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  • March 15th, 2019

CRUNCHING THE SWEET GRASS

By Joel M. Vance

          Is it singular ….or are they plural? 

            Doesn’t matter—just say, “I love molasses.  They’re good.  Er, it’s good.  Never mind, just pass ‘er here!”

 

            There are few kitchens left where molasses reside(s), fewer still where the country sweetener was home processed.  The first time I saw molasses being made was more than 40 years ago.  It was a steaming day in September and an antique molasses mill shuddered and groaned as it pressed the sap out of sorghum stalks.  A haze of insects hovered over the sap vat, occasionally falling into it to drown in bliss.

 

            Yes, your grandma’s molasses likely was part insect.  Yellowjackets were especially fond of the saccharine sap and often committed insectival suicide, doing a one and a half gainer into the burbling syrup.

 

            Technically sorghum is not molasses which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets…but trying convincing the farmer who has been making “sorghum molasses” just like his daddy and grandfather did.  Sweet sorghum is an introduced grass, brought here from Africa to extend sugar production farther north than sugar cane which grows only in warm climates.

 

            But the chemistry of sweet sorghum is such that it doesn’t crystallize into sugar so the sap from the stalks becomes a viscous syrup—sorghum molasses or, as Missourians are wont to say “’lasses.”  Making molasses has many similarities to making maple syrup.  First you start with a thin sap and you boil that until it reaches syrup consistency.

 

            Traditionally you’d pour sorghum syrup over fresh, hot cornbread or scratch biscuits (“scratch” biscuits are from raw materials and the term comes from historic boxing where a scratched line denoted the starting position at the beginning of a bout).  Sorghum-drizzled biscuits on a frosty November morning, coupled with country-cured ham and eggs still warm from a hen’s bosom is a country dish hard to beat. 

 

BASIL, BELL PEPPER AND JACK CHEESE CORNBREAD

            This comes from my friend Jim Low who loves to cook in a Dutch oven, another old-timey culinary exercise. 

Ingredients:

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped fresh basil (optional)

1¾ cups cornmeal

3 eggs

1¼ cups flour                                                 

1 tablespoon sugar

2 ounces diced red bell pepper                                  

1 tablespoon baking powder

1½ cups grated pepper jack cheese                            

 ½ teaspoon baking soda

1⅓ cups canned or frozen corn, drained                                

1½ teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, chilled and cubed                  

1½ cups buttermilk

1 pound bacon, fried & crumbled

 

Preparation:

            Melt one tablespoon butter and sauté onions until tender.  Set aside to cool.  In a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Add seven tablespoons of butter and rub into the flour/meal mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal.  In a small bowl, whisk milk and eggs together.  Add to dry ingredients and stir until blended.  Fold in cheese, corn, peppers, basil, bacon and onion.  Transfer to Dutch oven.  Bake in a 12-inch Dutch oven at 400° for 45 minutes. 

            The “Three Up / Three Down = 325 Degrees” Rule: For a 10” Dutch oven, you’d have 13 coals on top and 7 underneath. Some cooks prefer “two up / two down,” or 12 on top and 8 below. A good rule of thumb for the total number of coals or briquettes is to double the number of the oven size and then use the “three up / three down” principle.

            Oven Size Number of Coals

 

10”                12 – 13 on top with  8 -7 under

12”                14 – 15 on top with  10 –   9 under

14”           16 – 17 on top with  12 – 11 under

 

 

           Two briquettes provide 25 degrees of heat; add briquettes on top or bottom to adjust heat.  To estimate the temperature of your Dutch oven, use your open palm near the oven counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, ….” (a count of: 6 – 8 seconds = 250 – 300 degrees, a “slow” oven; 4 – 6 seconds = 350 – 375 degrees, a “moderate” oven; 2 – 3 seconds = 400+ degrees, a “quick” or “sharp” oven.  For baking bread, rolls, cakes, etc., use the “two-thirds” method. That is, work with heat on top and bottom for two-thirds of the cooking time, the remainder of the time with heat only on top to finish baking.

           Preheating the oven for 10 minutes with the lid on will help prevent sticking.

 

Charcoal Placement

 

            Under the oven, space the coals evenly around the outer edge of the

oven with only one or two coals in the center.  On the lid, again, space

the coals evenly around the

outer edge with a couple of coals on each side of the handle. 

 

            Another country dish, especially during World War Two when sugar was rationed, is moonshine—white lightnin’ to George Jones fans. I don’t have a recipe for that, but once did smell a jar of white lightnin’ offered as evidence in a trial I was covering for the Montgomery, Alabama, Journal and the smell alone nearly knocked me on my butt. I don’t know if the active ingredient was sorghum or not but neither the judge nor I was inclined to find out. As a matter of fact he told the defendant, “The worst punishment I could think of would be to make you drink it.”

 

            Related to milo, a more familiar Missouri crop, sweet sorghum is one of two varieties raised in the Show-Me State: sweet and grain.  Audrain County where I used to work is the state’s top producer of grain sorghum with 1.3 million pounds in 2007, well ahead of second place New Madrid in the Bootheel.  Other producers are scattered all over the state: Livingston, Mississippi, Callaway, Boone, Jasper, Shelby, Pemiscot and Monroe.

 

            In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri ranked seventh nationally in grain sorghum production, behind No. 1 Kansas (twice as much as second place Texas), Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma.  Those states produce virtually all the sorghum raised in the country.

 

          But those figures are for what you feed to cows, not hungry families.  Sweet sorghum is the source of syrup and also, if researchers at the University of Missouri have their way, a source of biofuel.  The drawback is the tall grass’s intolerance for cold weather.  Gene Stevens, an agronomist with the University Extension Service in Portageville, says, “It can yield as much ethanol as corn with less nitrogen and water; returns nutrients to the soil; and uses less energy in the ethanol production process.”

 

          The problem with sweet sorghum for biofuel is mechanical—equipment to harvest and process the stalks efficiently.  “The infrastructure for corn already is in place,” Stevens says.  Sweet sorghum has about four times the energy yield of an equivalent amount of corn, the current sweetheart plant of the ethanol industry.  It produces about eight units of energy for each unit used to produce it—in other words, a very energy-efficient source of fuel. 

 

          The current drawback, of course, is that there’s a whole lot more corn than there is sweet sorghum—that and the fact that corn has a much wider range than does sorghum.  Unless machinery can be invented or developed to do to sorghum what a cornpicker does to corn, the dream of a sorghum-fueled car may not pay off.  Just have to keep eating sorghum ‘lasses instead…..

 

          Today few farmers still mill and bottle their own sorghum ‘lasses, but one communal farm in northeast Missouri has thrived on it as a cash crop.  Sandhill Farm describes itself as “an egalitarian intentional community.”  It has been in existence since 1974 and is a remnant of hippie counterculture. The farm’s web site sandhillfarm.org has photos and information about the plant and syrup making process, as well as the other products raised and offered by the commune.

 

          A quart of sorghum went for $11 when it was available, making the 800-gallon/year crop worth more than $35,000.  It has been Sandhill Farms biggest single income source but currently it is\are unavailable through at least 2019.  Completely organic, Sandhill Farm sorghum avoided whatever perils lurk within processed sugar and had been widely available in Missouri supermarkets. The gathering and processing had become a social event (as traditional sorghum millings were), with friends and neighbors gathering to help out.

 

          Sorghum processing is labor-intensive.  The stalks in the field have to be beheaded and stripped of leaves.  Then they’re cut with a machete (what oldtimers call a corn knife) and left to cure in the field—the starches in the stalk convert to sugar over several days of curing. The cured stalks go through a mill or press which squeezes the juice into a vat which then is cooked down to syrup consistency, bottled and sold or used at the Farm. 

 

            Sorghum is African in origin, considered one of the top five cereal grains in the world, along with wheat,  It came to this country via slaves in the early 1600s and has been a source of country sweetener since the mid-1800s. Sweet sorghum is hardy and grows in environments hostile to other row crops especially hot and dry areas. The ability to endure harsh conditions makes it far more viable as a source of biofuel than corn— anyone who has driven by a cornfield in fierce summer weather and seen the plants spikey and burned brown by the harsh sun knows what drought can do to corn crop.  Sweet sorghum also needs less water than corn and less fertilizer.

