Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • July 6th, 2017

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL….SOMETIMES

I was intending to post this blog on July 4 but wound up taking a sick day instead. I’ve posted it before and realize it is specific to Veteran’s Day, but somehow it seems more appropriate now on another national holiday, a celebration of the nation’s heritage. Especially when our lying, deadbeat, crotch grabbing president is holding the prestige and heritage of 241 years of the United States of America in his grubby little hands as he faces the world’s leaders.

By Joel M. Vance

It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”
Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.
I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.
The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.
And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.
Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.
We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.
We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.
But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.
It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.
Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.
We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last native acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.
While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.
So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.
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  • Blog
  • June 27th, 2017

MUDDYING THE BIG MUDDY

By Joel M. Vance

It’s the longest river in the United States and if the Mississippi River is the Father of Waters, the Missouri can lay claim to being the Father of the Father. Which came first—the upper Mississippi or the upper Missouri? And who really cares? What’s important is that this great river that spans much of the West and Midwest is an abused and battered child and the outrages never seem to cease.
As if dams and channelization weren’t intrusion enough, now a pair of Missouri Congresspeople want to strip fish and wildlife concerns from the management goals of the Corps of Engineers (which no doubt would be just as happy to get rid of those toilsome chores.
According to the misanthropic Missourians, the periodic problems of the river are the direct result of protecting endangered species, like the pallid sturgeon and least tern. Obviously birds and fish are causing flooding, destroying levees, making the Missouri River unsafe for barge traffic.
Consequently Rep. Sam Graves and three buddies last year introduced a bill that would eliminate fish and wildlife concerns from the Corps of Engineers management of the river. His cohort in crime, Blaine Luetkemeyer, who happens to be the representative from my home district, unfortunately, has introduced a bill which basically is a Trojan horse into the endangered species act. A paranoid type like me can see the intent of both of those bills to gut environmental regulations and destroy what morally endowed humans should cherish. But ethical and moral concerns never seem to figure in the self-serving and devious motives of today’s politicians.
That’s the kind of thinking, if you can dignify it by calling it “thinking”, that has Congress with an approval rating somewhere near zero. “The Corps should not have to waste precious resources on building wildlife habitats,” Graves said. He is right on one point when he said the Corps is not suited for wildlife work—the Corps and its various projects have been about as friendly to wildlife as a cat is to a cornered mouse.
Graves and his band of environmental brigands maintained that the Corps should concentrate on navigation and flood control and forget about wildlife—the bill would, he maintains, reduce flooding. Flooding on the Missouri is almost as traditional in its namesake state as mules, molasses and moonshine The river epitomizes the famous Harvard Law of Animal Behavior that is translated as: “under carefully controlled conditions, organisms do as they damn well please.” And so do rivers.
Luetkemeyer’s bill would give the governors of states regulatory authority over endangered species, which is akin to giving the aforementioned cat the authority to kill whatever it wants, birds as well as mice– or more appropriately, in a country ruled by Republican governors, loosing a band of foxes in the environmental chickenhouse.
The Missouri has been flooding for thousands of years, long before man thought he could tame it with dams and channel work and long before Congress came along to muddy the water. The roiling river, spilling into the Mississippi near what became St. Louis, scared the crap out of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in the 1600s. But it would be the highway West when Lewis and Clark explored to the Pacific Ocean, and it carried other luminaries like John James Audubon and artist George Catlin on pioneering voyages. It was benign until it wasn’t.
Hark back to 1951 when a flood of epic proportions flooded the Missouri and caused huge damage—all before anyone thought of fish and wildlife enhancement and before the Corps was tasked with helping undo the damage they were inflicting on the Missouri River. It stands to reason (a concept that eludes the Graves gang) that if you narrow a river it forces a given amount of water into a constricted channel, increasing the force of the water and setting the table for historic-proportion floods to overtop the levees you have built to hold the water in so you can float barges without worrying about low water.
A series of dams on the upper Missouri theoretically provide water storage to allow a measured downstream flow. Except when, as happened in 2011, there is a huge snowpack melting into those reservoirs, coupled with heavy spring rains. Then the Corps has the option of watching its dams wash out or releasing a tidal wave of water to do exactly what happened—overtop levees and cause flood damage. In other words, the operation was a success but the patient died.
Graves was joined in his idiot bill by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer (remember him—my own representative who when you try to call his office to complain about something, gives you a ride around that is bound to drive a conscientious constituent to total insanity and incoherent rage), Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long. Hartzler, among my least favorite legislators, said this: “While preserving wildlife habitat is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses and residents on or near the river.” So if you discount fish and wildlife habitat as a concern, all will be well with those who choose to live and farm in a flood plain. That’s just simple-minded. All the Corps work of 100 years, which was mainly to benefit a barge industry (speaking of narrow interests) which never has come close to paying for itself, did absolutely nothing to prevent huge floods in 1993 and 1995. Those bluff to bluff floods drove many landowners out of the bottoms and as a result the federal and state governments acquired (from willing sellers) the nucleus of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and several state conservation areas.
Those areas are a bonanza for waterfowl, as well as for indigenous wildlife, adding thousands of acres of self-maintaining habitat. I’ve duck hunted on the Missouri, dove hunted in riverside fields, canoed on it in low water. An old friend, the late George Fleener, a biologist with the Missouri Conservation Department, once did a use study of the river and found heavy usage all the way from hunting and fishing to gathering mushrooms and, for which he was mercilessly kidded, “spooning.”
Once I chased jugs downriver with some buddies and we collected a couple of catfish. In the 1970s, conservationists managed to convince the Corps to breech wing dikes to allow the current to scour out eddy pools for fish habitat—that type of beneficial management, of course, would die if the Graves Gang gets its way.
A flood is at its least damaging when it is allowed to spread out, softly and without the scouring firehose effect of a channelized river. Levees are a stopgap measure, as the Corps found on the Mississippi River in 2011 when it had to breach a southeast Missouri levee at Birds Point and another at New Madrid. The blown levee flooded some 200 square miles of Missouri bottomland and did help mitigate the flood. But it also made the point that man’s intrusion into nature inevitably gets squashed by a far greater power. All the bulldozers and dredges and implements of the river manipulators pale when nature decides to declare a flood.
As Gomer Pyle would say, Su’prise! Su’prise!” Sam Graves has the dishonor to be one of Congress’s Dirty Dozen, selected by the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted against everything even remotely connected with conservation and the environment. The highest percentage he’s ever gotten for favorable environmental votes was 10 percent. Last year it was three percent.
Hartzler is taking time out from her favorite sport of gay bashing to help her buddy bash some endangered species but, with a 10 percent LCV rating, she’s a virtual tree hugger compared to Graves. Lutkemeyer has a seven percent rating from the LCV, and is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Big Oil (along with his fellow Missouri politician Senator Roy Blunt). Project Vote Smart, a group that tries to pin down candidates on issues so voters can make intelligent choices, says this: “Blaine Luetkemeyer refused to tell citizens where he stands on any of the issues addressed in the 2012 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart, national media, and prominent political leaders.”
But by golly he finally is taking a stand. He’s opposed to those damn fish! Way to go, Blaine!
And then there’s Billy Long, the last member of the quartet (if they were a barbershop quartet, they’d be singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Our Own”). Apparently he’s shooting for Graves’s dismal LCV overall rating. He’s at three percent equivalent to Graves’s three percent. They have a ways to go among Missouri’s political hacks—Blunt is at two percent LCV rating and thus can claim credit as Missouri’s most Neanderthal environmental legislator—for the time being.
I’m ashamed to be from a beautiful, diverse state with the nation’s best, most progressive conservation program that consistently elects shambling knuckledraggers like this quartet of thumb-suckers. The Missouri River in its namesake state is a priceless resource, not the least of which is its recreation, wildlife and environmental value. The idea that the Missouri is vital for transportation of farm goods is a fiction. Missouri River barges carry an annual average of 1.5 million tons of goods, compared to nearly 100 million tons on the Mississippi River. The Missouri ships less than two percent of the grain from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. And according to the Corps itself, the Missouri provides annual economic benefits of less than $10 million for farm interests, compared to $1.3 billion from other sources, including recreation (of course you can legitimately argue that the Corps, when it lacks provable data, simply makes it up).
. Aside from the river itself, a fine canoe float when the water is low, there is associated recreation along the river. The Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails treasure for hikers and bicyclists parallels the River for much of its length, and there is a string of Missouri River wineries that attract many tourists. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is unique in the state and a leader nationally for using wastewater from Columbia to flood its wetlands, benefiting ducks, hunters, Columbia and the River.
You’d think that efforts to maximize and encourage recreation and tourism on the Big Muddy instead of discouraging it in favor of special and destructive interests would be an intelligent use of legislative time.
But that would take intelligent legislators. Don’t hold your breath.
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  • Blog
  • June 11th, 2017

