My becoming a writer had a lot to do with my growing up a reader.
I’ve read a great deal of reading novels, but there are a few fiction books that are my favorites. The Jack London stories The Call of the Wild, and White Fang; the Hardy Boy series; the Sherlock Holmes stories; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway; A Separate Peace by John Knowles that I read in high school; The Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien that I read at least once a year in college; Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry; and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, which I read for the first time three years ago and have read twice since.
But The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark may be my number one. I read it in Junior High and probably have re-read it a dozen times. I’ve given it as a gift to several people, and will likely do so for my grandchildren. It is a book steeped in good sense, good education, respectability, honor, courage, humor, boyhood adventures, and full of poignant moments associated with growing up.
Robert Ruark grew up on the coast of North Carolina. As a young boy, his parent’s difficult marriage had him living for much of the time with his maternal grandfather, Captain Ned Adkins. Captain Adkins was many things, including being a pilot for ships that sailed the channels and shoals of the Atlantic coast near Wilmington. Ruark was a loner, but a gifted one, and he spent every hour he could fishing and hunting in the coastal country, under the tutelage of the Old Man, Captain Adkins.
After graduating high school, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at age 15. He did not earn a degree in journalism but decided on it as his career. In the 1930s, he spent time in the US Merchant Marine, worked for small newspapers, then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1936 and was a copy boy for the Washington Daily News; a few months later, he was the paper’s top sports reporter. During WWII, he was commissioned an ensign in the Navy, and served ten months as a gunnery officer on ships running the convoys across the Atlantic and Mediterranean. After the war, he wrote columns for The New York Times, plus had articles in the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and other popular magazines.
Then he went on a safari in Africa. He spent three months with legendary hunters, guides, and trackers in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika. When he came back, he was firmly in love with Africa and would go on to become one of its most famous visitors. He became famous by writing Horn of the Hunter, Uhuru, and Something of Value, in the early 1950s, all based on his being in Africa, describing its past and present, and caring about what happened to it.
He became well-known when he began writing a series of stories in 1953 for Field & Stream magazine, entitled The Old Man and the Boy. The stories were mostly autobiographical, though technically fiction, the grandfather of the book being a combination of Captain Adkins and his paternal grandfather, Hanson Kelly Ruark. A collection of those stories came out under the same name in 1957. He would follow it in 1961 with a companion book titled The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, which has similar stories that follow Robert after the Old Man’s death. Robert Ruark died in 1965 from liver problems brought on by too much alcohol.
I didn’t grow up on the coast of North Carolina, but I had a vast open country in the north Panhandle of Texas, where we could shoot rats at the city dump, go after prairie dogs outside of town, hunt rabbits along the riverbed of the Canadian River, and practice archery at the local archery range. As Boy Scouts, we went to Jim’s Lake and other hidden spots for camping.
Fishing was a little more difficult, but if we caught anything, we’d have to clean it, so there was a tradeoff. We always had the latest issues of Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Herter’s catalogue, and copies of Hemingway’s Africa stories. Our rifles hung on the wall in our bedroom (one room with three single beds shored up with 2x4s) and I fletched my own arrows (put the feathers on) because we couldn’t afford the finished ones.
When I read Ruark’s stories of hunting and fishing, all under the wisdom of the Old Man, I thought it could be me, which made the stories a whole lot more interesting.
The important thing is that the stories drilled into me that true hunters obey the laws, help maintain the wildlife and each other, respect everyone no matter their color or social class, have high regard for honor, courage, and old men, and gave me the model of how granddads loved their grandchildren enough to help orchestrate the kind of world their grandchildren should live in.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.