 

          Sweet sorghum and grain sorghum are two different crops. Grain sorghum, far more common, is grown on an estimated 100 million acres worldwide.  Many confuse molasses from sweet sorghum with the molasses made from sugar cane an entirely different sweet syrup.  Sugar cane goes through three boilings to arrive at what is known as blackstrap molasses which is considered a health food. And while it may be good for you, blackstrap molasses is a far cry from the more agreeable flavor of sweet sorghum molasses.

 

            At its peak early in the last century the country produced 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup annually, but now the figure is a million gallons, most in southern states—Missouri is not among the eight leaders, although Iowa is.  Texas and Florida are warm enough that farmers can raise two crops a year and sweet sorghum is such an agreeable crop that the first crop actually seeds the second, a self renewal almost unique in today’s intensive agriculture.

 

          Having said all this about sorghum lasses, I have to confess that I don’t much like it (them) and when it comes time to decorate a biscuit, whether made from scratch or from a can that you bang on the edge of a counter until it explodes, I use honey. Honey has medicinal uses also. I recall from my croupy days as a sickly little kid my mother mixing honey with a little bourbon whiskey as a throat soother.

 

         It may have been a folk remedy, not endorsed by the American Medical Association, but I no longer suffer from croup.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 8th, 2019

HUNTING FOR YESTERDAY

 

 By Joel M. Vance

7

                It was the noon break from an unsuccessful pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on a camp stove.

 

                This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cutbanks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of my tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.

 

                Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.

 

                I used my spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a Tyrannosaurus relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.

 

                And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.

 

                A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a watermelon.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps rifle bullet or possibly even earlier to a Sioux hunter’s arrow.

 

                Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, it was the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871. 

 

                But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear the path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.  A stampeding herd of bison would instantly reduce a new barbed wire fence to a rancher’s bad dream.

 

                By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow and arrow or perhaps from a single shot trade musket.  At least in that case it would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of a European interloper who left it to rot.

 

                But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.

 

                As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.

 

                No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.

 

                Charlie held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  The artist in Charlie appreciated props (he once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.

 

                I mostly forgot about the skull, back in the reality of work and far from the gully  where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me a watercolor painting.  The painting is of our skull in a snowdrift with a sprig of dormant prairie grass poking through an eye socket.  Cold weather seemed to trigger the artistic impulse in Charlie. After another snowstorm he came in the office with a chalk drawing of a woolly mammoth which he had captioned “the new Ice Age dawns”.

 

                The framed bison painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.  The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”

 

                Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  From millions, market hunters and thrill shooters nearly wiped them out.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.

 

                For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as the thrill shooters of the bison.  Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that pioneers slaughtered in numbers to rival the tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.

 

                Now there are 18 states with declining populations of greater prairie chickens, but Kansas is tops among six states with a population sizable enough to be hunted.   I hunted prairie chickens for more than 20 years, off and on, until I finally killed one in north-central Kansas.  It smacked of shooting one of the last bison and having done it, I’ll stick to hunting pheasants from here on out.

 

               As a sporting outing, it was far from other prairie hunts I’ve taken where bagging a bird involved walking endless miles. It was more in the spirit of European driven pheasant shoots where gunners are stationed comfortably armed while beaters flush birds—normally pheasants— over them and they take passing shots. That’s basically what I was doing, minus the beaters and an obliging servant to load my gun for me. I stood beside a telephone pole waiting for an influx of prairie chickens coming to feed near dusk. They sailed over the distant swales, visible hundreds of yards away, heading for the field where I lurked.

 

                  Prairie chickens fly far swifter than they appear to be doing. I missed several shots before I finally connected and watched with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness as the bird catapulted into the crop stubble 30 yards from me. I picked it up, smoothed its feathers, and realized that my decades long  quest was ended. Even though it was a trophy long sought after, I gave no consideration to having it mounted because to me a mounted bird no matter how dramatic the acquisition is no more than an artificial representation of the real thing and no more than something else to collect dust. Better to admire my memories than some stuffed creature.

 

                Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves.  Once Kansas entered into the pheasant war, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks just below South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.

 

                 Bison did not become extinct and exist today in carefully managed herds, but no longer do they roam freely across the diminishing stretches of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie. The estimate is there are some half-million bison in North America, up from a low of an estimated 1000 animals in the late 1800s. That is less than one percent of the population that existed when the first wagon trains rumbled across the Western states.

 

                I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.

 

                And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull

 

                It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.

-30-

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 1st, 2019

no fish were harmed in the writing of this blog

By Joel M. Vance

 

The great movie “A River Runs Through It” was on television the other night and, as usual, I had to watch it. But, as usual, I waited for the closing credits in order to yell at the television set when the disclaimer at the very end popped onto the screen “No fish were harmed or killed in the making of this movie.”

 

“What’s the matter with you people!” I screamed, amid a flurry of epithets. “What if Jesus, instead of feeding the multitude with the loaves and fishes, had caught and released the fish, leaving only loaves?” According to Matthew in the Bible Jesus fed a multitude of 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Ignoring the fact that they must’ve been awfully big fish, Jesus also said and according also to Matthew, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

 

Today, the politically correct mantra—not according to either Jesus or Matthew— is “catch and release”. It’s considered the sporting thing to do. And even if the honorably stupid disclaimer in “A River” were not enough, the producers felt obligated to add that Norman MacLean, the author of the book from which the movie was made, and his family ate the fish they caught, but that today’s fly fisherman release the fish they hook and land.

 

As I was simmering down from my outrage at the movie’s disclaimer, I remembered the words of Norm Strung, my late friend, mentor, and hero who lived on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, a trout stream outside Bozeman, Montana. Norm once invited me to fish in his little stream for brook trout. I said something about whether I should release the fish I caught and Norm said, “keep ‘em. We eat ‘em.” And keep them I did, and we ate them. They were delicious.

 

I have nothing against the concept of catch and release, except when it is carried to the extreme. We are predator animals and fish are prey. Fish constitute the healthiest wild food available to us predators and there is nothing more agreeable to the human digestive system than a fish diet. Ignore for a moment, the reality that all too often fish are contaminated by human waste product and therefore are not as healthy as fish that have not been poisoned by mercury, pollution or any of the myriad contaminants with which we have adulterated the natural world.

 

Understand, I have no quarrel with the concept of catch and release. There are circumstances under which not keeping fish to eat is admirable and necessary. If a fish population is imperiled there is an obvious need to conserve. Years ago, my wife, Marty, and I rafted the Grand Canyon and fished along the way. Somebody hooked a humpback chub on a fly. It’s an endangered species, not really an edible fish anyway, and we immediately released it. But a teenager on the trip caught a large rainbow trout and Norm Strung (the very same eat ‘em Strung) baked the fish at our gravel bar campsite that night and we all shared in eating it and no one gave passing thought to the idea that the proud kid should have released the fish. It was delicious.

 

For me the highlight of the “River runs” movie was near the end when the Brad Pitt character is fly fishing, hooks a mammoth rainbow trout, manages to hang onto it as he is washed through a series of rapids, and returns triumphantly holding it up, to show his father and brother. The balletic symmetry of the fly line as he lays out a long cast is beauty to behold. It even was the illustration for the movie’s promotional posters.

 

But Brad Pitt had nothing to do with that memorable cast. It was dubbed in by Jason Borger, the son of famed fly angler Gary Borger. Brad Pitt may be able to charm the ladies, but Jason Borger charms the fish. Anyway, I have been a fly fisherman since my teenage years when my father, for some reason, (a lifelong angler, he tended toward casting reels armed with 20 pound test braided line) acquired a Shakespeare fiberglass fly rod and a desire to learn how to use it.

 

Fiberglass long since has been supplanted by carbon fibers and other exotic materials far superior to fragile fiberglass. Traditionally, anglers used split bamboo rods that today cost more than the national debt and now are far more suited to museums than they are to rough handling on blue ribbon trout streams. You are most likely to see an angler armed with a bamboo fly rod gently releasing the fish he hooks and also using barbless hooks to boot.

 

I learned to fly fish after a fashion, using that fiberglass pole that had all the resiliency of a reinforcing rod. Let’s say that over the years more than 90% of the fish I have caught have been bluegills or other sunfish or occasionally largemouth bass. That is my father’s legacy. There is a photo of him on the shore of the Macon Lake with his fiberglass rod pitching a popping bug to the edge of the shoreline weed bed. He was fishing for bluegills. I came to trout late in life and with better equipment but bluegills remain my favorite fish, both on the end of a fly leader and sizzling in a frying pan.

