds being ravaged. “We now recommend that pond owners who are at all worried about their fish shoot otters when they show up. All we ask is that they contact us if they do so.” I was extremely loath to plug our new visitor, even in the interest of preserving Andy’s largemouth trophies or our cruising catfish. Hamilton said, “otters especially target hand fed catfish.” And we have shoveled many a sack of catfish chow off the end of our dock to the delight both of us and visitors—and, of course to the delight of the gate mouth channel cats who gather there. Our otter was inviting extreme sanction when Andy glimpsed a line of bubbles emanating from beneath the dock. The invading animal was asking for it.


Long time conservation department biologist Glenn Chambers became the foremost spokesperson for river otters nationwide by raising a pair in his home and traveling statewide in Missouri as well as in  other states to talk about otters and show off his frisky pair to the delight of audiences. In his earliest otter shows, Glenn would let the otters roam freely through the audience, but it quickly occurred to him that, no matter how cute and friendly they might seem, they still were wild animals and the specter of having one of them chew some toddler’s arm off at the elbow motivated him to restrict their freestyle antics to the stage.


He shared the stage with both the otters and a large tank of water into which the animals could dip, especially when he released small fish. It was the equivalent of throwing a training dummy for a Labrador retriever— the voracious predator instantly kicked in and the baitfish was history.


Living with a pair of river otters is not the same as having family pets, like dogs or cats. They are demanding and caring for one becomes pretty much like having a new baby in the family— having two is like having twins. It’s not a matter of training them to obey commands like sit, stay and come. Glenn had to become part of their family as much as they did his. He slept with them and adapted to otter time in order to become, basically, daddy otter in their family.


When it became obvious that reintroduced river otters were not only a restoration triumph, but a budding depredation problem, Glenn understandably was conflicted. When Ozark smallmouth bass anglers began to bombard the Conservation Department with bitter complaints about otters having decimated the bass population in their favorite streams, Glenn said, “if an otter wants to catch a fish, that fish is a goner.”


No one was more associated with river otters in modern times than Glenn, a Renaissance man if ever there was one. Glenn sadly died in 2017 after a lifetime creating an incredible conservation legacy—one that included inclusion in the storied ranks of Missouri’s master conservationists. He and his wife Jeannie and a pair of river otters traveled more than 800,000 miles and entertained and educated more than 1 million people over 13 years after his retirement from the Conservation Department in 1995.


I don’t know about the creature from the Black Lagoon. It may still be there but Julie Adams was 92 years old when she swam into cinematic history earlier this year.


Much in the manner of the cat that ate the canary and is found with feathers sticking to its lips, Andy witnessed our otter munching on a midsize largemouth bass and, acting as prosecutor, jury and judge, retrieved his 12 gauge turkey gun and committed ottercide. Otters often travel in pairs, even as many as four, in search of new munchies, so we can only hope that our late otter did not send an ottergram home inviting family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner at our expense.  We haven’t seen any further otter sign so perhaps our invader was solo.  In requiem understand that its fate is at the same time, a source of regret and relief.












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  • Blog
  • November 15th, 2019



                By Joel M. Vance


                Every morning at sunrise recently when I went to get the newspaper, I heard the distant boom of rifle fire from the Conservation Department shooting range 5 miles away. It is that time of year— when deer hunters sight in their rifles, groups of three shots, hoping to put each bullet in a silver dollar sized spot on targets 50 yards away so they can likewise put a bullet through the heart of the largest antlered buck of their fervid imaginations, come deer season.



The season opens tomorrow. I will not be in the woods at dawn because of a combination of age, lack of conditioning, and sheer laziness. But good luck to those who brave the cold, the discomfort of the hard edges that invariably define where the hunter sits, and enduring the bitter residual taste of powerful coffee, brewed in what, for those like me who choose to stay in bed, is the pit of the night.


Each of those zeroing shots has triggered a memories of long ago at a time when we all were edging toward the inevitable. They say that bitter memories fade in time, leaving only recollections of the good times. It is true. Once, I spent much of every deer hunting season with Spence Turner and Dave Mackey, two of the best guys ever to share field and forest with, now sadly both gone.


But the memories do remain and they are good.  I wrote the following chronicle of deer hunting misadventures and stuck it in a drawer and forgot it until now. I can’t bring Spence and Dave back except in memory but I cherish every moment we spent together, Even when it wasn’t so good, it was good.  As the announcer on the Lone Ranger radio show used to say “Come with me once again to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”  Here they are—okay, some maybe not so thrilling….


                A country thrush is singing “Cool Hearted Man” on Spence’s truck radio and his dashboard clock blinks “1:38,” which means we either are very, very early or his clock is out of commission.  It is misting and chilly and dark as only pre-dawn on an overcast deer opener can be.


                We are heading for the Taj Mahal of deer blinds, a shack with windows—far more elaborate than the rickety tree blinds I’m accustomed to.  Our buddy Dave Mackey, weary of crouching in a tree that is swaying in a bitter north wind, has provided the blind.  It has comfortable chairs and an empty milk jug into which we are ordered by Dave to relieve ourselves.  “Don’t you dare pee around my blind—you’ll run every deer out of the country.” 


                The jug hangs from a nail above our heads, a pale reminder in the dark.   A thinking hunter would not drink several cups of coffee before the hunt, nor take a Thermos to the blind because of the inevitable imperative.  But Spence and I each have a Thermos filled with coffee strong enough to float a boat anchor.


                I don’t know why I’m here, other than terminal stupidity and the Vance family unwillingness to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.  I am in the best deer county of the state, but there is a curse in effect.  When I was little I went to movies that featured monsters that appeared to have cornered the market on surgical gauze, and they were forever laying curses on guys who messed with their tanna leaves.  I never messed with anybody’s tanna leaves, but it has to be a curse because I never kill a deer at Dave’s.  I never see a deer at Dave’s.  I can hunt at Dave’s until I’m ready to drop and then go to the little cabin which serves as hunter headquarters, dragging my rifle, not to mention my butt, and there will be a knot of fellow hunters admiring each other’s freshly killed trophy bucks.        


                It has happened too many times to be coincidence.  Once I sat in a rickety blind for four hours on a sleety afternoon.  There was a semi-roof but most of me was exposed.  I did not see a deer all afternoon, but when I left the blind there was a line of tracks within 20 feet of the back of it.  I came down with a monster cold.


                Another time I sat in a tree, facing a gully that was an Interstate for deer, a travel lane so auspicious that deer were drawn to it from other states.  The temperature was about 15 degrees and the wind was directly in my face, but no matter because it would be only minutes until I could pick a trophy from among a herd of deer. 


                I sat there until I was unable to feel anything from the neck down and then I went back to the deer shack where Dave’s preacher, an elderly gentleman physically unable to hunt in any other way, had briefly left the warmth of the wood stove, quietly opened the door, and shot a nice doe that crossed in front of the cabin, about 50 yards away.  Dave was field dressing it as I heard the story.


                I came down with a case of laryngitis that kept me from cussing for a week. 


                Another time I was in a blind in the middle of a crop stubble field when a huge buck, the kind you brag about until people can’t stand you anymore, headed directly toward me.  As I later reconstructed his path, he would have come so close that I could have stuck the gun barrel in his ear. 


                Except that Tim Schrage shot him about 100 yards before he rounded the bend.  I helped Tim load the buck in his pickup and it was all we could do to wrestle the huge animal over the tailgate.  Gee, that was fun!


                As George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” and thus I am stumbling down a steep hill in the pit of night, following Spence who claims he knows how to find the Taj Mahal.  I had been with Spence in broad daylight when he got lost.  Once he took two of us trout fishing on a stream where he’d fished many times and we explored a half-dozen gravel roads before he stopped at a farmhouse and trotted to the door to phone a friend for directions.  The other fellow said, “You know, God must have been drunk when he made Spence.”


                We struggle up a steep hill and watch for a side trail; otherwise, Dave has told us, we will be in a tangle of brush from which no one ever has returned—kind of the Bermuda Triangle of deer habitat.  I spot the side trail, give thanks that I have gotten this far without being attacked by catamounts, and we climb yet another hill.  This is North Missouri, not Nepal, but you couldn’t tell by looking at 5 a.m.


                The blind is a darker blot on a dark landscape.  I stumble across rough ground, plowed by Dave’s grandson for a wildlife food plot.  The blind is in the middle of it.  Bryan has planted radishes and other garden produce for the deer which, we hope, will appreciate the salad course so we can appreciate the meat course. 


                “I didn’t get carpet down, so it’s noisy,” Dave had told us.  “You have to be careful.”  The night is as still as the jungle after a big cat kill, everything holding its breath.  Spence prepares his nest with the finesse of a water buffalo in rut.  He clatters the chair, clomps the floor with his boots, rummages in his kit bag like someone stirring ball bearings in a tin can.  “Looking for some stinkum,” he says.  Finally he finds deer scent and goes to scatter it on the wind.  I shake my head, imagining trophy bucks just crossing the county line, fleeing the cacophony.


                Finally Spence is back and settles in, and silence momentarily returns to the woods.  Then Dave appears, wearing rain gear that rustles with the sound of someone ripping 15 yards of Velcro.  I pour a cup of coffee in the dark of the blind, misjudging the flow so it slops over the top of the cup, scalding my hand and my legs where I have the cup clamped.  I try not to scream—bad form when deer hunting—and whisper Old English words.


                It now is light enough to distinguish a deer from a tree.  Dave has eyes like a barred owl and he whispers, “Two does!” to Spence, who somehow has gotten himself in the right position.  I possibly could knock him out of the way, stand on his neck while I take the shot, but the uncharitable thought is quickly gone—not because I’m charitable, but because he can whip me.


                Spence aims, fires and I see the flick of the tail of the deer that he killed.  This is my deer sighting for the day.  I spend the next three hours getting progressively colder, buttsprung and weary.  I fall asleep at least one thousand times for five seconds each time.  I see deer in the weeds at the top of the hill, but when I put the scope on them they are weeds.  A half-dozen turkeys eddy into the clearing below us and regard the blind with the same suspicion a spinster lady regards a bum clutching a paper sack from which the neck of a wine bottle protrudes.  They retreat into the woods, probably to alert the deer that would have been mine if there was any justice in this world.


