If you have ever had the deep down yearning to turn your life around and follow a path that was new and wild, that called like a siren’s song, yet was shrouded in darkness, and could leave you like Ulysses’ ship, wrecked on the rocks; then you probably didn’t hesitate to get down on your knees and ask for advice from the best advice giver there ever was.
It happened to me. It was at the end of yet another disappointing semester. I decided I just wasn’t cut out to be a civil engineer. What I really want to be is an outdoor writer. The call of the wild, for me, is infinitely greater than the call of the calculator and computer. To me a bridge is not an engineering marvel. The most interesting thing about a bridge is the pilings; they attract and hold fish. When other students were in class learning to design bridge trusses, I was fishing under one. Even when I was in class my mind was still in the field or on the water.
Should I stay in college and become an unhappy but prosperous engineer, or should I follow my heart to a career as a happy but probably destitute outdoor writer? I’ve had my doubts. I fear the term freelance finds its origin in the way editors freely apply the shaft to aspiring young writers like myself.
Anyway, it was a deer too big for me to drag out of the woods alone. I decided to ask for a little help. On that fateful night as I lay in bed, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed like I’ve never prayed before.
I must have prayed for over an hour and was getting sleepy. Dreams started swimming around in my prayers. When I vowed to give up cussing and Jack Daniels for a month if the Lord would let me fish the Miramichi just once before I died, a big salmon with a hooked jaw and a Humphrey Bogart voice popped up and sneered, “Don’t forget the dip net kid!”
It was in this world of half dreams that I began to feel myself lift out of bed. Startled by this weird sensation, I opened my eyes. What I saw then was a sight more frightening than the nightmare I thought I was having. I saw myself lying in bed, shaking my head, watching me drift through the ceiling!
In a second I was through the ceiling and traveling down a tunnel with a light at the end of it. Had I prayed myself to death? It was your regular near death experience, except I was about halfway through the tunnel when a mysterious, awesome voice said, “Wait a minute, Henry. This is a closer to paradise than you deserve.”
Then the light at the end of the tunnel began to move toward me. As it came near, I was engulfed by a profound feeling of serenity. I could see Robert Ruark on the right-hand-side of the light and Corey Ford on the other. The Light began to speak…
“So you want to be an outdoor writer?”
“Oh, yes, Sir,” I said, “more than anything else in the world.”
“What makes you think you have what it takes to be an outdoor writer?”
“First and foremost, “I began, “I have a love for the woods and waters that surpasses that of anyone I know personally. And second, I have an imagination that can stretch a skipping stone into a boulder, and a boulder into a mountain. When I get fired up telling a story people gather ‘round. Third, and probably most important, my conscience doesn’t bother me when I tell harmless little lies. As a matter of fact, on occasion, I can tell big lies with only the slightest tinge of guilt. Why, sometime I almost enjoy it.”
“Indeed you do, but lying is not what makes a great outdoor writer. Sometimes you carry your ‘harmless little lies’ a bit too far.”
“I did get carried away a time or two,” I admitted. “But no harm ever came of it.”
“Henry, that isn’t entirely true, now, is it?” the light said. Suddenly things weren’t quite so serene. “What about the time you told your girlfriend the weather was going to be clear and sunny to get her to go fishing with you, when you knew the forecast called for rain? To keep her from hearing the forecast on the radio, you convinced her you had to do a paper on the deaf for a psychology class. The poor girl walked around with cotton in her ears to help you with your research.”
“But, Sir, she would have had me shopping when the smallmouth in the New River were on their pre-spawn feeding frenzy. The suffering that would have caused me would have put me on a par with Job. In such dire circumstances a lie isn’t really a lie is it? I mean, it’s more like stretching the truth, right?”
“Wrong,” the Light said. “When you discovered the fish weren’t biting you took her into the woods to look for ‘baby deer’. You found what you were looking for, alright, in a patch of poison ivy, and it wasn’t baby deer. You’re immune to the stuff but she was in the hospital three days.”
“I did carry things a bit far that one time,” I confessed.
“One time” Ha!” the Voice boomed. The feeling of serenity which had initially engulfed me now totally burned away. Corey Ford and Robert Ruark looked at me sadly and shook their heads as their forms slowly faded and disappeared. I was left to face the Light alone.
“You forget about the camping trip with you fraternity brothers,” the Light said. “You had Dirty Ernie up to his neck in a freezing trout stream trying to catch catfish. There was a catfish or two in the river, but he had no hope of catching one with an onion sack tied around his ankles, yelling, ‘Here kitty, kitty.’ He would have died of pneumonia. Only his mother’s prayers saved him.”
As the Voice spoke, I felt my soul shrinking as it shed the layers of lies I had built around it to justify my misdeeds. After the lies were gone, it seemed nothing much would be left.
