By Jerry Bullock
I recognized the face on the book jacket across three aisles in the Book Department of a JC Penney Department Store. Department stores actually had departments in 1966, including books and phonograph records. This was long before any Barnes and Noble or Borders. I knew that slouchy, broad-brimmed hat, that cigarette at a jaunty angle of the right hand, that black moustache, that wise-guy, sideways glancing grin, and wrinkled safari jacket. Robert Ruark. I hurried over as if to visit an old friend sighted in a crowd.
Thirteen years earlier, at the age of ten, I had discovered Ruark’s column, The Old Man and the Boy in Field and Stream magazine. Every month I leafed hurriedly, excitedly, until I found a similar photo below the column title, The Old Man and the Boy. There was where my debt began to accrue.
Ruark was writing of his young boyhood back in the late 1920s, spent with his grandfather and two backwoods friends, hunting in his North Carolina home country for quail with English pointers, as well as hunting squirrels, rabbits and a few deer. He told of fishing for big freshwater bass and the saltwater surf fish. It was a biography of my own young life being lived in a similar day-to-day rhythm. He had only his grandfather. I had my grandfather plus my dad, uncles, and their friends to mentor me. With them attending, they took me hunting raccoons at night with hounds, pheasants with setters, squirrels and rabbits with beagles, and a few deer hunts. My grandfather taught me how to trap muskrats. My best friend and I spent all but two months of the year trapping, fishing, or hunting. We lived, in part, more in the nineteenth century than the twentieth.
I knew that what I had with these men and these creatures was something special, wonderful, and unique. None of the kids or families outside my circle seemed to know or have interest in these activities that were so important to us. Robert Ruark thought these pursuits were important. He told that little ten-year-old it was important, every month in his column. He told me how important the lessons were he had learned from his mentors and, by implication, that I was going to hear and learn from mine. He reminded me I just had to keep my ears open, pay attention. And learn. He crystallized what thoughts I had about how valuable these experiences would be for me one day. I somehow knew they would be a dependable anchor in any future rough seas.
Ruark’s words allowed me to understand, to put form and character to the young life I was living. So, rather than having to wait for the wisdom of age and experience to allow me to look back and see these wonders and their values, I could live them as a young boy while knowing them as an adult through his words, making them all the more rich, valuable, and indelible. Because of Ruark, that little ten-year-old was always listening and taking note with ears far beyond his years.
I was keeping a diary of it all by the time I was eleven years old. Seemed that those memories and that record would be valuable one day, so I tried to capture some of it. To an outsider, it might have appeared strange that a little boy living such an apparently hillbilly life would form such thoughts at such an early age. Ruark whispered that I should do and be these things. Easy for urban fools to look down on us and make judgements. One misjudged my family and their circle of friends at one’s own peril.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention I had other authors. Faulkner, Hemingway, Trueblood, O’Connor, Leopold, and more. Outdoor writing was wonderful, far more literary, in that time. But Ruark was the one that resonated the most for me. Today we have Weiland and few others.
Life for me was not what an outsider might have judged it to be by looking at that old, somewhat run-down house, with hounds tied to boxes, and tractors and trucks strewn about. We did not have extra money above what was needed for food – just enough clothes, and fuel to keep warm. We were never hungry, cold, or without the basics. Just nothing fancy or extra. But we had enough earned from our own kid-jobs for shells for the shotgun, fishing lures for bass, lines and tippet for the fly rod, food for the hounds, books to read, and later, gas for a car, presents for girls. As the song goes, “Some girls don’t like boys like me. But some girls do.” Never sought or wasted time with the girls that “don’t.” Only sought the ones that “do.”
I guess we were poor for sure, but it didn’t seem so, until the yuppie precursor hordes invaded our valley and told us so. But peer pressure could not really penetrate our souls, our world. And with Ruark cheering us on, who needed that urban mess. Ruark placed an author’s note in the front of The Old Man and The Boy stating, “Anyone who reads this book is bound to realize that I had a fine time as a kid.” Same for me, Mr. Ruark. A real fine time. I have you and so many others to thank for that.
