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  • Blog
  • July 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1922 John Flaherty documented the life of an Inuit family in Alaska on film. He called the documentary Nanook of the North. In one memorable scene (Flaherty cheated—he faked the scene for dramatic emphasis) Nanook and four of his family and a sled dog all exit a kayak. About 60 years later kayak mania seized me like a virulent disease and I bought a kayak.

My sensible family of five children and any of our several dogs absolutely refused to share the kayak with me, with good reason as it turned out since I spent much of the time in the inverted position, also known as “in danger of drowning”. I did, however, become an expert at what we veteran kayakers call “wet exiting”.

While Nanook almost certainly did not share his kayak, a flimsy vehicle at best, with his family or even the dog, he probably did learn to do what is called “an Eskimo roll” this is a tricky maneuver by which the capsized kayak can be brought back upright. Considering that an upset in Alaskan waters which, at the best of times, is not like boating in a hot tub, the Eskimo roll is a good trick to know.

Nanook was no fool and, in real life, rather than in a documentary made for theater audiences who didn’t know any better, he probably used something closer to a regular boat to transfer his family from place to place, saving the kayak as a one-man vehicle for him alone. Still, even today, the sight in grainy black and white of Nanook, the four family members, and the dog popping out of the flimsy kayak makes good theater— something like seeing a long extinct Tyrannosaurus lolloping through the jungle in one of the many Jurassic Park variations. You know that logically it can’t happen but it sure is fun to see as long as you don’t have to participate.

Boating enthusiasts with half a brain have seen kayaks in action –in the Olympics, for example, when there is competition on turbulent whitewater or in documentaries about intrepid explorers challenging river rapids never before successfully run. Those enthusiasts then quickly run to their nearest Bass Pro dealer and plop down many thousands of dollars for a bass boat equipped with an 80 horsepower engine and forget they ever saw a kayak, not to mention someone rolling the craft upright after upsetting in it. You don’t upset in a bass boat unless you try to cross the Atlantic in it during a category five hurricane.

But some few of us, deranged by reading too much adventure fiction and crippled by an inability to utilize common sense, succumb to the lure of a white water craft. Two friends and I eased into the world of raging river running by building our first boat, a whitewater canoe. Since none of us had any idea what the finished product should look like our approach could best be appreciated by watching any given episode of the Three Stooges.

I don’t recall many of the details of the shaping and finish of the canoe since much of the time we were working in a small enclosed building amid the billowing fumes of fiberglass resin. I have a feeling that brain damage is the byproduct of long-term exposure to such an atmosphere.

The resulting watercraft looked like something that had been put together by the Marx Brothers under the influence of an especially fearful hallucinogenic chemical and I’m not sure we ever put it in the water possibly because we were afraid the thing would sink like a lead balloon. Eventually it got stored in the woods behind the cabin where we built it and the two friends returned home more than 100 miles from their creation, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the birth place of his monstrous creation before the guys with the torches and pitchforks showed up.

The whitewater canoe moldered there in the weeds until Dacques, a burly French Brittany discovered it had become the home place of an opossum which he engaged in combat and eventually reduced to his trophy list. Dacques, in addition to seeking out game birds, bagged an impressive list of wild creatures— a half grown raccoon, a half-grown wild turkey, more than a few rabbits, some squirrels and, for all I know, grizzly bears and mountain lions that were too much trouble to bring home.

Briefly, the difference between a whitewater canoe and a kayak is that the canoe has a larger cockpit and you kneel in it whereas you basically wear a kayak. Putting it on a Laurel and Hardy basis, big Oliver Hardy would fit in a whitewater canoe and Stan Laurel would be suited for a kayak—although both probably would turn over within 50 feet of the launch.

You slide into a kayak, feet extended and sit. You are wearing what’s called a spray skirt a sort of tutu. The first time I tottered down to the water’s edge as a chaperone on a Girl Scout canoeing trip, wearing my spray skirt, I noticed that the girls were seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling and realized they probably thought I was auditioning for Swan Lake. It did not enhance my macho image, although I did manage to avoid flipping the kayak and having to ignominiously wet exit. I also managed to get locked in the bathroom of the bus when I was chaperoning a YMCA ski trip for teenagers but that’s another story for another dismal day in the life of Joel M Vance, Klutz in Chief of any given outdoor adventure.

I practiced executing the Eskimo roll as assiduously as if I were Nanook himself capsized in the Bering Sea in near zero water temperatures, seconds away from perishing. But no matter how many times I struggled with what is supposed to be a relatively simple maneuver I simply could not pop back upright. I would get three fourths of the way back, my head out of the water glimpsing the amused faces of those on shore and then I would slowly sink back into the depths. I have to admit it was sort of peaceful suspended beneath the kayak, glimpsing curious bluegills swimming around me. But inevitably, I would begin to run out of air and would frantically tug the spray skirt free of the kayak cockpit rim and porpoise to the surface blowing and whooping like a grampus.

I consulted an expert kayaker in a swimming pool in Arkansas, watching him flip the kayak upright with more no more effort than if he were scratching his ear. And then I would try to do what he had done and it was the same old story. “I don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he said. “There must be something wrong with you.” Yes, there was— I didn’t have enough brainpower to realize when I was whipped. I was like a little boy who refuses to cry “uncle!” in a schoolyard fight until the bully who is beating him to a bloody pulp finally quits in disgust. The kayak was my bully and I figured that sooner or later it would have to give up. But it never did.

And so it came to pass that Joel donned his tutu and tucked his kayak under his arm like a businessman going to his office with his briefcase and traveled to where the fast water flows, namely the Spring River of Arkansas. Icy water, gushing from Mammoth Spring, feeds the river across the border from Missouri into Arkansas and supports trout as it winds its way south often over small rapids and many rocky ledges. It was here that I skirted the edge of disaster when I sailed over one of these ledges, somehow turned sideways in the current, and wedged under a submerged limb which stuck up stream like one of the water obstacles planted by the Germans to deter the allies from landing on the Normandy beaches in World War II.

Fortunately, I was canoeing with several guys who were infinitely more rational than I and who realized that not only the kayak but I would be pinned beneath the water by the limb and they splashed into the river and dragged me and the kayak free. The narrow escape called for a beer so I had several.

Proving that experience, even bad experience, is no cure for a lack of common sense, I launched my kayak into the Flambeau River in Wisconsin after perching my daughter ,Carrie, on a rock outcrop high above a 90 degree turn in the river where there was a daunting rapids. My idea was that Carrie would photograph me as I negotiated the rapids and then I would write an article with dramatic photography and become wealthy. The idea that I could also become drowned did not occur to me.

I negotiated the first set of rocks with all the aplomb of an Olympic contestant and then the river inconsiderately changed course 90 degrees with the water piling up at the bend, a tsunami of conflicting currents that grabbed the kayak in a giant hydraulic claw and flipped it over neatly with me underneath. I didn’t hesitate one second to see if somehow I had subconsciously learned the Eskimo roll, but frantically clawed at the tutu, ripped it free and squirted out in an explosive wet exit leaving the kayak which, as far as I was concerned, could careen on downstream to hell. At least, I knew that Carrie would have gotten several dramatic photos of me courting aquatic disaster. After I gathered my errant kayak and my wits I shouted up to Carrie, “Did you get that?” I had risked my life for a memorable series of dramatic photographs and had survived.

“I didn’t take any,” Carrie said. “I didn’t think you wanted me to take any photographs if you did it wrong.” I’m afraid I said some things and it is a tribute to her forbearance and forgiveness that she still claims to be my daughter.

My love affair with the kayak, much like an operatic libretto where the hero winds up with a dagger in his heart, came to an end on a searingly hot day in the mountains of Colorado. As if I hadn’t already tickled disaster in Arkansas and Wisconsin, I thought to pit my dubious kayak expertise against a real whitewater stream—namely, the Roaring Fork, the name of which alone should have given me pause.

I called a local floating shop and said “I’m a semi-experience kayaker and would like a short trip on local stream of several hours.” The helpful fellow directed me to a quick and what was supposed to be an easy 3 ½ mile float and said “This is a good stretch for an intermediate kayaker” and so it was for perhaps the first 200 yards. After which for the next 3 plus miles, if you have seen the movie Deliverance, you can understand what suddenly confronted me.

It was nonstop rapids and the only thing lacking was some inbred halfwit playing the banjo and a guy high on the banks above me (too high incidentally for me to climb out of the damn river and hike the rest of the way) with a rifle and a grudge against city fellers. The water was numbingly cold, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, although the day time temperature was in the 90s. But I wasn’t in the daytime—I was in the water and I quickly realized that if I ever flipped the kayak I would be upside down in the coldest water this side of one of those charity polar plunges where people raise money for hopeless causes. In this case of course I was the hopeless cause but I didn’t need money–I needed a warm bed under about four feather comforters where I could curl in the fetal position and forget Nanook and his damn kayak and especially my damn kayak.

I felt like a Chihuahua would feel balanced on a 2 x 4 rocketing down the Niagara River, nearing the lip of the Falls. To capsize would be the end of Joel M Vance as I knew him. Finally, a half hour after I optimistically entered the water on what was to be a several hour fun float, I rocketed at warp speed the last few yards to where my car was parked. I was so cold I couldn’t get my hands free from the paddle (possibly because my fingers were panic-welded into the aluminum shaft). Somehow I finally struggled out of the canoe, a cartoon caricature of hypothermia, staggered to the car, somehow got it started and turned the heater to full wintertime power and began to defrost.

It was the end of my obsession with kayaking and I loaded the thing on top of the car, tied it down and have never used it again except as a potential home for possums.

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  • Blog
  • July 8th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

North Korea and Russia are playing our mentally damaged buffoon president like a badly tuned banjo and the Middle East as usual is rife with seemingly unsolvable strife, and, for all we know, an undetected comet is bearing down on the planet and who knows what other catastrophes await the commander-in-chief’s urgent attention.

So how does the citrus tinged clown Prince of anti-democracy solve these looming situations?
Why, he goes golfing.

Golf is not considered a life-threatening sport on the order, say, of bull riding or NASCAR racing. But that’s discounting the way I played it for a couple of dissociative years.

I was manic about the game which was enough of a mental health risk without the physical trauma. “Mania” is not too strong a word to describe my obsession. If I were Catholic I would go to the confessional and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have golfed.”

