Nov/Dec 2019Blame it on BabcockBy Pat Robertson
The personal journey of an outdoor writer.
The dull gray clapboard exterior betrayed the age of the two-story farmhouse in the country in Spartanburg County. Heated in winter by a coal stove in the kitchen and a fireplace in the downstairs living room, and cooled somewhat in summer by whatever breeze could find its way through open windows and doors, the old house was a relic — even in the late 1940s — of an earlier age in the South. But, for a while, it was home for a twelve-year-old boy who lived for the outdoors.
I slept in the only upstairs-room, sparsely furnished with a bed, a small bedside table and a battered chest of drawers. The room had not been finished inside, so the weathered clapboards were the only barrier between me and the elements. Sunlight streaked through the spaces between the warped planks during the day and moonbeams streamed across the room at night. On winter nights nothing kept the cold out, and, while I found some warmth and sleep beneath a pile of home-sewn quilts, when morning came, the glass of water on the table beside my bed held only a solid cylinder of ice.
My imagination ran wild at night when the limbs of the big oak in the backyard played an eerie melody on the rusting galvanized metal roof in even a gentle breeze. But my dreams were mostly filled with deer and ducks and squirrels and rabbits. And beagles chasing rabbits.
Those were the scenes that lined the wall of the bedroom in a makeshift outdoor art gallery, full pages of wildlife and sporting art snipped neatly from outdoor magazines and clothes-pinned to a length of fishing line strung from a nail in one corner all the way down the wall to a nail in the other corner. The magazines were gifts from my two uncles, charter members of what is now called “The Greatest Generation,” who had recently returned from service in World War II.
When they returned home, their desire was to pick up right where they left off — hunting and fishing in McCormick County — and reading about hunting and fishing in the flourishing outdoor magazines of that era. When they finished with their copies of Outdoor Life, Sports Afield and Field and Stream, they gave them to me, and I relished in reading stories of adventures in the great outdoors. I had a handful of favorite authors. In my daydreams I rambled the woods and fished the streams around Hardscrabble, Vermont, as a member of Corey Ford’s "Lower Forty Hunting, Shooting and Inside Straight Club" in Field and Stream. I was the boy in Robert Ruark’s "The Old Man and the Boy" columns, also in Field and Steam, which eventually were compiled into an acclaimed book with the same title. I learned much about the outdoors and acquired life lessons from the Old Man in the columns, such as to treat others with respect. The words rang home, mirroring my own life spending weekends and summers with my Granddaddy, rambling the banks of Stevens Creek and the Savannah River around Clarks Hill in McCormick County.
Sometimes I traveled to exotic places like Africa with Ruark and felt the rush of adrenalin in his accounts of hunting dangerous big game, but my heart beat in rhythm with the words of a third outdoor writer, Havilah Babcock, who wrote about the simpler adventures I was most familiar with — fishing for bream, hunting quail and admiring the work of a good hunting dog.
After a couple of years in that big country house, we moved to the Lyman Mill Village. The Tyger River was five minutes from our front door, and my neighbor, Carroll Sturgill, and I fished there for bream and set bank hooks for catfish. After school, on crisp fall and winter afternoons, we headed for hardwood bottoms along the river to hunt squirrels, and sometimes we took his daddy’s coon hounds in pursuit of possums.
First, clean the oysters. A garden hose with a pressure nozzle works great. I prop up one edge of a piece of plywood with a couple of bricks, spread out the clusters, spray generously and let the runoff carry away the mud and small bits of shell clinging to them. This step is not 100 percent necessary if the oysters you buy were cleaned well at the dock, but they always miss a little bit, and your guests will appreciate the extra step. Keep the cleaned oysters in a cool place until time for them to go on the fire. A 150-quart cooler placed in a shady spot works great.
On Saturdays, my dad and I often went rabbit hunting with some of his buddies from the textile mill, and on rare occasions we’d be invited to hunt quail with a family friend who lived a street over from us. In winter my dad and I shot ducks on the Middle Tyger.
Until Clarks Hill Lake filled in the early 1950s, we caught channel catfish on bush hooks set in the willows lining the riverbanks, and we dabbled Georgia wigglers for redbreast under those same bushes. Among my fondest memories are the days we spent on Stevens Creek with my granddaddy from the time I was old enough to keep up with him tramping through the woods.
I was living the life that Havilah Babcock wrote about. The best of times, however, must come to an end. From high school, it was off to college where the demands of acquiring an education left little time for fishing and hunting. But, upon arriving at the University of South Carolina, I learned that Dr. Havilah Babcock was head of the English Department, and his “I Want a Word” class was required of English and journalism majors. Fate had put me in the same classroom with my outdoors idol!
Fate, however, did not prepare me to deal with the awe that overwhelmed me when my idol strode into the classroom. I learned the words backwards and forwards for each class, but as soon as Dr. Babcock placed a filtered cigarette in the corner of his mouth, lit it, and started to speak, my mind went blank. The words I had studied so diligently vanished, replaced by gobbledygook. I barely slipped out of Babcock’s class with the required C. But my admiration never waned, nor did my desire to write about the outdoors.
Then life intervened. By the time I earned my BA in Journalism, I was already working full-time as a reporter for The State newspaper. Over the next decade my career took many turns as a feature columnist, editor, sportswriter and photographer for several South Carolina newspapers. I had done just about everything there was to do in news gathering, but here I was more than a dozen years into my career and I had not written a single story about the things I grew up loving to do — not a word in print in the vein of Ruark, Ford or Babcock.
Fate intervened again, in 1973, this time initiating a career swing that led to a lifetime of writing about the outdoors. I accepted a position with the (then) South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department as the Coastal Information Officer, preparing news releases and acting as a spokesperson for the department with the news media. And there was a bonus — I would write for South Carolina Wildlife magazine. My first story dealt with wildlife populations in South Carolina. I drew on my newspaper reporting skills to develop the story. It was not in the vein of Babcock, but it was a start in outdoor magazines, and there were many more stories to come.
South Carolina Wildlife gave me the opportunity to stretch my wings in the outdoor writing genre. And it did not go unnoticed. Four years after joining SCWMRD, The Columbia Record hired me back as the Outdoor Editor, and six years later I moved to The State in the same position. In the ensuing forty-five years, I produced more than three thousand newspaper columns about the outdoors, many of them dealing with people who hunted, fished and helped preserve wildlife habitat in South Carolina. Some were recollections of personal experiences, and some of those, hopefully, were close to the ideals established by Babcock and other writers I admired. There were also literally thousands of features and outdoor news articles for magazines, websites and other media outlets.
Looking back on those years, at that stack of outdoor magazines on the bedroom floor and the visions of outdoor adventure portrayed in colorful magazine illustrations on the wall, I think I have come close to living the dream of that twelve-year-old boy who just wanted to hunt and fish and write about it. I guess you could blame that on Babcock.