GENERATIONS

By Joel M. Vance
It’s an old country church, on a gravel road with a grave yard that slants to a woods. There are horses on the other side of a barbed wire boundary fence, and the last line of graves, with the newest markers, are within a yard or two of the fence. Not much room for newcomers.
Asbury Church is where three generations of Vances are buried— my mother and father, my grandfather and grandmother, and great grandpa and great grandma. Great grandpa was briefly a Union soldier. He and his brother formed Vance’s Rangers, a ragtag militia outfit, composed of farm boys with no more military experience than a bunch of grade schoolers. Three months later they sallied forth to defend Glasgow from the rebels. They lasted about one hour and all were captured by general Sterling Price’s army, relieved of their weapons and were sent home to do what they could do best–try to scratch a living out of the unfriendly hill dirt of Chariton County, Missouri.
Great grandpa Bill Vance, should’ve known better than to hang around with his brother John, an adventuresome type who made two trips to California to win fame and fortune in the goldfields. He failed the first time, but convinced himself that another trip would be successful, and enlisted my great grandpa to go with him the second time. They returned without either fame or fortune, but with California cooties, hardly anything to retire on.
They got back to Missouri just in time to form the ill-fated Vance’s Rangers which must’ve been exciting, exchanging California cooties for Missouri ticks and chiggers. The fun lasted through the summer until they ran up against Price’s rebels who were real soldiers.
I don’t know much about great grandpa, except that I have a Colt .44 army revolver alleged to have been his during that brief military career. I have my doubts, however, since the only photograph I’ve seen of him in uniform shows him with a musket. He was an enlisted man while his brother who was the organizer of the militia company, was a captain, and thus entitled to a revolver. I wonder if perhaps the revolver was the brother’s, or perhaps bought by great grandpa for protection back on the farm. Chariton County during the Civil War was a hotbed of skirmishes by bushwhackers and other rural gangsters who thought nothing of stopping at a farmhouse, rousting out the man of the house, and shooting him dead in the front yard.
I don’t know if the old army Colt ever was blooded in battle or bushwhack, but I doubt it. I heard that my grandpa used to get it out on the Fourth of July and fire a round in the air to celebrate the country’s independence, and maybe his as well. I do know that cap and ball revolver shooters used to plug the unused chambers to prevent a chain fire where the fired round would set off the next one and the next and so on, generally doing great harm to the hand and arm of the gunner and probably nothing at all to the target. That would be a Fourth of July celebration to remember with considerable regret.
My grandfather and grandmother allegedly were married by a kinsman of the infamous Younger brothers, one who apparently chose a different career path than robbing banks and shooting people they didn’t agree with. I looked up the Younger family tree and couldn’t find any connection with preachers, but I do believe it’s true that a Younger married grandpa and grandma. If so, he failed to save the outlaw Younger brothers from a life of sin. Two of them died in prison, shot up in their ill-fated raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Although the oldest, Cole, did survive prison and lived a long life and even enjoyed a career giving lectures with Frank James, the older brother of Jesse, recounting hair-raising tales of their exciting life shooting innocent people.
Of the three of them great grandpa, grandpa and father, I remember grandpa the best. My father and I fished and hunted together and until a bum leg laid him low.. There was a plot of land on his farm in an overgrown oxbow of the Chariton River which we called the Bend—maybe five acres–which was wooded with oaks and flooded about knee deep. We would get out of our rusting pre-World War Two Ford in the dark before sunrise and slog through marshy ground into the shallow water and sneak up on mallards roosting in the flooded woods. It was great sport, until the day that a neighbor, mistaking our decoys for real ducks, shot holes in all of them, after which they listed like the vintage Titanic, some floating upside down and all eminently unconvincing to avian visitors.
And then, after my father sold the place, new farmers of a breed that can’t bear to see standing trees, cleared the land and drained the swamp and our duck hunting spot was no more.
My father and I once turned over in a rickety rowboat while fishing and that remains the most prominent memory of our fishing times together, that and a photo I took of him standing on the shore of the Macon Lake with a fly rod in hand, casting a popping bug for bluegills. There is something poignant in that stark photograph, and I wish now it had been taken by someone else of the two of us together. Our outdoor times together were too few and too short, but sometimes we are together in dreams and always fishing, never catching much, but also never turning over in old rowboats. My father inherited from his father a tendency to enjoy the outdoors by himself, hunting or fishing without the need to conflab with his fellow man.
Not that he didn’t hang out with the guys— he also enjoyed fishing trips to northern Wisconsin where my mother grew up, knocking back beers with the guys telling enhanced stories of fishing triumphs. And he enjoyed taking his big eared kid, me, duck hunting on the Dalton Cutoff, which in the 1950s was as good a duck hunting spot as there was anywhere in the country.
But I was not invited on those Wisconsin buddy trips, left to play with my similar-aged cousins, and if we fished at all it was for lake perch off the town dock. So my father and his friends sat around a kitchen table in a rustic resort cabin and told stories and laughed while their braided fishing line dried so it wouldn’t become brittle and break if they tied into a 20 pound northern or a seven or eight pound walleye— something that, in those days, was far more common than it is today.
But I think he most enjoyed his time alone in the woods with our mixed spaniel, Chaps, hunting for squirrels. It was a partnership that I think he treasured more than he did any outings with humans. Chaps, allegedly, was my dog, bought as a puppy in Chicago But she effortlessly became a premier squirrel dog when she was launched into the Missouri woods after we moved south in 1948. She lived to be 17 years old, a Methuselah among hunting dogs, and she was my dog only for that brief period of her life in the big city. After that, she belonged only to my father.
Grandpa didn’t need anyone with him. As far as I could tell he was perfectly happy by himself, doing what he did by his lonesome. He decided somewhere in midlife, perhaps after his wife died, that life was too short to spend it working and he retired from carpentry to a long life of fishing and hunting. His sons bought a small hard rock farm, which provided him with a place to live and his daughter and her husband, who ran the farm, provided his board for which he paid by coming home from a day afield with a mess of squirrels or fish. It was an arrangement that suited them all and worked flawlessly until a stroke stopped him at the age of 87.
I spent several adolescent summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm and have a vivid memory of my grandfather setting out across the hill in the morning, not to be seen again until the sun was low, carrying the day’s bounty from the woods and water. My father gave him a single shot bolt action 22 caliber Winchester rifle which I still have. The old man had but one eye, the other having been put out by a flying billet of firewood which he was splitting, but both the remaining eye and the rifle were unerring when it came to potting squirrels. That was the game of choice in those days, before the restoration of deer and turkeys offered a variety of wild game fit for the table. The fish he brought home often were collected from his exquisitely built (and illegal) fish traps, a product of the carpenter he once had been.
It may be true; I have no reason to doubt it. A cousin says that grandpa Joe, as he called him, once asked a group of men who had stopped at the farm, wanting to hunt quail if he could go along. They were reluctant to take the old man figuring he would just slow them down but they agreed. He retrieved a battered old single shot Stevens shotgun (“probably had to clean the mud daubers out of it” said my cousin). They jumped a covey. “Grandpa Joe shot one bird, shucked the empty shell out, reloaded and shot another one before the first guy got his gun up to his shoulder” said my cousin.
There they are three generations of Vances, father, son, and grandson, planted in the thin soil of Chariton County, in a country churchyard overlooked by horses. I can imagine their spirits roaming the hills, now almost as wooded as they were when the first Vance migrated to the County back in the 1700s.
Great grandpa would find his musket outmoded by today’s sleek autoloading shotguns and grandpa would find his beloved Chariton River jerked straight by a “reclamation project” into a virtual drainage ditch. And my dad would find bean fields where the Bend once was. And the big eared kid has grown old.
And Asbury Methodist Church drowses in the summer sun as it has for many decades and the horses wait just across the barbed wire boundary fence for the next generation.