There are no golf courses in Heaven. It is a cruel promise of the Devil that when a golfer dies he goes to Innesbruck. Instead there are numerous tees in Hell where, for eternity, sinning golfers are fated to hit drives that alternately shank into a rough inhabited by water moccasins and spiders, or into mephitic water hazards. There are putts that hang on the rim of the cup and tee shots that you barely tick and the demons and imps howl and point at you as the ball dribbles 20 yards down the fairway and the girl of your dreams looks at you as if you had vomited on her shoes.

W.C. Fields’ famous golf lesson skit where he growls, “Stand clear and keep your head down,” would be good advice for anyone contemplating committing golf. Golf courses are as omnipresent as political corruption and potentially just as destructive. I was consumed by the sport for several years before I came to my senses and underwent a curing process that reminded me of Frank Sinatra withdrawing from heroin addiction in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

My father had been a golfer in Chicago, but we moved to a town of 250 non-golfers and area golf courses were as rare as Isod shirts among the soybean farmers, so he gave his clubs to a nephew by marriage. Then I became a sports editor and was exposed to golf, an event like being exposed to plague.

“You mean you don’t play golf!” exclaimed Gary Filbert, the basketball coach at Mexico High School. Gary doubled as golf coach. How could I possibly cover his team if I didn’t understand the sport? He didn’t understand, nor did I, that golf, like most sports, requires athletic ability. Coaches had it or they wouldn’t be coaches. There was no such prerequisite for a sports editor–working cheap was far more important.

The various coaches played together at the local public course and it would be a chance for me to hang out with my sports page contacts, be one of the guys. But I needed clubs and buying a new set was out of the question. With two young children, a young wife and a fledgling bank account, golf clubs were far down on my list of Things We Really Need.

I pleaded with my father to reclaim his clubs and he asked for them from the nephew who returned them with ill grace. The clubs were an assortment from the Bobby Jones era, not exactly state-of-the-art. A couple were wood-shafted.

But it didn’t matter. They were golf clubs. I haunted weekend estate sales for months, filling the gaps in my golf bag with second hand clubs. It never occurred to me that there seemed to be an unconscionable number of beat-up old clubs for sale. If golf was indispensable to a complete life, why were so many golfers getting rid of their clubs? Some clubs showed evidence of having been pounded against hard objects–not golf balls, but perhaps a nearby tree. That this indicated a violent dissatisfaction with the game also never occurred to me.

I practiced putting into tipped-over water glasses on the living room rug while Marty occasionally paused to watch with a bemused look. She had seen me go through agony trying to tie fishing flies (and the family dog, a multi-colored collie, suffered too from being a repository of raw materials).

Now I was stuck in another obsession and she sighed and decided, with endless patience, to ride it out. Golf would come to be a source of marital friction that in some testier folks would have led directly to the divorce court. Only Marty’s uncanny forbearance got us through the several years when golf consumed me.

The public course in Mexico was that aberration, a sand green course. The greens, instead of being meticulously-maintained grass were sand. There was no roll. You pitched onto the “green” and the ball instantly stopped, as it would in a sand trap. There were no traps–what was the point when the greens were traps? Once on the green, you measured distance to the pin with a string attached to the flag pole and swung your ball around to a putting lane filled with oily sand (the oil allowed the sand to pack hard enough to allow a rolling putt).

It was a goofy way to end a given hole, but far less expensive than grass greens. Since I was playing on the cheap, might as well carry penuriousness to its conclusion. There was a local grass green country club, but given my meager newspaper salary we were as far from membership there as we were from membership in the French Foreign Legion.

Once I played the grass green course in Marty’s home town, Macon. By then I had developed my trademark drive, known as The Mystery Ball. I didn’t know if it would be a straight shot down the fairway (rare), a hook or a slice (common). Most golfers have a given fault that they can work on, but when you never know from shot to shot where the ball will decide to go it’s tough to develop control.

The ninth tee on the Macon course parallels U.S. Highway 36, a busy route. I was far above the highway (the course is hilly and the ninth tee was perhaps the highest point on the course). I teed up, took my stance which much resembled a person getting ready to projectile vomit, and whacked my shot. The ball rose higher and higher, began to curve ever more to the right, off the fairway, over the low trees and down to the highway.

It hit just in front of a speeding car, which fishtailed slightly as the driver slammed on his brakes. The ball ricocheted off the pavement and was gone before the driver had a chance to identify the unidentified flying object. And I was gone before he had a chance to sort it out, storm into the clubhouse to look for the author of his near miss.

A few months later I hit a line drive while trying to blast out of a sand trap and nearly crippled a lawyer. He did not sue, recognizing you can’t squeeze blood out of a golf ball, but he limped off the course and would not play with me again.

So far I had threatened the life of a couple of fellow humans. It only remained for me to put myself in jeopardy. That was not long in coming. Tagalong was a developing course near my mother’s home town, Birchwood, Wisconsin. Frank Stout, a lumber baron, built Tagalong between 1916-1919 as a playground for him and his guests. It was supposed to duplicate St. Andrews in Scotland.

After Stout’s death the place fell into disrepair and the nine-hole golf course had become an extended pasture for dairy cows. The bent grass greens, supposedly imported as sod from Scotland, had given way to clover and pasture grasses.

Then a resort development outfit began to resurrect the old golf course. The fairways still contained cows, but aside from the occasional fecal time bomb, they were in good shape. The greens were mostly clover, but had flags and were reasonably level. The place wasn’t open for business and I probably was trespassing, but there was no caretaker security or workers, nobody but me and my anachronistic golf bag.

Red Cedar Lake is adjacent to the first fairway. I know because the first drive I hit began its long journey straight down the fairway, then like a lefthander’s curve ball began to slice, over the bankside trees and far out into the lake, where it splashed down like a misdirected space capsule.

I invited Marty to walk around with me and perhaps she envisioned it as a pleasant walk in a sylvan setting, but she soon found that it was like being an unwilling member of the Manson Gang. Golf taught me to swear with the inventiveness of a mule handler. It wasn’t so much the individual words, which everyone knows, but the creative verb and adjectival constructions which would have awed a Parris Island drill instructor.

Golf as it was developing in my life did not serve as a release from job stress or a challenge to my athletic ambitions. Rather, it had released a latent nasty temper. The inconsistencies of my game gnawed at me like intestinal wharf rats. Between gobbling Rolaids and swearing I threw my battered clubs after each drive that went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to. The Holsteins mooed apprehensively and trotted awkwardly in front of us, their pendulous bags swinging side to side. I laced another drive into the trees and snarled at Marty as if it were her fault. I knew I was being unreasonable and downright nasty, but couldn’t seem to help myself.

Marty stuck it out for a couple more holes but my near constant stream of verbal abuse finally exhausted her patience. “Maybe the cows can put up with it, but I can’t,” she said. She hiked toward the car to wait and perhaps contemplate a life in which I did not play a part. Fuming, I teed up and tried to unleash my fury on the little white ball.

It was a solid hit that screamed off the tee, low and slicing, the kind of shot that normally rises as it curves and becomes a 200-yard plus drive into the deep rough. But this one centered a tree trunk about 20 yards to one side of the tee and rebounded with the velocity of a rifle bullet. I both felt and heard it whisper past my ear. If it had hit me between the eyes where my brain allegedly resided it would have killed me.

The ball skipped up the hill behind me and came to rest about where the present day Tagalong Clubhouse is. There were a dozen or so cowpies where the dairy herd had been sheltering from the sun. The ball gleamed amid their dank presence. It seemed prophetic.

I sat heavily, my legs weak, and took a shuddery breath. It was time to hang up the battered old clubs and find some other obsession–like defusing old land mines.

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  • Blog
  • July 2nd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It’s been many years since suffocating summer nights in Montgomery Alabama, sitting on a rickety couch in a small room in Archie and Lou McKay’s house listening to opera over their treasured record player, drinking Jax Beer and learning about the world of opera.

Now it is a suffocating night in mid-Missouri more than 60 years later, and I am on an aisle seat in a restored old theater in Columbia Missouri, listening to live opera, La Boheme, performed by the University of Missouri music department and the Missouri Symphony Orchestra. Not Bjoerling and Roberta Peters but pretty damn good. In fact, outstanding, because live performance always trumps recorded.

I have a treasure trove of recorded opera. Some are highlights from favorite operas, others are complete boxed sets of favorite operas, some are on compact discs others on videotape, most on 33 RPM long playing records. Years ago on a grouse hunting trip in Minnesota I took a lunch break in town and stopped by a knickknack store where I stumbled on a stash of boxed complete operas for about two bucks each. No doubt they still would be there if I hadn’t pounced on them like a house cat on a mouse, Pine River not exactly being a hotbed of operatic fanatics, and I scarfed up the entire collection.

The magic still is there— opera became for me in that stifling hot summer in Montgomery an escape into a magic world of music that never has quite left me, despite sidetracks into folk, bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, early rock ‘n roll, and even an exploratory toe dipping into some of the more advanced wailing of drugged out rockers. But opera over the decades has retained a tenacious grip on my musical sensibilities. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart, and apprentice member of the peanut gallery whose appreciation is for the romance language composers. I’ve never developed an interest or affection for the German composers. Somehow even the name Brunhilda lacks the lyrical sound of a someone named Violeta, not to mention the music she sings.

Opera has a been around for centuries, since the first musician got the idea of turning spoken theater into music and adding song and dance to staged presentations even to the dramatic world of Shakespeare. No composers since have completely abandoned the idea of musical drama— there even is an opera about Richard M Nixon, which seems like some sort of cosmic musical joke. For me, I’ll stick to Giuseppe Verdi and, as it was on that wonderful night in Columbia, Giacomo Puccini and his tragic tale of the doomed seamstress and her heartbroken poet lover Rodolfo, a couple of Parisian proto-hippies living hand to mouth in the closing days of the 19th century.

When Rodolfo clutched Mimi’s hand and sang (in Italian, but thanks to supertitles, translated into English) “your tiny hand is cold” I got tears in my eyes, not because the soap opera plot is so moving, but because the memories of nights listening to Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters, and so many others now gone legendary opera stars made Jax beer taste like champagne. It overwhelmed me.

Arch McKay is dead, shotgunned in a parking lot in Mobile, Alabama in an apparent Dixie Mafia mob hit, and his grieving widow, Lou, died several years ago. Puccini, likewise, also died many years ago—possibly the first and maybe only opera composer ever to die of lung cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. But, unlike Archie and Lou, his music will live forever—as long as there is such a thing as music, and as long as there are people like me who cherish the idea and the performance of opera.

