‘When my father died at age 84 I came across the loose-leaf notebook, covered with vanishing canvas, that he kept more than 50 years. In it, he recorded his published magazine pieces – beginning with “Outdoor Ohio” in the December 1949 issue of Sports Afield and numbering finally some 2,250 feature articles.’
By Parker Bauer
On my first fishing trip with my father I didn’t fish. On a still, stifling afternoon the two of us sat together in a plywood rowboat on a farm pond in the Ohio Valley. While he cast to the banks, I poked around in his cantilevered tackle box, sniffing the lacquer on the plugs and the brine leaking from a jar of pork frogs. No foot shuffling, no squirming on the sun-baked plank seat. At 4 years old, it was the closest I’d ever come to pure contemplation. Fishing. I’d never done anything so dull in my life.
In time, and not too much of it, I came to love fishing more than almost anything – leaving out the two blondes who sat on either side of me in third grade like lions on the library steps. I learned to love it partly by doing it, but practical application alone wasn’t enough. I got much of my passion for fishing – and hunting, while we’re at it – from reading about them. In the literate 1950s, the outdoor magazines were nearing their full height of quality and influence, and I wasn’t the only schoolboy who fired his fantasies poring over those romantic pages. Other than Susie’s and Gretchen’s dangled ankles, all we could think about was rampaging across the country in pursuit of fanged muskies and shimmering pheasants. The difference in my case was that my father wrote for those magazines, probably selling them more stories than anyone else before or since.
When my father died at age 84 I came across the loose-leaf notebook, covered with vanishing canvas, that he kept more than 50 years. In it, he recorded his published magazine pieces – beginning with “Outdoor Ohio” in the December 1949 issue of Sports Afield and numbering finally some 2,250 feature articles. The roster of magazines reflects his wide range and appeal: True, Argosy, Sports Illustrated, the long-lost American Sportsman, National Wildlife, Audubon, Natural History. But mostly he wrote for Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, the “big three” outdoor magazines of the day. Few readers ever knew that many of his stories appeared under a dozen different pseudonyms, including Charles Nansen, Barney Peters, Nat Franklin and Ken S. Bourbon. (On the playground I delighted in informing my pals that Ken S., according to my father, stood for “Kentucky straight.”) The notebook shows that the October 1963 Sports Afield carried six feature articles by my father – only two under his own name.
In addition he published some 40 books. The first, Bass in America (Simon & Schuster, 1955), though all but forgotten today, is still to my mind the best book ever written on bass. It set the pattern – not a formula – that he would favor in much of his writing on fishing, hunting, wildlife and photography. Instead of doing an expository piece salted with a few illustrative anecdotes – the dominant form today, I believe – he preferred to work the technical material, the how-to and where-to, into the niches of a full narrative structure: the story of a single outing, whether it was a hunt for sheep in the virgin Cassiars or a canoe float for squirrels near Columbus. Before magazines devised the idea that readers only want information and don’t really like to read, there was space for such an approach.
One of the few bits of advice on writing he ever gave me (or anyone, including an interviewer from Writer’s Digest): “Always get the color of the sport into the story.” (Others were “The only way to learn how to write is to write,” and his final word on the subject, “Get it done.”) By “color” he meant especially the description of nature, the use of dialogue and always a sense of adventure, of knowing how weirdly lucky you were to be outdoors and not stuck in some soul-sucking hive.
Fragments from that first book on bass:
“Back in camp, Al, Red and I cracked a bottle of sour mash, blended it with ice and White Rock, and settled down to a session that soon had the bass of a hundred previous trips piled high all around.”
“Bass lead lurid, impulsive lives something like our own.”
“Cold thaw mists of early spring hung along the hillsides and Storms Creek ran high. It was a wretched day, but knee-deep in water stood a solitary fisherman. At least I presumed he was a fisherman of some sort. He was armed with a coal fork and a minnow bucket – nothing more. An Ohio game warden, then, I was new in that region and quite unfamiliar with the ways of hill fishermen.”
He was warden of a county along the Ohio River that still harbored moonshiners a decade after Prohibition, many of whom doubled as jacklighters and creek dynamiters with day jobs working the strip mines. In those halcyon days a warden the locals didn’t like could be dispatched with a deer slug and probable impunity. My father doubled up, too, writing columns in the local paper on hunting and fishing with a strong dose of outdoor ethics – his first paid work as a writer. This led to a job as editor of the state magazine, Ohio Conservation Bulletin, where he stayed seven years and made it one of the best of its kind in the nation before resigning to freelance full time.
That the biggest adventures are not always best is something he may have learned from the Army. He enlisted in 1942, and after fighting in Africa and Italy, miserable tours in extreme heat and cold, he received the Purple Heart and emerged in 1945 as a first lieutenant. The best thing about the Army, he told me, was that “practically everybody who’s in it can’t wait to get out.” Just five years after coming home he was called up again and sent to fight in Korea.
After 1980 he wrote fewer articles and more books, mostly about his favorite wild places and their endangered fauna. He had divorced my mother – not his finest hour – and with his second wife, Peggy, he traveled just about everywhere and collected on film the most comprehensive array of wildlife since the Ark, more than 250,000 slides, which still are being published today. His final book, other than an unpublished manuscript on Africa, is The Last Big Cats (Voyageur Press, 2003).
My father was one of those mystifying people who never wasted a moment of his life in laziness – mental or physical. The battle with lymphoma already lost, he still was shipping slides a few days before he died.
Heeding his own advice, as always, he got it done.
Parker Bauer lives with his wife, Charlotte, in central Florida. He writes documentary film and television scripts for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, NASA, “The Walker’s Cay Chronicles” and “One More Cast With Shaw Grigsby.” His articles have appeared in National Wildlife, Fly Rod & Reel, Gray’s Sporting Journal and the “big three” outdoor magazines.