As we’ve discussed before, I’ve been an avid reader since elementary school. Second grade, I believe. Cowboy Sam books.
After that, I absorbed a weekly string of novels, and through the years, they became old friends. I’d bet you have those old acquaintances, also. Like many other dedicated readers, some of us wanted to become authors and I tried and I tried, but nothing.
My reading tastes went from one genre to another, depending on my age, and where I was in life. They ran the gamut from hardball crime, to travel books, to westerns, and spy novels. Matt Helm figured in there, as well as William Johnstone. After that came apocalyptic books (Johnstone again, along with an excellent title, Malevil), in the 1970s, and horror. One book of “terror” was titled Feral, about house cats that escaped, multiplied, and terrorized a new homeowner.
After that, it was books about the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and camping. I’d discovered a columnist for Field and Stream Magazine, Mr. Gene Hill, and absorbed everything he wrote. That was back in the days when I was a devoted upland bird hunter (and still would be if a horrific wasting disease hadn’t swept through the south, destroying almost our entire bobwhite population).
One day I read in the paper that Mr. Hill was coming to Dallas on a book tour.
I had no idea what a book tour was.
It was 1983, five years before my first outdoor column was published, when I put on a clean shirt and went to B. Dalton Booksellers to see this man who wrote so well and touched my soul with his words.
Expecting to find a crowd spilling out into the mall, I was surprised to find a gray-haired man in a rumpled shirt and wrinkled khakis sitting by himself behind a table full of books. He looked like any one of the old men who sat on the front porch up at the store and spun yarns all day long.
I suspect that’s what he was. The man many considered to be one the best outdoor writers of all time looked forlorn there all alone as shoppers passed and avoided eye contact on their way to pick up Stephen King’s new doorstop.
His eyes brightened as I stepped up. Uncertain what to say to that Harvard educated outdoorsman, I must have mumbled something that caught his attention, because we were soon engaged in conversation, and he was doing the majority of the talking.
When a lady stopped to pick up one of his books, he motioned to an empty folding chair beside him. “Sit down, son.”
I obeyed and still remember their brief exchange.
The lady read the back cover. “What’s this about?”
“My look at hunting and fishing.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of you.” We were in Dallas’ Northpark mall, I think, and I doubted she’d ever been out of the city. Hidden by a thick German Schmear of makeup and false eyelashes, she frowned. “I don’t believe in killing animals. I don’t read these kinds of books, either.”
“Good to hear.” He gently took it from her hand and turned to me. “So you’re a bird hunter…”
The lady disappeared, likely in a puff of smoke, but I can’t say for sure. Maybe she dissolved into the ground, screaming, “I’m melting!”
Never mind, because he and I were talking about things near and dear to us. Hunting, fishing, and writing. Ten minutes into the conversation, one of the store employees stopped by.
“Mr. Hill, would you like anything?”
“I sure would.” He pointed across the mall. “Could I get some of that vanilla ice cream from over there? In a cup, please.”
Now I wish I could remember the look on that young man’s face, but all of my attention was on the writer beside me who could ask for ice cream and get it. As we talked, Mr. Hill took a packet of loose-cut tobacco from his back pocket and tucked a chew into his left cheek. I recall that clearly, because five minutes later the employee returned and I watched in fascination as Mr. Hill shifted the chew to one side and ate the ice cream at the same timg.
I was in the presence of greatness!
He sold a few books while we talked, and I was afraid I’d worn out my welcome, so I stood and he reared back in his chair. “What’re you doing tonight?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Good. Come to Abercrombie and Fitch at seven as my guest. There’s a reception for me, and I fear you’re going to be one of the few people there who I can relate to. Use my name to get in.”
At that time, Abercrombie and Fitch was one of the premier hunting and fishing stores in the country, but at age 29 and on a teacher’s salary, I’d never been inside such a high end establishment.
His name worked, though, and I walked inside an outdoor sporting goods dream store. Before they sold out and shifted their focus on what I call soft core porn clothing advertisements aimed at young people, they sold items I’d only read about in books.
I found Mr. Hill beside a 17’ Grumman canoe full of ice and drinks, and he waved me over. Someone gave me a beer, and he introduced me to men I’d only heard or read about in Dallas society. All were Safari Club members, and I recalled one was part of the investigation into Kennedy Assassination. There was a well-known attorney, doctors, a popular newspaperman, and others who looked as if they were made of money, but Mr. Hill made them think we’d been friends for years.
One of the store managers announced they were going to open all the gun cases and we could examine any rifle or shotgun in stock. “Go over there and take a look at that little side by side .410.” Mr. Hill waved a finger in that direction. “You’ll love it.”
I walked over and the manager wearing cotton gloves handed me the gun. I took it with my calloused, grubby hands and admired the engraving on the side plate. The tag flipped and I read the $14,000 price.
Shocked and terrified that I was going to drop it, I held that beautiful gun so the manager could take it from my hands. I wandered down case after case, trying to find one that didn’t have at least five digits and several zeros, before returning to Mr. Hill’s side.
Their conversation had drifted to the most dangerous animals they’d ever hunted. One said lion, another cape buffalo, leopard, and they finally noticed that I was there. The corners of Mr. Hill’s eyes wrinkled in anticipation.
“What’s the most dangerous game you’ve ever hunted?”
The silence was astounding. The lawyer tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“One of these days, when I’m older, they’re gonna give me a heart attack when they flush from right under my feet.”
Laughter all around, and Mr. Hill put a hand on my shoulder. “Some day you’re going to make a fine writer, or an excellent liar.”
I’ve met a number of authors since then, and call many of them good friends, and a couple, family, but this is another column about kind words from those who’ve made it, and I’ll be forever beholden to Mr. Gene Hill and that night when I was in deep water and he offered encouragement.
Oh, and I still have that book he’d co-written with another excellent writer, Steve Smith. He signed Outdoor Yarns and Outright Lies, to me that day.
“For Reavis, Remember: There’s no future or challenge in honesty.”
I tilt one to that fine writer, and gentleman.