I still get all misty when I hear the slave chorus from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, always remembering the possibly apocryphal story of how grieving Italians spontaneously burst into singing it as his funeral procession wound through the streets of Milan Italy.

The legend is that, at the time, northern Italy was occupied by Austria and needless to say the Italians weren’t happy about it. Austrians, being a Germanic and irksome occupying type, suppressed any sort of subversive commentary by the Italians, but the Italians adopted Verdi’s slave chorus from Nabucco as an unofficial national anthem. The opera tells about the enslavement of Hebrews by Babylon, singing of their longing to be free and to return to their homeland — it’s in the Bible and you can read about it there (Nabucco in the Bible is Nebuchadnezzar king of the Babylonians).

Verdi was the most revered Italian of his time, which was long, and when he died at 87, some 41 years after the debut of Nabucco, his funeral cortege wound through the streets of Milan which were lined by an estimated 10,000 people who spontaneously began to sing the chorus from Nabucco. The Austrians, more attuned to the Hitlerian arias of Richard Wagner, no doubt missed the nationalistic symbolism of the Italian tribute to their revered composer.

Or, so the story goes— whether it’s true or not it’s a story worthy of inclusion as a dramatic act in a Verdi opera. Too bad the old man wasn’t alive to compose yet another timeless musical drama. The truth is that Verdi was buried in Milan and a chorus of more than 800, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, sang the Nabucco chorus for what was reported to be an audience of more than 300,000–possibly that included those thousands reported to have been lining the streets as the funeral procession passed by.

My infatuation with opera actually predates those hot nights in Montgomery cradling a bottle of Jax Beer and listening to Jussi Bjoerling (sometimes we drank Dixie Beer, this being the first capital of the Confederacy). Anyway, when I was incarcerated for six months at Fort Bliss, Texas, as a shavetail lieutenant, I went to see the film version of Don Giovanni with a beer drinking buddy who outranked me— he was a first lieutenant and therefore I felt a certain military obligation to go with him when he suggested seeing an opera movie.

Clyde loved beer as much as I did and once turned away a pair of Mormon missionaries when they knocked on his door early on a Sunday morning when he had a hangover. Clyde was a Jack Mormon so that transgression probably meant that he would suffer eternal damnation, chewed on by a swarm of locusts, but for whatever reason he wanted to see Mozart and so we went to the movie. At that time of life I was more in tune with Howling Wolf than with Wolfgang, but there was something compelling in the timeless story of the damned degenerate cursed and dragged to hell by the ghost statue of an outraged father.

And to go back even further in my love affair with opera, I was desperately in love at the age of seven with both Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, two movie stars who were not only lovely to look at but could sing like the angels with their Metropolitan Opera quality voices. But I forsook Jane and Kathryn later on in life in favor of the bluegrass tenor of Bill Monroe and the country bass of Tex Ritter—until I got that fateful job at the Montgomery Alabama Journal and hooked up with Archie McKay and his lovely blind wife Lou.

The popular perception of opera by most people these days is summed up in a phrase attributed to Texas Red Raiders sports information director Ralph Carpenter who said when Texas A and M rallied for a tie late in a tournament game “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While it’s true that historically many leading opera performers were less then lean, today many if not most of the stars of opera look the parts they are singing— sopranos who not only can soar above the clouds with their voices but also can melt your toenails with their looks. And many of the guys are, in the words of female audience members “hunks.” Even given the beefiness of some legendary opera singers, what would the history of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific have been without the rendition of “some enchanted evening” by chunky opera basso Ezio Pinza? A song title which, by the way, pretty well sums up the effect of a well performed opera.

And if there seems to be incongruence in the sight of two candidates for Jenny Craig singing a love duet, I can counter with the memory of a performance of Rigoletto by the traveling company of the New York City Opera which featured a sexual encounter between the ever horny Duke of Mantua and the equally seductive sister of the evil villain Sparafucile, the beautiful Maddelena. I well recall the two of them rolling around on a bed in near X-rated ecstasy. Made for a memorable evening and the singing was gorgeous.

Recently I watched a video of a lovely coloratura singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in a low cut gown that threatened to add a couple of dimensions to her performance possibly not intended by Donizetti. Eat your heart out, Janet Jackson.

If any one incident sums up the impact that opera has had on me over the many years, it happened some years back when Leontyne Price gave her final performance for the Metropolitan Opera. It was recorded on PBS and I watched as she, in the role of Aida, sang oh Patria Mia (my dear country). The role is that of an Ethiopian slave to the Egyptians, loved by the Egyptian military commander. Aida is consumed with longing for her homeland, but also torn because of her love for an enemy. But the conflict in her heart on that night of sorrow for Aida went far beyond the intent of Verdi when he wrote the part— he didn’t know it but he was writing it more than a century earlier specifically for Leontyne Price on her farewell night.

Ms. Price will go down in operatic history as among the finest sopranos ever to sing anywhere and not only, with her moving song of longing for her homeland, did she illuminate the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, she illuminated the tragedy of African slaves in our own terrible history— Ms. Price is an African-American. No one else could have sung that role so heartrendingly and with such conviction. There surely must have been in her mind as she sang not just the words or the feeling that Giuseppe Verdi had put into the aria, but also the emotion of centuries of oppression and heartbreak suffered by her race.

The tears running down my face were not only in appreciation for her peerless singing, but also in shame for my race.

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  • Blog
  • June 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have an image problem talking among a group of trout anglers. I grew up in Dalton, in Chariton County, Missouri, where a sport fish was a carp and a trash fish was any one you couldn’t catch. The only time I heard the word “trout” was in conjunction with “trout lines” which I found out actually were trot lines and had nothing to do with salmonids.

In fact, I thought salmonella was the study of cold water fishes until I started hanging around with my late best friend Spence Turner. Fly fishing always appeared to us kids as resembling a man fighting off yellowjackets. But I began fly fishing as a young adult and discovered that it is composed largely of esoteric knots. There are blood knots, nail knots and my specialty, the wind knot.

After a serious skirmish with the Boy Scouts, I realized that knots and me were never meant to be. The Outdoor Writers Association used to have a knot tying contest at its annual conference. It was sponsored by Trilene. They gave you a couple of pieces of Trilene and invited you to tie your favorite knot in 20 seconds. My favorite knot was actually the only one I knew with any certainty and that was a square knot, something that most kids learn at least by the second grade.

After my 20 seconds they hooked the mono up to a machine and started pulling. The winner was the one who registered the highest poundage before the line broke. I entered twice and both times the line did not break….because the knot slipped free within the first turn of their machine. I got the impression the second time that the Trilene folks would rather not have me come back.

The first time I encountered the wind knot was on the Brule River in northern Wisconsin. I was fishing with a guide who ran a fly fishing shop and he was clearly gritting his teeth. “You just had a hit!” he snarled. “The line shot at least six inches! Set the hook!”

By the time we got to the takeout the hook had become the “damn hook.” And he also cried in anguish, “You’re tying wind knots!” I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to tie a complex knot in the middle of the air, but he didn’t see it that way.

My first fly rod was leaning against a forgotten counter in a store that was going out of business. I think the business was a buggy whip factory. This thing was bamboo and I thought I’d made a buy. I have read books by legendary fly fisherman and they all seem to use bamboo rods. He I squinted along it and saw several curves that didn’t seem to be there because of superior engineering, but I figured what the heck, for four bucks I could forgive a few quirks.

Well, it was like casting kite string with a CB antenna. Partly it was because I didn’t have the idea of fly fishing down right. I was a refugee from spin casting—actually I began fishing life with a casting rod and reel and 20 pound test nylon line throwing plugs that were bigger than most of the fish in the lake. I still figured you cast the lure, not the fly, so I used such delicate fly fishing terminal tackle as a one-sixteenth ounce jig.

Picking it off the water was like dredging for alligators and it flew through the air like a .22 caliber bullet. It took just one shot upside the head to get my attention and I vowed never again to stand in the way of one of my own casts. I learned a technique that I named “hurl and duck” which I still use to this day. Visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame on the river with a fly rod.

You all know about “matching the hatch.” The first time I heard the phrase I thought they said, “Down the hatch” and I said, “I’ll drink to that!” Spence Turner was a man of infinite patience and tolerance. He’d have had to be to have invited me on a trout fishing trip to the Yellowstone area. He dropped names like Madison and Firehole and Henry’s Fork. The only Henry’s fork I knew was owned by a guy named Hank who used it to pitch manure and eat barbecue (actually, he used two different forks).

I checked the catalogs to see what it would take to outfit me like a real fly fisherman. There was a shirt with a fly pattern embroidered on the pocket for only fifty bucks. I looked in vain for the Jolly Green Giant kernel of corn emblem or at the very least a piece of foam rubber soaked in cheese juice that would represent the lures that I equated with trout fishing.

Finally I donned my ratty jeans and J.C. Penny shirt, scraped the dried mud off the butt of the fly rod (I’d been bank line fishing for catfish with it) and off we went. I knew we were in trouble when we sauntered into a West Yellowstone fly shop and heard the proprietor talking to a customer in a language which either indicated they were using the Latin names of aquatic insects or celebrating a Mass.

It’s one thing to say, “Old chap, I usually fish the No. 4 Hexagenia limbata, but I sense perhaps something a bit more delicate would be appropriate. Pray give me the benefit of your longtime local expertise.” It’s another to show the guy a tattered bug-eyed popper and say, “This here’s what we use for perch back home. Y’all got anything like it fer trouts?”

We left the store with me clutching a little paper sack of flies that weighed perhaps a tenth of an ounce and considering what I paid for them were about three times as valuable as high grade diamonds.

I found that trout on the Firehole were taking something so tiny that the smallest fly I had looked like a road-killed warthog by contrast. I can’t imagine why a fish eats something so small that it takes more calories to eat that there are in it. Then Spence got us a float on the Madison where he said the fishing was so easy even I could do it. Don’t you just love it when someone says something is so easy that “even you could do it”?

I was expecting another No. 55 size Trico, but the guide dragged out a big, ugly bug with rubber legs. It looked like what scuttles off into the kitchen cabinets when you switch on the light real fast.