                There are numerous shots in the distance  “That’s good,” says Spence, who has his deer so everything is good.  “That’ll run them toward us.”  A good theory, like the one that maintained that the Earth is flat.  Finally Spence, who no doubt is running over venison recipes in his mind, says, “Well, let’s go get some lunch.”    At the cabin an eight-pointer sprawls on the tailgate of Phil’s pickup.  Todd has a six pointer.  There are several does, freezer fodder.  Everyone has at least one deer.  Everyone else, that is.  They have their deer and they are drinking coffee and telling tales of success.  I have what I always have, grim resignation.  I wait for the inevitable question, “So, how’d you do?” 


                “Never saw a deer.”  I growl the words as if chewing carpet tacks.  Phil says, “Gee, I’ll bet I saw 30 deer this morning.”  Not realizing that his words are battery acid on my wounded pride.  I rub my gritty eyes, get a cup of coffee that tastes like gall and wormwood, the bitter Biblical drink that punishes man for idolatry.


                I don’t think it applies to the idolatry of deer, but maybe so.  Maybe it’s not the mummy’s curse; instead a great voice from the skies that thunders, “I don’t know Vance—there’s just something about you that really ticks Me off.”  Perhaps Spence will invite me over for venison chili.      


Memories of the thrilling days of yesteryear…..




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  • Blog
  • November 8th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


It’s as if an environmental mugger sliced a 30 mile long gash across the face of Mother Nature. The Phillips 66 company is replacing 30 miles of elderly pipeline across the heart of mid-Missouri, including the state capital, Jefferson City. As if a spring tornado which ripped a wide swath through the heart of the city, were not intrusion enough, the pipeline repair has created a broad avenue of bare dirt through residential areas of the city, on into the countryside. Nothing impedes progress, including 200 year old red cedar trees and any other vegetation that stands in the way.


The massive oil corporation with the industry’s usual compassion for the damage it causes, generously offered free mulch to anyone willing to haul it away—the ground up vegetation their right of way clearing machinery chewed up. Wasn’t that nice of them?  In the words of Dana Carvey’s church lady on Saturday Night Live, “Isn’t that speshul!”


Gas and oil pipelines lace the United States like the circulatory system of the human body. And, like our own vein and artery network, there always is the potential for an aneurysm and an eventual rupture. While a ruptured artery in the human body may prove fatal, a pipeline rupture won’t prove fatal to the body politic— but it certainly does put a hurt on it.  The United States owns more than 65% of the more than 2 million pipeline miles worldwide.


Pipelines, like any other man-made creation, are prone to failure. They explode, leak, catch on fire, and wear out. And when they do any of these things, they pose a threat to the environment. They become, in short, a wound on the face of Mom Nature.  Pipelines are like riding a motorcycle—it’s not whether you will have an accident, it’s when.  Pipeline proponents argue that pipelines are the safest method of transporting crude oil, natural gas, ethanol, and other fluids and while that very possibly is true, the results of failure, even if rare, are ugly.


Transport of any potentially hazardous substance is risky. One only has to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 when that tanker hit a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Sometimes it’s not even the transport but the drilling for oil that is the source of the problem. Remember British Petroleum’s  Deepwater Horizon explosion of an oil rig in 2010 which contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil.  The oil slick covered an area roughly the size of Oklahoma.  And of course there is a current mania for fracking, in which wells are drilled deep into the earth and flooded with water, potentially dangerous chemicals, and sand. Fracking almost certainly has induced earthquakes and only time will tell what is happening to groundwater quality.


These are the extreme examples of problems caused by oil and gas extraction and transportation, but they are by no means uncommon—just extreme.


Reliance on mineral extraction for United States energy needs is both shortsighted and dangerous to the long-term health, not only of the country, but to the planet as a whole. The scientific community and, increasingly, the bulk of public opinion, is convinced that climate change (a.k.a. global warming) is caused by carbon emissions into the atmosphere— and carbon dioxide emissions overwhelmingly are the result of the combustion of those extracted minerals. The United States is the only country among 195 signatory nations  of the so-called Paris Agreement seeking to cut carbon emissions that has  announced withdrawal from the agreement. And we are the biggest offenders when it comes to atmospheric pollution. The administration has gutted regulations to limit carbon emission by automobiles and coal-fired power plants, and has encouraged more and more despoliation of the natural landscape by drilling for oil and gas.


The latest pipeline leak to make big news occurred in North Dakota when an existing pipeline known as the Keystone, ruptured and spilled 383,000 gallons of oil over the countryside.  There is in the works a plan to build an even longer and more ambitious pipeline known as the Keystone XL.  Tim Donaghy, a research specialist for Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy group, listed a few statistics which should give anyone pause before endorsing construction of Keystone XL: “History has shown us time and again that there is no safe way to transport fossil fuels, and pipelines are no exception. In the last 10 years, U.S. pipeline spills have led to 20 fatalities, 35 injuries, $2.6 billion in costs and more than 34 million gallons spilled. New pipelines are locking us into carbon emissions that will push our climate past safe limits. That is not the future I want for my children.”


Pipeline problems are not always that dramatic.  It’s entirely possible that inquisitive news hawks could report a pipeline break every day of every year, somewhere, that affects the United States.  In a statement about the North Dakota spill. Donaghy said “I wish I could say I was shocked, but a major spill from the Keystone pipeline is exactly what multiple experts predicted would happen. In fact, this is the fourth significant spill from the Keystone pipeline in less than 10 years of operation,”


The existing and the proposed Keystone XL pipelines would transport oil extracted from tar sands originating in Alberta, Canada across the United States. The existing pipeline was built directly on top of the Ogallala Aquifer….a large body of fresh water that supplies drinking water for 82% of the people living in the high plains, and which is already under stress and has been depleted by 9% by use for irrigation. The tar sands oil is trapped in a sludgy substance called bitumen and the process of squeezing out the oil is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.


The latest newsworthy leak happened on the existing Keystone pipeline system, not the 1,179-mile  Keystone XL ‘s the construction of which has been under protest by environmental groups for years.  In 2015 then President Barack Obama denied a permit for it. Predictably just a few days after Donald Trump took office he gave the company, TransCanada, the go-ahead to build the tar sands pipeline.  The original Keystone pipeline system began operation in 2010 and carries tar sands-extruded crude oil from Alberta, Canada, south to Texas. The system would span 2,687 miles of pipeline.


Tar sands extraction is considered the most potentially hazardous way to pull oil from beneath the Earth’s surface.  Keystone XL would traverse the midsection of the United States like a gigantic and potentially lethal venomous reptile. Any cataclysmic eruption would threaten the Ogallala aquifer.  That gigantic underground lake provides water from which eight states draw for irrigation of crops as well as for drinking.  Irrigation itself has been a hazard for years, in that it is drawing down the aquifer level, which would take hundreds of years to recharge if the aquifer drops below a sustainable level. Irrigation is bad enough, but pipeline contamination would be insult added to injury.


Fresh water is mandatory for the continued existence of people; crude oil is not— we already produce and export more oil than is necessary to run the country. And, if technology achieves the promise of renewable energy, the demand for more and more oil should diminish in years to come. But not if the political powers that run the country continue to insist that we drill, baby, drill!


Some years ago I was sleeping in an old farmhouse in North Missouri on the night before a quail hunt when I woke and saw a strange glow in the window, as if being alone in an old farmhouse weren’t spooky enough. I got dressed and decided to see if I could track down the source of the strange light. Perhaps someone’s farm house was on fire and I could help. I got in my car and began driving north toward the light in the sky. After traveling several miles, I realized I was no closer to the cause of the light, so I turned around and returned to bed. The next day on the television news I found that a pipeline in Iowa, at least 100 miles from where I had been sleeping, had exploded.


Pipelines transport more than oil—they also are conduits for gas, a highly explosive substance to be pumping beneath the ground where people live. When gas ignites, like what happened in Iowa, it can be as spectacular and hazardous as a wartime bombing raid. Some years back, I used to leave my desk as a sports editor at the Mexico Missouri Evening Ledger, hop in my car and drive north several miles on State Highway 15 to a small farm where I bow hunted for deer. Highway 15 was the major conduit north from Mexico and fairly heavily traveled for a state road.


Several months ago an interstate gas pipeline, owned by Panhandle Eastern, developed a massive leak through a corroded pipe adjacent to highway 15, about 1 mile north of the city limits of Mexico. The gas leak ignited an explosion that literally melted the highway. The resulting fire also burned a house under construction and the result was a highway closure until repairs were made, compensation to the would-be homeowners, and $1 million in damages. It could’ve been far worse—suppose that pipeline had been the one now being buried under Missouri’s state capital?


The Union of Concerned Scientists, an impeccable source of unbiased information has this to say about tar sand oil extraction.  “Extracting bitumen from tar sands—and refining it into products like gasoline—is significantly costlier and more difficult than extracting and refining liquid oil.  Common extraction methods include surface mining—where the extraction site is excavated—and “in-situ” mining, where steam is used to liquefy bitumen deep underground. The largest deposits of tar sands are in Alberta, Canada.”


Tar sands have been exploited for nearly 60 years and now account for about 5% of United States gasoline production. The scientists say that 1 gallon of gasoline from tar sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional processes— and carbon dioxide emission is the culprit in climate change.  And it takes about 6 gallons of water to produce each gallon of gasoline from tar sands—three times as much water as in conventional methods. Not only that, but toxic substances used in tar sands extraction can contaminate groundwater. The water people drink.


Catherine Collentine, an associate director with the Sierra Club, which opposes the Keystone XL addition, said   “We don’t yet know the extent of the damage from this latest tar sands spill, but what we do know is that this is not the first time this pipeline has spilled toxic tar sands, and it won’t be the last,” she said. “We’ve always said it’s not a question of whether a pipeline will spill, but when, and once again TC Energy has made our case for us.”


 This is the second major incident for the pipeline system in the last two years. In 2017, a spill coated a stretch of grassland in South Dakota with more than 407,000 gallons of leaked Canadian crude oil, which was nearly twice as much as originally estimated.  The pipeline also leaked about 16,000 gallons each in spills in 2011 in North Dakota and in 2016 in South Dakota.