 

It’s not difficult for me to catch and release trout because I’m not overly fond of them for eating. Salmon, however, are a fish of a different flesh color and one of my long held dreams is to fly fish for salmon in Arctic waters where they proliferate. I have caught salmon but always on casting rod and reel. I did fish for Atlantic salmon in Maine on one of the legendary salmon rivers there where anglers sit on bankside benches like substitutes on an athletic team waiting to go into action. The active angler has a certain amount of time to fish before returning to the end of the bench and the first substitute angler jumps into action. My time in the water, while it was exhilarating, was fruitless—although I did see a silvery fish leap clear of the water in midstream, a sight to set my sweetbreads thumping.

 

And I did partake of a glorious Atlantic salmon dinner at the home of Jim and Sylvia Bashline who had caught the fish during one of their many trips to Canadian salmon waters. Jim invited me to loft a fly into the fabled trout waters of Spruce Creek, a few feet from their home in Pennsylvania and I made one cast. A hefty trout (Jim scattered food on his stretch of stream which did tend to keep the trout at home) smashed into the fly at the end of Jim’s borrowed rod and, as if I were setting the hook in a 12 pound channel cat, I snapped the fly off. “Well,” said Jim, “Time for a before dinner cocktail.” And that was the end of my fly fishing on one of the fabled chalk streams beloved by equally fabled angling writers. Back to bluegills for me.

 

Fly fishing can become as complicated as quantum physics if you let it. My dad was content to learn enough about it to place a popping bug delicately enough to tempt a bluegill (and there is nothing delicate about bluegill fishing–a bluegill in the mood will hit anything thrown in the water short of a concrete block). But the Salmonid family angler can become so consumed with the arcane aspects of the sport that he or she will learn enough Latin insect names as to become qualified to conduct a Catholic mass.

 

My guru along those lines is the late John Voelker (whose pen name was Robert Traver), a wonderful writer and author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout angler from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as a Yooper) whose advice on choosing a fly was that he invariably used “a little bitty brown thing.” That attitude puts a hex on Hexagenia and the myriad of other Latin names for insects. Limit me to one all purpose fly, from bluegills to tarpon and I’ll choose a woolly bugger. The most delightful variation of this universal bug imitation is the charmingly named Bitch Creek nymph.

 

Once I spent an entire day drifting the Madison River casting a Bitch Creek nymph, letting the current carry it theoretically past thousands of trophy trout. I caught exactly one fish–a whitefish with a mouth turned down, looking remarkably like a muddy Missouri River sucker. If only I had one of those little bitty brown things!

 

Some trout anglers claim you only need a number 12 Adams while others swear by a Royal Coachman as the go-to fly of choice. My late friend, lefty Kreh, possibly the greatest fisherman in history, invented what has come to be called Lefty ‘s Deceiver, a fly so versatile it will catch everything (including, in my case, my right earlobe).

 

All these flies have one thing in common.  They have hooks. Some purists use barbless hooks which allow easier catch and release than barbed ones. And that brings us back to “A River Runs Through It” (the movie, not the book) which the producers in their wimpy disclaimer were quick to assure us did not use hooks in the fishing scenes; instead they carefully tied fishing line to the lower lip of the supposedly hooked trout under the watchful supervision of the Humane Society.

 

Obviously us fish eating anglers have been doing it all wrong. Instead of using a fly line tipped with a barbed hook, we could have been learning to lasso fish.  So, in a sort of piscatorial rodeo, we could cast a lovely fly line over a feeding trophy trout, gently tighten the loop around its lower jaw, carefully (without in any way injuring the fish or offending the Humane Society) play it to the net, admire its sleek symmetry, murmur an apology to Norman MacLean, and offer an uplifted middle finger to the Humane Society.

 

And then take the fish home and eat ‘im.

 

 

 

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  • February 22nd, 2019

WATCH WHERE YOU STEP

By Joel M. Vance

Leave it to science fiction to predict what’s in store for us. Ray Bradbury, the finest of all science fiction writers, summed it up in a short story written in 1952 about time travel. “The Sound of Thunder” appeared in Collier’s magazine— which perhaps prophetically is a magazine that has gone extinct.

 

The short story is set late in 2055, not so long from the present day, but quite a while distant from 1952. In the story a hunter pays $10,000 (which, if I compare it to the $2800 we paid for a brand-new Ford station wagon in the 1960s, today would probably be $40,000 or more. The $10,000 the hunter paid probably translates to upwards of $100,000 now. Anyway, the fee allowed him to join a hunting party to go back in time to the age of the dinosaurs in hopes of bagging a Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

In Bradbury’s 2055, time travel has become possible. While that probably will not actually happen, what does happen in the short story seems more and more likely in today’s chaotic world. Before they leave 2055, the hunters discuss a recent presidential election where a fascist oriented candidate has lost to a moderate (are we getting some chilly vibes here?).

 

The hunters discuss what has come to be known as the “butterfly effect.” What would happen, they wonder, if some tiny event from so long ago were changed so that its infinitesimal echoes would magnify over the centuries to unimaginable consequences in today’s world?

 

Sure enough, the hunter protagonist of the story steps on a butterfly in the late Cretaceous and when he returns to the present he finds that the fascist dictator has won the election and the country is in chaos. Is it possible that someone has gone back in time to the late Cretaceous, stepped on a butterfly, and so we have Donald J Trump as our president, a would-be dictator every bit in the mold of Bradbury’s spooky story?

 

Trump doesn’t even have to go back to the Cretaceous to step on butterflies— he’s doing it as we speak. As part of his insane compulsion to build a 2000 mile wall between us and Mexico regardless of how damaging it is to the country, to the environment, and to the eons to come, one small segment of his idiot plan is to disrupt and basically destroy the National Butterfly Refuge.

 

Butterflies are pollinators, one of the most necessary insects to carry pollen from plant to plant, ensuring that those plants will endure and in many cases, provide food for humanity. Without pollinators, notably bees and butterflies, plant life is imperiled and without plant life we are without food. It is the modern day example of Bradbury’s thesis— alter one tiny aspect of the environment and risk dire consequences down the line.

 

Ecologist Barry Commoner summed it up succinctly  “Everything is connected to everything else.” Step on butterflies, whether in the Cretaceous or right now, and you run the risk of future chaos. While chaos theory is as difficult for a nonscientific type like me to understand as is thermodynamics or balancing my checkbook, I can understand that one small change in a system can result in large differences later on— one theoretical example is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas. Or stepping on one butterfly while dinosaur hunting in the late Cretaceous can result in Donald Trump being elected president.

 

Obviously, no one knows what an infinitesimal change today will result in eons in the future and none of us will be around to see it. But we already are seeing the results of climate change, no matter how vociferously Trump and his clueless allies deny there is such a change. Dramatic swings in weather are already upon us, probably the result of centuries of burning fossil fuel and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s not just from burning coal but also from the exhausts of millions of vehicles and from the clearing of forests (which also decimates the resident insect population).

 

And if there is any lingering doubt that the Trump administration is the worst threat to the environment  in modern history, comes the word that the Environmental Protection Agency (why don’t we just rename it the Environmental Destruction Agency?) has given approval to allow spraying of sulfoxaflor, a highly toxic pesticide to bees, on 16 million acres of cropland in 18 states— on crops that are highly attractive to bees. The EPA terms this an “emergency”. That seems to be the buzzword today for any stupid and destructive action by the government. If you want to do something that figures to be highly unpopular and damaging to boot, call it an emergency and to hell with the consequences and, for that matter to hell with human health and happiness.

 

None of those conditions existed in the late Cretaceous and, for that matter, mostly didn’t exist a few short centuries ago. Yet, we are seeing dramatic changes in world climate and the bulk of scientific thought is that it will only get worse unless we do something quickly—and by quickly they mean right now not when push comes to shove. Human tendency to kick the can down the road no longer is a viable chickening out for the problems that face us.

 

It’s well documented that climate change has caused widespread decline in the biomass of insects in many study areas throughout the world. In simpler terms, bugs are vanishing. Not just bugs, but mammals as well— human activity has resulted in the last 50 years alone for a decline of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish by an average of 60%.  One telling test about the decline of insects alone is easy enough for you to run the next time you go for a summer evening drive. Compare how many bugs smash into the windshield with how many you saw a decade or two ago. Not only are you actively killing bugs by running into them with the front end of the car but you also are contributing to their overall decline by the exhaust from the butt end of the car.