And then it happened. There was a smashing strike, throbbing rod, line hissing through the water just like a page out of an Ernest Schwiebert book. I worried about my backing, mainly because I didn’t have any. . But I played the fish masterfully and everyone in the boat was openmouthed….one guy was asleep and the other guy was yawning.

I lifted my fish with a vibrant cry of triumph. ‘Huge brown?” I asked. “Trophy rainbow?”
The guide looked at it. ‘It’s a damned old whitefish,” he snarled in disgust. I looked at the bronze fish with its downturned mouth. It looked almost exactly like a good ol’ Missouri Ozark redhorse sucker.

It was just like being at home. You can take the boy out of the country….but you can’t make a trout fisherman out of him. It’s not that I don’t trout fish. Spence could have told you that I do it with great earnestness, though not with great success. Spence was from real trout country where the fish have their babies right in the stream instead of in a hatchery pool. My mother was from Spence’s home country, northwest Wisconsin, and I got started trout fishing up there. Once I went down the Brule River at night, fishing for big brown trout. It was both the most exciting and disappointing trout trip I ever took.

Dark as the inside of a Labrador retriever. Soft July breeze suffing through the spruce and fir trees. No traffic sounds, only the gurgle of the unseen Bois Brule and the pop of a cook fire.
My guide was cooking greasy, indigestible, delectable pan fries while we waited for night. The Brule is Wisconsin’s crown jewel trout stream. It gathers in miles of peat bogs, runs narrow and still with only faint swirls to show its current. Then it picks up speed as it senses lake Superior. Hall’s Rapids winds between a couple of rock walls that can whack an unwary canoeist and wake him out of the nine previous quiet miles.

Once I followed the canoeing guide book which told me to look out for a brown cabin so I wouldn’t stray into May’s Ledges, a Class Four rapids. I rounded a bend and was sucked into a series of roaring, frightening drops before I could react.

They’d painted the damn cabin!

The Brule is called the river of presidents because several fished there, but also Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and others sampled it. Calvin Coolidge, another comic actor, vacationed there while he was president. Mr. Coolidge ticked off the nation’s anglers when he was quoted as saying fishing was for old men and boys. That went over like a can of nightcrawlers at a Trout Unlimited banquet.

His advisors told Mr. Coolidge he’d better take up fishing and quick. So he did…with worms. Fly anglers were enraged. The man known as Silent Cal must have wondered how someone who never said anything could get in trouble so much for shooting off his mouth. Well, Mr. Coolidge finally recognized which way the wind was blowing and got himself a fly rod.

A fellow Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was unimpressed. He said, “President Coolidge apparently had not fished before election. Being a fundamentalist in religion, economics and fishing, he began his fish career for common trout with worms. Ten million fly fishermen at once evidenced disturbed minds. Then Mr. Coolidge took to a fly. He gave the Secret Service guards great excitement in dodging his back cast and rescuing flies from trees.”

By the time Silent Cal got to the Brule he had become so accomplished an angler that he bragged to game wardens at Cedar Island Lodge that he had caught 26 trout. Problem was the limit was 25. A local newspaperman commented, “Not a single word was spoken for several minutes by newspapermen or conservation officers assigned to the president’s security. They stood with bowed heads and all, including the president, appeared to be staring at their shoelaces.” Not surprisingly the president wasn’t ticketed for over the limit.

The first presidential visitor to the Brule was Ulysses Grant in the 1870s. Grover Cleveland did it in the 1880s and then came Coolidge in 1928. Herbert Hoover fished there as a senator and Dwight Eisenhower as a general. Ike’s guide wrote that there were no guards when he drove to the lodge to meet the general. “The only sign of life I encountered was an old male raccoon waddling down the road with his mate,” he wrote.

Ike’s fishing was featured in a 1955 outdoor magazine and they featured his recipe for “Trout Eisenhower” which brings on arteriosclerosis just by reading it. Chunk a pound of bacon and fry it over a hot bed of coals, remove the bacon and drain, mix bacon drippings with a half pound of butter melted in a second frying pan, pouring from skillet to skillet. Shake cleaned trout in a paper bag containing cornmeal, salt and pepper and lay fish in the butter/bacon fat to cook.”

My God, no wonder Mr. Eisenhower died of a heart attack!

I didn’t have any interest in politics that July night and no one was trying to make me run for office, but I did have an interest in the huge brown trout on the Brule. My guide and I were sipping bourbon mixed with springwater from the peat bogs which has a smoky quality to it that turns bourbon into something noble.

John soaked a huge hair mouse in the stream while we waited. There is no subtlety about night fishing for brown trout. You pick the darkest night ever created, tie three feet of 10-pound monofiliment to the end of the fly line, and the hair mouse on the other end. You blind cast and if you hear something that sounds like someone punted a yearling heifer into the river, you set the hook.

Finally we loaded into John’s canoe. It was so dark that I couldn’t see him in the stern. I would no more go down a river at night than I would drive after dark on a freeway without lights. But John knew the Brule. He’d learned a paddle trick from an old river guide. He sculled with two paddles with the shafts under his armpits. At the top of a riffle he’d dig the blades into the gravel and hold the canoe while I fished out of the bow.

At the first riffle he said, “There’s a race coming in here. Cast out at 4 o’clock and give the mouse a swimming action. Follow it with the tip of your rod. You can’t tell, but it’s swinging with the current.” I twitched the rod tip and tried to imagine how the mouse must be angling across the face of the feeder stream. There was a sloshing sound and John shouted, “Hit ‘im!”

I set the hook and felt the fish surge. There were three or four powerful surges and then the mouse came free and swished back and bounced off my chest. I recited an old Anglo-Saxon benediction. John said, “That’s okay—there’ll be more.”

And there were. The next hit was like what a big old largemouth bass does in the springtime. The trout went down the rapids so fast that all I could do was hang on. It was like hooking a passing Peterbilt. Then the line went slack again. By now it was after midnight and cold. But still the fish hit, always with that awesome splash in the black night. And still I couldn’t hold them.

Finally I closed my hand over the mouse after perhaps eight or nine hard strikes….and felt the hook broken off just behind the barb. I could hook them, but the moment they got the right angle they came loose.

The hook came from Herter’s, the Minnesota outdoor store, which possibly explains why Herter’s is out of business today. John didn’t mean to but he rubbed salt in my wound by saying it was the best fishing night on the river that year. It was 3 a.m. before I slid under the covers, cold, fishless and exhausted. I dreamed fitfully about noisy strikes and leaping trout and a hair mouse as big as something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

I have no photos of the big fish on the Brule, nothing really to show for the long night.

Nothing, that is, except a deer hair mouse that hangs over my desk on the broken bend of a Herter’s hook……

Read More
  • Blog
  • June 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

When Jeff Sessions the grinning troll stands at the podium and says that the Bible mandates that it’s all right for United States immigration enforcement agents to forcibly drag children in diapers away from their parents and sequester them in a converted Walmart store where their prison wardens are forbidden to touch them no matter how hard they weep for their parents, even the most hardened heart has to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Sessions is ugly and what he spouts as justification for the actions of our government is beyond ugly- it is cruelty personified by a racist and authoritarian regime that more closely represents the early days of Adolf Hitler than it does anything we have suffered in our 250 years of history as a Republic.

This demon-eared twerp, afterbirth from the most egregious days of Southern segregation, is a visible symbol of the innately cruel and uncaring person who is his bloated boss, Donald J Trump, known in this household as the biggest political mistake in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, in too many American households the knowledge has not yet seeped in that this is an evil, sociopathic monster who has no normal human characteristics.

He acknowledges none of the wrongs he is perpetrating and maintains that the only right is what he wants. He shows it every day in every way. He fawns over those ruthless despots of other regimes and brags that he wants “his” subjects to bow to him as those automatons in North Korea do to their porky despotic ruler. I have news for him. We are not subjects, asshole, we are citizens of a Republic where supposedly we wisely choose our leaders.

The United States often has blotted its copybook over the 2 ½ centuries of its existence but seldom have we gone as far against the democratic grain as we now are doing. Only with slave families did we disrupt the household and separate children from their parents. Even as we interned Japanese-American families during World War II—an unpardonable offense— we allowed families to stay together. Even on the long march where the Cherokee Indians were forcibly evicted from their Carolina homeland and were forced hundreds of miles to a desolate reservation in Oklahoma territory , they went as families. Even as we similarly evicted other Native Americans from their ancestral lands to often inhospitable reservations, they retained their family identities. Even as we turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and sent them back to be killed in concentration camps, they went as families.

Those were egregious acts of cruelty which should forever stand as examples of national shame and for which we can never make total amends. The best we can do is to remember these acts of violence against humanity and try not to repeat them. But, unfortunately, we not only are repeating the worst of them right now, we aren’t even making a good attempt to stop it before it gets any worse.

Now the Trumpites seize families at our country’s southern border, separate parents and their children, send the parents to prison, and send the children to tent cities in the desert under blazing temperatures, wondering how they are now better off than they were when endemic death and desolation in their home countries forced them to head North to what they believed would be a better life.

We have a craven Republican Congress whose most notable achievement is to kowtow to Trump’s every un-American (and demented) demand and a feeble Democrat opposition party so ineffectual as to make the word “opposition” meaningless. Shovel in the Supreme Court with a conservative five to four majority which is agreeable to approve state laws designed to deprive legitimate voters from their right to cast a ballot.

Renowned actor Robert De Niro summed up what should be universal outrage when he dropped an F bomb on Trump at the Tony awards show. He got a standing ovation. But the problem is that no matter how little free speech remains (and if Trump has his way there won’t be any before long) De Niro’s one finger salute to Trump may prompt a negative reaction. First of all it will just make the Trumpites even more fiercely dedicated to dismantling civil society than they already are, and secondly it prompts even more coverage of the outrageous lies that Trump routinely tells— and it’s an unfortunate truism that the more you lie about something the more it becomes believed by the gullible.

The whole Trump presidency is a fabric of lies, routinely documented by the media. But he counters by calling reported and proved falsehoods “fake news” and stoutly maintains that the news media is the greatest enemy of the United States, a statement which on its face is so outrageous that anyone who believes it, or endorses it, is almost by definition an enemy himself or herself of all that we purport to stand for.

“If you’re smuggling a child then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably as required by law,” said Jeff Sessions that freaky little creep that masquerades as the Attorney. General of the United States. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” This sleazy little moron who looks remarkably like Alfred E Neuman the half witted caricature from Mad Comics, can’t even speak grammatically.

Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly was touted as someone who might bring a voice of reason to today’s chaotic circus in the White House. Instead he has bought into the strategy of holding children hostage so that the Democrats will cave in and agree to build Trump’s stupid border wall in return for which the separated families might be reunited. I don’t hold out hope that the Democrats won’t cave in— humanitarian instinct may force them to, but it will be taxpayers who foot the bill for that moronic wall and for the Army of storm troopers who will be needed to maintain it.

Former first lady Laura Bush had this to say “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history.”

Those Trump voters of limited intelligence may conceivably remember that Laura Bush is married to George W. Bush, a Republican president and not one of those Democrats whom Trump blames for the family separation crisis on our southern border. Parenthetically speaking, is there any Trump voter who is not of limited intelligence?

Another little factoid for those cretins who believe Trump’s lies: Trump attacked Germany’s immigration policies, claiming that crime is up in that country (because of immigration) when in fact crime is at a 25 year low. No wonder Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently fixed Trump with a glare which should have turned him in into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Ms. Merkel is only one leader of a number of countries who once were our staunch allies who now think that the United States is a beleaguered and staggering country run by a hapless clown.

In a six-week period, just over one month, nearly 2000 children have been separated from their parents by the immigration authorities. Nothing sums it up better than a photograph taken by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer John Moore. The photograph shows a two-year-old child crying helplessly as she looked up at her mother who was being searched by a US customs and border patrol agent. “I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself,” said Moore. Moments later the border cops put the child and mother into a van with a group of other undocumented migrants and took them to a processing center. No one knows whether the mother and child were separated, but given the continuing trend it’s a good bet they were.

Moore talked briefly with the mother who said she was from Honduras and had been traveling for a full month and was exhausted. Just the kind of helpless mother and child that Donald J Trump and his heartless followers enjoy picking on.

Cameras have been banned by the border Nazis so there’s no footage of the chain-link cages that the kids are been stuffed into but there is an audio recording where you can hear children rending your heart with sobs, calling for their mother and father amid which can be heard one of the ICE thugs commenting, “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What’s missing is a conductor.” That guy probably drowns kittens as a hobby, especially if they are the cherished pets of small children. Anyone who can listen to that recording without tearing up should be down on the border terrorizing infants.

Even Trump’s own First Lady, Melania, weighed in on the zero-tolerance policy of her awful husband, the serial Abuser in Chief. In a tepid comment on the family separation she said through her communications director Stephanie Griffin, “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart. Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Notice that is not a direct quote from Melania Trump but instead comes from the same office that has spawned such luminaries as Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hardly a biting commentary on the order of the scathing one delivered by Laura Bush— more a timid way to say the same thing that the creepy wizened gnome Sessions said.

By contrast, several other past first ladies have echoed the sharp indignation that should be inflaming every citizen of this country. Michelle Obama retweeted Laura Bush’s fiery outrage, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter also declared their ire and said what should be said by anyone with an ounce of compassion. These women speak for every woman in the country and especially they speak for the mothers of those seeking asylum in this country who can’t speak for themselves.

Perhaps this parade of outraged first ladies is a symbol of what will bring an end to what now is the most reprehensible act of cowardice and cruelty yet devised by Donald Trump and his heartless hit squad. These angered eminent women echo the famous phrase from Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network who implored people to stick their heads out the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If the nation’s women voters and younger voters turn out in record numbers in November they are more than adequate
to oust the cowardly Republican majority from the House and Senate and bring enough pressure to bear on the many investigations into the Trump administration’s misdeeds that, one would hope, Donald J Trump would be forced to get the hell out of the White House and out of our lives forever.

And he can take the insipid Melania with him.

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  • Blog
  • June 13th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

If ever there was a wildlife media celebrity, it is the raccoon that scaled a 23 story office building in Minneapolis, exhibiting all the characteristics of Spiderman. How or why the little raccoon decided to go technical climbing is beyond explanation, but it did and became an instant media celebrity, thankfully supplanting the clown president and all the other political entities who daily make the news cycle toxic.

One Twitterite said this, “if that poor raccoon can climb all the way to the roof then I can make it through college.” News cameras, smart phones, and anybody with a camera followed the progress of the animal as it progressed floor to floor all the way to the roof of the UBS tower 23 stories above the street and then back down several floors to a window ledge for a well-deserved rest before animal control lured it into a cage with cat food. Apparently, inexplicably in the middle of Minneapolis’s cityscape, the raccoon was startled into flight and started its epic climb and didn’t quit until it reached the top of the building.

Wildlife often appears in an urban setting, far from its usual habitat–deer appear in downtowns, peregrine falcons nest on Manhattan window ledges–but perhaps never has any animal done what this little raccoon did. But then I would not put anything past a determined raccoon

Bears are bears, ducks are ducks and mooses are mooses…meese…whatever. The point is that animals are what they are. But if there ever was a critter that pushes the envelope between critter and human it’s the raccoon. It’s hard to describe a raccoon without resorting to human characteristics (sneaky, devious, selfish, stealthy, etc.)

I’ve had a love/aggravation relationship with coons for years, even as I recognize that what they do is just coon-ness, not deliberate bad behavior. Given Ft. Knox filled with crawdads instead of gold bars, an average raccoon could break in with the finesse of old time robber Willie Sutton who allegedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is” and then managed to escape from jail most of the time. Then the coon would give us the same impudent grin that Mr. Sutton displayed in newspaper photographs of the time.

The raccoon is America’s most important furbearer, is the source of much entertainment for people who like to follow the sound of a baying hound while falling into ravines and crashing into unseen trees, and is a pain in the pocketbook for bird lovers who would prefer to feed purple finches rather than paunchy pilferers.

As an economic boon alone, trapping furbearers brings in an estimated $800 million annually to wildlife agencies in permit fees and much of that is contributed by the raccoon, the most frequently-taken furbearer.

Few states lack raccoons. In the Western mountain states the animal is absent from large chunks of territory but in the eastern part of such states as Wyoming the habitat is raccoon rich (the raccoon range is southern Canada to northern Argentina). Given the human trend to mountain development, raccoons surely will follow—coons love people (or the food benefits that people bring. Western Montana has seen an influx of raccoons in the past several decades, along with people.

There are six species of raccoon, but the common one is the most commonly seen and cussed at (no great surprise). The name comes from an Algonquin word and originally the Latin moniker was “Ursus lotor,” meaning “washer bear.” But the Latin now is “Procyon lotor,” or “washer dog.”

Raccoons historically were thought of as little cousins of the bear, but they aren’t related to either bears or dogs—their nearest relatives are ringtails, coatis and coatimundis. They are also related to the kinkajou, olingos and the lesser panda, none common in the wilds of North America.

Raccoons can weigh up to 50 pounds, but 20 is about average. They’re attracted to water because that’s where much of their food comes from. In the West they’ll come to livestock watering areas. They’re largely nocturnal and as omnivorous as people—they eat just about anything that doesn’t eat them first. They have an uncanny ability to judge the ripeness of sweet corn. Once I had a wonderful crop of succulent sweet corn and planned to pick it the next day. I found the raccoons had beaten me to it the night before and had stripped and eaten every ear.

Average litter size is 3-5 and females breed between their first and second year, then every year thereafter. Lifespan can reach 12 years, but usually is considerably less.
In keeping with the raccoon’s rascally reputation, males are in it for the fun and the female is left to raise the young. She takes care of them until they’re fully grown, often through the summer and succeeding winter.

And she teaches them the wily wares of raccoon. I have spotted a mother coon on our deck instructing her rowdy kids in breaking and entering our bird feeder. She is a tough mother, knowing that the skills she teaches them tonight will be vital in nights to come. She’ll nip their impudent back ends if they get involved in coonplay and redirect them to the business at hand.

Raccoons are among the best-known carriers of the dread rabies virus. For example, West Virginia had 96 diagnosed cases of rabies in 2001; Wyoming none. There’s little pattern in where rabies pops up. Some Western states have had rabid raccoons; others none. The same pattern applies to Eastern states.

Rabies can be latent in a raccoon for up to six months, long enough for the animal to breed a litter of rabid young. But calls for intensive trapping and other supposed rabies control programs are misguided—they’re expensive and don’t work. Also expensive, but more promising are air drops of bait containing an anti-rabies vaccine in a capsule that has been designed to be absorbable only by raccoons. The air drop program has been in use in Europe for more than two decades and has been used widely in Ontario and several Northeastern states where rabies is endemic.

An Iowa study found that about three-fourths of raccoon deaths are from trapping and hunting, with another 12 percent due to road kills. Distemper and parvo, two disease threats they share with dogs, accounted for less than two percent; however, a distemper outbreak can wreak havoc on a local population of coons.

Raccoons are classified as predator animals in Wyoming but in most states they are listed as furbearers. Those classed as predators can be taken year-round, with no limit; however other regulations (such as no shooting from roads) usually apply. Coon hunting behind hounds at night is permitted if the hunter follows the rules. You must have written landowner permission on private land, use a hand light, and have a coonhound along.

While hound hunting for coons isn’t a big thing in some states, it is hugely popular in Midwest and Southern states where to a dedicated coon hunter a good coonhound is more valuable than most of his kids. Hounds can bring thousands of dollars and to a hound man Placido Domingo never sang sweeter than a good bawling hound on the trail.

Coon hunting is different than fox hunting. Where the fox hunters build a warm fire, sit on logs and lie to each other about their hounds, as the distant dogs run the fox, coon hunters stumble through the bleak night after their dogs, keeping warm only by excessive exertion.

I coon hunted…once. It was a sharply cold December night, with a light snow falling. My coon hunting companion apparently was in training for a marathon and we tripped and sprawled (well, I did—he didn’t) across miles of back country in the pit of night, following the distant bawl of his hounds. Finally they bayed treed and we eagerly closed in for the kill…only to find that the coon had treed in a farmer’s barn.

The house was dark (responsible people having gone to bed long before) and we doubted that the landowner would take kindly to us shooting up his barn, no matter how unfriendly he felt toward raccoons or how much permission we had to be on the land, so we called off the hounds and the hunt.

Hound hunters account for about 60 percent of raccoon pelts and trappers take the rest (not counting the irate homeowner who plinks one off his bird feeder). Fur prices vary wildly from year to year as trends in furs change from long haired animals to short and back again. Raccoons, being long-haired, are at the mercy of fashion. The 1920s saw a great boom in raccoon fur. Full length coats for both men and women were the in-garment for the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd (it takes 30-40 coon hides to make a coat).

