Some saints once kept a skull on their writing tables, or a piece of paper inscribed with the words memento mori, objects serving as a reminder that someday they would die.
On Ash Wednesday, the priest who marks the foreheads of Catholics with an ashen cross whispers, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return.”
Sometimes we forget that the great majority of today’s celebrities, the actors and musicians, the writers, the public figures who think themselves demigods and daily makes the news will one day be forgotten. Like Rome’s Marcus Claudius Marcellus, they will be known only to a few scholars, dust to dust, as the priests say, and dust in mankind’s memory. Such is the fickle nature of time and fame.
In the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most famous American writers was a North Carolinian, Robert Ruark (1915-1965). Reared in Wilmington, Ruark entered the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill at age 15. Like Ernest Hemingway, whom he admired, Ruark later fought in a war, became a well-known journalist, hunted big game in Africa, wrote books about hunting and several action-packed novels, and frequently lived outside of the United States. Like Hemingway, he also indulged in drink, which led to his untimely death of cirrhosis.
Today Ruark’s books, several of which were best sellers and applauded by the critics, are little read and largely forgotten.
With two exceptions.
In 1953, Ruark began publishing columns of autobiographical fiction in Field and Stream magazine under the title “The Old Man and the Boy.” These articles were later collected into a book by the same name, followed by The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, which blends stories about the Old Man with Ruark’s later adventures in Africa.
Both of these fine books are still in print and should appeal to anyone interested in hunting, fishing, roaming the outdoors, coastal North Carolina before World War II, and the adventures of a boy with his grandfather.
Ruark appropriately dedicates The Old Man and the Boy to his grandfathers, his father, and “all the honorary uncles, black and white, who took me to raise,” for in these pages we follow a boy who not only hunts the fields and fishes the waters around Wilmington and Southport, but also learns about life from the many men, particularly The Old Man, who serve as his mentors.
The opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Boy reads as follows:
The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything. And mostly he ain’t painful with it. What I mean is that he went to Africa once when he was a kid, and he shot a tiger or two way out in India, or so he says, and he was in a whole mess of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why turkeys always fly uphill.
Here Ruark sets the tone for the rest of the book. As we read his tales of his time with The Old Man, we experience the weather of Eastern North Carolina, the color of the sky before a storm, the faces of neighbors, the taste of coffee boiled at dawn over a fire, the feel of a turkey shoot before sunup, all delivered through the eyes of a boy from the Low Country.
Ruark also offers us a chance to travel back to a simpler era, to grow up with The Boy in a time without cell phones or video games and in a place where men fished and hunted, drank whiskey in the evenings, told tall tales, and instructed younger men in the ways of the world. Less than a century has passed since that time, but given the pace of our world today, Ruark’s tales of boyhood seem as ancient as Byzantium.
Finally, both books remind us of a link once regarded as vital by all civilizations, the bond between the young and the old, the passing on of wisdom and experience from one generation to the next, the need for mentors in the lives of boys and young men.
The Old Man, in his vast wisdom, never worried about what would happen to my moral character so long as I was under the care of one of the hairy townsmen. The Old Man once said, “A boy has got to grow up to be a man some day. You can delay the process, but you can’t protect the boy from manhood forever. The best and easiest way is to expose the boy to people who are already men, good and bad, drunk and sober, lazy and industrious. It is really, after all, up to the boy, when all is said and done, and there are a lot of boys who never get to be men, and a lot of men who never quit being boys.”
Let me use myself as a personal example to show you the entertainment you’ll find in these books, particularly The Old Man and the Boy. I haven’t hunted in 50 years, the few times I’ve gone fishing left me seasick and fishless, and I’m not fond of dogs, though for whatever reason they are fond of me.
And yet The Old Man and the Boy, with all its tales of hunting, fishing, and dogs, delights me on every visit. The Huckleberry Finn voice, the humor, the Old Man’s wisdom, and the love of The Boy for his grandfather … it’s like coming into a parlor in February and finding a cheery fire in the hearth, whiskey on the side table, and good friends already swapping stories.