 

The National butterfly Center is a 100 acre refuge in South Texas along the Mexican border that is imperiled by Trump’s unnecessary and idiotic border wall that would separate 70% of the Center from its headquarters. It is far more than a symbolic refuge for threatened insects— it is a way station for migrating birds as well as butterflies in the Central Flyway. It was set aside specifically for threatened and endangered species and eliminating or imperiling its existence, which the wall would do, would, among other catastrophes create flooding to all property (which is privately owned) up to 2 miles behind the wall.

 

The center is the creation of the North American Butterfly Association, a nonprofit organization which is dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. It was established in 1993 and now has nearly 5000 members in 30 chapters across the United States. It runs butterfly counts in Canada, the United States and Mexico, similar to bird counts and other wildlife surveys that keep tabs on the health of countless wild creatures. Without such counts, conservationists are basically operating in the dark.

 

While the Butterfly Association primarily concentrates on Monarch butterflies, it can take credit for preserving the Royal Fritillary butterfly and saving the Miami Blue which is known from only one colony at Key West in Monroe County, Florida. These once were thriving insect species, now nearly extinct. If the Monarchs are next to go, where does that leave humanity? Is it the butterfly effect sooner than later?

 

Yet, even as I write this, Trump’s bulldozers, like Hitler’s Panzer tanks invading Poland, are moving in to the Butterfly Center grounds preparing to turn it into a lifeless no man’s land. The Butterfly Center immediately filed for a restraining order to stop the border Nazis from cutting down trees, ripping out fencing, widening roads and other activities detrimental to the purpose of the Center. A judge threw out their motion essentially granting the immigration intruders the authority to do what they damn well please. Among judge Richard Leon’s reasoning was that the refuge is “an open field” which would seem to be the very description of what is needed for a butterfly refuge.

 

Federal judge Richard Leon is a George W. Bush appointee.  He is a former attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service—the very folks who are bent upon destroying the Butterfly Refuge, literally clearing the way for Trump’s wall. Among Leon’s previous curious rulings is one blocking the Food and Drug Administration from stopping the importation of e-cigarettes which have become an epidemic problem among young people.  Enough said about the judicial climate today in Trump’s world of environmental destruction.

 

We have a mini tallgrass prairie of perhaps a quarter acre which I rescued from a wasteland of broom sedge and purple top, both plants of land too poor to support much of any value. Within a few years, big bluestem grass began to appear—apparently the seeds had lain dormant for who knows how long? I added some seed collected from remnant tallgrass patches and now have Indian grass to complement the big bluestem. And I collected seeds from purple gayfeather and now have a glorious blooming crop that annually attracts butterflies of all kinds. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, but for some reason that has dwindled to a single plant. I need to plant milkweed, the favored plant of Monarch butterflies and without which the Monarch is threatened with extinction.

 

Google milkweed sources and you’ll find many outlets for both seeds and plants– americanmeadows.com is one source for both, dedicated to the native plants found (or once found) on America’s native prairies.  I would love to see my mini prairie alive with butterfly weed and common milkweed— and also alive with the incomparable bloom of butterflies.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote another prophetic book “Fahrenheit 451” which is the temperature at which books ignite. In his book a future society had taken charge and confiscated all books and were burning them—which, if you remember your unpleasant history, is how the Hitler regime treated books it deemed subversive. Bradbury’s fragile underground population preserved books by memorizing them word for word and passing them from generation to generation.

 

Books today all too often are sensationalized accounts of some less than responsible citizen’s misdeeds but they sell in the millions and then quickly suffer the equivalent of Bradbury’s book burning— they are remaindered and forgotten. But the written word still is the major means of communicating ideas in a lasting way. Spoken media, whether television or radio, is almost as quickly forgotten as it is spoken. The written word has the potential of lasting forever.

 

But only if we can keep the Trumps of the world and their would be dictator brethren from sending the written word into oblivion, along with the insects which modern civilization seems so dedicated to eliminating. Without caring people, insects (and words to champion their right to exist), the world may come to a pass where none of the three of us any longer exists.

 

 

 

 

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  • February 15th, 2019

STOP THE PRESS!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The University of Missouri journalism school dates to 1908, the first such school in the world. The first building housing the fledgling J-School dates to 1919 and became Neff Hall, named for the father of Ward Neff who gave money to build it. A second building adjacent to Neff Hall is named for Walter Williams, the first Dean of the journalism school.

 

By the time I got to the journalism school in 1954, my junior year in college (the first two years having been spent in such meaningless classes as algebra— which I would never learn if I spent 100 years in the class— and American history— which I already knew nearly as well as the boring lecturer who taught it) J school consisted of the two buildings (Neff and Williams) separated by an arch, guarded by two concrete lions.

 

The legend was that the lions would roar if a virgin ever passed through the arch. Although I passed through that arch many times en route to class, I never heard a peep out of those iconic felines, though I was eminently qualified to spark them into action.

 

Every beginning news person was required to take “The history and principles of journalism” course taught by the school’s longtime Dean, Frank Luther Mott. I was in the final class taught by Dean Mott, by then a professor emeritus. The textbook was his and I still have it and it still makes interesting reading. Dean Mott has long since gone to a corner of heaven inhabited by defunct news men and instead of listening to harp music throughout eternity, they are serenaded by the clatter of Linotype machines and the roar of a rotary press, music to the ears of print guys.

 

By taking Dean Mott’s course, I escaped the threat of what happened to the late Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. The University brags about Walker as a distinguished alum. Some years back I wrote a fan letter to him, one J-Schooler to another. Walker wrote back, “I was kicked out of J-School. I had just returned from four years in the Army during World War II and had become editor of the Show Me Magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and I had an office in the J-School.”

 

Mott called Walker into his office and said that he saw by Walker’s records that he had not taken the history and principles of journalism course and Walker said “I was too busy saving the world for democracy, Sir” and Mott screamed at him to get out of the office and the next day Walker’s office was locked and he was out of the school. During my four years at the University, the Show Me Magazine, a humor publication, was more often shut down for making fun of the administration then it was actually being published— so Walker was ahead of his time as a J-School student and instead carved out a career making fun of the Army, rather than Dean Frank Luther Mott.

 

 The J-School newsroom in those days was a noisy place populated by neophyte journalists armed with clacking manual typewriters. The only computer that any of us knew about was Eniac, a 30 ton machine that took up a whole room in a government facility somewhere and did laboriously about what it takes a modern hand held computer microseconds to do on a chip the size of your little fingernail.

 

Instead, we labored over manual typewriters that predated by decades the electric typewriter and which were barely more practical than a quill pen and a piece of paper.  The typewriters were Remingtons and Underwoods. Possibly the more affluent of students had portable typewriters like the one used by famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle during World War Two. The desk models weighed as much as a baby elephant.  You didn’t carry one of them to cover a local meeting; instead you had a reporter’s notebook and, if like me you didn’t take shorthand, you struggled to scribble down notes on what was happening and hoped to be able to read them later while writing your story.

 

I was lucky enough to have an Underwood that had belonged to my mother and father and which dated to the 1920s. The only maintenance it ever got was a ribbon change when the letters on the paper got so dim they were barely readable and I ran the risk of wrath from Dale Spencer the J-School professor/copy editor who had a tongue as biting as the sting of a mule driver’s whip.

 

The luckless student in whatever the course was that included a session on the copy desk prayed that he or she would bask in the benevolent presence of anyone other than Spencer. When Spencer’s glowering presence dominated the copy desk we approached writing a headline as if it were a coiled rattlesnake. Once, however, I wrote a headline for a one paragraph wire story about how a prison convict had escaped by hiding in an empty soap barrel. Inspiration struck! “Con in soap barrel/makes clean break” I slid the headline timorously in front of Spencer and waited an eternity for his reaction. I think I saw the corner of his mouth twitch briefly and he spiked the headline. (Copy spikes were lethal looking pieces of equipment, a metal base topped with a long, sharp stiletto-like spear on which you would slap stories and headlines ready for the Linotype machines— you ran the risk of impaling yourself, a sort of Jesus like mutilation.)

 

We wrote copy, the now archaic term for how one constructs a news story for the press, on flimsy paper backed with a sheet of carbon paper which, in turn, was backed with an even more flimsy second sheet that served as the backup copy. Make a mistake and you either X-ed it out or painted over the mistake with White Out, an extinct substance which came in a little bottle, equipped with a tiny applicator brush like something you would use (well, not me anyway) to apply eyeliner.