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  • Blog
  • June 1st, 2017

GOOSE BICYCLING

By joel M. Vance

No one would confuse Dr. Charles and Dr. William Mayo with Dr. Frankenstein, but they created a monster nonetheless. In 1932 Dr. Charlie and Dr. Will bought three pair of Canadensis maxima, the largest subspecies of Canada goose, which had been used as live decoys (the practice was outlawed in 1935). And today 18,000 Giant Canadas clog the city of Rochester, Minnesota, like plaque in an artery.
Rochester is the home of the Mayo Brothers Clinic which dominates the city economy, so the city fathers aren’t about to tell Mayo to get its damn geese out of town, but the flock of geese is a whole lot more healthy than most of the folks who visit the clinic. Benumbed by geese and goose droppings, Rochester frets about how to introduce Zero Population Growth into the avian world. Egg shaking and other contraceptive ideas have trimmed the flock back to its present level, but there still is a world of geese, winter and summer.
It could be worse—in fact it was. At peak the flock topped 30,000. Giant Canadas, as they are popularly known, tend to resident nest rather than migrate and in Rochester they have a lake kept ice-free all year by warm water from a power plant discharge—their own little hot tub.
As annoying as the geese are (they do have terrible bathroom habits), they provide scenic accompaniment to a bicycle ride along the Zumbro River, which bisects the city of 103,500
Other than having to bicycle through copious goose poop, the animals create no problems on the city’s more than 80 miles of bike trails. Rochester is among the nation’s most “bike friendly” communities along with its larger northern neighbor Minneapolis.
Many of the biking trails wind along the Zumbro Rivers and around several lakes within the city. Other trails eddy out from the city creating a network
Goose droppings and feathers litter the green belt along the river, a less-than-attractive mess. But the geese are a perfect example of one man’s poison being another man’s passion (or in one case anyway, the passion of teenage girls). A friend, jogging the bike/hike trail (and dodging avian fecal landmines) said, “Two days in a row I saw a pair of teenage girls–I swear the same ones–feeding Cheetos to the geese. A perversion!”
But while I recognized the sputtering population bomb, I had to stop and enjoy the sight of 10 goslings herded across the bike path by their watchful parents. The babies, not long out of the egg, scooted in front of me, while the gander and goose hissed a distinct warning, shaking their heads—you don’t mess with the family life of a Giant Canada goose without risking contusions and shed blood.
This is a hunted flock, assuming it flies out of the city limits to feed during goose season, but protected by city ordinance they tolerate bicyclists and joggers equably. Canada geese, being birds, are not intellectual giants, but they are among the most intelligent birds and to them a shotgun blast anywhere within hearing means to draw in to the urban sprawl and enjoy human-watching.
Brad Jones, director of the Rochester Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says, “Rochester is among the country’s most bicycle-friendly cities, along with Minneapolis in Minnesota. You can link with 60 miles of bicycle trails from downtown.”
And those in turn link with many more miles through the Root, Cannon and Zumbro river valleys. The 20-mile Root River Trail is a rails-to-trails conversion which offers level riding. The 20-mile Cannon Valley Trail is on what used to be the Chicago Great Western Railroad line, which connected the towns of Cannon Falls, Welch, and Red Wing. And there is the 55-mile Douglas Trail.
I stayed at the historic Kahler Hotel, Rochester’s original way-stop for Mayo-bound patients. I wheeled my bicycle into my room from the parking garage and rode out from the garage, into downtown traffic. It’s a three-block ride to the river bicycle trail but once there automobile hazards vanish.
Always there are the geese, lounging by the riverside, herding their kids, bobbing in the chop of the lakes. Canada geese are a sociable lot—I’ve never seen a squabble among them, although they undoubtedly get ticked off from time to time.
In fact, a ticked off Canada goose, especially of the giant variety, can be a formidable opponent.
I vividly recall when I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department, one of the assistant directors returning from lunch at a nearby cafeteria, along a path, guarded by a large male goose, was sent in full flight, much to the amusement of those employees lucky enough to see it happen. I think there was some talk about entering him in the Olympic sprints, but it didn’t happen. However, he ate his lunches out of a sack in the office until the nesting season was over.
Every spring for years, department employees would round up flightless geese during their molt so they could be examined and if need be transplanted to other locations. The wildlife workers handling the geese, usually wore welding gloves or something similarly protective because the geese have toenails like the claws on a Bengal tiger. They also can flog you with their wings which is somewhat like being beaten with a baseball bat. And they have powerful bills that can snap shut like a rat trap— all together a long way from a helpless creature.
The Rochester flock has the distinction of having provided seed stock for a restoration of a creature once thought to be extinct. The giant Canada geese once nested and probably still do in the bluffs along the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark saw them on their historic journey up the Missouri and commented on them. Hatchling geese as light as feathers would leap off of their bluff nest and flutter to the ground far below them, without injury. Then they had the daunting task of trying to make it to the river before some hungry predator discovered them.
Turned out the most daunting predator was man. Over harvest and other man related perils brought the geese to the brink of extinction. Once numerous, by the middle of the 20th century they were thought to be extinct.
Lewis and Clark wrote about many of their encounters with wildlife but didn’t mention any narrow escapes from pursuit by angry ganders. If they did have such an encounter it probably paled in comparison with a narrow escape that a private Bratton had after being chased a half a mile by an angry grizzly bear.
Then there was the time that Jim Fowler host of television’s Wild Kingdom literally ran for his life and climbed a tree just ahead of the claws of a grizzly bear that had awakened from a tranquilizer a little bit too soon. On the whole I prefer an encounter with a an angry Canada goose to one with a 1,000 pound bear.
Restoration of the giant Canada goose has been ongoing for about 60 years to the point that the geese now have become nuisances in many communities where they eat gardens, foul golf courses and generally act like 1,000 pound grizzly bears.
They’ve come a long way from a species once thought extinct. In 1954 Jean.Delcour in his book “Waterfowl of the World” said that the giant goose appeared to be extinct. But Forrest Lee a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, noticed Canada geese roosting on a warm water lake at a power plant in Rochester.
Lee invited Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey to take a look at the huge geese on Rochester’s Silver Lake. The geese, remnants of historic live decoy flocks, proved to be Branta canadensis maxima—the giant Canada goose of Lewis and Clark fame.
Geese transplanted from that seed stock to other areas began to breed and now there is a nationwide flock of epic proportions, hunted and cursed, sometimes with equal velocity. But they can be a charming sidelight to a bicycling trip in downtown Rochester, if you don’t mind squishing through goose droppings along the way. And if you do somehow run afoul of a fowl, you’re only a block or two from the Mayo Clinic where they are fully equipped to take care of goose wounds.

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  • Blog
  • May 22nd, 2017

BROTHERS IN TOOTH AND CLAW

By Joel M. Vance

I was sitting on our deck, reading a book in the evening light. The sun lit the trees across the pond with a golden glow; I was in shadow. A motion caught my eye and I looked up from the book to glimpse a big bird as it swooped into a huge oak about 30 yards away.
The bird landed on a stob and turned toward me and I recognized a northern goshawk. Even across those 90 feet I felt its intense predatory glare. The bird called, a long series of sharp chirps, like a woodpecker. I was enthralled, afraid to leap up for my binoculars for fear I’d spook the bird.
No need to fear—it launched, spreading wings two feet wide, and came directly at me across the yard. I was frozen, not with fear but with awe. The bird got larger and larger and reason should have made me duck but I was paralyzed and could realize for the first time how prey creatures feel in that eyeblink before it’s all over for them.
There was an instant of time suspended when the hawk was about eight feet away, our eyes locked, and then it swooped up over my head, over the roof of the house, made a circle back in front of me and landed in a tree near the pond. Then I ran for the binoculars and came back just in time to see it flying across the pond.
I have no idea why a big hawk would make a strafing run on me. Best I know I don’t look much like a bunny or mouse or any other prey creature. Maybe it was a salute, one predator to another. Goshawks and I both are small game hunters..
Some hunters consider hawks as competitors and if it were not for federal protection, would leave them hanging dead on fenceposts, the way they used to. I consider them fellow hunters and figure there’s enough game to go around. A hawkless sky would be a dreary one indeed.
Goshawks are the cheetahs of the bird world, combining speed and maneuverability to track down prey. I pondered the actions of this fierce predator, discounting the idea that it paid tribute to me as a fellow predator—not sprawled as I was and unfeathered to boot.
In the middle of the night I came awake with a start. That was a falconer’s bird I thought. It escaped from someone and was looking for a home or a handout. My friend Steve Bodio, a fine writer, has been a falconer most of his life and has written an exciting book about fulfilling a lifelong dream. He saw a picture of a Mongol hunting with a golden eagle when he was a boy and vowed to go to Mongolia some day and hunt with eagles.
He finally made it in his 50s and the result is Eagle Dreams. I emailed Steve the day after I had the face-off with the goshawk and he replied, “Gosses are very strange birds. I almost think a falconer’s young bird would have just lit at your feet—at least if it were hungry enough. I have no idea if you have breeding gosses down your way, though I’m sure you have winter migrants. But all goshawks and especially first year birds can be scarily bold.”
He asked if the bird was wearing jesses, those leather thongs by which a falconer holds the bird on his fist. It didn’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t an escapee—just that it’s unlikely.
Goshawks are the largest of what are called “true hawks,” from the genus accipiter, which include Cooper’s, sharp-shinned and sparrow hawks). They have short, broad wings and a long tail which helps them maneuver through trees and other obstacles with lightning speed. The other common group are Buteos, which include the familiar broad-winged, soaring birds like red-tailed, rough-legged and broad wing hawks—and the name in Latin means “buzzard” which they assuredly aren’t.
The goshawk’s name comes from Dutch for “goose hawk,” although goshawks would have a tough time bringing a goose to the table—probably the name is because of goose-like coloration or gooselike size. Goshawks generally feed on other birds, though they won’t turn down a juicy rabbit. The Latin name, Accipiter gentilis, implies a gentle creature, ironic given the fierce predatory bent of the bird.
Broadwing hawks are easy to see and that’s the image most people have of hawks. But the swift hawks, Gos and Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned, those are the guys that bring fire to Hawkdom. They are so graceful in the air, so trim and swift that they are the fighter jets compared to the lumbering bomber broadwings.
My one-sided game of chicken wasn’t the first time a goshawk and I had interacted. Once I watched a goshawk chase a small bird around a field fringed by tall trees. The bird could corner quicker than the hawk and would gain some ground when it juked 90 degrees at the field corner. But the hawk closed the gap on the straightaway. It was like watching stock car racing, only more exciting.
The two birds squared the field about three times and finally the hawk tired of this not-quite lethal game and banked off, over the trees. I suppose the little bird went somewhere to quit trembling and get on with life.
Not so fortunate another time was a yellowhammer. I surprised a gos having a leisurely lunch on the luckless woodpecker. The hawk swirled off the ground like a dust devil, caught the wind and was gone in an eyeblink. One chunk of red meat lay among a scattering of yellow and black feathers, mute testimonial to the gos’s swift attack.
This was stark evidence of the law of tooth and fang (or talon and beak). This was a scene that the “Wonderful World of Disney” naturalists (i.e, those who draw their knowledge of the outdoors from sanitized nature shows on television) need to see more of. There are only those that are born to eat and those that are born to be eaten. There is nothing in between and survival is not a game of hide-and-seek. Tag in that game does not mean “you’re it”; it means “you’re dead.”
While one can feel regret for the prey rabbit or yellowhammer that never had the life it might have had, a true conservationist worries about the health of the species, not the individual. Misguided attempts to “help out” have been a problem throughout history and this country’s most notable example was in Arizona when well-meaning types tried to eliminate predators on the Mogollon Rim to help the deer population.
It certainly worked…to a fault. The deer population exploded; the deer ate themselves out of house and home, starved in great numbers and the habitat suffered greatly for years.
Sometimes the effects are unintentional which is the case now with “light” geese (blue/snow geese). The population in recent years has exploded to the point they are destroying their Arctic nesting habitat. It’s possible global warming is putting less cold weather stress on the birds, and certainly the geese have more food down the flyway to keep them healthy and fertile.
There also aren’t enough predators (Man is the only viable one) to keep the population in check. Checks and balances. Nature, by its nature, does not have a so-called “balance of nature.” There would be severe peaks and deep valleys in wildlife populations without Man and only Man can assure a relative balance by intelligent manipulation of habitat and predation. That’s called wildlife management (conservation, not preservation) and it’s the reason behind protection for birds of prey and controls on other predators. Without other predators Man would be the only check on wildlife productivity…and Man doesn’t do a very good job.
The predator-prey relationship is dictated by genetics. There are carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, those last who eat anything that doesn’t eat them first. Man falls into that category. But Man is not designed to be just an herbivore. He has two eyes in the front of his head and that’s crucial for a predator.
It’s not by accident that predators have binocular vision, both eyes able to see prey simultaneously. Binocular vision is a vital tool to zero in on prey. It’s also no accident that prey animals and birds have eyes that see independently of each other so they can better scan for danger. Woodcock, which feed head-down, probing for earthworms, have eyes set high on their head so they can glimpse death dropping from the sky above.
The goshawk has binocular vision and when he looked at me as he mounted his aerial charge he knew exactly how close to come without a head-on crash.
Maybe he was having fun; maybe practicing his aerobatic skills. If I had been a rabbit he wouldn’t have aborted the mission—he would have braked at the last instant, talons extended, and I would have screamed the agony of the doomed.
From a rabbit’s point of view that would have been tragic; from the gos’s viewpoint it would have been survival. It all depends what side of the equation is yours. The quail I shoot, in the microsecond before life winks out, knows it has failed at survival. I know I have a delectable dinner ahead.
There is no question of morality here, either for the hawk or for me. We are what we are, shaped by millennia of existence. It is right for a predator to kill because he is a predator. Only humans make moral judgments and since we are omnivores, with canine teeth for tearing meat, moral judgment shouldn’t be part of the equation. We eat meat because we eat meat and in order to get meat killing is necessary.
Three of us were quail hunting. The dogs pointed, a covey flushed, we fired. My son Andy dropped a bird but we couldn’t find it, despite earnest attempts by the dogs. We finally accepted it as a lost bird and moved on in a wide circle that brought us back to the same fencerow an hour later. As we neared the fencerow, a goshawk, labored toward us, not much more than head-high, carrying something in its talons.
It flared as it spotted us and dropped its load. “I think that’s my bird!” Andy exclaimed and sure enough it was a still-warm quail, almost certainly the one he had shot earlier. This was an example of man and hawk working together, although not on a planned basis.
In the end I quit wondering why a goshawk would make a false charge at me. I thought I knew. Under the skin or feathers we’re kindred creatures, predators dating back to primal ooze. It takes one to know one. When we locked eyes for an instant we were linked by more than vision—we were linked by our predatory bloodlust.