But those few early yuppie precursors swelled to thousands sweeping away our beautiful creatures and landscapes. Their rabbit-warren housing and the endless shopping malls bulldozed away all that was important to us. In fifteen years, only a single surviving field-corner oak or a remnant patch of woods remained. Ruark and his grandfather told me to leave, and I did, to Idaho, where I reside today. I have watched some of Idaho swept away, too, but not the extensive, total oblivion that destroyed my old home fields and woods.
As the 50s rolled on, Ruark’s later columns carried some wonderful stories of African safaris that enthralled me. Here was the summit of all hunting, and I wanted some of it. I knew from my low, economic perch, this was impossible, but I dreamed. At ten or twelve years, kids can’t grasp what might happen financially in the future, only what is, and what was not going to get me a plane ticket let alone an African safari.
The end of the 50s brought changes to the column. I had become distracted by girls and part-time jobs and cars. I hunted and fished as much as ever, but the column’s new content held less allure, and Robert Ruark and I parted ways. Drifted apart. The column ended in 1962. I wasn’t aware of the full magnitude of the loss at the time. That would come later.
Then, in that JC Penney’s Department Store came the renewal. The book’s title was, Use Enough Gun about African hunting. I quickly leafed through and found the black and white photos. A photo of Ruark with a big waterbuck. I was struck by the animal’s rugged handsomeness. That animal and the kudu would become my most coveted African animals. How was I to know I would later – 46 years later – hold my own similar waterbuck taken in the same manner as Robert Ruark’s. The stalk, the shot range and placement, the animal’s reaction were a copy of Ruark’s waterbuck story as he relates it in Use Enough Gun. In JC Penney’s that day, I would have never dreamt it possible.
It was so wonderful to have found Mr. Ruark again. I devoured Use Enough Gun. Read it three, maybe five times over the next six months. In the ensuing years, I discovered The Old Man and the Boy had been anthologized. That Horn of the Hunter had been written. I acquired them and read them. But I had not inquired after the man. Where was he? What was he doing? He should have been alive, in his fifties by then. I was too taken up with career, a wife, a young life. Too busy to check into the wellbeing of my old friend. He was dead as a matter of fact.
Ruark’s excesses and his choice of a stressful life, foreign to his true self, ate him up and killed him at the age of 49 years plus 6 months. He had re-discovered himself in Africa, but it was too late to mount a recovery, a redirection. He died just a year before my discovery of Use Enough Gun. I did not revere him as a role model. I am not supporting his behaviors. I am revering his written words. Maybe some of the nasty critics could have done more of that. Just critiquing his words and not his behavior. I believe his words in The Old Man and the Boy show us his true soul. Nothing to criticize there.
I read Something of Value and Uruhu, Ruark’s two best sellers about Africa. I acquired Someone of Value and A View From a Tall Hill, two biographies that fleshed out the Ruark story more completely for me.
It was the 1990s. Ruark could have been in his eighties but, of course, he was gone. I had finally, fully comprehended the debt I owed him for his words that helped clarify and guide me in so many of my important decisions in my life. I regretted not being able, through face-to-face words or a letter, to thank him while he was alive.
I was attending a conference on carbohydrate chemistry in Chicago sponsored by the Whistler Institute of Purdue University, the premier center of carbohydrate study in the world. Dr. Roy Whistler was its founder and namesake for this conference. I happened to sit with Dr. Whistler at lunch one day. Toward the end of the lunch I heard Dr. Whistler mention he had spent time in Africa in the early 50s, researching potential native carbohydrate-providing plant sources. I asked him if he had hunted.
“Oh yes,” he said, “As much as I could.” Dr. Whistler was animated and enthused that someone at this gathering shared his interest. He told me he had all of these hunting trophies in his home, but almost no one who visits knows what they are, what they are for, or what they mean to him. He supposed he would have to get rid of them all, maybe to a museum. Sounds familiar. The same will likely happen to my own, and sooner than I know. I asked if he might have met Robert Ruark in his travels.