 

Once spiked, your copy went through a mysterious process which resulted ultimately in it appearing in that day’s Columbia Missourian, the daily newspaper printed by the school of journalism in competition with the Columbia Tribune the city’s family-owned commercial newspaper. We had the advantage of an unpaid reporting staff; they had the advantage of professionals who knew what they were doing.

 

Today the Missourian still is published by the University but the Tribune has, like so many other one time family-owned operations, become a cog in a conglomerate, sold out of the family to a faceless corporate entity. The fate of the Tribune is symptomatic of what has happened to the newspaper business in the last few decades. The “local” newspaper of yesteryear today is more likely to have corporate headquarters far from the town it supposedly represents. This is not a good thing.

 

The erosion of the nation’s print media starts at the top with a socio-pathetic president for whom the nation’s legitimate press is “the enemy of the people” and to whom any story he does not like is “fake news.” If he were to have his way, any news media with which he disagrees would be eliminated, leaving only regime-approved news sources. And this is the very definition of a totalitarian society. Once you get rid of the truth tellers, all that is left is a dictatorship.

 

General Joe Hooker, one of Abraham Lincoln’s best officers, got in trouble with his boss when he said that what the Union needed was a dictator. That earned him a tongue lashing from Mr. Lincoln, who understood democracy and how it operates better than just about any of his Republican descendants, today in positions of political power.

 

But equally as malicious a threat to the printed word is the gobbling up of the nation’s small dailies by corporate conglomerates to whom the backbone of such newspapers— local news— is a foreign concept. The local newspaper for 200 years or more has been the source of a community’s daily identity.

 

The newspaper I worked a decade for was family-owned for a century by the White family. The first Robert M White, back in the 1870s, apparently had at least one fistfight with an irate subscriber and the concept of horse whipping the editor occasionally  substituted for dissatisfaction with news coverage. I think maybe a good old whuppin’ might soothe everyone’s feelings better than the half-baked and often half witted letters to the editor which litter the op-ed pages of today’s newspapers.

 

Corporate giants have swooped down on the newspaper industry and the family-owned dynasties of yesteryear are vanishing. Even the Washington Post whose team of investigative reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) brought down the pernicious president Richard Nixon, no longer is family-owned. Instead, it is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.  The Washington Examiner, Donald Trump’s Trojan horse in the print media world, is trying to destroy Bezos’ reputation because Trump doesn’t like the Post’s reporting of his nefarious dealings.

 

Trump may have picked a fight with the wrong guy because the Amazon-owning zillionaire has vowed to spend what it takes to whup up on the Examiner and by extension, quite possibly pull off another Nixon coup de grace. Maybe print media is not quite dead and the concept of horse whipping those who abuse the public trust likewise still exists in modernized form.

 

My old newspaper today is a cog in a conglomerate machine and one of the first actions it took after its takeover of the paper was to fire the sports editor— the job I had for 10 years. Maybe that colors my feelings about corporate ownership of small-town dailies, but such personnel decisions all too often are made by bean counters far removed from the community their newspaper is supposed to serve.

 

For a semester in J-School, my beat was the school board. Unfortunately for me, the board met at the north end of the city and I lived at the south end. I had no car and in order to cover school board meetings I had to hike the length of the city, scribble my notes, hike back to the dormitory, write my story on my antique Underwood in what Frank Sinatra called “the wee small hours of the morning”, turn my copy in virtually at daybreak to a well rested Dale Spencer and then trudge wearily to the first class of the day.

 

Today’s reporter can dictate his story to a smart phone, using voice recognition software, download it remotely to a computer where mysterious things happen electronically and the result is a pristine column on that day’s Columbia Missourian. No more wearying hikes to cover school board meetings, wee small hours laboring over a clackety Underwood. It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days, but they weren’t. Technology has made today’s news gathering and reporting a cakewalk by comparison. But the dark downside is the erosion of a free and unfettered press and that is a dark side best exemplified by what happened to Rod Smith.

 

Our local television station sold out to a large corporation and one of its first acts was to fire Rod Smith who had covered sports locally for the station since his high school days, the television version of an old time shoes-on-the pavement reporter. There was an immediate and virulent blowback from the community and the bean counters hastily reconsidered and rehired Rod. In a classic in your face moment Rod recently has been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Chalk one tiny win up for the good guys.

 

The last refuge for local news is the weekly newspaper, too small to attract the attention of the great white sharks of conglomeration, where you still can read about family reunions and bowling scores. It may also be the last refuge for hilarious typographical errors. Every old print guy collected such gaffes and passed them along to fellow news men (often over beer) to general hilarity. They were funny only if you had not been responsible for them. When I was at the Alabama Journal we lived in the eternal fear of any story or headline concerning Fort Rucker. Once, so I was told, a society story in the Sunday edition of the paper referred to a prominent society girl who was having a coming-out party as “A classy young lass” only the Linotype operator dropped the L in the last word. The story goes that the entire newspaper staff spent several hours roaming the streets of Montgomery collecting papers off people’s lawns and sidewalks before they woke up and read the society page.

 

My favorite such story which may be apocryphal—but who cares— concerns two Missouri Ozark towns that actually exist–Licking and Halfway The headline in a local paper supposedly read “Licking Girl to Marry Halfway Man”.

 

Once, when I was in high school, the local weekly newspaper transposed parts of two stories, one an obituary, the other a report of the activities of a social club. The obituary ended interestingly “At the end of the evening, Sally Smith organized games and a wonderful time was had by all attending.”

 

Perhaps, at the bitter end of the nation’s print media, if such a dire fate awaits the profession that I cherish, the last struggling little weekly newspaper will publish an obituary for the voice of democracy and those who now call for an end to what they disparage can organize games and have a wonderful time by all attending.

 

 

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  • February 7th, 2019

LOVE AFFAIR

By Joel M. Vance

Bobby Bare said it best in a Shell Silverstein song “This guitar is for sale.” The song, sad enough in itself, hits home to me, although my guitar is not for sale and never will be. But my picking days are ended, thanks to the after effects of a stroke, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome which have combined to stiffen my left hand and made it impossible for me to dance around the fretboard the way I used to (well, try to anyway).

 

                “This guitar is for sale/I’ll let her go cheap.”

 

That’s what Bobby Bare sang, except I wouldn’t let her go for $1 million. She is a part of me as much as my heart. I worked detasseling seed corn for $.50 an hour, 10 hours a day during one of the hottest summers in modern times to earn the money to pay for her. “She” is a 1950 mahogany topped C. .F. Martin 00 17 guitar.

 

The Godfather of jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt, made do with two fingers on his left hand, the other two having been burned and disfigured in a house fire and missing two fingers didn’t stop him from being one of the greatest guitar players in history, but missing the use of all four of my left hand fingers prevents me from being even the palest shadow of a Django. I am not and never was and never would be a Django. But even Django could not have played one-handed although he came close.  There is no such thing as a one-handed guitar player. Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for the left hand only for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I so it is possible to play at least one piece on the piano with one hand. You even can play major league baseball with one hand. Pete Gray lost his right arm in a childhood accident but played in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns. Not possible with the guitar–it’s strictly a two-handed operation.

 

                “Just touch her once gently/and she’ll take you on home.”

 

 My little guitar has always been a refuge for me when things got gloomy and blue. I could take my little Martin 00 17, bought in 1951 for $60, go off by myself and serenade anything or anyone who wanted to listen (which usually was, at maximum, a disinterested dog).

 

The sense of accomplishment and the thrill of conquest when I got something right amid the six strings was every bit as pleasing as calling in and killing a trophy gobbler in the spring. I couldn’t take a cool lick home and eat it or brag about it in the coffee shop the way I could with the trophy gobbler (because no one cared), but the thrill of the chase and the accomplishment was there and I could enjoy it over and over again, something not possible with the gobbler.

 

The 00 17 is small, of a size that they used to call “parlor guitar,” meaning that it was not a lusty loud instrument suitable for auditoriums, but rather one for playing in the front room and that was good when applied to my little Martin because often that’s where I played it—sitting on the couch while the family eddied about the house doing household things. What I was playing and singing was for me fairly obviously, because no one seemed to be overwhelmed by my talent. Bill Monroe put a rattlesnake rattle inside his fabled Gibson F5 mandolin to sweeten the sound. There is nothing inside my baby Martin except dust and I don’t think it needs sound sweetening— especially if it takes rectal amputation of a rattlesnake to get it.