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  • May 10th, 2017

PILGRIMAGE

By Joel M. Vance

Some pilgrims en route to their personal Mecca do it on cruise control all the way; others are barefoot and hopping on sharp rocks every step.
I did it in ratty tennis shoes and equally ratty cutoffs.
It had been nearly 50 years since I parked a car at the bridge over Thirty Three Creek and dug out my fly fishing gear. The stream looked the same—unprepossessing; in fact virtually invisible below the overhanging popple and thick ferns.
I hoped Thirty Three Creek was among those things that never change because my visit was a pilgrimage to a place where I had learned the craft of brook trout fishing with an old guy who died in 1982. This was not a stream for the elegant casts of A River Runs Through It. Nor was it a wade stream for the most part.
A fisherman’s path had led the way along the stream, skirting the blowdowns and bog sucks by diverging into the dense second growth forest, then returning to the creek edge. My mentor, George Mattis, always said, “You don’t start fishing until the tab tops quit and you can’t see the path anymore.”
That point was the turnaround for all the other anglers and was George’s jumping-off spot. It was where the trout fishing got good. It also was perhaps a mile or so into a woods so trackless that if you got away from the stream on a cloudy day you just might have to spend a night crouching on damp moss and thinking about bears.
George was in his 60s when I met him, spry as a gray squirrel. He had been a high school classmate of my mother’s, and after a stint in the Army during World War Two, went through Journalism School at the University of Wisconsin/Madison…and then came home to Birchwood—his own pilgrimage. He was short, stocky and windbit, with blue eyes and that Wisconsiner accent that is heavily influenced by Scandinavian immigrants. He wrote about hunting, fishing and nature for small local and regional publications. He had written but not found a publisher for a book on deer hunting, pouring a lifetime of woods savvy into its pages.
George lived an uncomplicated bachelor life, enjoying pleasures that cost nothing—the sharp tug of a brook trout, the challenging snort of a buck in an alder thicket. He lived in an immaculate little house. His bathroom doubled as a darkroom. He drove a small car, wore old and comfortable clothing, and fished with a battered old rod, probably handed down from his father, a grizzled logger.
His was not the life of the big time outdoor writer, with a huge bass boat, expensive gear and trips to big game country.
George loved swamp orchids and he didn’t photograph them in his back yard. He tromped endless miles, lugging his camera. He probably was the most accomplished snowshoe user left in Birchwood—maybe the only one. He didn’t make much money, but he didn’t need much.
Then the Outdoor Life Book Club picked up his deer manuscript and the book sold like nothing before or since—at least 300,000 copies, probably a record for an outdoor book. It brought him more money than—given his lifestyle—he could spend.
The differences between us were age, experience, woods savvy and, of course, that half million bucks in the bank, although I never saw him spend any of it. He was content with the deer he shot every fall, the trout he caught every time out, and a drink or two with old friends and relatives.
An economic downturn would have been meaningless to George because he’d spent his life in one. George and I fished together every time I came north. We shared a love of Birchwood and the area around it and of exploring the backwoods.
“I have taken one-pound brookies from a hole no more than a foot deep in a rill hardly two feet across,” George wrote. He could have (and probably was) describing both much of Thirty Three Creek and a typical outing there.
Armed with a water-filled Coke bottle and a half-dozen minnows swimming in it, George would lope along the fisherman’s trail until it petered out, his jogging action aerating the minnows. Finally he would reach a pool, well beyond the trash trail, where the creek curved sharply to the left, undercutting the high bank on the outside of the bend. The swirling current had created a deep hole, dark with tannin, impenetrable even to polarized glasses. Here he would rig a minnow on a No. 12 hook and launch it into the pool, letting the current carry the struggling shiner into the undercut. It wasn’t quite a quarter-stick of dynamite, but close.
George was fishing for sport, yes….but also for supper. When he had laid three or four nice brook trout in his wicker creel, he would disassemble his rod and empty the Coke bottle. His stomach said it was dinner time. He then unpacked a fry pan, a bottle of cooking oil, salt and pepper, and built a small cook fire on the grassy bank of Thirty Three Creek.
Then George Mattis would cook his trout and eat them, leaving the bones, skin and heads for raccoons. “No one who has eaten freshly caught summer trout, fried at the brookside, will ever forget this Epicurean delight,” George wrote. This was George—the consummate hunter-gatherer.
Once he pointed out bear scat which encouraged me to keep looking behind us as we trudged ever farther into the Blue Hills wilderness. Another time he mumbled that he wasn’t quite sure where we were. I damn sure didn’t know where I was, but I hoped George had a vague idea. Eventually he found the creek and proceeded to land several foot-long brook trout with his Coke bottle aerated minnows.
He was 77 years old and playing cribbage with his brother when he keeled over from a heart attack and he now is buried in the Birchwood cemetery, along with most of my relatives. His headstone inscription doesn’t mention his best-selling deer book, just the fact that he was a corporal in World War Two. That was something he was proud of more than being a professional phenomenon.
So it was time to go back to Thirty Three Creek and see how it had fared with the passage of time and of George Mattis.
The tangle at the road ditch was daunting, but once I got into the woods I paused to sort myself out. Ferns blanketed the forest floor. Sunlight danced here and there through the breeze-ruffled treetops. It was hushed, as if in a cathedral, and then a log truck roared past on the highway behind me, shattering the pastoral silence. “Shit!” I murmured reverently and moved on.
There was a faint fisherman’s trail, but the wagon tracks from the Chisholm Trail still are visible 130 years after they were made so the trail I followed could have been 50 years or 50 minutes old. Still, there should have been the wrapper from a brick of Velveeta, the local angler’s ultimate fallback.
The stream trickled over rounded rocks, scarcely flowing. I took this to be good news, theorizing that late summer low flow would concentrate trout in the scour holes and fishing would be somewhat like the proverbial shooting fish-in-a-barrel.
It didn’t take long to reach the end of the fisherman’s trail because essentially there was none. The afternoon sun continued to create chiaroscuro patterns on the forest floor but it also began to create a sticky heat. Sweat oozed from under my cap and down my face. I soldiered through a nice patch of stinging nettle and remembered why it’s reckless to wear shorts along a woodland stream.
I stumbled into the stream and stood in the cool water until the fierce itch from the nettles eased.
Finally the feeble trickle of the stream gave way to a pool. It wasn’t a classic pool from fly fishing literature; rather, a 10-yard widening of the stream. A couple of blowdown logs offered shelter to a spooky trout and the current had gouged out a couple of washtub-sized holes which might hold a brookie.
I wiped my forehead, clawed at my nettled legs, and put together my four-piece travel rod, dug the reel out of my fishing vest with a box consisting of a limited choice of flies—one. There were 40 woolly worms in two colors, black and olive. Take your pick.
I plucked an olive fly from the box and tied it on. There was no room for a back cast, but I thought I could side cast the length of the pool and with the consummate skill of a Lefty Kreh, drop the fly just above one of the holes and let it drift into the deeper water.
So I stripped line, flipped the fly in the air sideways….and wrapped it around a dead limb. Well, there were 39 other flies in the box.
My second cast landed with as much finesse as if I had hurled a dead cat in the stream, but the strike indicator jerked and I set the hook in what I hoped was a George Mattis-sized brook trout. After an epic battle of at least two seconds, I landed a chub minnow the right size to bait medium-length pike.
As pilgrimages go this was on the order of a pilgrimage to the boyhood home of the Three Stooges.
It took an hour of frustration, the loss of several more woolly worms, a near-encounter with poison ivy and incipient heat stroke to convince me that I was not going to revisit the 1960s and that if I didn’t vacate the woods I might be revisiting the nearest emergency room.
When I struggled out of the woods, my legs on fire from stinging nettle, sweat trickling down my face, swatting at mosquitoes, I spotted a trim uniformed fellow standing by my car.
Had I not stopped in Joe’s Bait Shop en route to Thirty Three Creek and permitted up, I would have been in trouble. A lay Baptist preacher of my acquaintance once told me in the orotund tones of a pulpit pundit that “I never buy a fishing license when I travel.” Perhaps he thought he was St. Peter, the Big Fisherman, reincarnated from a time when there was no such thing as a fishing permit, but I thought he was a jerk.
I hiked up the road berm to where the conservation agent stood and hauled out my billfold and showed the requisite fishing permit and trout stamp. It was a $37 expense for two chub minnows, but some guys spend that for a round of golf and don’t even get to wade through stinging nettle.
He asked the inevitable question: “How did you do?” and I shook my head.
“Well,” he said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think that several years of drought and warm temperatures has really hammered a lot of these small brook trout streams. I’d be surprised if there are any trout left in the creek.”
It appears that Thirty Three Creek is a chub fishery now. Maybe, even farther back in the Blue Hills, are pools with naive brook trout that never have seen an angler or ever will. George would have ferreted them out, but George is gone as is much of the world he knew.
I stopped at the pastoral Methodist cemetery just outside Birchwood and prowled among the markers until I spotted George’s small headstone. If he were still around he’d be 104 years old. And I suspect he still would be hiking the banks of Thirty Three Creek. Maybe he is in some phantom land where the creek flows free and cold, brook trout shimmer in the dark pool depths, and minnows slosh in a vintage Coke bottle.
I laid my still damp woolly worm on George’s marker and murmured, “Keep a tight line, old friend,” and headed into town.
-30-