Snow White’s dwarves whistled a happy tune as they marched off, digging implements over their shoulders. I rather doubt that the pipeline diggers whistle or sing a happy tune as they march off to scrape the land bare, but if they want one, how about the old English folk tune “Fair Ellen”? It’s about a murder over love, possibly not appropriate for pipeline excavation, but after all that’s a sort of murder of the countryside, and “Fair Ellen” does end with this:



“Father, oh father, go dig my grave

go dig it wide and deep.”


I’ve looked at the trench being dug by the Phillips contractors, stretching for miles through the countryside and it looks like nothing so much as an extended grave. Let’s hope that it is not an interment site for our future.





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  • Blog
  • November 1st, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

“And we’re building a wall on the border of New Mexico and we’re building a wall in Colorado, we’re building a beautiful wall, a big one that really works that you can’t get over, you can get under and we’re building a wall in Texas. We’re not building wall in Kansas but they get the benefit of the walls we just mentioned,”


Thus spake the beautiful border barrier obsessed president of the United States, Donald J Trump, indicating, one might say, a significant lack of geographical knowledge of the makeup of states west of Manhattan, New York. But this is a person who once, at a luncheon with African leaders praised the health care system in Nambia. There is no such place as Nambia, as opposed to Colorado which does exist and which, in the immortal word of Gomer Pyle “Surprise! Surprise!” does not border Mexico.


Colorado Governor Jared Polis reacted to the news that the federal government is building a border wall in his state, saying, “Well, this is awkward. Colorado doesn’t border Mexico. Good thing Colorado now offers free full day kindergarten so our kids can learn basic geography.”


The reaction to Trump’s goofy gaffe was immediate. Most of the reaction, predictably, came from Democrats and late-night talk show hosts who, instead of being appalled by the gut level ignorance of the nation’s leader, mostly just shook their heads in resignation, cognizant of the fact that the Donald is as dumb as a bucket of rocks. Every now and then some pundit posits that Trump really is canny beneath that veneer of stupidity, and is playing a gotcha game against his perceived enemies.


But given the weight of evidence, Donnie is no Gomer Pyle, a lovable but dimwitted buffoon— he is what he seems a dangerous ignoramus who is fully capable of using his apparently endless stupidity to bring the nation to the brink of irretrievable disaster.


One astonished citizen tweeted “Now this. I wake up to discover Trump wants to build a border wall with Colorado. If it was grandpa we would have taken his keys away.” Another dumbfounded person reacted by suggesting that instead of taking grandpa’s keys away (and, for the record, Trump is a grandpa) Trump should have the nuclear codes removed from his possession. After all, he has at various times, indicated he could and would wipe countries like North Korea and Iran from the world map, presumably by nuking them.


Sensible people do not give crazy people dangerous toys to play with, but far too many non-sensible people entrusted Donald Trump with toys that not only are dangerous but have the potential to obliterate the planet. Far better to give him a complete set of Tinker Toys and retire him to one of the upper floors of Trump Tower (assuming it doesn’t go bankrupt) to build little Tinker Toy walls to his heart’s content.


At the moment Trump uttered his chuckle worthy Colorado blooper, I was in Colorado, perched at 8500 feet above sea level in Woodland Park on the eve of traveling back to my home in Missouri far below. “Holy buckets, Batman!” I cried. “How are we ever going to flee this alien land with a beautiful border wall between us and the flat lands below?” I asked no one who cared.


It was not feasible to bore beneath the unyielding granite of Pike’s Peak, nor to scale the unknowable height of the Great Wall of Colorado. We could only glimpse the glory of Kansas through the narrow aperture between the towering metal slats of Trump’s beautiful monument.


So there we were, trapped amid the Rockies, not knowing if we were on the true blue Ammurican side of the fence or on the alien side, amid rapists, drug smugglers, and other people who don’t look like Donald Trump’s multimillionaire political donors. It was a conundrum which cast a pall upon what had, until that moment of geographical barrier revelation, been a memorable vacation. In fact, there had been a bit of geographical synchronicity between our home state of Missouri, and our perch high in the mountains of that alien,  soon to be walled in nation.


But we had places to go and things to do before we tried to escape the confines of Trump’s mythical barricade.  Scott Joplin generally is called the King of Ragtime, a form of music that flourished in the late 1800s until it morphed into New Orleans style jazz and ultimately fell out of favor until it was rediscovered and re-popularized in the late 1900s— especially used as background music in the wonderful Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie, “The Sting.” Joplin’s second most famous rag, “The Entertainer” was the prime theme behind the movie and it was the closing piece played by Woodland Park’s ragtime ensemble on the night the town’s Wind Symphony mixed Sin and Symphony.


The Maple leaf Rag opened the night’s music. It commemorates an establishment in Sedalia Missouri which the history books generously describe as a gentlemen’s club and bar where Scott Joplin, composer of the ragtime melody, first of that genre to sell 1 million sheet music copies, played piano in 1894.  Whether the Maple leaf Club also functioned as a brothel is somewhat obscured by the historians— Sedalia certainly would prefer to call it a gentlemen’s club rather than a whorehouse. Ragtime performer and historian Jan Douglas says “ragtime made a sudden transition from whorehouse to the parlor” when describing the huge popular impact Joplin and his music had, not only at the turn of the 20th century, but after the 1974 movie, featuring Joplin’s rags.


Almost all of Joplin’s syncopated rags are uplifting, musical tributes to the idea of having a good time. After the Woodland Park group gave a somewhat tentative version of the Maple leaf Rag, it also cautiously approached  “The Cascades” and “The Chrysanthemum” (dedicated to Freddie Alexander, a young woman whom Joplin married in June 1904, and who died September 10 of that same year). It wasn’t until the group’s piano player Bruce Gibbons soloed on “Solace” that the ragtime concert became energized. “Solace” was described as “a Mexican Serenade for piano”. Perhaps that Latino attribution somehow has a connection with Trump’s assumption that Colorado borders Mexico? That far-fetched supposition is as tenuous and goofy as Trump’s Colorado wall itself. But the lovely, meditative piano solo seemed to inspire the ragtime group and they bounced merrily through the remainder of the program, finishing with “The Entertainer.”


After the rag timers ran through their occasionally raggedy rendition of eight Joplin rags, the entire Wind Symphony took over to give us three Irish and Scottish musical compositions, and then finished with a rousing version of John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan March (which surely made every veteran of Army Saturday morning massed reviews feel like saluting the grandstand and marching in step.


It certainly reminded me of the time at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, when I managed to escape passing in review after being endlessly frozen at parade rest by claiming that, as a newspapermen, it was my duty to photograph and report on the ceremony for our hometown newspaper. As excuses go, it was pretty feeble, but somehow it worked.


I did lurk near former President Harry Truman who, as leader of te free world in 1944 made the most momentous decision of any president in our history when he ended World War II by approving the dropping of the atom bomb on two Japanese cities, after which the Japanese quickly surrendered. Mr. Truman was the honored guest at our parade watching, no doubt with considerable pride, the passing in review of the 35th Division, the outfit that he had served in during World War I as a combat artillery officer. I overheard him ask the assembled generals waiting for the parade to begin, “So, what do you want me to do?” I felt like answering, “Harry, you’ve done more for the country than anyone could have expected or asked.” But it wasn’t exactly my place, so I stayed firmly in the background, and as the battalions of weary weekend warriors trudged past the reviewing stand in the hot sun, I reveled in the knowledge that I had pulled off a scam worthy of Beetle Bailey.


I cannot in my most fevered imaginative moments conceive of Harry Truman endorsing the building of a wall between us and any of our North American neighbors. But then I can’t imagine Harry Truman, a man of integrity, uncommon intelligence, and down home values, committing any of the idiotic and often downright insane antics of the present imposter in the office where Harry famously said “the buck stops here”, not meaning “the buck stops here in my pocket.”


Scott Joplin, himself, was a mixture of Sin and Symphony. Born in Texas in 1868, he lived but 48 years before dying of syphilis in a mental institution. But within that short lifetime he pretty much created the musical form known as ragtime, composed a pair of operas (one of which has been lost to history; the other “Treemonisha” was never performed until long after Joplin’s death in 1917). He also composed a ballet and his 44 ragtime compositions contain many that are the bedrock of all rags created by all other composers. In short, Joplin was the Mozart of ragtime composers.


So there we were stuck in the mountains of Colorado faced by an impenetrable though invisible wall between us and home. No way to tunnel beneath, no way to scale its imposing height. Donald Trump, once again emulating the autocrats of history (China, with its famed wall, the Russians post World War II with their Iron Curtain) had barricaded himself and, unwillingly, us.  Ahah! But we had a secret weapon. It’s known as the airplane and, after the ordeal of negotiating the Denver airport which is the modern equivalent of Dante’s tour through the various levels of Hell, we flew right over that Trump mirage to our home practically next door to where Scott Joplin once played the Maple Leaf Rag for sportin’ gentlemen.


Four days later a foot of snow closed Interstate 70 access to the Denver airport and the temperature dropped to four below zero.  Descending from the clear clean mountain air high above the Great Plains into the reality of today’s political scene was much like wading barefoot into a cattle feedlot immediately after a heavy rain.  The good news is that we escaped before Colorado became an impenetrable walled enclosure. The even better news is that the legal walls appear to be squeezing tighter on The Orange One, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.


“Play that Solace piece again, Mr. Joplin.  It always makes me feel better.”






Read More
  • Blog
  • October 26th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


I wouldn’t say that my home state of Missouri is the second coming of Jurassic Park, but we do have our moments. It seems that every decade or so some alien creature surfaces in the news. Some critter that may belong somewhere else, but definitely not in the state of Missouri.


In 1972, Louisiana, Missouri, (not the state of Louisiana, but the town) was the site of a spate of reports of a creature that became known as Momo. Momo was described as being about the approximate size of an NBA center (7 feet), covered with fur and topped by a large head like a pumpkin— fitting perhaps, in this, the Halloween season.


Momo also apparently was in serious need of powerful deodorant. There were a number of sightings of this weird primate up and down the Mississippi River corridor before it vanished into legend. One Lawrence Curtis, identified as director of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, examined tracks of the critter and said it was an unknown primate.


One immediately thinks of Bigfoot from the Northwest United States, and the yeti of the Himalaya Mountains. Missourians, routinely, do not think of anything that size that doesn’t anchor the offensive of line of the Missouri Tiger football team.


