The wit and wisdom of the “old man”

“The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything”
—Robert C. Ruark, “The Old Man and the Boy”

 “A man can spend his life with his eyes open and never see a dingdong thing. Most people just stumble through this foolish business called life, bright-eyed and busy-tailed, but then the old boy upstairs whacks you with the scythe you ain’t seen anything much.”

I never met the elderly man who spoke those words and who became such an important influence upon my young life. In fact, I know very little about him other than what appears on the pages of a favorite boyhood book.  I know that he was a tugboat captain on North Carolina’s Cape Fear River and that earlier he had served in the Merchant Marine all over the world. I know that he was a source of sage advice that deeply affected my young life, some of which affects me yet. His name was Captain Edward Hall Adkins, Ned to his friends.

It was my fourteenth summer. I waited expectantly and impatiently, checking the mailbox day after day. Finally, it arrived, my very first copy of Field & Stream magazine. I remember that the cover depicted a huge bear ransacking a campsite while two fishermen stood helplessly by some distance away. I had used some of my pay as a newspaper carrier to purchase a subscription. Over the previous year, having discovered the joys of fly-fishing, my interests in other activities, like gym class at the YMCA, had evaporated. At the same time, my grades at school had bottomed out. I had better things to think about: hunting, fishing, driving my grandpa’s two huge draft horses out on the farm as we made hay and threshed wheat and oats the old-fashioned way, as the Amish still do today.

Upon opening my treasure, I immediately came across an article by one Robert Ruark, a national journalist, novelist, war correspondent and frequent contributor to the magazine. The story centered around the treehouse that Ruark had constructed out of scrap lumber high atop a wild cherry tree behind the Old Man’s house when he was a boy in Southport, North Carolina. He had stored all sorts of fascinating items in his treetop home: a bust of the Old Man fashioned from potters clay and crayon drawings of wildlife. The floor was lined with tanned rabbit and squirrel pelts, and there was a bed made of pine boughs. There were favorite books stored there, and makeshift spears and bows and arrows. Typical boys’ treasures of yesteryear. The Old Man’s verdict was, “I wish I had me a house like this,” affirming a small boy’s interests and enthusiasms.

The Old Man shared with the young Ruark, as well as with me and many other readers, his requirements for the appropriate behaviors of a gentleman and a sportsman. First of all and most important, a gentleman is polite, is never greedy, never talks down to anyone, pays his way as he goes, never takes what he can’t replace and never bothers his friends with his troubles.

As for a sportsman, he is first and foremost a gentleman. He never takes anything—a fish, a bird, an animal—except for a special reason. He tries to practice good conservation ethics. Sort of like my grandpa insisting that we not hunt anything into extinction, always leaving some for “seed” for next season.

Among other nuggets of homespun profundity that the Old Man shared with Ruark’s readers are these:

“One of the reasons people drop dead is from doing serious things in the summertime.”

“Making a hardheaded profession out of fishing is a waste of time, because a fish is just a fish, and when you make a lot of work out of him you lose the whole point of him.”

The Old Man has a lot to say about the spiritual benefits of fishing. “For a rest cure for your head, you got to go fishing….You put a shrimp on the hook and throw it out, and if one bites you haul it in, and if one doesn’t bite, you’ve still had a mighty fine day in the open where it’s quiet and only the seagulls are noisy.”

He advises that sometimes, “You must take a holiday from yourself and all the things a man gets mixed up in.”

He adds, “You must never be lazy in front of anybody. Loafing is fine, but energetic people get mad at you if you take it easy in front of them. That’s why fishing was invented, really. It takes you from the view of industrious people. Lazy men make the best fishermen, and they usually amount to something in the end, because they have time enough to unclutter their brains and get down to the real flat basics.”

Gastronomically, the Old Man has much to say. “When God made hens and pigs He could have quit right there, because ham, eggs and hominy are all a man needs to sustain life.”

As far as libations are concerned, he warns that it makes no sense to try to drink up all the whisky in the world because they will keep right on making it. When, camped out in the woods on a wild turkey hunt, he and his oldest friend, Mister Howard, greeted the day with a slug of whisky, it strikes the reader as the most outlandish thing to ever do. But, then, in my own past, there was one freezing, windy morning high in New Mexico’s Chuska Mountains when such a libation seemed reasonable, even advisable.

He reminisces, “Nobody ever got any younger, because if they had I would have heard of it, and maybe bought some.”

When Ruark, the Boy, managed to get himself in difficulty at school and at home, as well as in the church where the priest caught him with his buddies shooting dice in the basement, the Old Man arrived at a unique corrective; he built him a boat. Young Ruark then expended his adolescent energies exploring and fishing the Cape Fear River and other estuaries and wetlands. The boat, as well as the books the Boy took along with him on his many expeditions absorbed his extravagances in a constructive, positive way. The Old man advised, “There is nothing like being alone on the water in a boat of your own to learn the value of peace, quiet, and responsibility.”

Of course, Ruark never told anyone about the riptide that once took him downriver and a mile out to sea before he could paddle back to civilization; or about the time he had to extract a rusty nail from his foot with a pocketknife; or about the dead man he found half-submerged in the shallows. But, as I have learned time and again, adventure exacts a price. I have always found the price to be more than worth it.

On another occasion when his boyish enthusiasms caught the eye of parents and teachers, the Old Man simply took him fishing out in a great swamp and told him to do nothing but listen. At the end of the day, as the swampland sounds ushered in the night, Ruark said that he felt as though he had been in church.

One thing the Old Man was most strict about was firearms safety. The Boy learned to hunt quail, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and other game animals, with the Old Man as his constant tutor, even his nag, a good thing.

When I was about the same age as Ruark, I briefly belonged to the YMCA Rifle Club, under the tutelage of a wise but stern coach named Stu Martin. Boys my age would converge upon the National Guard Armory on Saturday mornings, toting their .22 rifles from points all over my small Midwestern town of Ashland, Ohio. No one seemed to have given it a thought. Remarkably, not a one of us lived a life of crime. None of us grew up to massacre a crowd of strangers in a supermarket, movie theater, elementary school or church. I often wonder what has made it different today.

I soon abandoned the Rifle Club because I could safely shoot at tin cans for free along the banks of the little creek that bisected my grandpa’s pasture. And, I had my own “Old Man” in the persons of my father and grandfather, both gentle, conscientious men whom I never wished to disappoint. Perhaps boys today need role models who would correct misbehavior with fishing and sailing a small boat.

As the years have gone by, I find myself increasingly more in sympathy with the views of John Muir and even St. Francis than with the old hook-and-bullet crowd represented by such as Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway, although I continue to be an avid fisherman. Still, the Old Man’s teachings continue to guide me along the trails of life. As my fly-fishing buddy Al Vild observed a few years back, “You are now both the Boy and the Old Man.”

One dark night in the winter of 2005, I found myself driving past signs reminding me that nearby was the Cape Fear River, as well as Kure Beach, Carolina Beach, Lockwood’s Folly, Wrightsville Sound. I thought to myself, “I am returning to a home where I have never been before.”

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Lorin Swinehart
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