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  • April 28th, 2017

WHAT? ME WORRY?

By Joel M. Vance

Has anyone but me noticed the remarkable resemblance of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to Alfred E Neuman that dim witted icon of Mad Magazine? Sessions is a member of the most inept administration in the history of the country. He was deemed unfit by Congress to be a federal judge but Donald Trump, the clown president, saw fit to name him as the nation’s top cop, head of the Justice Department.

“What? Me worry?”
No, Jeffy it’s the rest of us that are worried. Scared silly is more like it.
It’s not nice to make fun of someone’s looks but in Session’s case, I’ll make an exception. He looks like a befuddled chipmunk who has managed to stuff so many nuts into his cheek pouches that he doesn’t know whether to spit or go blind. He is the American version of Inspector Clouseau, without the redeeming quality of being funny. He’s merely pathetic, not to mention being scary for his potential to destroy long-established precepts of law and order.

We haven’t had cops that comic since the Keystone cops of silent movie fame were running into each other and creating havoc wherever they went. Sessions is so damn dumb he apparently did not know that Hawaii has been a state since 1959. He insulted a federal judge for putting a halt to Trump’s misguided immigration policy, saying that one judge in a little island somewhere in the Pacific was making decisions about how the government should be run. God knows someone needs to. The current administration runs government like, well, the Keystone cops.

The little island, Hawaii is a state, just like the one that Sessions calls home, although the only state he seems to be familiar with is semi-consciousness. Anyone with Donald Trump for a boss is bound to set new standards for ineptitude. Trump wouldn’t appoint anyone who is smarter than he is to a position of responsibility, which means that everyone he appoints has the approximate job suitability of a pet rock.

Hawaiian Sen. Mazie Hirono summed up Sessions geographic faux pas this way, “I expect the top law enforcement officer to remember Hawaii residents are Americans, and to understand the independent role of the judiciary.” However, expecting anyone associated with Trump world to understand the real world is asking a lot.

Mumbling his way through an introduction of the Italian prime minister, one of the few world leaders he has managed not to insult, Trump said, “from Verdi to Pavarotti—friend of mine. Great friend of mine.” No, dip wick not a friend. Regrettably Luciano Pavarotti has been dead for a decade. Mr Pavarotti’s family previously asked Trump to stop using the singer’s most famous aria – nessun dorma – at his campaign rallies.

“As members of his immediate family, we would like to recall that the values of brotherhood and solidarity which Luciano Pavarotti expressed throughout the course of his artistic career are entirely incompatible with the world view offered by the candidate Donald Trump,” the family said .
Supposedly Pavarotti’s favorite aria was nessun dorma” from the opera Turandot the last two lines of the aria, translated into English, are “set, stars! At sunrise I will win! I will win! I will win!” Perhaps one of Trump’s butt kissers told him about that aria and he adopted it as his anthem. Because for the clown president, winning is the only thing no matter how you do it—cheat if you can.

What can you expect from an administration whose idea of musical culture is to invite Ted Nugent and Kid Rock to the White House. Of course their visit, as culturally subterranean as it might be, was further degraded by the presence of Alaska’s favorite mama bear, the drill baby herself, Sarah Palin. If it were in my power I would arm an army of sanitation workers with mops and disinfectant to scrub the whole White House down, kind of like sanitizing an old-fashioned outhouse.

The White House is the nation’s home. It is a residence where the president is expected to spend his time in office, but we now have a president who plans to move the White House, the citizens’ home, to his own exclusive golf resort where for $200,000, you too can claim citizenry. He isn’t running the country, he’s running a goddamn business, and we get to pay for it. He calls it “the art of the deal” but as deals go, we haven’t seen anything like it since Enron.

Looking at his choices for top administration officials is like looking at the most frightening scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho”, over and over again. There is Sean Spicer, the clown president’s puppet, who stands in front of the White House press corps and repeats the most outrageous lies that no one in his right mind would believe. You can almost see the clown president’s little hand up Spicer’s back manipulating the controls (as opposed to having his hand up some helpless girl’s dress).

I haven’t decided if Spicer is Howdy Doody or Mortimer Snerd, Edgar Bergen’s half witted puppet of long ago. Snerd was dumber than Spicer and Howdy Doody was smarter, but either way the result doesn’t serve the purpose of truth in government. Half the time Spicer doesn’t know what he’s talking about and the other half he does but he lies about it. Truth in this administration is whatever Trump read on Breitbart news or heard on some sewage spouting conservative talk show.

I can’t fathom the mindset of a president of the United States whose attention span equals that of the life of a mayfly and who has the intellectual depth of a muddy puddle of rainwater. What can you say about a president who butt kisses some of the worst dictators in the world— Saddam “knew how to run a country”, Putin “likes me”, congratulations to Turkey’s dictator Erdogan on taking over the country. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (“you gotta give him credit”). Any day now I expect the clown president to get together with the French Nazi candidate Marine Le Pen for a group grope. After all, she’s blonde and a woman, a perfect candidate for a typical Trump stubby fingered fondle to improve Franco-American relations. In the meantime he’s busy targeting old people (no more Meals on Wheels), children (no more school lunches), the sick (no more affordable care for 24 million people without insurance), women (no more health screening from Planned Parenthood). If you want help from the Trump administration you have to be in the 1%,not in the other 99%.

This is an administration where if you scratch a member of it, you will find a buffoon, a crook, or a robber baron. Secretary of State Tillerson has been personally decorated by Vladimir Putin. Secretary of Education DeVos is a privileged private school debutante who thinks she can tell professional teachers how to teach and what to teach, the secretary of interior Zinke is poised to undo the conservation legacy of Barack Obama and possibly the legacy of every other conservation oriented President in the nation’s history.