No one knows if Momo was a native born citizen, perhaps on vacation from the coastal forests of the Northwest states, or an undocumented alien from Nepal or Tibet. Whatever, he—it— vanished from intermittent sightings and hasn’t been seen as far as I know for about 50 years.


Missouri seems to be a nexus for visits from creatures that are not supposed to occur in the state. Once, bears and mountain lions were among those mammals thought to be long extirpated from the Show Me state, but an influx of black bears, probably spillover from stocked bears in Arkansas, and fairly recent sightings and traffic fatalities involving male mountain lions indicate that we can’t count them as creatures only existing in history books.


Far more common are sightings of creatures from other states, but not ones routinely populating us. Once, when I was the sports editor at the Mexico Missouri Ledger, someone reported running over a porcupine in Monroe County, the next one North of us. The porky was at least 500 miles from where you expect to find him, alive or dead, and one theory was that he had hitched a ride on a log truck which, for reasons never explained, had come a long way south perhaps from Minnesota.  Another time a lone timber wolf migrated hundreds of miles into North Missouri from its origin in Wisconsin.


But such anomalous excursions are rare, but not unknown. Randy male animals, seeking love are known to travel long distances in search of romance, often far from their native habitat. That probably explains what occasioned the marathon trek of The Missouri Kid.


When I was working at the Missouri Conservation Department, there was a continuing saga of a bull moose which appeared first in Iowa, following a southward course completely through that state into North Missouri and ultimately as far south as the Missouri River where it vanished—the theory being that someone armed with a high caliber rifle had reduced what writer Bil Gilbert in Sports Illustrated magazine dubbed “the Missouri Kid” to freezer meat. Unlike Momo who appeared only sporadically and briefly, the Kid was seen by countless people along his extensive odyssey and, when he vanished, was mourned by all (except, presumably by whoever bagged him, and by many conservation agents who, to this day, would like to know the identity of the moose assassin.


Conservation agents were similarly baffled many years ago when a farmer in Osage County, on opening day of deer season, shot what he thought was the world’s largest trophy buck, only to find that it was an elk. It was an honest mistake and he wasn’t ticketed but the major mystery was the origin of the animal (elk historically were native to Missouri and actually have been reintroduced in the Ozarks, but at that time they were absent from the state). The elk had been tagged in Yellowstone National Park, so its origin was known, but not how it made its way 1000 miles cross country to die along the Missouri River.


There is a suspicion that just perhaps the animal had been a resident in a St. Louis Park, appropriately named Lone Elk Park, and had made a break for it, migrating along the Missouri as far West as the farmer’s barn lot in Osage County. How it came from Yellowstone to St. Louis is the original mystery and one theory is that it was elknapped, a wildlife violation of major magnitude, but as cold cases go that one is positively Arctic.


Another elk once went AWOL from a location in southern Iowa and traveled south into Missouri where apprehensive agricultural officials insisted that the animal be tranquilized and tested for brucellosis. The results were negative, but the animal overdosed on tranquilizer and died. It had been consorting with area cattle who possibly held some sort of bovine memorial service, like refugees from a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon.


So far there have been no violent encounters between these alien wildlife creatures and Missouri mankind, although I know of an instance where a biologist with the Conservation Department was attacked by a captive buck deer when he entered a fenced in enclosure which the animal, inflamed by rut, considered its own.


The beleaguered biologist grabbed the antlers of the buck and held on for as the cliché says “dear life” he also shouted for help and several wildlife workers pinned the animal down some 20 feet or more from the fence…. and safety.


As they held on to the struggling animal, one logically asked “So, what do we do now?” They decided that they would, on the count of three all let go and run like hell.  “One! Two! Go!” Collectively they eclipsed the world record for the 20 yard dash and chain-link fence hurdle. Only to find, when they reached safety, they were one person short. One, apparently had  gotten tangled in the antlers.  So they all clambered back into the pen and did another deer takedown. “Okay, pay attention! One! Two! Go!” This time, they made it barely ahead of one seriously angry and disappointed buck deer.


Perhaps it is a function of climate change, but for whatever reason when there are several warm years successively Missouri sees an invasion of southwestern wildlife species and, if global warming continues, this trend undoubtedly will intensify. Armadillos, road runners, and scissor tailed flycatchers are the most common immigrants from Oklahoma and points southwest. I’m waiting for the first report of the chupacabra, a mythical Mexican wolflike critter, but perhaps Donald Trump’s so far mythical wall will keep it south of the border.


If politicians are so dead set on deporting undocumented aliens, they could start with some that have been around for a couple hundred years. I don’t mean your great grandma and grandpa, I mean ones that have four legs or, in some cases, two legs and a couple of wings. But any attempt to rid the country of some of those undocumented aliens would run into heavy opposition from, for example, ringneck pheasant hunters. Attempts to introduce pheasants into the United States date to the time of George Washington.


Certainly we all are the legacy of undocumented immigrants. Way back when, some Vances came over from Ireland and Scotland and settled in the New World. None of them had documents attesting to their legitimacy or their qualifications for entrance into what would become the United States of America. Not only that, but the Vances were themselves immigrants, probably undocumented, from France before they became Irish and Scot. God only knows what they were before that but almost certainly they were without papers and any documentation might well been carved on a wall in a Neolithic cave.


Of all the alien critters to have chosen Missouri as new settlement territory, none was as intimidating, not to mention terrifying as what happened in Springfield in August , 1953. Momo was a maybe threat; the Springfield incident was real and potentially lethal. Here’s what happened:


A teenager named Carl Barnett bought an exotic fish in a Springfield pet store, but the fish died and Barnett wanted to be compensated. The store owner refused and Barnett, on his way home, noticed a crate and opened the lid. Instead of harmless snakes, the crate contained a dozen cobras, a deadly venomous reptile that you don’t want loose in your home city.


Barnett kept the secret of his not so harmless prank for 35 years before fessing up. The first of the liberated snakes appeared in a homeowner’s yard on August 15. The homeowner killed it with, of all things, a garden hoe. Another snake appeared across the street from that homeowner and also encountered deadly force. By now, the garden hoe was becoming a weapon of choice in the great snake confrontation. Hoes did in the third and fifth snakes, while the fourth succumbed to someone running over it until it was no longer a threat. The pet store owner captured the sixth snake but the seventh was more of a problem— it was thought to have slithered beneath someone’s house.


By now the city was all a-dither. It was time for the cops to get involved.  They first tried to lasso the errant reptile and, when that didn’t work, they tossed a tear gas grenade beneath the house which flushed the snake out, whereupon the cops shot it five times, failing to kill it— but they used the ultimate weapon to dispatch the snake. A garden hoe.


Ultimately 10 cobras suffered an untimely death, most to garden tools, but the 11th finally was captured alive October 25 and taken to Dickerson Park Zoo where it became a featured attraction. News stories vary, some say 11 snakes died, one captured, others ten snakes defunct. However, even if one survived the great escape, it takes two to tango, reproductively speaking, and it has been almost 70 years since anyone has encountered a cobra in Springfield and folks there have retired their hoes to weeding garden produce rather than as big game hunting weapons.


These days, Missourians live with their indigenous venomous reptiles— rattlesnakes, cottonmouth moccasins, and copperheads, and so far the Show Me State is free from invading alien snakes.  Florida trappers have captured a record-setting python, an alien species, in the Big Cypress National Preserve west of Miami. The huge snake measured 18’4” and weighed almost 100 pounds. Even at that, it was only the second largest non native python ever caught in the wild in Florida. The Associated Press commented, “The Fish and Wildlife Commission said hunting female Burmese pythons is critical because they add 30 to 60 hatchlings each time they breed.”


As of now, climate change a.k.a. “global warming” has not encouraged pythons to migrate as far north as Missouri—or at least, no one has reported encountering 18 foot long snakes in the Missouri wild.







Read More
  • Blog
  • October 17th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


In 1861 Mark  Twain traveled across the Great Plains to Nevada territory and wrote about it in his first book “Roughing It” which made him famous. In 1939 John Wayne starred in “Stagecoach” his first major movie and it made him famous. Obviously, there are definite advantages to stagecoach travel not available in today’s marketplace. The choice for long-distance trips for most folks is to climb in an airplane and trust that the mystery of flight once again will prevail.


On the other hand, a stagecoach is not suspended 30,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, held there by aeronautical magic. And in order to take advantage of this enchantment, one has to traverse the myriad pitfalls that strew the path of the weary traveler between home and boarding the airplane. Just negotiating the minefield of security check in would make old Sam Clemens and the Duke long for a comparatively easy set to with irritable Lakota Sioux warriors.


Scratch any air traveler today and you’ll uncover a festering wound of previous mishaps and the repeated mantra of he who has flown: “Never again! Never again!” But we do, of course, we entrust our lives to invisible flight crews whom we don’t know and whom we can only hope know what they are doing, semi-secure in the knowledge that “Hey, they’re up here too and are just as eager as I am to get from here to there without becoming a headline.”


Wikipedia says that firewalking, the act of hiking across a bed of smoldering coals, is “a test of an individual strength and courage, or in religion as a test of one’s faith.” For me, the equivalent of tiptoeing across sizzling briquettes is traversing the security checkpoint ordeal at the airport. Once, I heard a Catholic woman explained that when she was about five years old, she went to her first confession, so scared that she confessed to sins she didn’t even know the meaning of. “Forgive me, father, I have committed adultery!” she babbled to the astonished priest. That’s pretty much the way I approach a security check looking as guilty as someone bulging with 50 pounds of gelignite. “Honest,” I want to blabber, “it’s just old guy flab! I gotta start exercising more!”


Actually, after divesting myself of shoes, watch, metal belt buckle, (praying that my britches don’t fall down and moon my fellow passengers), five dollars worth of loose change, half a dozen Tums tablets and a handful of pocket lint, I stumble through the security portal, every muscle tense, certain that sirens will sound, uniformed security personnel, guns drawn, will descend on me wielding truncheons and handcuffs— only to arrive on the other side unscathed and able to breathe once again. Where I wait while my wife, Marty, undergoes the inevitable.


Marty, has a habit of bringing confusion to the professional lives of the TSA screeners. Some years back, she, in her early 60s, a grandmotherly Midwestern white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, former cheerleader, former Yearbook Queen, not exactly the prototypical terrorist, was flagged down when the x-ray machine detected a tiny pair of cosmetic scissors in her luggage. She underwent a body patdown, and the confiscation of the offending weapon of mass destruction before they let her go.


