Although Robert Ruark wrote a number of blockbuster novels in the 1950s and ’60s, his contributions to the literature of hunting and fishing represent his greatest legacy to posterity. In the eyes of many discerning critics, his Africa-related book, Horn of the Hunter, surpasses Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa in terms of readability and authenticity.
But two books based on his boyhood experiences growing up in eastern North Carolina, The Old Man and the Boy (published in 1957) and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older (published in 1961), have endeared Ruark to three generations of readers.
Robert Ruark was born on Dec. 29, 1915, in Southport, North Carolina, the son of a bookkeeper and a schoolteacher. By the time he reached adulthood, both parents had become pretty much dysfunctional, thanks to drug addiction and alcoholism. Yet Ruark, at least in print, turned what might have been a tragic childhood into a triumph. This came through his interaction with the “Old Man,” a character based in part on his maternal grandfather but also including elements of his paternal grandfather and “all the honorary uncles, black and white, who took me to raise.”
A REAL FINE TIME
Pretty much a loner as far as interaction with boys his age was concerned, Ruark was quite satisfied to be in the woods alone or in the company of adult mentors. As he states in his author’s note to The Old Man and the Boy, “Anybody who reads this book is bound to realize that I had a real fine time as a boy.” The best and most impressionable of those good times were spent in the company of the “Old Man,” Captain Edward Hall Adkins.
Adkins was an endearing figure, full of wit and wisdom, a dispenser of homespun philosophy, and the source for a seemingly endless store of outdoor lore. Mind you, the Old Man could be vinegary at times, such as the occasion when he thrashed an inebriated, insolent dandy who persisted in unacceptable behavior, or when “the Boy” (Ruark) violated some basic concept of sporting ethics or hunting safety.
Mostly though, the Old Man, for all that he seemed crusty and perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon, was a gentle figure of great humanity and a wealth of common sense. He used his shrewd mind and superb intellect to good advantage with his youthful protégé, and in the Boy’s eyes “he knows pretty well near-about everything.” Certainly the Old Man imbued Ruark with a genuine love of learning, along with extensive practical exposure to knowledge of the outdoors.
Theirs was a timeless partnership, similar to that of anyone fortunate enough to have had close contact with his or her grandfather in an outdoor setting. There’s something about skipping a generation that lends itself to closeness, and many of us have been privileged to experience this kind of contact. What sets Ruark apart was his subsequent ability to capture in prose the nostalgic wonder of those enchanting, fleeting days of youth. In doing so, he gave us a timeless literary gift.
MUSIC TO HIS EARS
Many aspects of the outdoor experience — freshwater and saltwater fishing; hunting for quail, doves, pheasants, turkeys, squirrels, rabbits; shrimping; handling a throw net; building a proper fire; camping out under the stars; cooking over a campfire; and training dogs — figure into The Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. For present purposes, though, let’s take a closer look at how he depicts the deer-hunting aspects of his boyhood.
During Ruark’s formative years, and to a considerable degree the tradition holds sway yet today, deer hunting in the coastal regions of the Carolinas meant hunting with dogs (Ruark grew up during the pre- and post-Depression era). South Carolinian Archibald Rutledge immortalized the practice of hunting with dogs in literally hundreds of tales, many of which later became chapters in his dozens of books (some of the best of these are collected in the anthology Tales of Whitetails: Archibald Rutledge’s Great Deer-Hunting Stories, edited by Jim Casada), and as far back as the early 19th century, the writings of William Elliott in his chronicles of chasing deer figure in regional literature.
Yet for capturing the essence of the experience, the near-indescribable thrills associated with a hallelujah chorus of hounds hot on the trail of a noble stag, no one can touch Ruark. He didn’t write a lot about deer hunting, but his recounting of boyhood experiences was superb. With the possible exception of William Faulkner’s “Race at Morning,” there’s nothing to compare with the moving way in which Ruark captures scene and sentiment in the story “Mister Howard Was a Real Gent.”
GRIPPED BY BUCK FEVER
No hunter, man or boy, ever forgets his first deer, and Ruark’s recounting of a morning in the Carolina swamps stirs the soul. “Maybe you never heard a hound in the woods on a frosty fall morning, with the breeze light, the sun heating up in the sky, and the ‘awful’ expectancy that something big was going to happen to you. There aren’t many things like it. When the baying gets closer and closer and still closer to you, you feel as if you’re going to explode if something doesn’t happen quick. And when the direction changes and the dogs begin to fade, you feel so sick you want to throw up.”
When the dogs drove a fine buck by him, well within shooting range, Ruark did nothing.
As he subsequently wrote, “The thought that I had a gun with me and the gun was loaded never occurred. I just watched that big buck deer run, with my mouth open and my eyes popped out of my head.” Although the Old Man, visiting Mister Howard (an affluent gent from up Maryland way), and others participating in the hunt tried to explain that buck fever gripped everyone, the Boy was inconsolable.
About all Ruark could say when the Old Man questioned about the experience was, “I saw him, and I ain’t ever going to forget him.” That rings so true, because anyone who says they don’t have an unpardonable miss or a moment of simply freezing u
p stored away in the storehouse of memory is assuredly underprivileged. After all, for every campfire tale of triumph, there’s another one of tragedy.
Ruark’s abject misery did not last long. He was consoled a bit by the Old Man saying he had fired at a deer and missed along with a successful mid-day outing that put a passel of squirrels in the camp pot. After cleaning the bushytails, eating a fine camp lunch, and a bit of a rest for the Old Man, the adults lifted the Boy’s spirits with the promise of a late afternoon hunt.