“Yes,” Dr. Whistler said, “At a bar in Nairobi.” He described Robert Ruark as an engaging guy and that they had a great conversation. I told Dr. Whistler that Robert Ruark was an important figure in my life, but I had never had the opportunity to meet him. I asked if I might have the pleasure of shaking the hand of a man who had shaken the hand of Robert Ruark. Dr. Whistler smiled and extended his hand, indicating he understood. And that is as close as I would ever come to Robert Ruark.
Just last year I was in an antique store and spotted a mid-fifties Field and Stream. Just like that ten-year-old kid, I hurried through the pages until I spotted that photo and the column title. I swear I was just as excited as when I was 10 years old receiving the magazine in the mail. I bought that copy so I can leaf through any time I want to feel that 10-year-old’s surge of excitement and happiness again.
Terry Weiland, author of Ruark’s biography, A View From a Tall Hill and similarly enthralled with Ruark, wrote a column in the January 2016 edition of Safari Times. A resurgence of my sense of neglectful guilt overwhelmed me as I read it.
You see, December 29, 2015 was Robert Ruark’s 100th birthday anniversary. Weiland knew this. He saw to it to know it. I did not, but should have. Weiland owes an unpayable debt. He stated that in his column. But Weiland wrote an extensive biography and his birthday column that will reach thousands with the Ruark story and the love we feel for this man and what he did for us. What have I done?
Weiland once stayed in a cabin attached to a Nairobi hotel, a cabin where Ruark stayed on many nights before and after safaris. Weiland reports he visited with the ghosts of Ruark in that room and drank a few of Ruark’s favorite drinks in toasts to Ruark. The cabins are torn down now, replaced with soulless structures housing know-nothing shutterbug tourists, and so-called conservationists belonging to proud worldwide conservation organizations complicit with the corrupt officials who hold hands with the urban conservationists in their conferences by day, and run the poaching rings by night.
Ruark died when he was 49 years old. How much more could he have written if only he had lived. But he came along at just the right time for me and, I suspect, tens of thousands of others like me in that twenty-year window of susceptibility in young lives. If you shared any similar memories in your youth, you need to reconnect with Ruark.
If you have never heard of the man or read his words, connect with him now. You will not be sorry. Of my vintage, or any vintage, I urge you, if you love hunting and love wildlife. If you had beloved family or friends who mentored you. If a dog or a bird or deer holds a place in your soul, seek and buy The Old Man and the Boy. I urge you to buy Use Enough Gun and/or Horn of the Hunter if you have any interest in hunting, any hunting, especially if you are interested in Africa. Safari Press and Amazon sells them all. Maybe that will assuage my guilt regarding what I owe the man.
To Robert Ruark: The hunting industry owes you. The wildlife that benefits from the hunters you encouraged and helped create, owe you. The world is richer that you lived, and for what you wrote. I just wish I had taken care of your memory a bit better. Rest in peace old friend. This simple country boy owes you a debt that can never be repaid.
Jerry has been an have been active in conservation organizations for nearly 50 years, is a life member of SCI, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Boone and Crockett Club, and member of Pheasants Forever, Dallas Safari Club, and Trout Unlimited. He has a column in rotating local newspapers on conservation and the role of hunting and fishing in sustainable wildlife use and conservation.
I grew up just 20 miles west of Philadelphia. But it was real country then. Game abounded in hardwood ridges and farm fields. Fish were in all the clean streams and small lakes. All destroyed now. I hunted, fished, and trapped from the age of eight. Grew up with dogs and men who loved the pursuit, the adventure. I moved to Idaho at 35 years of age.
I’m a fly tier and fly fisherman. I reload for my ammunition and some of my friends Have hunted the US, Canada, and Africa, and still do the best I can each year on deer and elk. Lost my old bird dog, so don’t chase the ducks and pheasants so much anymore.
Still dreaming of a buffalo or two somewhere in Africa. Have been looking at Zimbabwe with the most interest, or maybe Zambia. Don’t need a record book bull, just an old gnarly, worn and busted old boy with a big boss. An old boy on his last legs with no friends or women folk. Too old to breed or fight. Just lion bait if they dare. Hell, sounds like me! Sad, this age thing.
But better than death!