 

                “She’s won me some ladies/with her sweet lovin’ songs.”

 

Twice did the little Martin and I entrance a lady with sweet lovein’ songs. The first time happened in 1956 in El Paso, Texas, where I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss. Several young married couples occupied an apartment complex on Fort Boulevard and one of the couples, Reid and Lois Hanmer had a daughter, Shelley. Shelley was two years old, blonde and impossibly cute and I used to serenade her on the apartment complex lawn. There is a photograph of me singing to Shelley as we sit facing each other and she obviously was hugely enjoying the experience. She was my little groupie and I know how Elvis must have felt when girls squealed and shrieked at his singing— although Shelley never squealed or shrieked. She just listened and enjoyed when she wasn’t playing with ants in the grass or watching planes flying overhead from El Paso’s Air Force base.

 

I acquired another groupie a few years later. I sat on the stoop of our house and the five-year-old daughter of a neighbor would toddle across the street and listen to me singing. Her name was Jessica and I teased her by asking “is that spelled with two essicas?” My clumsy attempt at humor was miles over her head, as was my singing—she was mostly interested in chatting tirelessly. Even my spirited rendition of the gruesome ditty “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” failed to interrupt her stream of consciousness gossiping. Too bad—it was one of my better attention getters.

 

Once I handed Bobby Bare my copy of his inspirationally named, but wonderful long play album “Bare” for an autograph and he laughed and softly sang “This guitar is for sale.” Apparently, the song was as memorable to him as it was to me.

 

                “If you think she looks weary,/you’ve been readin’ our mail.”

 

Like me the little Martin has suffered the scrapes and bumps of time. The bridge pins became so worn and brittle they had to be replaced. The tuning knobs likewise wore down and the machine heads and knobs were replaced and, not too long after I got her, I managed to knock a hole in the lower bout on the corner of a dresser, an injury that caused me to break into tears. The wound was invisible to anyone in front of the guitar, but I knew it was there like an open sore that never heals. One day I read a for sale item in the local paper advertising a Martin guitar for sale and I jumped on it immediately.

 

                “So please treat her kindly./Keep her out of the rain.”

 

The guitar turned out to be the bastard child of a Martin and a Gibson— it had a Martin body and a Gibson neck and it cost me all of $15. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t sound as sweet as my little Martin and it became my float trip guitar so I didn’t have to risk the Martin in the rain or the river.  I could sleep with it in the tent, and keep it out of the rain and the river. My little Martin stayed home, safe. The Mar-Gib was no collector’s item— but as the illegitimate child of a Martin it had value. Then a savior appeared in the form of a luthier who offered to fix the hole in the little Martin in exchange for the Mar-Gib. Not only did he fix the hole but he leveled the frets, installed new bridge pins and tuners. Thus, cosmetically restored, the Martin was once again virtually the same as it had been factory new.

 

                “She’ll tell you sad stories/’bout junkyards and jails.”

 

Closest I came to a brush with the law was in college.  Thinking to become the next rhythm and blues sensation, I bought and installed a pickup on the sound hole of the little Martin and then realized that I had no amplifier to plug into. One night Stan Krueger and I invaded the music building, him with his harmonica and me with my ready-to-boogie Martin. We found an amplifier and proceeded to re-create BB King and Little Walter and found that instead of a howling mob of rabid fans we had a less than appreciative audience the next day with the Dean of Students who informed us that any further attempts to bring the Mississippi Delta to the University of Missouri campus would result in us being former students of the University of Missouri. I pitched the pickup which had done nothing more for the world of music than leave a few scuff marks on the guitar’s sound hole and once more became a parlor picker well out of sight of the Dean of Students.

 

So I’ve stayed out of jails and largely out of junkyards although some years later I was heading south on Highway 63 when I passed a yard sale (not a junkyard) and caught, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of guitar cases leaning against a table of for-sale items. I burned rubber and did a U-turn that would’ve done credit to a highway patrolman involved in a high-speed chase (and possibly could have landed me in the aforementioned jail) and made it back to the sale in time to close the deal on a mahogany topped Martin D 15 guitar that the man selling it described as his “Willie Nelson guitar” because it had a hole knocked in the lower bout. Anyone who is a Willie Nelson fan knows that Willie plays a Martin classical guitar with a hole worn in the top from decades of being battered by guitar picks. So I now owned two Martin mahogany topped guitars that had been identically wounded in combat. It was as, as Yogi Berra was fond of saying “déjà vu all over again.”

 

Lacking the appearance of an angel in the luthier form, I fixed the hole myself with a scrap of mahogany from my workshop. The D 15 had cost me, on sale, approximately six times as much as its smaller cousin had in 1951–inflation personified. My repair didn’t look as pretty as a professional job would have, but I didn’t have a Mar-Gib to trade for the work and I wasn’t about to offer my little baby in trade.

 

I now had two Martin guitars, one more than I was able to confidently play, but there’s something about the Martin mystique that has been around since 1833 and which has captured the affections of countless entertainers over the years

 

                “She knows every sad song/that Hank ever wrote.”

 

Hank Williams played a Martin guitar and while I don’t know every song he wrote, I know several of them. Unable to cure my addiction to Martins, I splurged for a 1970 Martin D 35 in a moment of profligate insanity and today it’s on a stand, side-by-side with the baby Martin, like a protective big brother, as equally unplayable by me as is my baby, thanks to the buggered up left-hand.

 

David Gilmour, guitarist for Pink Floyd, will auction off more than 120 of his enormous guitar collection with the money going to charitable causes. Included in the legendary collection is a 1969 Martin D 35 that is expected to bring as much as $20,000. The entire sale probably will top $1 million— maybe more. I doubt that my D 35 is a $20,000 guitar.  But I did try to sell it several years ago and no one wanted to pay the price I was asking so I retrieved it and it has joined its two family members among musical instruments that I can’t play anymore.

 

My baby Martin and I have traveled all over the country, not as minstrels but because it and I are fond of retreating to a quiet place to sing the blues when they come calling.  Aside from the occasional two-year-old blonde, no one much cares when I sing the sad ballads of yesteryear. I can still sing “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” even if I can’t hit any hot licks to punctuate the poignant ode. But singing a cappella without the support of my baby Martin is as unsatisfying as a diet consisting wholly of broccoli.

.

 

                “If you got the dough buddy, take her and go.”

 

I could be persuaded to sell the D 35 and the D 15 to someone with the dough.  I’m willing to part with them for my price. You won’t see them at a yard sale.  But the baby Martin, unlike its big brothers, is not for sale and never will be. It has my sweat impregnated in the timeworn fibers of its mahogany top and body. It is as much a part of me as my heart and, if there is such a thing, my soul.

 

                “It’s funny you askin’/ I never gave her a name.”

 

She’s just my baby Martin and, for all I know, she may not even be a female— she may be a guy guitar, but there is in her softly rounded contours a feminine beauty. The relationship of this little guitar with me is nearly a lifelong one, a love affair that never ends. We know each other so well. We learned “The Wildwood Flower” together and have sung it to the stars and the full moon and to the dark night. It has chased the blues and soothed the hurts that come with life.

 

If there is any justice, one night when things are gloomy, my hand miraculously will be limber again and I will sit on our deck with the little Martin and play and sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and a flash of lightning will send us on our way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • January 31st, 2019

JERRY LEE HAD IT RIGHT

By Joel M. Vance

 

In 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis warned us that there was “A whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on!” Ominously, Jerry Lee described himself as The Killer. Now, many years later, he should be designated the spokessinger for natural disaster, the minstrel for volcanologists and seismologists everywhere.

 

Most of us don’t realize and those who do mostly don’t think about the fact that we all are sitting on a ticking time bomb which also is a target for random chunks of rock from space that have the potential for blowing out our little candle of life.

 

A recent news story revealed that a meteorite is due to pass close to earth which, if it were to hit the Earth’s surface, might well have the effect that an historic meteorite did when it impacted the Earth and apparently caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. A concurrent news story said that within the preceding week three chunks of space junk had whizzed by planet Earth uncomfortably close by cosmic standards.

 

A wave of panic washed over me— the feeling you might get when your car stalls on the railroad track with the Fireball Limited bearing down on it and the car won’t start! And then I read further into the story which explained that the meteorite isn’t due in Earth’s neighborhood for 800 years plus and probably will miss by considerable margin anyway.