Trump bulldozes his way through each day like an angry bear with an impacted fecal plug looking for something to brutalize. He’s managed to antagonize the leaders of our two closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, and it as if that weren’t bad enough, he’s pissed off the leaders of many of our allies. It’s no wonder the rest of the world is regarding the United States like you would look at an unasked-for package that’s ticking.

He’s like a schoolyard bully looking for a fight. I wake up each morning, apprehensive that he has pushed someone just as crazy as he is into nuclear insanity (think North Korea), someone who has responded to his arrogant blustering by dropping a nuclear missile somewhere— South Korea, Japan, or Hawaii. Last time I felt this threatened was in the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union went nose to nose over ballistic missiles in Cuba.

But that was a confrontation between two countries led by people who were not insane, who were not consumed by their own overwhelming egos. We can only hope there are enough people now in power to force the clown president to keep his pudgy finger off the red button. I guess the mere fact that I do wake up to whatever news the clown president has created overnight it is cold comfort, but I long for the days when the worst bad news of the overnight was that the St. Louis Cardinals lost yet again.

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  • April 18th, 2017

GOING HOME

By Joel M. Vance

I am seven years old and my cousins Pat and Sam and I are in a rowboat about 20 yards away from shore. My mother is splashing in the shallows of Birch Lake. She calls teasingly, “you boys had better get out of that rowboat or the owner will put you in jail.”
Jail!
In panic, I immediately leap overboard, forgetting that I cannot swim. Instantly I am under the water. I flounder to the surface to see my horrified mother starting toward me. Even as I go down for the second time, I am counting because I’ve been told that if you go down for the third time, it’s for keeps. You drown.
As I bob up again, I think that I’ve only got one chance left. Then I sink and know my life is all over. Then a miracle! My feet touch the bottom, and I stagger ashore, whooping and bellowing. I have been spared and the world is wonderful!
Birchwood, Wisconsin, is the town where I spent my summers or nearly didn’t. I’ve never really left Birchwood. It lingers in my mind like the sweet memory of a teenage crush. It’s in northwest Wisconsin, near Hayward where the freshwater fishing Hall of Fame features a building size concrete muskellunge, a fish so large that you can climb into the mouth and peer far down through the massive teeth at the tourists below.
Birchwood is nothing like Hayward. My town is the self-proclaimed bluegill capital of Wisconsin, and no one builds temples to bluegills. But there is a bluegill festival held during the third weekend of July. Tourists from Indiana and Illinois get swept up in the annual street dance. One year, my son-in-law entered the beer keg throwing competition. He lost to a beefy individual who looked as though he had emptied the keg before he threw it.
There also is competition between the fire departments of area towns in which the volunteer firefighters try to push a beer keg, suspended on a cable, to their opponent’s end of the cable with powerful jets of firehose water.
Birchwood is a resort town. It has the feel of the Northwoods. Even in summer, there is a pine tang in the air. The folks here have a wind bit look, as if they’ve gone often to the woodshed for kindling when it’s below zero. Winter temperatures routinely are below zero, and nearby Rice Lake once recorded -60, the nation’s coldest that day.
Everyone fishes in Birchwood. Fish and a veneer mill are the lifeblood of the town. Once, the fish were northern pike, walleyes and bass. Those heavy stringers of long ago are mostly gone. Today’s catch is smaller fish. Tourists concentrate on bluegills and crappie. The old lakes simply had too much demand on them for too long
My father once caught a 20 pound northern pike and made the mistake of hauling it into the old wooden rowboat before the fish was exhausted. The pike flopped around on tackle boxes and fishing lures until Aunt Vic worked up the nerve to dive on the fish like a football player going for a loose ball. My father sat back and laughed and told the story for years afterward. I grew up listening to men who sat around a table with a checkered oil cloth draped over it, drank Bruenig’s lager, and told colorful stories like that.
There was a time in my life when almost everyone in Birchwood was related to me. My grandparents came overland in an ox drawn wagon and helped to pioneer this town situated midway down a 20 mile chain of lakes.
My grandmother ran a restaurant and baked bread for the logging crews who were laying waste to the Virgin North land. It was a tough life. Aunt Vic, later to be to become a nurse, watched in fascination as a doctor amputated her brother’s leg on the kitchen table by the light of a kerosene lantern. He had been pinned by a falling tree.
Nolan Eidsmoe, a Birchwood native who became a doctor in Rice Lake said, “when we landed at Birchwood in 1919, the first place I can ever remember visiting was your grandmother’s restaurant. We ate our first meal there. She was a wonderful lady who raised a large family and still had time to run a restaurant and bake bread to sell to others. She also had room for a couple of orphans at her table for meals.”
My grandfather? Well some years ago a middle-aged woman stopped me on the street and said, “I knew your grandfather. I was his lookout when I was a little girl.”
“Look out?” I asked, puzzled.
“For the still the still he had out in the woods on our farm,” she said. She looked at me for a moment. “You didn’t know he was the town bootlegger?” No, I didn’t. The family had kept that secret for more than half a century. Family was important to my mother and her sisters. They worshipped their mother and despite all his faults, loved their father. The only way you could criticize a Soper was to be a Soper.
Frontier enterprise always been characteristic of Birchwood. An uncle began a fishing resort by buying one room school houses as they were abandoned and turning them into cottages. His brother later started a bait shop, thus Sopers had tourists coming and going. They were also partners in the only bar in town.
Birchwood population 4314, today is about the same as it was 70 years ago when I was a barefoot kid. My cousins and I sneaked into Hud’s Bar to feed nickles into a shooting gallery machine. The targets were Japanese Zero fighter planes,. Yes, we were brave and strong. We were 10 years old.
My cousin Mike came home after World War Two yellowed and shaken by malaria. He had a thousand mile stare and a tendency to hit the dirt when he heard a loud noise He had been an island hopping Marine in the Pacific.
We wondered about the glamour of war then.
There is a monument to Birchwood’s veterans next to the town hall. Two Sopers served in World War One. Their children were just beyond draft age for World War Two but-225 men from the Birchwood area served in World War Two– a tremendous chunk out of the young adult resource of a rural county.
Eight didn’t return.
There once was a Quonset hut movie theater in town. We watched Charlie Starrett and Ken Maynard. But a big storm in the 40s blew the roof off and dumped it in the middle of the street approximately opposite where a little girl hit me in the back of the head with a brick. I had said something to irritate her and turned my back to her. That was a mistake. She caught me square with a brick from at least 30 feet away. I saw stars and bled copiously. Another time I fell while running and ran the stob of a weed down my throat. I remember the hurts as well as the pleasures.
It’s a miracle any kid ever grows up. One Fourth of July, my cousin Pat threw a firecracker that didn’t explode. Being silly, he picked it up and put it in his mouth like a cigarette. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m smoking!” In an instant, he was! The thing exploded, burning his mouth and face. It made my ears ring for two days.
Many years ago, out-of-town investors restored the old Tagalong golf course, just south of Birchwood. It had been built by a millionaire in the 1920s, part of a lovely estate carved out of the woods. Now it is a country club for fly in tourists but for one summer, it was my private course. Back then it had gone to pasture. No one cared if I came out and hacked my way around the course. I played through worried knots of dairy cattle. I fumed at my wild hooks and slices, and the cows would moo apprehensively.
Once, I teed off right into a tree no more than 30 feet away, and the ball rebounded past my ear with the whiz of a rifle bullet. It made me think about my career in golf. I soon quit when I realized I could throw a club farther than I could hit the ball.
There is a saying that you can’t go home again, but I thought maybe you could. I went back to Birchwood one time. The Birch Lake Inn guarded the north end of Main Street–it since has burned to the ground. The Inn was a few yards from the northern states power company dam which created the lake. It was an old inn before it burned down.
I walked to the dam and looked at the roaring froth 30 feet down and shuddered. They said my cousin Bob went over the dam once but I never asked him because it’s deliciously scary enough to think it might’ve happened. It was starting to get late in the evening, and I was hungry. I stopped at the Inn and ordered a superb walleye dinner for only $7.50. Try to match that in Minneapolis or Madison. It will never happen again. When I finished my walleye, I walked outside and headed south along Main Street
Some towns measure their success by how progressive they are, how many new industries they attract, how much they grow, how modern they become. I measured Birchwood by how tenaciously it sticks in my memories. There, in my memories, it is a town of sunlight in summer. And it is not reality. I walked down Main Street, looking in vain for the town I knew and the kids of long ago who played tag in the summer evenings and the town that smelled of the lake and of hot road tar and fish slime.
Little of what I knew remains. The bank, the hardware store and the bar have different names couple of other buildings still stand, but almost everything else is new. The old Soo line tracks are gone. Now the rail bed throbs to the whine of snowmobiles in wintertime. Another part of it became a highway that now speeds traffic right through the middle of Birchwood.
The Bruenig’s lager brewery in nearby Rice Lake is long closed. The icehouse is gone. We crouched there on hot days top thousands of pounds of ice cut from the lake in the winter to serve the town’s ice boxes in the summer. We dug through the insulating sawdust from the veneer mill to find chunks of ice to suck, and we sat in the door and listen to the dry stridulation of insects.
My aunt Pill’s angular house, where I had awakened to see the roof of the movie theater sitting smack in the middle of Main Street became decrepit and doomed for removal. Hud’s Bar, where my uncles dispensed beer and fishing advice, is now the Bluegill Bar. The bait shop across the street is now somebody’s office. The spidery bridge above the Narrows between Birch Lake and Lake Chetek has joined the town dock in history. How can Birchwood still be my hometown when so little of what it was to me is still there today?
My hometown is in my mind. Most of the reality of it lies in the Methodist churchyard or in old photos gone sepia with age that tell a different story than the one told today. As I reached the end of the street, feeling depressed, a couple of boys of about 10 raced by, intent on some childhood adventure. Maybe they were going to the store for a double-dip ice cream cone or to dig some worms for bait. Maybe they were just yelling because kids yell when their sap rises. I looked at them and realized that Birchwood today is not my hometown—it is theirs.
They’ll go home again someday, too, and discover the home is where the heart is, that scrapbooks and memories are the reality of the hometown, not what not what it has become.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2017