“Yet, those two things were nothing,” the Voice thundered, “compared to what you did to your little brother. A brother whose love rivaled Abraham’s devotion to Isaac. But you would have sold your brother’s soul for a beagle. And a lying, no good, cold trailing beagle at that. The deed you did to him that day shall be recorded by itself on a page all its own. Do you remember how cold it was the winter of ’78? Do you remember how bravely you little brother trudged through the thickest briar patches trying to jump you a rabbit. While you stood stolidly on the side, cussing him to beat on brush piles and bark louder. I tell you now, no beagle ever had the hart and stamina you brother showed on that day. And then, at the end of the day, when you came to the last thicket, and your poor, bedraggled brother, suffering from a loss of blood, could go no farther – you took off his boots and threw them in the middle of the thicket, and told him to go in after them or walk home barefooted.”
“But, sir, there was always a covey of quail in that thicket,” I said self-righteously.
“Quail? Yes, that reminds me. Isn’t quail your nickname?”
“Uh, yes, Sir.” Oh, no! Not the quail thing.
“How did you acquire that name?” the Light demanded.
“Quail hunting, Sir?” I said, knowing he had me.
“I guess it was by serving as prime habitat on frequent occasions for what I prefer to refer to as sea creatures,” I said.
“Indeed, sea creatures, is it?”
“Yes, Sir, crabs. I was nicknamed after the lotion that gets rid of them. Kwell lotion, Sir,” I said, coming clean. “My senior year of high school I brought them home once too often, and instead of a new car for graduation, my parents gave me a gallon of Kwell lotion. My brother started calling me Kwell and the name stuck. Only the immediate family knows its K-W-E-L-L and not Q-U-A-I-L. I live in fear that one day everyone will know.”
“It would serve you right,” the Light said. “How did you come in contact with these so called ‘sea creatures’, anyway?”
“It was by being mauled by grizzlies is the story I told my parents. They didn’t ask for details.”
“This is getting better all the time. Go on, tell me the story.” The Light’s tone had changed, the atmosphere wasn’t quite so heavy. I took it as invitation to indulge in what I privately refer to, stealing a line from Ed Zern, as my ‘How to Catch Crabs’ story.
“Just remember you asked for it,” I said.
“Well, now, these weren’t your ordinary rare breed of western grizzly,” I said, warming to my story. “No, Sir, these here were eastern grizzly, and don’t grow as large as their western counterparts. I imagine a mature eastern grizzly will average 175 pounds, but I can remember a run in with a couple that must have topped 250. It seems these grizzlies and I had a natural affinity for one another. There for a while, almost every time I was out enjoying the wild life, one would creep up on me, and before I knew it, have me in a bear hug. Usually after a dance, not that I’m a great dancer, but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm. Looking back, I think those eastern grizzlies interpreted my enthusiasm as a sign of vulnerability. Being a proud man, I resisted, but doggone it, I was young and inexperienced too; so a lot of times I ended up back in that grizzly’s den. The first time it happened it was frightening. But later on it became more of a sport. Couple of times I got so fired up and fearless, usually after about half a mason jar of clear liquid, I went looking for them on purpose. And no, Sir, I didn’t take a gun. But I never failed to get scared all over again waking the next morning and seeing that mountain of snoring flesh. Silent as a leaf on the wind, I would tiptoe off, careful not to wake the bare grizzly, uh, grizzly bear. My mother could guess where I’d been and would be waiting for me at the door with the gallon of Kwell lotion. Not a bad thing, considering by the time I got home, I could feel my freckles rearranging themselves.”
“The sleazy bars you enjoyed the wild life in did have more than their share of ‘eastern grizzlies’!” the Light thundered.
“Sir, I didn’t think you would mind the exaggeration.” Geeze, I really didn’t.
“Hush! Outdoor writers are a noble breed of men, and can separated truth from fiction.”
Then I realized it wasn’t so much my story as the way I used it to cover up my misdeeds and guilt that angered the Light.
There was a long, ominous silence. The tension was peaking when finally the Voice spoke.
“Beware of what you want,” said the Light. “As it has been written, the meek shall inherit the earth; the merciful shall receive mercy; and those who hunger for righteousness shall be satisfied.
“But you shall receive the sting of ten million mosquitoes, for you are not meek and ask for things which you do not understand. You shall receive no mercy form editors, or from bill collectors, or from the animals that chase you through the woods, for you do not know what mercy is. Your hunger shall be satisfied with putrid bacon, sardines in a can, and soggy soda crackers.”
Good! It sounded like I was going to be spending a lot of time outdoors. “Does that mean I get to be an outdoor writer?” I asked hopefully.
But there was no answer. The Light began to fade as I found myself falling out of the tunnel gaining momentum, fearful I was falling straight to hell. Just as I sensed I was about to hit, I found myself in bed. My heart was beating madly and I was still staring up at the ceiling just as I had been when I watched myself float through it.
Was it real or just a dream? Will I ever sell a manuscript to an outdoor magazine? Only the best advice giver there ever was knows for sure.