 

Whew! Disaster averted.

 

On the other hand you don’t see that many dinosaurs around anymore outside of the latest movie version of Jurassic Park. And that’s all done with computers. However, those big sauropods went somewhere for some reason and the best theory is that a hurtling meteorite targeted Earth millennia ago and zap! Bye-bye, the plant-eating sauropods, Tyrannosaurus, and other flesh eating dinosaurs.

 

Meteorites are a rare occurrence and not much to worry about but on the other hand, much of the earth is sitting on that aforementioned ticking time bomb and we all go about our daily lives not realizing that a few feet beneath us is enough explosive energy to send us sailing into time on the trail of the sauropods. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand of how nasty Mother Earth can be when she gets ticked off about something.

 

Some years back I went fishing at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. The fishing wasn’t very good and the highlight of the trip was a visit to Carl Perkin’s birthplace, a decrepit cabin that didn’t look fit enough to raise hogs in, much less a place to nurture one of rock ‘n roll’s pioneer giants. If Perkins had invited his rockabilly contemporary Jerry Lee home for a whole lotta shakin’, the place would have collapsed. Carl Perkins has followed Tyrannosaurus rex into the history books but Reelfoot Lake still is there, concrete evidence catastrophe lurked nearby.

 

The 15,000 acre Lake came into being after the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquake which temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and caused a vast area of Tennessee to subside into what today is called a “sag pond.” This series of earthquakes remains the most powerful to hit the contiguous United States east of the Rocky Mountains in recorded history. The only thing that saved the area from massive casualties was the fact that few people lived in the area.

 

That’s not the case today when the New Madrid fault which could cause a modern-day earthquake just about any time Mother Earth decides to shake things up threatens such major urban centers as Memphis and St. Louis. The so-called New Madrid seismic zone has contributed to more than 4000 minor earthquakes in recent times and seismologists estimate there is a 7 to 10% chance in the next 50 years of a repeat of the 1811-12 quake.

 

Such an event would play havoc with the numerous famous barbecue restaurants of both St. Louis and Memphis not to mention putting a serious shakeup in the daily lives of many thousands of the area’s urban dwellers.

 

Chances are a new New Madrid quake would do little if any damage to my mid-Missouri home, but who’s to say? About halfway between the two places is the Decaturville Dome between Camdenton and Lebanon adjacent to Highway Five where an estimated 300 million years ago give or take a few hundred thousand, a meteorite six kilometers in diameter crashed into the earth. Maybe that meteorite 800 years from now won’t miss after all— sometimes they don’t.

 

The dome is one of a series of impact craters, roughly along the 38th parallel and theories are that it is one of several historic meteorite strikes stretching from Kansas through Missouri— but an alternate theory is that at least one of them is the result of a volcanic explosion rather than a meteorite strike.

 

If you happen to be standing on one of these explosive spots when the unthinkable happens, it doesn’t much matter what the reason is. Nor did the reason matter to the more than two dozen campers buried by a landslide in 1959 when the Yellowstone National Park area shrugged its shoulders. The earthquake rippled the landscape and actually created a lake, appropriately named Quake Lake. I couldn’t repress a shudder when our jon boat drifted past the area on the Madison River some years back. It was like tiptoeing under a huge leaning tree that you know is going to fall one of these days and you hope it’s not this day.

 

But the 1959 earthquake would be no more than a hiccup if the Yellowstone caldera decides to blow its top. The cataclysmic effect is almost unimaginable. It only takes a visit to Yellowstone to glimpse the potential. The entire park is pockmarked with geysers and bubbling reminders that just beneath your feet Mom Nature has an uneasy stomach that at any moment could result in a planetary vomit that would dwarf anything ever experienced.

 

Just more than 2 million years ago there was a Yellowstone eruption that produced 2500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption which happened within the memory of most people today. Ash from Mount Saint Helens settled on our deck in mid-Missouri and ash from a super volcanic eruption in Yellowstone would coat the entire United States with ash, not to mention probably obliterating any town or city for a considerable distance from the epicenter. The estimates are that such an eruption would blanket the states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado with three feet of volcanic ash and would cover the Midwest with far more than a mere coating on our deck. But take heart— the chances of such an eruption in the lifetime of anyone on the planet today are minimal. In fact there might never be another eruption on the magnitude of the three recorded in history, the last one 664,000 years ago.

 

Let’s face it— the Earth’s crust is an explosive device waiting to happen. I’ve never heard of it but in 1505 there was a magnitude 8.7 earthquake in the Himalayan Mountains, the highest on earth, and a 2018 study estimates that if a magnitude 8.7 earthquake struck the same area now it would kill nearly 600,000 people and injure more than one million. We think of the Himalayas as Mount Everest and K2 and other destinations for the world’s most intrepid mountain climbers. But apparently they are far more than great big knobs sticking out of the ground to give mountain climbers something to write books about— or get killed trying to get to the top.

 

And isn’t it time we quit referring to Mother Earth or Mother Nature as if the world we live in has a feminine aspect and natural disaster is the result of some cosmic female pique? That may be the ultimate expression of misogyny. This sexist attitude is even reflected in our advertising— remember the 1970s series of commercials for Chiffon margarine which warned you “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” after which there was a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder. Fortunately, the Chiffon folks didn’t feel it necessary to punctuate their stupid commercial with a volcanic eruption or a devastating earthquake. They just told you it was preferable to use margarine rather than real butter. So let’s just do away with the comparison of natural disaster to female pique. Nature is what it is and let’s leave the ladies out of it.

 

Our two newest states both have been victimized by nature’s hiccups. In 1964 on Good Friday (which didn’t seem that good to religious and nonreligious Alaskans alike) a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the state and caused a comparatively minor 139 deaths. Alaska is part of an earthquake prone rim around the Pacific Ocean and is never more than a few days or maybe hours from an earthquake. Seismologists registered more than 55,000 earthquakes in 2018. And there have been more than 3000 already in 2019.

 

In 1866,  Mark Twain visited the Hawaiian Islands and climbed Mount Kilauea and called it “a vision of hell and its angels.” And in 2018, the same volcano erupted and we saw firsthand rivers of lava, spilling down the side of the mountain into the sea, threatening life and causing $800 million in damages. Which proves that not much has changed in a century and a half, except the value of the dollar.

 

So what can you do to avoid being shaken, rattled, and rolled (to invoke another classic rock ‘n roll ballad) by an earthquake, or to be incinerated by a volcanic eruption? The answer probably is to book a berth on the first Martian settlement rocket.

 

While science has gotten far better at predicting the probability of both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the science still can’t do a whole lot more than to caution that trouble is brewing. There was no warning that we know of before historic eruptions of Italy’s Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius. One at Mount Etna may have killed as many as 20,000 people and an eruption in 79 A.D. by Vesuvius is well known for having incinerated more than 1000 people some of whom to this day are being discovered in charcoal form.

 

There was plenty of warning well ahead of time that Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique was going to explode in 1902 but most people ignored the ominous signs and 30,000 of them died as a result.

 

Natural disasters are a fact of life (or death). Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are not necessarily the worst of the potential catastrophes that nature periodically visits on the Earth’s citizens. In 1900 after a hurricane devastated Galveston, Texas, an estimated 8000 -12,000 people died. Storm forecasting was primitive in those days but even so southern coastal residents had about two weeks warning. It wasn’t nearly enough. Katrina in 2005 took 1200 lives. There have been many other disastrous hurricanes as well.

 

The 1871 Peshtigo forest fire swept across northern Wisconsin and wiped out as many as 2500 people— ironically it occurred the same day as the Chicago fire which made more news because it burned much of the city and killed about 300 people. Ten times as many died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And, as anyone in California, will tell you San Francisco and the rest of the state is overdue for one or more similar quakes that could make the Frisco tremor comparatively minor.

 

So, given the Earth’s propensity for upsetting humanity’s tentative grasp on life and property, the best alternative to wasting time worrying about being hit by a meteorite, is to plug in Jayree Lee, turn up the volume, and boogie on “Come on over, baby! Whole lot of shakin’ going on!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • January 24th, 2019

Y’ALL WANT FRIES WITH THAT?

By Joel M. Vance

Lately I have been having a pleasant daydream, a fantasy really, where I go into a decrepit greasy spoon fast food joint and a blubbery, sloppy, cook, with a three-day growth of beard and a grease spattered, dirty apron, takes my order for a hamburger and says, “y’all want fries with that?”