Barely past the screening station, she rummaged in her purse and held aloft another pair of scissors. “Well at least,” she said, “they didn’t get these!” I grabbed her arm and hustled her down the hall, exclaiming “Haysoos!”, practicing pronunciation in the language prevalence in the confines of Guantánamo Bay, figuring TSA already had a suite reserved there in our name.


A couple of flights ago, Marty, confronted with her first body screening booth, and doubtless recalling her days of terpsichore at Louie’s Sweet Shop as the boogie-woogie queen of Macon High School, stood on the footprints in the booth and, possibly imagining she was auditioning for a spot on “Dancing with the Stars” executed a nifty fast dance step. “Stand still!” Growled a TSA attendant, who doubtless had grown up deprived of boogying to vintage rock ‘n roll at Louie’s.


So, I approach every security check in, sweating and no doubt looking as guilty as someone who just graduated from Bomb Making University, but I always manage to negotiate through the various indignities without being patted down in places where I’d rather not be patted down, questioned by interrogators or pinned against the wall by your basic law enforcement chokehold aficionados.


Only once have I undergone a rigorous grilling by the security guys and that was upon entering Canada on a fishing trip. The copper was nice, polite, and the kind of guy you’d like to share a cold one with. But he was thorough enough to ascertain that my intentions within the borders of our northern neighbor were not to threaten the indigenous ice hockey culture (I concealed the fact that I am a St. Louis Blues fan), and he finally let me go.


More common than intimidating experiences with the security system are my sometimes frightening experiences once in the sky where, if something dramatic happens, the results are even more serious than a pat down or having your cuticle clippers confiscated.


Since I saw an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where an airline passenger looked out the porthole window and saw a gremlin clinging to the wing of the plane and looking back at him I have been hyper alert for the high-altitude equivalent of things that go bump in the night.. Anytime I have a window seat, I keep a wary eye out for creatures strolling on the wing at 30,000 feet and several hundred miles per hour. So far, the wings have been bare of hideous monsters, but you never know.


Then there was the time, the cabin as they call it (my idea of the cabin is a cozy enclosure of logs, with a comforting fire in the stove, a hunting dog sprawled on the carpet, and a beaker of Scotland’s signature soothing elixir in my hand) filled with smoke. I didn’t think it was coming from a comforting fire in a wood stove somewhere between where I sat and where the pilot sat and neither did anyone else among the passengers, who began to stir uneasily. Shortly, a disembodied voice, came over the intercom saying “there seems to be a problem folks, but don’t worry, we think it’s something with the electrical system and we will have it fixed shortly.”


Shortly was not near soon enough for me, considering that we were midway between Memphis and St. Louis where landing strips for 737 passenger jets are nonexistent. Gradually, the fog of smoke dissipated but we completed the flight in a collective condition commonly known as “tight ass” and we landed in St. Louis and taxied a considerable distance from the terminal, surrounded by emergency vehicles. My seatmate, a large fellow who looked as if he might have been a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, said, “I know where I will be tonight— I will be in church!” I didn’t get to slide down the canvas emergency chute, the only disappointment in the entire experience. And we had to deplane and walk all the way to the terminal.


Another problem confronting the frequent flyer is that of his or her luggage being sent, for example, to Montréal, when the passenger is headed for San Francisco. Perhaps that is why airlines charge exorbitant fees now to check your luggage—to pay the extra cost of reuniting you with your clothing. I once spent three days in the same pair of shorts and T-shirt waiting for the arrival of fresh clothing. Did I get an apology from the airline? Recompense for smelling like a high school locker room? A nice check to replace the grungy shorts and T-shirt? No, I got my luggage at long last on the morning of our flight home, no apologies issued.


Once I had to frantically search terminal wide for my missing fishing rod case which apparently to the TSA folks looked like a rocket launcher and I can only imagine them summoning the bomb squad to defuse what turned out to be an assortment of fishing rods. My shotgun, locked in a hard case and labeled, also once went temporarily missing on a hunting trip but fortunately was found before I went more ballistic than my treasured double-barreled 12 gauge.


I caught a 28 pound Chinook salmon in Oregon and had it flash frozen. I packed it in the middle of my suitcase wrapped in many layers of insulating clothing. It would, I pray, remain frozen for the couple of hours in the air to Kansas City’s International airport, and another couple of hours on the road home where it would join other wild game in our freezer and later be served as a baked entrée for an appreciative audience—not only in tribute to my angling expertise, but also as a tribute to my generosity in sharing it with my adoring family and friends.


Never let it be said that common sense is a major attribute in my short range planning. At the Portland airport, a harried airline functionary announced that our flight was overbooked and he would offer a free ticket to anyone who would take a later flight. Free anything is a magic phrase to a cheapskate like me and I snapped up the offer and it wasn’t until our original plane was in the air that it occurred to me my trophy salmon was heading home without me.


Visions of a once frozen salmon liquefying in the middle of my luggage!


We arrived at KCI to find the terminal absolutely deserted—apparently nobody was coming or going at 1 AM. Marty and I stood in the middle of the cavernous baggage claim area and I sniffed like a pointer to see if I could detect the scent of rotting salmon. Then, a door popped open in a distant wall, and a munchkin like figure appeared and said, “you must be the Vances.” He produced our luggage as well as a driver for a search vehicle to take us on a tour of the long term parking where our car was.


The long drive home was fraught with my incessant sniffing, praying that dead fish stink was not seeping out of my suitcase. Was this noble fish whose only wish was to swim upstream and find a girlfriend destined instead for a shameful final resting place in a dumpster?  I opened my suitcase like a member of a bomb squad dealing with a suspicious package, and…. The fish still was frozen as solid as a mammoth on the Siberian tundra.


Tomorrow, we fly from Missouri to the Far West, (coach class) following the path of the historic stagecoaches, only 30,000 feet up. “Okay, Rowdy, Head ‘em up and move ‘em out!”



Read More
  • Blog
  • October 11th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


The scene is the Spring River in Arkansas, Horseshoe Falls, a U-shaped ledge that drops several feet into a plunge pool. A long time ago several canoes were congregated at the falls waiting their turn to run the little rapids. Just as my canoe was committed to the drop, a canoe with two girls slid into the pool from the side and I T-boned them, spilling both young ladies into the near icy water (it is a trout stream).


Somehow I managed not to capsize but did bail out of the canoe to make sure the two girls were all right.  They surfaced spluttering and, as it quickly transpired, were more (according to me and my buddies) more than all right.


Obviously, they were soaked to the skin–I say obviously because one in particular, a lissome lass was wearing what now was a soggy T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper.” There was, in one time, in American culture especially among the drooling, misogynistic male population, a deep appreciation for what was called the “wet T-shirt contest.” Okay, I admit to guilt for transgressing the bounds of propriety and indulging in improper art appreciation, but the bottom line is I developed an instant gratitude for Dr. Pepper, not only as a soothing soft drink, but also as a wonderful example of effective marketing.


If I had not been a fan of the T-shirt before that magic moment, I certainly have been ever since. I am a devout collector of T-shirts which have become iconic in our society. Not one of my vast collection refers to Dr. Pepper but the memory of that long ago river encounter does linger. T-shirts, emblazoned with advertising, slogans, or other decorations, are a fairly modern innovation on an article of wearing apparel that dates back more than a century.


According to Wikipedia, the first T-shirts surfaced in what they call “the Mexican American war” in 1898. Actually, I’m sure they mean Spanish-American war since the Mexican American war occurred in 1846-9. Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, but you can’t always trust what you read (especially, these days, if it originates with Fox News). Anyway, according to the Wiki guys, T-shirts became an issue clothing item for the U.S. Navy in 1913.


Possibly the most cherished T-shirt I have ever had was one originally worn by the adolescent son of a canoeing buddy. I spied it on him during a Current River float. It was decorated with a tribute to Willie Nelson or, as I know him, Saint Willie. “Can I make you an offer for that T-shirt?” I asked the tot.


“How much you willin’ to give me?” instantly responded the avaricious little grifter. Obviously, the kid would grow up to become a successful used-car salesman. We finally struck a deal and whatever the terms were, I’m sure I was on the short end— except that I did get the T-shirt which was basically worn out anyway. The shirt looked remarkably like Willie Nelson has looked for the last couple of decades but I cherished it like the Kohinoor diamond until it finally fell into tatters and had to be consigned to the ragbag cemetery for defunct clothing.


Who can forget America’s favorite hunk, Marlon Brando, bellowing from the New Orleans street “Stella!, Stella!” in Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando’s burly character, Stanley Kowalski, was wearing a sweat stained T-shirt and looking buff, unlike the porky Godfather of years later. In a memorable scene from the play, Brando strips off his sweaty T-shirt, and replaces it with a fresh one while Blanche Dubois tries to repress a seductive drool.


Thus, Brando, the role model for all us wannabe sex symbols, established the T-shirt as the in-costume for Cool Studism. It was not to be, of course, and most of us are reduced to bartering with eight-year-old kids for Willie Nelson T-shirts and, while Willie is a saint on earth he never will be mistaken for Brando at his Studly epitome.


 T-shirts today are emblazoned with all sorts of filthy slogans and I’m happy to say that none of mine bears any sort of profane or improper suggestions. Most are on the order of sly humor like the one that is attributed to Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it’s very dark.” That certainly is in the spirit of the irrepressible Groucho, who said in a movie, “This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”


Back in the 1950s, sweathog types were not considered completely dressed unless they wore a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled up in the sleeve. That, combined with a duck tail or crew cut haircut, a pair of blue suede shoes and blue jeans without—God forbid— any worn spots or holes that are mandatory on today’s jeans, was the uniform for he who would be cool, but promisingly dangerous to hot chicks.


My pack of Camels, vanished more than 50 years ago when my father died of a smoking related illness, and I quit smoking the next day. My blue suede shoes lost their fuzzy nap and ultimately, became consigned to the dustbin of time. And, as far as appearing promisingly dangerous to hot chicks I had a number of problems. I didn’t even suggest promisingly dangerous to our family dog, who rarely obeyed anything I yelled at her (and her name wasn’t Stella anyway), and my circle of acquaintances included only hot chicks who were already affiliated with large, muscular, and easily offended significant others. But I did retain an affinity for T-shirts which endures to this day. I have drawers filled with a variety of short-sleeved T-shirts ranging from plain to those decorated with a variety of colorful emblems.