Fur resurged after a lull during the 1990s when animal rights activists and fashion trends combined to bring trapping to its knees. The Russians and Chinese, now our trading buddies, are particularly fond of long-haired pelts. An otter pelt might bring $100, while a raccoon pelt might go for anywhere from two dollars to $50 depending on the year (in the 1970s coon pelts averaged $25 or more, but were down to $6 or less in the early 1990s, then more than $20 at the end of the decade). Generally raccoon prices are in the ball park with mink and beaver.

Save for trappers and hunters, raccoons and people usually meet under disagreeable circumstances—the human’s trash can or bird feeder. I briefly stored trash and bird food in plastic cans which the coons chewed through quicker than a Sutton jailbreak. Then I went to galvanized cans, but the coons flipped the lids off and dove in. Now the lids are wired down, an inconvenient barrier for me and raccoons alike. They haven’t yet figured out how to untwist the wire….but I’m not putting it past them.

Controlling pest raccoons is almost impossible short of what spies call “wet work” (i.e. assassination). You can live trap-and-transplant and hope that the coons don’t find their way back (or that more coons don’t fill the gap). Or you can try scaring them off which is temporary—coons don’t scare easily. A friend once wired his garbage can to his house current and when he heard the telltale rattle of a marauding coon, he’d flip the switch. That worked fine until he forgot to turn off the juice and his wife took out some garbage. They’re still married…barely.

One wildlife damage control bulletin says, with wry understatement, “shooting can be very effective.” Beyond the income from trapping permits and fur sales, trapping and hunting raccoons is necessary as a population control. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates the nationwide cost of rabies education and control of raccoons, foxes and coyotes at more than $450 million annually…and that the cost would jump to $1.4 billion annually without hunting or trapping. The figures are for all three species, not just raccoons, but it’s a telling statistic.

Fur is the primary reason for hunting or trapping a raccoon, but barbecued raccoon is considered a delicacy by some. I once tried it but because we’d had several young raccoons as house guests, snacking on one was somewhat like eating one of my bird dogs and I didn’t finish my helping. For those with a yen for culinary adventure a Google search of “raccoon recipes” finds countless ways to fix the meat. Chances are you won’t want to tell most of your dinner guests what they’re eating.

Years ago I was host to a young raccoon for several weeks. He had been confiscated by conservation officials from someone who had taken him from the wild. He was too young to release, so I volunteered to keep him until he was grown enough to make it on his own.

Bimbo had been a favorite of the wildlife people. They fed him popcorn and other treats until he was as chunky as an NFL linebacker. He was a thoroughly delightful animal, playful and intelligent. He tussled with the family kitten but rapidly outgrew the cat whereupon the cat lost interest in being treated like a beach ball. You could wool him around like a puppy and he’d chew on your fingers, but not hard enough to break the skin.

Bimbo got into everything. No cabinet was safe from his investigations. Once he crawled into a backpack and carefully tucked the flap around his neck while he took a nap. He was sweet-natured and charming…but he was a wild animal and we knew that as he matured he would become less agreeable and possibly dangerous (an aroused mature raccoon is nothing to fool around with).

So, while Bimbo still was a big, lovable clown, we took him to the very middle of a National Wildlife Refuge where there was an ample food supply and no predatory threats, and I led him down to a borrow ditch that had a whole bunch of water to explore. Bimbo began to feel in the muddy water, using those delicate and dexterous paws as extensions of his curiosity.

I ran up the hill to the car, jumped in and floored it. A hundred yards down the road I glanced in the rear view mirror. Bimbo was in the middle of the road, standing upright, looking after the car.

I didn’t go back.

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  • June 6th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

People often ask me (well, one did, one time) “where do you get your ideas?” And I tell them that ideas are everywhere. You just have to let them flow over you like mudslide on a California highway or lava from a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

There was a time when I was a tadpole wannabe fiction writer and my wife, Marty, was in a doctor’s office waiting for a prenatal checkup when she noticed a woman next to her cradling what appeared to be an injured arm. “How did you hurt your arm?” Marty asked. The woman mumbled something.

Then, embarrassed, she confessed that she had gotten her arm caught in a pool table pocket, shooting a game of eightball by herself when her husband was at work, her kids at school. She scratched the cue ball by mistake and reached in the pocket to retrieve it. But it kept scooting away from her grasping fingers and finally her elbow slipped into the pocket and she was trapped as thoroughly as a raccoon in a coon trap. She had to wait until someone came home to help her. Somehow Marty managed to keep from laughing but I couldn’t when she told me about it and instantly a short story began to form in my mind and it became a chapter in my first collection of Birch Lake stories, Grandma and the Buck Deer.

Other fiction pieces have been similarly inspired by the misfortunes of others. I am a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and that has been a fertile ground for story ideas. OWAA members attend the annual conference for a variety of reasons: to see old friends, to see new places, to get away from the humdrum for a while. But primary among those reasons is to gather material for outdoor communication that will result in bounteous compensation. (And anyone who believes there is bounteous compensation in the outdoor writing field is not an outdoor writer).

It’s a chance to pick the brains of more experienced members–tips, information and other valuable intelligence vital to amortize the cost of the few days spent away from the routine. Sometimes a few minutes spent with a grizzled old head can result in a virtual frog choker of dollars– see above comment about bounteous compensation.

The late and much revered past president of the outdoor Writers Association of America, Mike Levy, then outdoor editor of the Buffalo, New York, newspaper was one of those grizzled heads and in addition to cherishing his long friendship I will eternally owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude for a few moments of his time that not only padded my bank account, but also gave me a lifelong story for retelling time and again— and a good true story is priceless . Actually, some of the bullfluff which on the face of it is outright fiction makes for even better stories.

It happened this way. I was looking for material for a humor column for a magazine which shall remain nameless because they dropped the column to save the pitifully few dollars they grudgingly shelled out each time I sat at a word processor until beads of blood popped out on my forehead. It had to do with fishing and I got the idea that, since every angler I know has had one or more unpleasant experiences with fishing hooks. I should gather those unhappy moments and treat them with humor—after all what are friends for if you can’t exploit them?

So I polled my OWAA friends for their traumatic trials with fishhooks, among whom was Mike who came up with the capstone anecdote for the column. It seems that he and his son who was about five at the time, went fishing and the little one insisted on using a long plug equipped with three treble hooks—hardly the equipment for bluegills, but his tolerant daddy went along with it. Then the youngster tangled his fishing line and Mike helpfully started pulling at the bird’s nest but his son suddenly jerked the fishing rod and hooks on either end of the fishing lure neatly impaled Mike’s opposable thumbs.

While opposable thumbs are the one piece of human equipment that separates us from lower animal life, they aren’t much use when the only available help is a five-year-old with no idea how to separate his daddy from embedded fishhooks. “Did you ever try to drive with your thumbs hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

Somehow, he managed to get the car started and get on the road steering painfully and awkwardly with his impaled digits. Then he spied a rural fire department with the lights on (it was getting dark now) and he knew that the firemen would have at least one EMT available who could separate him from the Pikie Minnow. It turned out that the reason the lights were on was that the firemen were having their annual beer and brats party and at least some of them were as lit as the fires they often put out.

While they tended to Mike, they hoisted his son on the fire truck and let him pretend to drive it which delighted the lad no end. And so probably did the language used by the intrepid firefighters which tended toward the salty.

When Mike and son arrived home, the kid raced into the house shouting “mom! Mom! You’ll never guess what happened. Dad got his thumbs hooked together and I got to drive the fire truck and what does @#$%%@!@ mean?”

Poor Cynthia, Mike’s wife, was bumfuzzled— she sent her husband and son off to fish and he comes home a wounded warrior, and the kid is shouting something about a fire truck and where did the little guy learn that kind of language!

So I used the anecdote in my humor column and got paid my usual pittance. But I thought it was too good to quit there, so I adapted the incident into a short story, sold that to a major magazine for a lovely chunk of money, entered the story in OWAA’s freshwater fishing contest, and took first place for what at that time was a nice winner’s bonus. When I told Mike about the bonanza his story had created (for me, not him), without a hint of shame for exploiting his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again!”

Later on I included the story as a chapter in a book— but I didn’t tell Mike about that.

Pre-and post conference trips are a gold mine of stories and on one of them the incomparable storyteller Marty Malin, a prolific and annual prize-winning freelance radio personality from Texas, regaled us fellow trippers with the story of how he and a friend sneaked in to see the exotic dancer in a tent at a county fair in his misspent childhood. For him it may have been just a story to tell amused buddies, but for me it was the inspiration of another short story and a chapter in a book. Thanks, Marty.

The fishing hook column also inspired, yet another short story and book chapter— Randy Vance (not my son and I’m not his father– we used to inscribe our nametags that way to avoid the inevitable confusion) told him someone he knew fell backward into an open tacklebox bristling with treble hooked fishing plugs. Inspiration blossomed and one of my hapless fictional characters became entangled with guess what? A situation involving an open tacklebox, fishing lures, and a painful encounter with them.

Then there was a casual mention by an old friend, another OWAA member, George Mattis— a fishing buddy from Birchwood Wisconsin, who wrote a book titled Whitetail, which turned out to be the biggest seller of the Outdoor Life book club ever. Anyway George told me about stopping in the woods once to sit on a log and smoke a cigarette, only to have a buck deer walk out of the woods over to him, take the cigarette from him and walk off chewing it with gusto. “Apparently deer have a tobacco addiction,” George said, “so strong that once they get the taste they’re hooked.”

Story idea! I turned it into the title story of Grandma and the Buck Deer, combining the fact that my real life uncle, Roy Finnell, raised tobacco in Missouri, some of which made its way to my fictional Birch Lake, and a confrontation with my fictional rowdy uncle Al, and my also fictional but formidable grandma.

Back in World War II there was a poster saying “loose lips sink ships.” Good advice during wartime but when it comes to paying attention when others are telling outrageous stories, some of those loose lips mean story tips….and money in the pocket.

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  • May 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

To some it is the song of the angels; to others it is fingernails on the dark blackboard of sleep.

The mockingbird is a master improviser on the melodies of other composers, but he (and it is a he that disturbs the silence of night) can be less than enchanting to the light sleeper when the bird riffs at 2 a.m.