TIME FOR REDEMPTION
He found himself situated atop a stump at a prime crossing and absorbed in a mixture of self-pity and “just how long forever was” when suddenly the hounds gave voice quite close. He captures the ensuing moments of magic perfectly. “The whoo-whooing (of the dogs hot on the trail) got louder and louder. The dogs started to growl and bark, just letting off a woo-woo once in a while, and I could hear a steady swishing in the bushes.
Then I could see what made the swishing. It was a buck, a big one. He was running steadily and serious through the low bush. He had horns — my Lord, but did he have horns! It looked to me like he had a dead tree lashed to his head. I slipped off the safety catch and didn’t move. The buck came straight at me, the dogs going crazy behind him.
“The buck came down to the water’s edge, and when he got to about 50 yards, I stood up and threw the gun up to my face. He kept coming and I let him come. At about 25 yards he suddenly saw me, snorted, and leaped to his left as if somebody had unsnapped a spring in him. I forgot he was a deer. I shot at him as you’d lead a duck or a quail on a quartering shot — plenty of lead ahead of his shoulder.
“I pulled the trigger — for some odd reason shooting the choke barrel — right in the middle of a spring that had him six feet off the ground and must have been wound up to send him 20 yards into the bush and out of my life. The gun said boom! But I didn’t hear it. The gun kicked, but I didn’t feel it. All I saw was that this monster came down out of the sky like I’d shot me an airplane. He came down flat, turning completely over and landing on his back, and he never wiggled.”
The full load of buckshot had caught the deer where he lived. “I had busted his shoulder and busted his neck and dead-centered his heart.” The buck was, as examination would soon prove, worthy of the word “monster” — a word that came immediately to Ruark’s mind.
The buck sported a 14-point rack and would probably have weighed 150 pounds (that’s a big deer in the Carolina coastal regions). “I had him all to myself,” Ruark wrote, “as he lay there in the aromatic crushed ferns.” He felt “like a boy alone in a big cathedral of oaks and cypress in a vast swamp where doves made sobbing sounds and the late birds walked and talked in the sparkleberry bushes.”
The dogs soon arrived, followed in due course by the adults, and as Ruark would admit, “Smug was modest for what I felt then.” That smugness soon vanished when the men field dressed the buck. Once the paunch was torn out, “full of green stuff and awful smelly gunk, all four men let out a whoop and grabbed me.” The Boy found his “head stuck right into blood, guts, green gunk, and all.”
“That,” the Old Man said as the Boy swabbed the awful mess off himself and dove away to stick his head in the crick, “makes you a grown man. You have been blooded, boy, and any time you miss a deer from now on we cut off your shirttail.” He then added: “It’s a very good buck, son, one of which you can be very, very proud.” Then, in a moving moment of revelation, the Old Man turned to Mister Howard and said they might as well fetch his deer too.
When the Boy demanded to know what deer, since he hadn’t heard a shot, the Old Man grinned in his knowing way and said: “I didn’t miss him, son. I just didn’t want to give you an inferiority complex on your first deer. If you hadn’t of shot this one — and he’s a lot better’n mine — I was just going to leave him in the tree and say nothing about him at all. Shame to waste a deer; but it’s a shame to waste a boy, too.”
You can argue about the Old Man’s sense of right and wrong, peevishly suggest that Ruark was wrong to use horns rather than antlers (he knew better but was using horns in keeping with common terminology in that part of the world in the 1920s), or opine that a 150-pound deer isn’t all that impressive. Yet what Ruark undeniably does, and does wonderfully well, is take his reader to the scene of action and give that person a genuine feel for the emotions coursing through a small, impressionable boy’s mind. That’s writing at its best, and it is what Ruark did consistently over an immensely productive career.
ROBERT RUARK’S LEGACY
He provided other accounts of deer hunting, most notably “Dixie Deer Hunt” in the Oct. 26, 1946, edition of the Saturday Evening Post. This was one of the most popular magazines of the immediate post-World War II era, and it reached an audience far wider than that of Field & Stream, where Ruark’s “Old Man” stories first appeared before being collected into the two books mentioned above. (Ruark wrote a regular column in Field & Stream titled “The Old Man and the Boy” from 1953 until 1961.)
Ruark’s “Dixie Deer Hunt” is a tale of the North State Club, which dated back to the late 19th century, and the way its members conducted the serious business of deer hunting.
Does were taboo (I remember a similar sanctity from my boyhood, and younger readers need to realize this was before the great whitetail comeback saga), and the tradition of punishment for misses was adhered to in rigid fashion. However, instead of having his shirttail cut, the poor “no shooting soul” gave up the garment to some of the help working at the club.
In this piece, Ruark captures the special camaraderie of the hunt camp, the fashion in which a relaxed setting and a hunting situation can reveal character. Ruark manages to convey what so many of us feel in our hearts but cannot shape into words, and therein lies his real gift, and never mind the fact that many aspects of his adult life were miserable or despicable; he left every lover of nature, every hunter and fisherman, a bountiful legacy.
I feel confident in saying that if you’ll spend some time in his “Old Man” tales, you will be a better, more understanding, and more appreciative sportsman for it. Ruark captures the hunting ethos as few have done or ever will do, and for a deep understanding of deer hunting as it has traditionally been done over much of Dixie, you will find no finer guide.