A SKUNK BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL JUST AS BAD

By Joel M. Vance

Remember how your second grade teacher wagged her finger at you just before she sent you to stand in the corner for dipping little Janie Sue’s pigtails in the ink well? Ink well? What’s that? Okay, maybe you erased Janie Sue’s computer program, but you get the picture.
The warning signal, then the punishment. That’s what the skunk in the trail was giving me—the wagging finger—when its bushy tail elevated and shook side to side. I got the picture. Miss Pallette never did stamp her feet and she smelled like musty lavender but I knew when to back off in second grade and I knew when to back off on my trail, on my property.
In a dispute over property rights the skunk always wins.
Just ask my bird dog. Once I was quail hunting in 20 degree weather. I heard the dog yelp on the other side of a hill. He scooted back, dragging behind him a mephitic cloud that nearly knocked me over. Apparently he had a social encounter with a skunk during which the skunk did all the talking.
We were 40 miles from home and I was driving the family car. I risked hypothermia for both me and the dog by breaking ice in a nearby pond to give the dog a bath. I then coated him with mud and loaded him in the car, wrapped in my coat. We drove home with all the windows down. It was, in the terms of outdoor writers who usually are speaking of triumphant days afield, “a memorable hunt.”
The erring dog is almost endemic among skunk stories. If you own a dog in skunk country long enough, chances are very good that you will be faced with a defusing situation (either that or hope to find a passing dog buyer with a stone nose). Some dogs never make the connection between foul and burning stink and the little animal that looks so chase-able.
The remedies are several and mostly ineffective. Bathing the dog in tomato juice is supposed to be a never-fail, but it does not work. Several of us were renting a suite in a motel during a grouse hunt when one of the hunters dragged his Lab through the two rooms, followed by the most awful stench imaginable. “She rolled in a dead skunk,” he announced grimly, heading for the bathroom. He had two quart-cans of tomato juice tucked under his arm and the expression of someone heading for the gallows.
He and the dog engaged in odorific wrestling for a long time and when they emerged they wore a contrail of mixed scents—something like a Bloody Mary from Hell.
By a vote of three to one (the dog dissenting), we banished the crestfallen canine to a frosty portable kennel in the owner’s pickup. She began to howl lonesomely about 1 a.m. Shortly after, doors banged downstairs in the motel and large, aggressive long-haul truckers demanded to know whose condemned dog that was.
We remained very quiet, although the dog didn’t. No matter how irritating the dog’s noise was none of the surly truckers wanted to get close enough to administer justice.
In a 1995 Popular Science magazine article, chemist Paul Krebaum wrote that this recipe would eliminate skunk stink: One quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, one quarter cup of baking soda, and one teaspoon of liquid soap. Bathe the dog in this solution and rinse. He also said that there is no way to store the solution. “If you put the ingredients in a bottle, the whole thing would explode.”
There are ripple effects from some skunk encounters. It’s not, as the old saying goes, “over till it’s over.” Rufus was a large collie, the family pet when our children were wee. We all enjoyed canoe trips, although Rufus never quite grasped the concept of balance and much preferred to stand where the ground under him didn’t rock back and forth.
I was awakened in the pit of a moonless night, the river burbling past a few feet from our tent on a gravel bar, by the most awful, overwhelming stench this side of a road-killed rhinoceros in mid-July. It was so noisome that I didn’t identify it as skunk. I rose from my snug bed and went outside to investigate. Rufus followed me around the gravel bar peering here and there with me, ever helpful in the Lassie tradition.
And then it sank into my sleep and stink-addled brain. Rufus was the bearer of some really bad tidings. “Oh, Rufus!” I exclaimed. “How could you?” He hung his head in shame. Rufus found, the next day, what it was like to swim the English Channel—about 10 miles of dog paddling which somewhat defused him.
If you’re within 15 feet of an angry skunk, you are in peril. The yellow, oily musk is expelled from glands on either side of the skunk’s upraised tail. For the chemically-inclined, the musk is a combination of methyl and butyl thiols—the word “methane” appears in the description and methane is the stuff of really bad odors.
Skunks are sight shooters and the theory is that if you can live trap one (not leg-hold; they spray instantly when the trap closes) and throw a cover over the cage, the skunk, not able to pick its target, will lock and load but not fire.
If you’re moving a skunk to new territory, make it at least five miles away or your odiferous visitor might return. On the other hand, you can try to co-exist. I know a fellow who had a skunk take up residence underneath his duck blind. All was well until the first shot of the season. The skunk took the second shot.
The late Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Bill Mauldin talked about an episode from his childhood in his memoir A Sort of a Saga which involved skunks or, more specifically, their major weapon. He and his brother Sid bartered a friend for a bottle of skunk musk that the friend had collected from animals he’d trapped.
They had heard that skunk musk was used in perfume manufacture and so they were going to sell it, money being short in the Depression. Skunk musk actually is used as a fixative in perfume—with the bad smell removed but with the ability to permeate and cling remaining.
But both Sears and Montgomery Ward passed on this aromatic prize and instead the Mauldin boys decided to use their awesome elixir to get even with a loud-voiced, bridge-playing friend of the family who had kept them awake with his bellowing.
They poured the musk on the exhaust manifold of the man’s car and the porous metal soaked it up like a sponge. Every time the car heated up the smell rose in an awful fog. “Far into the following cold winter that car could be seen running around with all its windows open, the Voice inside wearing a heavy coat and wrinkling his nose,” Mauldin wrote.
Often the automobile suffers not from Mauldin boys, but from a skunk’s inability to distinguish between predators it can handle and those it can’t. Skunk mommas fall in lust earlier in the spring than almost any wildlife except great horned owls. Come February, skunks begin to cruise for love and it is then that they run afoul (literally) of Detroit’s finest. Some years back Loudon Wainwright sang a lovely ballad titled “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)” which chronicled the fate of many an adventurous skunk. .
“He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right….” Wainwright sang about a skunk that lost a battle with a station wagon, but it wouldn’t have mattered–after all, the woods puss has no fear of anything, including a monster with eight snorting cylinders.
Assuming a pair of skunks of the opposite sex manages to evade highway peril and mate, they will cooperate in producing a litter of from two to as many as 16 kits with three to 10 as the average. The babies are blind and hairless at birth, born in a burrow.
The eyes don’t open until the kits are from three weeks to 35 days. They’ll nurse in the burrow for as long as seven weeks before they venture into the world outside.
Skunks are members of the Mephitidae family which comprises 11 species worldwide, including nine in the United States. Most common are the striped and spotted skunks, but all skunks are striped at birth. Western spotted skunks are a Wyoming resident
Taxonomists still are arguing over whether skunks belong to the Mustilidae family, which includes otters, weasels, badgers, and martens, but current thinking is that they don’t.
The name probably is a corruption of an Algonquin Indian word, dating to the first settlements in the late 1500s. Citizens of the Windy City may be thrilled to know that Chicago is derived from an Indian word “shee-gawk” which means “Skunk land.”
And the origin of the common phrase, “drunk as a skunk” is debatable. One etymologist argues that it comes from “stinking drunk” which logically would lead to something that really stinks. Another word hawk believes the name comes from the waddling gait of a skunk that resembles someone tottering home from the local pub. But chances are it is merely because “skunk” rhymes with “drunk.”
Skunks often are accused of being prime vectors for rabies, along with bats, and it’s true they are a major carrier of the dread virus—but rabies is over publicized as a threat. Actually, more than half of reported cases are from raccoon bites. Skunks account for about 20 percent. Foxes and bats are responsible for about 10 percent each of reported cases.
Rabies actually is rare—there were only 32 laboratory-confirmed cases in the United States between 1980-96 and at least some of those originated with dog bites that happened in foreign countries.
Still, no one should risk a bite from a wild animal. A friend, during a National Guard camp out in Minnesota, once fell asleep after eating salted peanuts. During the night what probably was a ground squirrel nipped his finger, probably to get at the salt on it. Since there was no way to tell whether he’d been assaulted by a rabid animal or not, he faced the choice of getting the round of anti-rabies shots or hoping for the best.
He opted to throw the dice and avoid the shots…and luckily they came up sevens. But dying from rabies (and it almost always is fatal without quick treatment after the bite) is agonizing.
Our son once picked up a young raccoon and got bitten. Fortunately he kept a grip on the animal which then could be tested for rabies. It proved to be merely angry, not rabid, and he was spared the needle. The raccoon wasn’t as lucky—testing for rabies involves killing the suspect animal.
Since there is no rabies vaccine for skunks, a pet skunk that bites someone is a “sacrificed” skunk—it must be killed to test for rabies. Some do have skunks as pets—a recent television commercial spotlights a skunk wandering through a house and you’re supposed to hold your breath in anticipation of disaster, but then the skunk, a pet, snuggles up to the homeowner and you buy the advertised product.
Obviously any skunk raised as a pet will need its six guns checked at the door. That’s done by surgery when the skunk is young. Skunks are, like most wild animals, headstrong (meaning they do what skunks do, not necessarily what their “owners” demand they do). They are smart and inquisitive and can be a nuisance.
For more information, check http://www.skunkhaven.net/. Despite the fact that skunks can be pets and that some are raised for that purpose, think long and hard before getting one unless you have understanding neighbors, locally permissive ordinances and a personal talent for tolerance.
Wild skunks for sure are best left alone—after all, anyone who deliberately taunts a skunk in the wild must be as drunk as one….
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  • April 2nd, 2017

GIMME A HUG!