Most of the singing is between midnight and 4 a.m. which should catch any light sleeper with the window open right in the crosshairs of irritation. Mockers in full musical spate love to be illuminated, either by a streetlight or a full moon. Tin Pan Alley songwriters are fond of the moon in June as a romantic hook on which to pin lyrics; mockingbirds equally so.

When we lived in town a mocker used the streetlight pole across the street as its podium and sang incessantly. I would sit on the front stoop late at night and listen and, rather than being irritating, I enjoyed the concert. The neighbor nearest the light pole did not share my enthusiasm. A lineman for the power company he donned his climbers one night and disconnected the street light.

The mockingbird, deprived of a spotlight, found a different theater.

There are other birds that imitate, notably catbirds and brown thrashers. But none is as versatile and untiring as the gray bird with the white wing flashes. In addition to fellow birds, mockers create melodies of their own and also imitate barking dogs, squeaking gates and police sirens.

There may be more than two dozen different imitations in a mocker’s repertoire and ornithologists have catalogued more than 200 different imitated sounds (but brown thrashers claim the record for versatility with a documented 1,100 different song types and an estimated 3,000 songs). The mockingbird’s ardent song most commonly is the love ballad of a bachelor bird, though both sexes sing, including mated males—just not as persistently as the guy without a gal.

The male will mark a territory just as surely as does a dog…only with music instead of the dog’s more elemental tribute. Some lovelorn bachelor birds will sing all night long, which tends to drive insomniac urban dwellers up the bedroom wall. Possibly the ultimate avian nightmare would be a mockingbird and whippoorwill singing all night, then a woodpecker drumming on your metal drainpipe at dawn. Most bosses would not accept this as an excuse for lethargy on the job, no matter how valid it is.

There is method behind the mad frenzy of song—ornithologists have discovered that the more varied a male mocker’s song, the more likely it is to interest a female. Once mockingbirds establish a relationship it generally lasts a long time, often for life. And once a bachelor male finds a sweetheart he doesn’t sing nearly as fervently.

The pair nests in low bushes or trees and a mocker’s nest to it is a sacred trust, to be defended fiercely. A mocker protecting a nest is fearless and will dive bomb a human, cat or dog like an avian character from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Mockingbirds are prolific, laying between 2-6 eggs which hatch in just under two weeks. Two weeks later the young are ready to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young.

By their nature mockingbirds are combative and often engage in aerial dogfights as frenzied as a scene from a World War One sky battle between the Lafayette Escadrille and Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. They’ll dominate a feeder (they feed on insects and fruit) and even will attack their image in a mirror, eyes wild and feathers flared in anger. They won’t come to a seed-feeder (although they might guard it against other birds just on general principles), but might snack at a suet feeder or on grapes and berries.

Mockingbirds are most musical during the time of year when people are most likely to hear them—from early spring through late summer. Generally the singing period runs from February through August. The birds often raise their wings in jerky fashion, a trait called “wing flashing.” Some ornithologists believe they do this to scare up insects from the grass, but chances are they do it because they’re so inordinately pleased with themselves.

Catbirds usually sing their different songs once, thrashers twice…but mockingbirds repeat each call three times and switch rapidly from one mimicked bird to the next, four or five in a row. It’s an in-your-face performance and a little wing flashing to cap it off is a curtain call at the end of a masterful performance.

In winter, mockingbirds migrate south from northern states and have another singing period to establish a feeding territory. So, Southern states have a much longer time to enjoy mockingbird music, which perhaps is why five of them have chosen the mocker as the state bird: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. According to legend, the Texans chose the mockingbird because it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling if need be in its defense, like any true Texan.” Shades of the Alamo!

As a state bird, the mocker ranks third behind the cardinal and the Western meadowlark (seven redbirds, six meadowlarks and five mockingbirds).

But as a song subject it’s well ahead. You won’t see hit parade numbers written for crows or buzzards, although robins and bluebirds have had their day on the Top 40.

No song about birds has endured like “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1854, and a standard ever since. Hawthorne is as intriguing as the bird he wrote about.

Yes “he.” Alice was a pseudonym for Septimus Winner, whose mother was a Hawthorne (related to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). He made instruments and taught several, including guitar and banjo and wrote many popular songs of the day, none as enduring as “Listen.” Winner put words to a melody by Richard Milburn, who worked in his music store, and “Mockingbird” was born. For all his business acumen, Winner blew it by selling the publishing rights to the song for $5. It subsequently sold about 20 million sheet music copies.

It really is a weeper about “Hallie” lying in her grave o’er which the mockingbird sings, not about the bird. And it’s not the lyrics that turn people on– more musicians have developed virtuoso instrumentals of the melody than have learned Winner’s sappy words.

Fats Domino found his thrill on Mockingbird Hill. Carly Simon revealed that “he,” whoever that was, intended to buy her a mockingbird, but if it didn’t sing “he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring.” Not much chance for her and that ring—mockingbirds rarely don’t sing. And there is a Rhode Island rock band called the MockingBirds.

The mockingbird also is a symbol for innocence in Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “Shoot all the blue jays you want,” Atticus Finch tells his two kids, Scout and Jem. “But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Blue jays and their devotees might not agree and it’s a cinch the wildlife officials wouldn’t.

As tempted as the sleepless human might be to go for his gun when beset by a night-singing mocker, shooting is not an option. “It’s enough to raise the dead!” he growls through gritted teeth.

If so maybe there’s hope for poor Hallie yet….

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  • May 23rd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Hell, as visualized by Dante, the Italian poet has a pit of ice at the lowest level, presumably where if you bore a hole and jig a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head you will not be rewarded with a trophy walleye. When you die you don’t go to your dream fishing honey hole, but to the hellhole of Stephen King’s fevered imagination. And, instead of a ice fishing augurs, you will find demons with augurs to bore through you!

The hero of Dante’s epic Inferno, Odysseus, missed one level on his harrowing tour of the underworld. The one where you spend eternity in a commercial campground on a hot summer holiday weekend.

Maybe he couldn’t get a reservation. Those who inhabit this Inferno on Earth don’t realize they’re in Hell! They enjoy it. They are there by choice.

Once I spent time in a Kampground (always spelled with a “K”– in fact they’ll rent you a Kamping Kabin) in northeast Pennsylvania on the Fourth of July weekend. I took notes on the experience because our tattered tent did not have air-conditioning nor satellite television. The summary reads somewhat like Dante’s Inferno updated.

Hot and dusty, no rain, but the humidity for it, dust haze in the air, Tunkhannock Creek low and with a reek of decomposing algae. It was just slightly more agreeable than parking next to a sewage lagoon (something I suffered through once, sleeping in a cab over camper owned by a fellow hunter who was obviously olfactorily impaired). A sleek dude with reflective sunglasses and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turns Polish sausages on a barbecue grill. He wears no shirt; he is flabby. His mate, inside the screened patio, sets the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

A couple walks ahead of me, about five- five and 250 each. It’s like watching a team of elephants. He is shirtless and she wears a T-shirt big enough to host a Shriner’s barbecue. Their four legs weigh more than my family. Later I see them with their family, a mammoth group except for one cadaverous man whose shoulders hunch as if he were caving in. He is smoking a cigarette.

Some RVs have grown roots: permanent carpeted patios, often screened, one even with a wooden picket fence containing a large, noisy dog. Every patio is festooned with Chinese lanterns–more in this Kampground than there are in all of China. The trailer across from me is hung with decorations intricately constructed of plastic drinking glasses. Dusk comes and the proud owner throws a switch and they become lamps, glittering as a thousand jewels.

Nearly every “yard” (that tiny wasteland of sunblasted grass and dust) sports plywood figures–Woody Woodpecker or a little Dutch boy and girl or a frog on a mushroom saying “Hi!” The plastic daisy is endemic. Several trailers have full-sized refrigerators outside (and probably a deep freeze or walk-in cooler inside). One has two enormous planters tastefully built of discarded automobile tires. The flowers, predictably, are petunias, the wimps of the botanical world. Garfield the Cat clings to many a window in the Kampground. If ever there was a cat that deserves the ultimate fate at the animal shelter, it is Garfield, the surly, arrogant little animal-that-should-be-euthanized.

The Kampground pool is jammed. “Swimming” is a stand-up procedure because no one has enough room to go prone in a swimming position. Everyone is shouting and the din is terrific. It is not, as my friend Marty Malin says, “silent, like the ‘P’ in swimming.” There is the inevitable rec room (not recreation room) with Space Invaders and other games to provide mental stimulus for the Kamp adolescents so they won’t have to torment their unwrinkled brains with books.

This Kampground features a hayride, a rubber-tired wagon pulled by a small tractor. There are about a dozen kids and a very pregnant woman (perhaps she does not know she is pregnant) riding on it. A small boy is throwing the hay out by handsful as they move along. By the fourth circuit of the Kampground the pregnant woman begins to look as if she will deliver. While cab drivers are famous for delivering babies in the back seat of their vehicles, I doubt the driver, a slack- jawed teenager with a thriving case of acne, will be much good in a birthing crisis.

A father and son walk in front of our motorhome, sharing a warm moment together. They have matching sunglasses, so you can tell they are close. Ward Cleaver turns over in his grave. A man is walking a hairy little dog. He is a veteran of the Kampground, for he is wearing a plastic glove on his left hand and when the dog pauses to make a hard little deposit, the man scoops it up like Ozzie Smith fielding a hot one. Give that man a Brown Glove award!

This is not a campground like one where I once camped in northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, where Big Falls roared just over the bank from the hookups and where a full campground was six vehicles. The roar in this Kamp is from incessant and heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate and is as irritating as the tumbling waters in Minnesota were soothing.

Many years ago when I was a wannabe soldier in ROTC, spending six lovely weeks at Fort. Sill Oklahoma, learning how to be abused and humiliated by superior artillerymen— everybody on that godforsaken military post was superior to Rotsy tourists— we spent several nights under the stars doing something or other military (I conveniently forgot what if I ever knew to begin with).

If there is anything charming about Fort Sill at night it is that the sky is uncluttered by ambient light, and there is none of that annoying civilization to disturb your tranquility. Instead of closing ourselves inside pup tents, several of us spread our shelter halves under the stars and stared into infinity. If ants ever gaze up into the night sky, I know how they must feel–pitifully insignificant. The memory would be more impressive except that all along we had the knowledge that at 5:30 AM a sergeant with the empathy of a prison guard would motivate us by screaming obscenities welcoming us into another day so we could spend many hours under a broiling sun listening to the ear shattering blast of 105 mm howitzers.