 

I do a double take because this this porky hash slinger looks remarkably like Donald J Trump the nation’s current Hamburgler in Chief. My fantasy was inspired when I read that Trump hosted a luncheon for the Clemson Tigers, the national collegiate football championship team, by serving them fast food burgers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, with a side order of Domino’s pizza, and French fries served in paper cups embossed with the presidential seal. But they were served on silver platters under elegant chandeliers so, hey, when you’re going first class, go all the way.

 

The fact that Donald Trump owns a high-rise hotel which, presumably, has an equally high class restaurant, has escaped the news media. The question arises in my admittedly prejudiced mind: if Donald Trump is the billionaire entrepreneur that he portrays himself, and is first class all the way, why is he so cheap that he can’t cater something other than burgers and fries for his invited guests?

 

Trump was quick to point out that, by golly, he paid for the whole thing himself! Kudos to the Hash Slinger in Chief for this magnanimous gesture. Dabo Swinney, the coach of the Tigers, is far too much of a gentleman to do what logic would indicate— tell the president to take his fast food luncheon and shove it. Better yet, load a U-Haul van and drive it to the border and distribute the food to the hungry asylum-seekers that Trump is attempting to send back to countries where they probably will be killed.

 

The Tigers, who eat nutritious meals in a state-of-the-art cafeteria on the Clemson campus, need fast food about as much as Swinney needs to be told how to coach football. But Trump says that he knows that greasy entrées from fast food restaurants are the favorite food of athletes in training. Which proves that he knows as much about athletic dietary needs as he does about running the government. Clemson would’ve been far better off staying at home and eating a healthy meal rather than dining with the Fatso in Chief in the White House.

 

The Golden State Warriors said thanks but no thanks when they were invited to the White House after winning the National Basketball Association championship last year. I can understand that any team would be reluctant to turn down an invitation to the White House because after all it is an honor first, to win a championship, and then to be invited to the nation’s home to meet the putative leader of the free world. If it were anyone other than Donald Trump the champion of bad taste and bad government, I wouldn’t quibble about it.  When some of the Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles declined Trump’s invitation to the White House, he disinvited the whole team. Really classy behavior on the part of the Junk Foodmaster in Chief.

 

It is an honor to be invited to the White House, to meet the president of the United States, and to be recognized for a singular achievement. After all, the White House belongs to every citizen of the country. It is not Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, an exclusive golfing resort for those who have bought access to the president. It’s only a temporary residence for the sitting president and then it will be occupied by a successor. No one gets to live in the White House forever and given that he spends little time in it, Trump apparently doesn’t want to.

 

Not only did Trump go to great pains to emphasize that he was paying for this sumptuous meal, but he said that he had ordered 300 burgers for the boys. The next day, that number had inflated to more than 1000, a typical lie to go with the thousands of others he has told about every aspect of his life. He tweeted proudly that he had bought “hamberders” for the Clemson players, proving that his grasp of spelling is every bit as comprehensive as his grasp of how to govern. (But at least he’s consistent— he also misspelled his wife’s name as Melanie when she returned from a hospital stay.)

 

The clear winner in the battle of the burgers was Burger King which tweeted the next day “Due to a large order placed yesterday, we’re all out of hamberders. Just serving hamburgers today.” And the best Twitter response to Trump’s losing effort in the National Spelling Bee was this: “Odd to see beef between Trump and Burger King given how many whoppers Trump tells each day.”

 

I admit to a fascination with Clemson and I am a fan since my beloved Missouri Tigers couldn’t beat your grandma’s garden club in a bowl game. Favored by nine points they managed to lose to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. The only good part about that defeat is that they did not have to respond to an invitation to the White House.

 

I have a friend, Drew Lanham, who is a professor of ornithology at Clemson and who looks as if he could have played for the Tigers if he hadn’t blown out a knee. Drew is a fine naturalist and writer with an equally fine book about his experiences growing up in a family of black landowners in South Carolina— an anomaly of dramatic proportions. “The Home Place” (Milkweed Publishers, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book) is a delightfully written story of, as it is described, “a bighearted, unforgettable memoir by ornithologist J. Drew Lanham.” And Drew, likewise, is bighearted and unforgettable.

 

So I already would’ve been a fan of the Tigers even if Donald Trump’s clumsy attempt at being one of the boys hadn’t failed so miserably. And, second, anybody that beats Alabama is my team. I lived in Alabama for a couple years back in the 1950s and it was like living under a high tension power line, sensing invisible vibrations that you instinctively felt were harmful.

 

Given Trump’s dumpster diving approach to food appreciation, I’m somewhat surprised that he didn’t call out the military to serve Clemson with the Army’s legendary and universally despised shit on a shingle. After all, if he can send nearly 6000 troops to our southern border on a whim, surely he can order up the military to serve bad food to one l’il old football team.

 

There are recipes on the Internet for SOS, which is described as “comfort food.” Although I doubt you would find many Army veterans who would agree with that definition. It basically is chipped beef, served creamed on toast. Other designations for SOS include, “same old stuff,” or “save our stomachs.”

 

It was designed as a military meal because it is cheap, easy to prepare, and adaptable to preparation under field conditions. All those preconditions would seem to fit the persona of Donald J Trump to a T. He’s cheap, ordering out to McDonald’s (or Berder King) is easy, and fast food for the football boys certainly is adaptable to preparation since he didn’t have to do any of it or be responsible for anything other than taking credit for having done it.

 

Mind you, this is a president of the United States commenting on his luncheon plans for the national champion football team: “I think we are going to serve McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings with some pizza. I really mean it. It will be interesting, I would think that’s their favorite food.” The most inappropriate word in that quote is “think.”

 

Does anyone remember when First Lady Michelle Obama led a campaign to get nutritionally better meals into school cafeterias? That was back when the White House represented something other than homage to the local fast food greasy spoon.  “I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition,” Mrs. Obama said.

 

Her husband, the now much missed president, created a task force on childhood obesity to develop a national plan to set concrete benchmarks toward Mrs. Obama’s goal. Among the objectives are providing healthy food in schools, improving access to healthy, affordable foods, and increasing physical activity among youngsters.  But why stop with kids? Why not start at the top with the Hamberder in Chief?

 

The president’s dietary habits, as unhealthy as they may be, are meaningless. Remember, Bill Clinton had a fondness for junk food every bit as deserving of criticism as is Trump’s addiction to heart attack on a bun. It’s not what they do it’s that they do it. I recently saw a photograph showing Jimmy Carter wielding a hammer, in his 90s, helping to build a home for the disadvantaged as part of his long dedication to Habitats for Humanity. The caption on the photo was “This is how you build a wall.” That’s how a president should set an example, not buying junk food for a championship football team in order to provide a photo op.

 

The upshot of this culinary debacle is that Donald Trump, who already has disgraced and debased the presidency, has further placed in the nation’s nutritional values into the dumpster. A Washington Post reporter, ever vigilant for further Trump gaffes, overheard one Clemson player mumble “I thought it was a joke.” Another player reportedly said, “Our nutritionist must be having a fit.”

 

A couple more really funny Twitter responses to the picture of Trump in front of the fast food laden table: “Alabama losing by 28 points makes a lot more sense when you realize that this would’ve been their reward.” And this one: “White House says that Trump is personally paying for all this food, and in about an hour everyone else will be personally paying for it too.”

 

Clemson’s phenomenal freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence supposedly posted a tweet saying “President Trump got all our favorite foods. It was the best meal we ever had.” Within hours Lawrence responded that he never said any such thing although he did enjoy the visit to the White House. Given Trump’s penchant for claiming that everyone loves him, including those 800,000 federal workers who aren’t getting paid (and those who aren’t happy about it are Democrats anyway, so who cares?), I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump himself hadn’t posted that phony quote from Lawrence.

 

There was one truth in the tweet–it is an honor to be invited to the White House. Or at least, it used to be when the occupant wasn’t a tinhorn shyster who daily debases the office. So perhaps someday in the not too distant future, I will walk into a greasy spoon fast food joint, order a greaseburger, and have the grungy fry cook with a dirty name tag reading I’m Donnie ask “y’all want fries with that?”

 

Probably not— but one can only hope.

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  • January 16th, 2019

WORDS MATTER

By Joel M. Vance

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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  • January 11th, 2019

BUG OUT!

By Joel M. Vance

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You might want to bring a flashlight, though.

 

 

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