“GIMME A HUG!”

By Joel M. Vance

Lovers say it to their significant others, grandmas say it to their grandchildren, even gushy types say it to their dogs (often to the consternation of the dogs).
“Gimme a hug!” It’s the universal expression of affection. Or is it? After all when a Mafia don gives you a hug and a kiss the next step is off a dock with your loafers stuck in concrete.
And Judas famously kissed and probably hugged Jesus as an act of betrayal. It’s a wonder kissing and hugging survived in Christianity, although without it as a prelude to more intimate contact, there possibly wouldn’t be any Christians today.
It’s safer to shake hands, a custom designed to indicate no weapon in the shaking hand, than it is to hug where the hands are behind the back of the hugee, possibly armed with a knife. When Brutus gave Julius Caesar a hug the next step was a knife in the back.
Et tu, Brutus? Actually, Brutus was just part of a mob that iced Julie—probably didn’t hug him. But he could have….
The hug has become as common as a handshake in today’s society. It was not always so. Except among certain ethnic groups where affection is a freestyle event, most white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of today’s oldest living generation grew up in a non-hug environment. It was okay to hug babies and very small children, but once a child got to the age where it took private baths, hugging was out. You might get an embarrassed pat on the back, but that was about it.
I know, since I am of that generation. Perhaps my folks did hug me, but if they did I don’t remember it. It took me many years to get over that childhood reticence, but now I am an enthusiastic hugger and so is virtually every one I know. Once in a while I hug an elderly person and feel him or her stiffen slightly and then I recognize a fellow introvert raised in a hugless home.
Close dancing, what has been called “belt buckle polishing,” is nothing more than a ritualized form of hugging. While frottage, the rubbing of one’s clothed body against that of someone of the opposite sex, has been outlawed in some places, punishable by arrest and imprisonment, dancing is sanctioned frottage unless you happen to be a hardshell Baptist.
But there is no proscription among Baptists against an old auntie with overwhelming lavender cologne hugging a mortified eight-year-old niece or nephew, creating a lifelong fear of the hug. If hugless parents create an inhibited adult, gross, reeking aunties are worse. With a combination of the two you’re looking at an adult who will have more phobias than Norman Bates.
Fortunately close encounters with young people of the same age, eddying in a swirl of pheromones, can help to erase those awful memories. High school hugging loosens inhibitions (hugging which, in my long-ago, often occurred in the dark in automobiles that never heard of power accessories and whose radios tinnily played “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” Later on fatherhood forever banished any lingering mulligrubs about hugging—you can’t have babies and not hug them.
Yet even in today’s huggy society there are limits. The New York Times reported that hugging has become the young person’s “favorite social greeting” in the United States apparently replacing the high five. Predictably, elders have decided that hugging, like rock and roll, is detrimental to the morals of the nation’s youth and some high schools where hugging has become endemic, have decreed either a total hugging ban or a three-second rule.
Presumably all teachers in those latter schools are equipped with stop watches and whistles. Three seconds is unreasonable—hardly enough time to establish a grip and give the obligatory pat on the back. It’s akin to air kisses or clapping with one hand.
However, a three-second hug is better than the Draconian policy that once was in place at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. There a hug was punishable as a sexual assault if the hugger didn’t get “continuing and active” assent to the hug. If you jumped up to give your wife of 50 years a hug, she’d better be shouting, “Yes, oh yes, my prince! Hug me now as we have for lo! These many years!” and keep shouting it during the duration of the hug or you risked being dragged kicking and screaming to the stocks, perhaps branded on the forehead with a huge scarlet “H” for “Hugger.”
Fortunately, the authorities at the college came to what little sense remained and revised the policy.
There actually is a hugging site on the internet (called, no surprise, The Hug Site: http://www.uta.fi/~ms54336/halia.htm). It lists “positions” for hugging in different situations, a sort of Kama Sutra of the embrace. Yes, there are hugging positions. I once hugged a side-hugger, a woman who was so shy that she turned sideways and essentially reached backward to hug. It was an unnerving experience for both of us.
Ask.com, which supposedly has the definitive answer to anything you ask, says there are different ways to hug and much depends on the preferred intimacy. “Greet your husband or your longterm boyfriend with a full body hug,” says a respondent on Ask.com, not adding that it’s smart not to do that each in the presence of the other.
The side-hugger I ran into (sorry) fell under the category of this: “Greet your grandfather or your Aunt Mabel or your friend from school whom you haven’t seen for a while with what’s called a “side-saddle hug.” Maybe my side-hugger mistook me for her grandfather or some old school friend. I’d hate to think she thought of me as Aunt Mabel.
Virtually all huggers except those who have progressed to more explicit intimacy, instinctively arch their pelvises backward at the moment of hug, avoiding full frontal contact. Why this happens would be fruit for a doctoral study in psychology. And the research could be more fun than anything since the Kinsey Report.
When the greeting hug gravitates to something more intimate it becomes cuddling, that in-front-of-the-cozy-fire posture favored by lovers since fire was discovered. Spooning is a variation, often practiced by old married couples in bed and asleep. It involves one, usually the man, “spooning” himself against the backside of the other, both facing the same direction. On a bitter winter night it is the only conceivable hug position and beats a hot brick wrapped in a towel all to hell.
Our forefathers routinely slept two to a bed. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin once shared a bed and argued about whether the window should be open or shut. There is no mention of spooning, however.
Once a Missouri fisheries biologist did a survey of recreation on the Missouri River and included “spooning” as a minor activity, ranking well below trotline fishing. He endured much kidding from his fellow biologists and possibly did not know the literal description of spooning because the picture of a couple locked in a spoon on the slimy bank of the Big Muddy is less than romantic.
Perhaps the ultimate hug is in the sadly now-discarded practice of bundling. Frontier/pioneer couples would be “bundled” together in a hug, sometimes within a cocoon of blankets. It was like a straitjacket, only considerably more fun. Possibly the idea was that if the couple could endure such close quarters for an extended period of time they probably were compatible. Sometimes there was a board between the two which would seem to turn the hug into more of a lumberjacking event than a courtship.
The practice apparently came from the Old Country with the Puritans, but the Pennsylvania Dutch perfected it. The theory was that the couple would remain chaste though bundled together, usually with the girl’s parents sleeping close by, each with one eye open. Somehow though pregnancies resulted and it makes you wonder if the bundling board was full of knotholes.
Considering that every human activity, no matter how obscure or esoteric, has generated a world record, it’s no surprise that hugs have too. There is a Guinness World Record for the most hugs in 24 hours and also for the longest continuous hug (24 hours, one second).
The self-proclaimed hug champion, the Michael Jordan of huggers, is Jeff Ondash from Ohio who calls himself Teddy McHuggin. He set the most hugs record in Las Vegas (where else?) with 7,777 hugs in 24 hours. He also logged a world record 1,205 hugs in one hour. That’s 28 hugs per minute, averaging not quite three seconds per hug—obviously Teddy has been training with the high school teachers.
The marathon hug record, though, raises a question: shouldn’t it be jointly held? There is a hugger and a huggee, but they both spend the same amount of time entangled. It is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma and over all not very interesting.
It seems oxymoronic to celebrate the hug, but there is an official National Hug Day, Jan. 21. It dates to 1986 when enterprising Michiganders, from the town of Caro, came up with the idea. That being the pit of winter in a northern state when boredom, cabin fever and Seasonal Affective Disorder are rampant, the idea of a hug celebration sounds like a really good idea. For all the intimate details see http://www.nationalhuggingday.com/.
The folks in Caro are so enamored of their unusual day that they have trademarked it, like Coca Cola and request that all media mentions include the “TM” after the name (see above where I didn’t).
“Always ask first….” is mentioned and a good idea. For example, grabbing an NFL interior lineman in a hug is a good way to get the snot knocked out of you.
Hugging has been proven to have health benefits. One study has shown that hugs increase levels of oxytocin, and reduce blood pressure. And speaking of health, rather than spending big bucks as I did yesterday for a little bottle of pills, and rather than going to the doctor, just go to the comic strips. “For Better or Worse” had daddy saying, “I don’t know if I’m bored, tired or depressed,” and his daughter saying, “I wrote you a prescription, Take two hugs and call me in the morning.” Daddy, of course, immediately felt wonderful. If this revolutionary medical advice gets out, the pharmaceutical industry is screwed—-but we will all feel better in the morning.

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