My camping life has evolved gradually over the years, as has my concept of how best to enjoy being outdoors and living a simple life. I graduated from a pup tent to a family size contraption devised by the Coleman company, to confound incompetent campers like me with yards of material and aluminum poles all cleverly designed to collapse in the middle of the night, in the middle of a windstorm. One night on a Current River gravel bar the tent buckled on top of us and we crawled into the starlit night, counted heads, and realized that Andy, our youngest son, was missing. Ultimately we discovered him under the debris of the tent, still sound asleep and irritable at being disturbed—not by the wind or the tent failure, but by us waking him up.

Another time the entire family camped in that same tent under a looming old tree and, wonder of wonders, the tent did not collapse. The next morning, with the help of family members who understand the complexities of tent construction, we folded up our portable accommodations and hit the road. Later we discovered that a violent storm had blown through the campground after we left and the huge tree broke into pieces and fell exactly where our tent had been. I interpreted this as an omen that perhaps tent camping was not the safest way to ensure family longevity.

I bought a succession of one man tents, none of which provided any more comfort than a bed of nails. All seemed to magnify rocks, roots, and any other tiny profusion beneath the tent floor, no matter how many layers of air mattress or other padding material I lay down. Among those tents was one which trapped the moisture which I apparently exuded copiously during the night and every time I woke and jostled the tent I created a mini monsoon. For a long time, I opted to rough it when I went on the road for the Conservation Department, sleeping in my tiny tents, saving money for the state and feeling grandly charitable, if also grandly uncomfortable. Gradually it dawned on me that I was on an expense account and did not have to sleep on a bed of rocks while gamely gathering material for outdoor articles, but instead could opt for a motel room where I could watch nature in the raw on the National Geographic Channel.

It did not occur to me that this also was a signal that I also was getting older, softer and wimpier.

So when the era of the recreational vehicle came along it was a simple jump from staying in motel rooms to staying in motel rooms that moved from one place to another. However, I soon discovered that Motel Eight does not gulp gasoline at an alarming and expensive rate, and, the first time I was faced with emptying a holding tank, I learned to appreciate the fact that using the facilities in a Motel Eight and pressing the flush lever was infinitely more convenient and infinitely less potentially disgusting than figuring out the complexities of a dump station.

Once, deep in the Ozarks, I stayed in a decrepit motor court, too primitive even to be called a motel. But it had a sagging bed, scarcely more comfortable than sleeping on a river gravel bar, and instead of a flat screen television set with the National Geographic Channel, it had an antique radio which played scratchy low power stations, populated by evangelists and gospel groups. It cost $2.50 for the night which seemed excessive for what I got, but still was far less than the eight dollars a night charged by the original incarnation of Motel Eight.

So, now in my geriatric wimp hood, at the end of a long day of challenging the outdoors, outwitting hungry wolf packs, dropping charging grizzly bears inches from my boot tops, fleeing from cheetahs, and swimming with crocodiles, I slump behind the wheel of my battered road vehicle and wearily look for the ultimate sign of civilization:


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  • May 15th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, more confused and frightened ball.

And then, Wham! Whale sushi.

I’ve seen it–humpback whales doing what they call “bubble net feeding.” Several whales start circling a school of herring, singing (the guide lowered a microphone and it sounded more like timber wolves howling than Willie Nelson), creating a curtain of bubbles through their blow holes, and gently guiding the by-now baffled herring with gigantic flippers into an ever tighter bunch.

The bubble curtain keeps the herring inside, a sonic corral. The singing confuses them–is this a lullaby or a threat. The flippers indicate which way to go (“right this way to the lunch counter, folks” although the whales don’t add that lunch is not FOR the herring; the herring ARE lunch.)

Then comes the moment when the whales surge through the bunched herring and…well, it got me to thinking, something always dangerous. I had a brilliant idea, an even more perilous situation.

What if I could train my Brittanies to swim in an ever-tightening circle, barking as they do so? Would this confuse fish, like maybe a school of bluegills, and bunch them whereupon I would cast into the middle of the circle and catch fish when no one else can?

Could I train Brittanies to do this? I once had a fishing Brittany who would spend hours swimming in circles, occasionally plunging his head and snapping at the bluegills swimming around him. Once he caught one and surfaced with an astonished look, the fish flapping in his mouth. He spit it out and his lust for fishing diminished after that.

My Brittany bubble net idea evaporated as quickly as it had come when I remembered the most embarrassing incident of my life, one that also involved fish and dogs. I was invited to hear Chuck Yeager speak at a meeting of steelhead anglers. Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.

We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager. My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts. If only it were possible to get Gen. Yeager to inscribe will a book which I could give to my friend.

I was at a meeting where general Yeager was to be the featured speaker and I thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity, not only to meet a great American hero, but also to get him to autograph a book for my friend— who also happened to be a magazine editor and thus would be forever obligated to buy anything I wrote and pay me voluminous amounts of money.

I visited a local used bookstore and found a tattered copy of a book which seemed totally appropriate. What a serendipity moment! I would have him inscribe the book “from one Yeager to another” and we would share a comradely laugh.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled “Yeager.” No–I was thinking dogs (or like one, more accurately). I bought a copy of a dog training book (which looked as if perhaps the dog it was intended for had been using it as a chew toy) and took it to the meeting where I spied the good general chatting with a few fans. Presently they drifted away and there he was alone for the moment, his back to me.

I walked up and said “Excuse me, general….” and he began to turn and instantly I was aware of the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan. I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book?

The enormous idiocy of my idea finally sank through my thick skull into the tiny part where common sense lurks and even before this famed American military hero turned toward me, one uncomfortable memory from the past flooded my mind like the fabled life-flashing-before-your-eyes an instant before you are hit by the incoming missile.

I was back in the National Guard arriving after a 900 mile 2 ½ day ride in a Jeep at the head of our artillery battalion convoy to camp Ripley Minnesota. I was tired, hot, and in no mood for the flipparies of military courtesy. Oh sure, I would return the halfhearted salutes of my equally weary troopers as they hosed down their dusty vehicles, as eager as I was to see the duty day come to an end.

A Jeep pulled to a stop some yards away from me and I assumed it was yet another stray from the incoming summer campers (this was not Camp Bidawee for adolescents–this was a chance for us to spend a lot of government money shooting howitzer rounds, costing $100 each, at distant targets like empty barrels, isolated pine trees, and the occasional suicidal white tailed deer that had wandered into the impact area).

From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of guys approaching, but I ignored them, concentrating on the militarily vital task of washing our travel weary vehicles. “Captain!” I turned to behold, like someone standing in the path of the lava flow from a devastating volcanic eruption, a bird colonel and, standing beside him, the diminutive form of a one star general. Even before the colonel, who apparently was the bad cop, spoke in the tone of the judge rendering a death sentence to a serial killer, I realized that I had effed up big time. “Don’t you know you are supposed to report to a commanding officer?” It was not a rhetorical question, politely asking for information. It was the prelude to damnation by hellfire which the colonel proceeded to deal to me like a stoker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.

The general, who looked remarkably like portraits of Napoleon, stood idly by slapping his thigh with a riding crop while the colonel flayed me as if preparing to tan my hide, possibly for use as a chamois for drying the general’s Jeep after I finished washing it. Finally the two high-ranking officers were done with their sadistic fun and left me lying gravely wounded on the battlefield.

So, General Yeager turned to me and I knew exactly the way the pilot of a Messerschmitt ME 109 felt when skewered by twin 40 caliber machine guns manned by a P 38 Lightning pilot, possibly manned by a fellow named Yeager. My idea had been asked him to inscribe the dog training book “from one Yeager to another” and now even years later the enormous foolishness of that idea gives me cold chills.

Instead, looking remarkably like Mortimer Snerd, the half witted Edgar Bergen dummy, I stammered something or other and thrust the book at him and he looked at it as if I were offering him dog droppings, instead of a book about dogs. Brusquely, he signed the book, and turned back toward someone with at least half a brain and instantly dismissed me to the dustbin of history.

That was the worst instance of my inconveniencing celebrities with my oafishness. At a meeting of outdoor writers which included several guest celebrities I went to breakfast with a tall, handsome gentleman and thinking to involve him in my hamfisted version of small talk, I said, “And what do you do?” thinking that he was another outdoor writer– he did look familiar, possibly someone I had hobnobbed with in outdoor writer circles, although he obviously was more successful at it than me–for one thing he wasn’t dressed in tattered blue jeans. To his eternal credit and the fact that he was an authentic gentleman, he did not look at me as one looks at an unusual insect, and merely said, “I’m an actor.”

Not only was Richard Anderson an actor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Six Million Dollar Man television series, and a veteran of countless movies, but he reportedly also was Debbie Reynolds’ first boyfriend. All this I discovered far too late to apologize. Although I probably would’ve blurted something idiotic like “too bad you have such a forgettable face.”

Another time, at a meeting, I was crossing a room when I encountered a fellow whom I was sure I knew but whose name I could not remember. In the way that us feebleminded folks do, I faked it and said heartily, “Hey, good to see you! How’s it goin’?” He looked at me, obviously trying to place me among his many friends and embarrassed that he could not do it. “Fine!” He said. “And it’s good to see you too!”

Ten feet farther on, I realized that not only did I not know him, but he didn’t know me either. He was Mason Adams, one of the stars of the Lou Grant television show. Now, many years later, he probably still is wondering who the hell that old friend was— although probably not. Only once have I not managed to put my 9 ½ D’s firmly amid my molars. That was when I was at dinner where a fellow chatted amiably with our fellow diners and I gathered from the conversation that he was some sort of hockey player. I know every bit as much about hockey as I know about quantum physics. The only thing I know about hockey is the Rodney Dangerfield joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So I managed for once to keep my mouth shut.

Later at home, when I mentioned his name to my son, Andy, an ardent hockey fan, I found out that Denis Potvin not only was a hockey player, but happens to be in the NHL Hall of Fame, one of the all-time greats– the most prolific scoring defense man of all time. At least I didn’t ask him, “And what is it you do?” only to have him high stick me across my big mouth.

So,on the other hand, I think I’ll just let the Brittanies be dogs and forget whatever fantasies they might have had about being humpback whales. And that goes for me, too.

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