(Confusion reigns— I just found a T-tshirt in my collection which reads “Lady Jays Soccer.” I have never been a member of the local high school women’s soccer team, nor do I expect to become one in the future. I have no idea where the T-shirt came from but I suspect I inherited it as a cast-off from our daughter, Amy’s, family which includes two girl graduates of Helias High School– also curious, because the Jays are the symbol of the local public school, not Catholic Helias. Amy’s husband, Brad, is a graduate of Jeff city high where he played football, not soccer. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.)


Political slogans seem to be endemic on today’s wearing apparel.  Our modern culture is dominated by a president who functions, part-time, as a weatherman, erroneously predicting the path of hurricanes to suit his mendacious mumbling, and who wears a ball cap Inscribed MAGA (I have studiously avoided memorizing what that stands for, but I suspect it means “Make America Goofy Again”)


Vilifying anything inscribed on a T-shirt seems to me an example of national disunity and insecurity.  But there it is— an Indiana middle school girl was disciplined by her principal for wearing a T-shirt to class with an inscription condemning racism and homophobia. This would seem to be a no-brainer in a civilized society, but we’re talking about Indiana, once a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan, and a state where the nation’s current vice president and former governor Mike Pence, has a record of opposition to gay rights as a member of Congress and as governor and has long been a champion of so-called “conversion therapy” which maintains that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured— an idea that has been discredited by the American medical Association and the American Psychological Association.


So, picking on a, teenage girl, for advocating racial tolerance, and for acceptance of another person’s sexual identity would seem to be par for the course for Indiana (remember, the Hoosiers also spawned  former vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who couldn’t spell, in common with Donald Trump, who has been known to misspell his wife’s first name).


My home state, Missouri, in common with Indiana, is known for causing the pundits to race for their red paintbrushes when they describe our political orientation. Once, Missouri was reliably Democrat, but for far too long the stubbornness of the legendary Missouri mule has ruled the political landscape (occasionally veering into commonsense territory as it did when it elected Democrats Mel Carnahan, governor, and Claire McCaskill, as a senator). And I shouldn’t downgrade mules which have far more commonsense than most humans and, quite possibly, more intelligence than the average Trumpian.


But I confess to being more than a little uneasy when I wear my favorite T-shirt of the moment which has a caricature of Donald Trump enclosed by a circle and the slash mark indicating a forbidden action, like a highway sign, and the words “Resist Hate”. I’m too damn old, weak, and chicken to put up much of a fight if, in a public setting, some beefy redneck wearing a MAGA hat snarls “I don’t like your shirt and I’m gonna rip it offa you!”  I wear the shirt proudly in a local Mexican restaurant, theorizing that if any of the workers there happen to be undocumented they may very well approve of my choice of wearing apparel. As social protest goes, it ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got. (*See afterword)


Elsewhere, maybe I’d better wear my “Old Possum” T-shirt, a tribute to the eternally wonderful late honkytonk deity George Jones. My chest and back are equal opportunity body parts, open to varying points of view, although, I do reserve the right, to limit my haberdashery to causes that I believe in.


No matter what T-shirt I wear, or how weird it is, it won’t come close to matching the costume recently worn by Ivanka Trump on a visit to Bogota, Colombia, where she looked like a refugee from a 1950s sci-fi movie. The dress , which reportedly cost $1650, flared in the wind, giving the first daughter the appearance of something that just sailed in from Jurassic Park. By contrast, my most offensive to the Trump regime T-shirt cost less than $20 and “”Old Possum” was free, a gift from our daughter, Carrie, who has more fashion sense in her little finger, than the windblown human Barbie doll.


When I’m not wearing my “Resist Hate” T-shirt I wear another favorite which reads “There is no such thing as too many books.” My next favorite T-shirt buy will be from the same outfit with an illustration featuring what appears to be a hedgehog with an open book in his lap and an inscription reading “I read books— and I know things.” The animal could easily be a possum perhaps related to George Jones, or maybe a relative of Pogo Possum, the Walt Kelly cartoon character who famously said, “We have met the enemy—and he is us.”


Or maybe I’ll just order a brand-new Willie Nelson T-shirt with an illustration endorsing fealty to the smoking of processed hemp. But, although, I never would take up smoking anything again, including cannabis, I do endorse the growing of hemp as an alternative agricultural crop. It once was vital for the manufacture of rope, and currently is providing fibers to be processed into beautiful flooring that is stronger than oak. Thus, it saves valuable trees from destruction, provides the nation’s stressed farming community with an economic alternative to corn and beans and other monocultures, and, for all I know, can be used to manufacture Willie Nelson’s T-shirts as well as his reefers.


Stella! Stella! Are you listening? I’m wearing my blue suede shoes and don’t you dare step on them!


*Afterword: the Mexican restaurant is closed, probably forever. Did Trump’s immigration Gestapo round up the nice Latino family and send it to one of the Trump government’s concentration camps? I’ll probably never know, but we have lost a fine food destination, the local community has lost a small business and I’m just damn bitter about the whole thing.











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  • Blog
  • October 4th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


The book of Isaiah in the Old Testament has this quote according to the King James version of what allegedly was said hundreds of years before the king decided to make the Bible his own. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat,  and a little child shall lead them.” The Biblical prophecy is that if salvation for the world is to happen, sworn enemies will quit their traditional enmity and fall in behind the human symbol of innocence—a child. Or at least, that’s the way I read it.


If it is true that innocence will triumph over ignorance and evil in the long run 16-year-old Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg may very well be the beginning of the realization of Isaiah’s prophecy. She is a leader among a growing group of young people who are fed up with the way we alleged adults are leading the world into an environmental catastrophe. In a nutshell, Greta has told the leaders of the world in blunt terms that if they don’t address climate change immediately she and the generations following her will inherit unimaginable devastation.


In August, Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from England to New York in a 60 foot racing yacht equipped with solar panels. It was a one-way trip for the teenager and a co-skipper.  A sailing crew plans to fly to New York to sail the yacht back to Europe while her co-skipper also flies home. Greta, herself, has given up flying because of the carbon emissions that airplanes contribute to the overall detriment of the environment.


Her inspiration for school climate strikes came from teen survivors of the Parkland Florida high school shooting who organized what they called the March for our lives in support of sensible gun regulation in the United States. When her idea for a student climate strike was met by the apathy that seems to infect adults worldwide, she decided to do it by herself, sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with her sign “school strike for the climate”. She also handed out leaflets saying “I am doing this because you adults are sitting on my future.” That scatological insult was enough to get the attention, not only of adults, but of her fellow teenagers.


I can see a parallel between what this courageous Swedish teenager and an increasing number of fellow teens have done to similar acts of revolt and disobedience by young people in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War. Teenagers then burned draft cards and carried protest signs, and were dismissed by the establishment as long-haired hippies and anti-Americans. But they got results and Vietnam became a defeat for the military industrial complex, but a victory for morality and justice.


Since, the youth of America have become complacent, more interested in consumerism than in activism. It has been tough to get out the vote among young people, but just perhaps the example  one Swedish teenager has set will energize the typical American teenager of voting age to get off his or her lazy butt and go to the ballot box when the next election comes— an estimated 4 million teenagers will reach voting age before the 2020 election.


Greta has what’s called Asperger’s disorder which she describes as “a gift” rather than a disability. Asperger’s is considered a high functioning form of autism rather than a debilitating mental condition. Among the attributes that those with Asperger’s have are, according to what I’ve found about it, are remarkable focus and persistence, aptitude for recognizing patterns, and attention to detail.


If that doesn’t describe the remarkable personality of Greta Thunberg, I don’t know what does. Think of the focus and persistence required to have done what she has done. She is a teenager, a time of life when most youngsters are more focused on the boy of their dreams, the high school sports team, or other activities associated with becoming adults.


Greta has skipped that awkward time of life and has gone directly into adulthood— certainly more adult in behavior than virtually all the people in power whom she has encountered and challenged.


Cal Thomas, a syndicated right wing opinion writer, dismisses Ms. Thunberg ’s right to state her views in a column headlined “knowing at all at 16” in our local newspaper. “How much credibility should we give to a 16-year-old when considering her qualifications to lecture adults about science and an end of the world scenario?” snarled Thomas.


He goes on at length to dismiss her as an attention seeker, offering as his source of rebuttal the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank.  That group denies the reality of climate change, as do those who disagree with the bulk of scientific thinking— and of the views of a 16-year-old who can see the future more clearly than does Cal Thomas.  Thomas grumbled that Thunberg should be back in school. The fact is that at 15 years old, she took time off from school to spend her school days outside the Swedish Parliament holding up a sign saying “school strike for climate” that energized other students and which soon became a movement, lead and energized– by teenagers— since it was increasingly obvious that the adult world was content to pass along the climate crisis to generations yet to come.


Fox News, which always can be counted on to go low, in the words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low we go high” unleashed one of its right-wing attack dogs Michael Knowles to call the teenager “a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” Isn’t that a hateful comment by an adult against a child? And that’s nothing, compared to some of the Facebook comments by extremist right-wingers who (speaking of mentally ill) have exposed themselves as the human scum they are.  Fox News did apologize for Knowles’ toxic rant, saying it was disgraceful.  “We apologize to Greta Thunberg and to our viewers.” But I haven’t seen any apologies by the Facebook hatemongers.


If Fox News wants to disparage someone who is mentally ill, let them start with the President of the United States who exhibits so many facets of abnormal mental behavior that a rational person (assuming there is anyone rational among the commentators at the Fox network) would have to assume that the guy is as crazy as the proverbial shit house rat.


Greta Thunberg is bilingual, fluent in English as well as Swedish, and certainly more articulate in either language than the ignorant hatemongers who have posted invective on Facebook against her.  It’s worth reading what she said at the United Nations to the assembled world leaders all of whom presumably are the wise heads of the planet. Given the choice, I would opt for her wise head in preference to the majority of those old and entrenched thinkers.


Said Greta: “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams in my childhood with your empty words.” An alert photographer captured the quintessential “one picture is worth 1000 words,” an image of Greta fixing an oblivious Donald Trump at the United Nations with a look that should have transformed the fat climate denier into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, another Biblical malefactor.


Greta Thunberg is the daughter of an opera singer and an actor.  Her paternal grandfather is both an actor and a director. Her parents support her activism and her father is quoted as saying, “We respect that she wants to make a stand. She can either sit at home and be really unhappy, or protest and be happy.” Greta has published a collection of her speeches on the climate problem and has donated the profits to charity


No one, including those who believe in climate change as it currently is affecting the world, would argue that climate change has not occurred before, since the Earth formed. The Ice Age obviously was a major change in much of the Earth’s climate. And where jungles once flourished, climate change extinguished vegetation to create what today are deserts. If you believe the Bible, Noah and a bunch of animals, built a boat to escape the ravages of a titanic flood, one of the possible results of the climate change that today threatens the future of the planet.


But all of history’s climate changes occurred when there weren’t billions of people exhaling carbon dioxide, billions of motorized vehicles exhausting greenhouse gases, long before rapacious developers stripped millions of acres of rain forest and other leafy vegetation, allowing bare land to heat and contribute to global warming, long before billions of farm raised animals likewise began contributing substantially to the overall effect. All these factors did not exist before man crawled out of the ooze and bought his first SUV.


Even someone allegedly as educated and intelligent as Cal Thomas should be able to weigh all the factors of modern life that contribute to the undeniable evidence that the planet is warming and, instead of dismissing Greta Thunberg as a dumb teenager, should sign on to her agenda and lobby for solutions.  This petite teenager has managed to mobilize an estimated 4 million of her peers worldwide in marches calling for action to reduce carbon emissions far sooner than the adults of the world seem willing to consider.


Being of Irish origin, I was pleased to read an editorial in the Irish Times that that told it like it is. Writer Jo Connell said, “when democracy is under assault, she hints at the emergence of a new kind of power, a convergence of youth, popular protest and irrefutable science.” Estimates are that at least 4 million people worldwide took part in September 27 protests demanding action on climate change. Mayor Bill DiBlasio, of New York City, excused 1.1 million students from class to participate and an estimated quarter of 1 million of them did. Greta Thunberg was among them. “This is the biggest climate strike ever in history and we all should be so proud of ourselves because we have done this together.”


In Berlin an estimated 270,000 people participated and another hundred thousand in London. The first climate strike in March drew an estimated 100,000 people in the United States and 1.4 million people worldwide. Obviously, the word is out and if crowd size is applicable, the climate change deniers are seriously outnumbered.


“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am I do not want to believe that,  because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe,” Greta said in her UN speech.


I’ve rarely if ever heard a comment with more grace and perspicacity about a situation that threatens, not only the person making the statement, but humanity in general. One person can’t change the world— but one person can mobilize the world to change. If humanity is lucky, that person will be the right one at the right time.


If the climate deniers need any examples that one person can change the world, they exist throughout history. Check the history books (and don’t forget the Bible). Maybe, just maybe, a petite Swedish teenager is the latest addition to the roster of those heroes who fight against the truism once articulated by Pogo Possum, “We have met the enemy…. And he is us.




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  • Blog
  • September 27th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


When I was five or six years old, living in Chicago, my parents took me to the WLS Barn Dance downtown. My father socialized with a member of the Barn Dance orchestra and got tickets. It was my first experience with country music, although the Barn Dance was an eclectic mixture of all kinds of music. The Grand Ole Opry generally is thought of as the Citadel of country music, but the WLS Barn Dance truly deserves that honor (WLS stands for World’s Largest Store— the station was owned by Sears and Roebuck).

The Barn Dance debuted in April, 1924, and ran until 1968. Among its stars were Gene Autry and Red Foley (who would go on to become one of the stars of the Grand Ole Opry) I don’t remember who was on stage the night I saw the Barn Dance, but probably Arky,the Arkansas Wood Chopper, Lulu Belle and Scotty and maybe Rex Allen, a singing cowboy, who would become the narrator for Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic nature documentaries.


Ironically, George Hay, the announcer on the Barn Dance, later moved to Nashville’s powerful radio station WSM, where he drew on his experience with the Chicago down-home music show to originate what he named the Grand Ole Opry. He claimed to have originated the Barn Dance, but he didn’t and apparently used his experience there to help him get a job with WSM.


So the Barn Dance, sadly, vanished , overtaken by whatever social changes have made its type of entertainment obsolete. The Opry came pretty close to suffering the same fate in the 1950s when rock ‘n roll rolled over popular music tastes. Rockers, in combination with faux folk singers like the Kingston Trio almost doomed the music that I had grown to cherish.


Documentary film guru Ken Burns has compressed a century of country music into 16 hours of television. I watched all eight episodes, 16 hours carrying country music from about 1920 into the 1980s. I suspected that, although I was thoroughly engrossed by and, thrilled by what I saw, I would abandon Mr. Burns’ examination of country music at about the same time period I did country music in general.


When Garth Brooks and his ilk ushered in the smarmy goop that today passes for “country” music, I retreated to my Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family recordings, punctuated by occasional detours into the more modern realm of St. Willie and a few of his fellow followers of real country (i.e. Waylon, JR Cash, Merle, and the Old Possum). In fact, I am wearing an old Possum T-shirt at present, a tribute to (in case you didn’t know) Mr. George Jones.


As an aside why, can’t anyone learn how to spell Jimmie Rodgers name? It even appears on a poster in the documentary as “Jimmy Rogers.” I was a teenager, crouched in front of the old Zenith upright radio, listening to the Ernest Tubb record shop broadcast past midnight on a Saturday in Dalton, Missouri when I heard the Texas Troubadour introduce a recording by his hero Jimmie Rodgers titled “Away Out on the Mountain,” an optimistic song about someone heading for the great beyond where things were bound to be better than where he was.


About three minutes later, I was hooked for life on the songs of Mr. Rodgers and have been ever since. I was born a year after Jimmie Rodgers departed life, having failed to— as he bragged he would in a song— whip that old TB. By that night in the 1950s I had become a devotee of country music and was eagerly seeking out records by the senior Hank Williams (whose turbulent career was just as short as that of Jimmie Rodgers.


The records of Ernest Tubb, Elton Britt, and Roy Acuff were omnipresent on the jukeboxes of the 1940s when we visited my mother’s birthplace in the tiny resort town of Birchwood, in northwest Wisconsin. The music of those good old boys echoed from the jukebox in Hud’s Bluegill Bar where my cousins and I lingered while the aunts and uncles drank Bruenig’s lager beer and talked about the war. The Japanese during suicide attacks in the Pacific were reputed to shout “the hell with Roy Acuff!” to rally their troops.


Years later, I would stop in Meridian Mississippi, Jimmie Rodgers’ hometown, where there is a modest museum in a city park, an old railroad car converted into a shrine for The Singing Brakeman. One of his Martin guitars is in a display case, though not the one with his name inlaid in pearl on the fingerboard. After a couple hours in the museum, I traveled out to the simple country graveyard where he, his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Anita are buried side-by-side. There was no one in the sunlit graveyard so much like the Asbury Church graveyard where my ancestors are buried, and I stood before my idol’s grave saw that some pilgrim like me had left a guitar pick on the gravestone and I kicked myself for not having thought of a similar gesture since the chances were slim that I ever would pass that way again.


I haven’t made a similar pilgrimage to Hank Williams’ final resting spot but I did work with Ed Mohr at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Hank’s hometown, for more than a year. Ed had been a radio announcer on a local station earlier in his career and had hosted an early morning show, featuring the usual format of many stations of the day— news, interspersed with livestock reports, and live entertainment from country music hopefuls. One of those unknowns was Hank Williams who would sometimes show up for his predawn appearance drunk from the night before or, as also happened, not show up at all. That left Ed, a refined and erudite fan of grand opera (with no Ole in the middle) with many minutes to fill ad lib.  He hated Hank Williams.


Nor have I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, the resting spot of Elvis in Memphis but I confess I have profited in a minor way from his meteoric and enduring fame— while I worked in Montgomery I haunted a record shop, featuring used discs from local jukeboxes. I bought a copy of Elvis’s first recording “That’s All Right Mama” backed with a hopped up version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for a few cents. Someone had mistakenly pasted the same label on both sides of the record and had written in pen the correct title (maybe Sam Phillips himself?). Several years later, I sold that 78 RPM record to a collector for $350. No telling what it would be worth today— like Elvis himself, it no doubt has appreciated in value better than most stocks.


The Ken Burns documentary has had the good sense to recruit three articulate and history minded spokesmen to comment on the early years of country music since those who could have related history firsthand virtually all have died. Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Ricky Skaggs all three grew up in the tradition of what I consider real country music, and are delightful commentators on the way it was. Willie Nelson pops up occasionally, looking older than dirt which he is, a last dinosaur from the glory days of country. Several of the commentators have died between the making of the documentary and its airing— Merle Haggard is a notable example as are Mel Tillis, Roy Clark and Larry Gatlin.


It’s not fair of me to categorize all today’s country music as Garth Brooks oatmeal. There have been wonderful singers scattered throughout the genre’s history from the Carter family to right now, but the fact is that all too much of today’s country music has an insipid sameness devoid of inspiration, overproduced, and so far from country music as I define it that it might as well be played in elevators or while you’re waiting on the phone to talk to someone in India who can tell you, incomprehensibly, how to fix a problem on your computer.


Trying to capture country music in 16 hours or 6000 hours is like the blind men trying to describe an elephant after feeling it with their hands. Today’s young fans think of country music as what they see on the CMA awards show which to me is like watching a Las Vegas casino extravaganza with show girls and Wayne Newton warbling and equating it with Pavarotti at the Met, singing the lead role in Aida.


Is folk music considered country music? All country music derives from it. The original Carter family, true children of the backwoods and hollers, obviously were folk and just as obviously laid the foundation for everything that came to be called country music. But Doc Watson who was to flat pick guitar what Earl Scruggs was to the five string banjo, was every bit as “folk” as the Carters. Woody Guthrie practically defined the itinerant songster and was an inspiration for an army of devoted Guthrie groupies, including Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. What about rockabilly, that crossbreeding of rock ‘n roll and country? Jerry Lee Lewis, the last dinosaur among country rockers, got no mention from Burns, only appearing in a photo of him, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, the million-dollar quartet of Sun records. He is the last survivor of that historic quartet of superstars.  They don’t get more country than Jayree Lee.


There is irony in the fact that Chet Atkins, a performer so beloved by me that we named our first dog Chet also is one of the people most responsible for transforming traditional country music from country to whatever claptrap it is today. And it’s not as if Chet didn’t know what real country was— he was recruited as a young and almost unknown guitar picker by Mother Maybelle Carter to join her and her three daughters on their touring roadshow. When the Grand Ole Opry in turn, recruited the Carters but said they’d have to leave the guitar player behind, Mother Maybelle told them “no Chet, no us.”


The Opry backed down, Chet Atkins joined the cast, became a Nashville fixture, and later became heavily responsible for creating what came to be known as the Nashville Sound— which is what we have today– horns and violins rather than fiddles, syrupy backup singers, overproduction and a bland sameness with all the character of overcooked Quaker Oats.


However, just as I would be about to abandon the documentary as having progressed beyond my musical tastes, it would dive into another segment of musical history that can’t be ignored. Even as Chet Atkins and the Bradley brothers were transforming country music into the Nashville Sound, that same transformation included Patsy Cline who, along with Anita Carter (with her deep country roots), was an authentic country girl.  Both had angelic voices that melted the boundaries between hillbilly and Music Row.


Burns deserves enormous credit for documenting the rise of women as superstars in what had been a male-dominated music genre. Patsy Cline was among the first women to adopt an in-your-face, take no prisoners persona, followed by her protégé Loretta Lynn (I have seen “Coal Miner’s Daughter” where Sissy Spacek spookily channels Ms. Lynn numerous times and will again the next time it airs). There is a telling scene captured by Burns when Porter Wagoner pushes Dolly Parton off-camera so he can hog the mic and it’s too bad the fabulous and feisty Dolly didn’t grab the mic and cram it down his throat.


There haven’t been enough tragic deaths to end each segment of the documentary with a defining country artist’s final act, but Burns made use of existing ones to wind up at least three of the segments— Jimmie Rodgers funeral train winding the long way back to Meridian, Mississippi, to end segment one, the drug and alcohol addled end of Hank Williams in another segment, and the fiery plane crash that killed Patsy Cline to end a third. There is no mention of the ironic death of Opry star Dottie West who offered Cline a ride in her car back to Nashville instead of Cline flying in the fatal plane, only to die herself in a car wreck years later, at the entrance to Opryland, the glitzy substitute for the historical Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Opry for so many years.


Not present in the documentary is a film clip from years ago featuring Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris clog dancing together, a magic marriage of the old and the new—perhaps the best single example of how country music can retain its historic identity, despite its evolution from the hills and hollers to the streets and skyscrapers. They can take the bodies from the Ryman to the roller coasters of Opryland, but they can’t totally kill the spirit of the music itself.


Just when  I was ready to dump the Ken Burns documentary for dwelling on Nashville Sound junk music, Burns shoved my musical nose in Kris Kristoferson, the chaotic romance of Old Possum and Tammy, Dylan and Johnny Cash together and an extensive look back at the smooth faced Willie Nelson, along with the manic pill fueled craziness of Roger Miller.  So Ken Burns’ documentary pulled me along through the years allowing me to fleetingly experience the lives of entertainers I have cherished for decades, waiting for the moment when, disgusted at the sloppy syrup of today’s country music, I would be forced to abandon it.


I decided I would watch until Burns trotted out the pudgy little guy from Oklahoma who, sadly, is today’s symbol of what country music has become to me. But if the Nashville Sound erodes what few brain cells I have left, I have an extensive Carter Family record collection and can always switch off the television set and listen to “Keep on the Sunny Side”. That attitude, worked for the Carters during the dark days of the Depression and maybe it will for me.

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  • Blog
  • September 21st, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


Our retired English teacher daughter recently found a whoopie cushion in a junk shop and joyfully brought it home. You kids might want to think about that when your grumpy old high school teacher gives you an unwelcome and unexpected assignment. Teachers are human beings. The same is true of retired writers. The teachers bring home whoopie cushions and the writers write about them—or at least what the sounds they make represent.

It’s rare when I can read something I wrote years before and say to myself, “I wish I’d written that— wait! I did write that.” The following was posted eight years ago. I hope to make my blogs educational as well as entertaining, and I’m reposting this one in the interest of adult education. Hey, I’ll confess— I laughed out loud at my own stuff. Either this means that it was pretty good or that I’m losing it. Whatever, enjoy it and if there are one or two new readers who have arrived at this website since 2011, it’s for you and, okay, for me. Pass it along to your friends who have airy ambitions. You might want to listen to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” while you’re reading.


“The dog did it!”

“Har de har har har!”

Flatulence is a laughing matter, save perhaps if one occurs noisily during a reverent quiet moment during a royal wedding ceremony.  There are low humor books dedicated to the release of rectal gas.  Google “farts” and you will find more methane media than you ever would have dreamed exists.


The fart is omnipresent.  We all do it and perhaps it would help the timorous to imagine Henry Kissinger cutting a chainsaw-loud blue darter.  How about the Pope, overdosed on Communion wafers?


On the other hand, farting is gross.  Consider the source.  Some things you just don’t talk about.  “Fart,” after all, is a four-letter word.  According to Wikipedia, the know-all web encyclopedia, “The immediate roots are in the Middle English words ferten, feortan or farten; which is akin to the Old High German word ferzan. Cognates are found in old Norse, Slavic and also Greek and Sanskrit.”


Not only does the word have a long history; it resounds in literature as well.  Everyone who has been assigned “The Canterbury Tales” in high school English (at least the guys) inevitably zeroes in on “The Miller’s Tale” which involves a particularly gross story of butt-kissing and fart-in-the-face low humor.  So who would say that England’s literary reputation began with Shakespeare?


The Bard was not averse to fart jokes either–“A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind” from “A Comedy of Errors.”  One of the stories from “The Arabian Nights” also concerns farts.


Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most astonishingly complete of our founding fathers, sought a way to perfume gastric effusions so that even if a person couldn’t muffle the sound, he or she could make the incident as pleasant as possible.


His lovely essay on butt blossoms is preserved in a book “Fart Proudly” and the fact that his essay on farting still is in print after 200 years is comforting.  See if Harry Potter can last that long (maybe if there is a sequel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Fart).


You can order bumper stickers saying “Bean Powered” or “Methane-Endowed and Proud” And Europeans say Yanks lack sophistication.  What could be more elegant than a wet T-shirt contest where all the dripping mammaries bear a “Club Methane” inscription?


Lighting farts is a time-honored form of low humor, equivalent to, but not as well- accepted, as a cream pie in the face.  Only once have I seen it and it was a moving experience.  I moved quickly to escape the blue flame.  A fellow dorm rat in college demonstrated.  He had the apparent intellectual capacity of Neanderthal Man and thought lighting a fart with a match was thigh-slapping funny.  Actually it was. He bent over and jetted his methane effusion into the flame of a match.  A blue streak shot a few inches off his butt and we leaped back, startled.  His fuzzy wool pants smoked for an instant.


I remember few things from my formative years.  Death, birth and other traumatic events remain in my mind…but so does that blue flame and I’m not sure whether it is a measure of the drama of fart-lighting or of my intellectual appreciation.


If you’re of a mind to find out all there is to know re gaseous gaffes, just Google “farts” and you will be inundated with enough information to make you persona non grata at every party where you trot out your awesome knowledge.  Better to keep it silent but deadly.

However, a few salient points:

  1. Men fart more than women (a dozen times a day on average, compared to a dainty seven for the ladies), possibly because men eat more fart-worthy foods.
  2. Everyone knows that a high-fiber diet is good for you. Also good for your fartability. Some avid consumers of fiber topped 30 FPD (farts per day).
  3. Cauliflower, eggs and meat all contain enough sulphur to stink up your farts, but beans which are notorious for producing butt blasts, have little sulphur and are not as apt to stink up the place.
  4. There are many, many more fart facts and, in fact, the most fascinating web site is Facts on Farts. You’ll find far more than you really wanted to know.


Mel Brooks, who is no stranger to low humor, celebrated the fart in a memorable scene from “Blazing Saddles” where a bunch of cowboys eat beans and sit around a campfire trading noisy farts.  There also is an equally memorable scene from a “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer is driving a Central Park carriage after having fed his horse a can of Beef-a-Reeno.  You don’t hear the horse farting, but the effect on Kramer and the couple he’s chauffeuring is hilarious.  George Carlin commented on the various farts, including the SBD (silent but deadly).


Carlin commented on every known humor foible, but none so risible as his riff on farting. He mentioned the Fizz, the Fazz, the Fizz-Fazz, the Snorter and the one that goes Whoosh!


History celebrates those who transcend their fellows with special accomplishment and none ever has approached the accomplishment of Josef Pujol, a Frenchman who turned his ability to fart not only on demand, but to create music with it (them) into a career.  He apparently had a limited range of four notes: do, mi, sol and do, but could do a visceral version of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise.  Born in 1857, he started his show business career in 1887 and began performing at the famous Parisian café the Moulin Rouge in 1892.


He performed other musical gymnastics such as inserting a tube in his anus so he could direct his farts through musical instruments.  At his peak he earned more money than Sarah Bernhardt, the most celebrated actress of the day (but one who, as far as anyone knows, never farted accidentally in public).


Pujol lived until 1945 which indicates a possible health benefit in letting it all hang out, so to speak.  As far as is known, he was no relation to Albert Pujols, the baseball star.  Pujol’s real-life career inevitably recalls the quintessential fart joke which concerns the farteur who appears in a booking agent’s office and claims to be able to fart the “Star Spangled Banner.”  He demonstrates and it is a glorious experience (with the windows open).  The booking agent lands a Carnegie Hall concert at which New York’s elite appear.  The hall is crammed.  The audience hushes, the star appears to thunderous applause, drops his pants…and dumps on the stage.  The outraged agent drops the curtain and screams at his client, “What the hell is wrong with you!”

“Well, geez,” says the farteur.  “Can’t a guy clear his throat?”


With that gross joke, it’s time to close the sphincter, so to speak, on this look at a universal but seldom examined facet of human behavior.  Next time you feel the urge in a grocery store, sneak around to a deserted aisle, and let it rip….and then turn around to see the Girl/Boy of Your Dreams standing there with an expression of horrified disgust, explain that, hey, the President does it, the Pope does it and so did Elvis.

Don’t count on it making a difference, though.


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