Bucket List Books

These Make Good Stocking Stuffers, By The Way

By John Taffin

John’s top three “Bucket List Books.”

Although I did not know it at the time, I grew up poor. My father had died before I was a year old and my mother remarried when I was 3. My stepdad had dropped out of school in the 4th grade to go to work in the coal mines and, although he was always employed, he never had what we would call a high-paying job. He was a veteran of WWII, had literally no education, yet he was always reading.

I also remember him always working the crossword puzzle in the paper every day, something I never had the patience to do. Even though we had very little money, we always had books, magazine subscriptions, the daily newspaper, and every Wednesday he picked up the New York paper with the Sunday comics four days early. He not only taught me how to work, he also instilled in me a passion for books and reading. I don’t know how we could afford it but I still have the set of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck books our family purchased.

Long before I began accumulating guns, I was well on my way to a large collection of books. I was not yet a teenager when I joined the Outdoor Life Book Club and I still have all of the books received back in the early 1950s. Today, I have a large collection of books by and about Theodore Roosevelt, many reprints of Firearms Classics Books and Western Classic Books. Diamond Dot also shares my passion for books and reading so the house is full of bookshelves and just stacks of books in every possible spot. Beside my reading chair right now are over a dozen books which I am reading.

My number one Bucket List is not made up of things I want to do but rather books I want to read. There is no way I will live long enough to cross out the list. When I was traveling regularly I always took along books by Elmer Kelton or Louis L’Amour. I still try to read L’Amour’s Haunted Mesa at least once a year. It is quite a bit different than his other Western books as it is set in modern times and has a theme which causes me not to read it when I am in the middle of nowhere at night by myself. Today, I read all the books by Craig Johnson and C.J. Box. Each of these novels is set in Wyoming and are about Sheriff Walt Longmire and Game Warden Joe Pickett. They are definite page turners.

At the top of my Bucket List Books are three by Havilah Babcock, Robert Ruark and Gene Hill. All of these men wrote monthly columns for magazines and their efforts were then combined into books. I became acquainted with the first two through the pages of outdoor magazines in the early 1950s, while I only discovered Hill about 40 years ago. Each man writes about long-gone ages we will never see again and the simple pleasures now mostly gone. A compilation of their articles are available in three books: My Health Is Better In November by Babcock, The Old Man And The Boy by Ruark and Hill’s collection is found in A Hunters Fireside Book.

None of these books will serve for research or important information, nor are they novels of adventure. Instead they are books of pure pleasure reading. Babcock writes mostly of bird hunting and fishing in South Carolina. He was head of the English Department at the University of South Carolina and definitely has a way with words. He often said his school teaching interfered with his hunting and fishing.

Robert Ruark was a well-known big-game hunter and author of the monumental novel, Something of Value. His book tells of his friendship with and growing up under his grandfather as they hunt and fish together also in South Carolina. Everyone should have an “Old Man” like Ruark’s grandfather in his life. Gene Hill’s contributions are not so easy to categorize as he talks not only about hunting and fishing, but many other things as well. Hill was a veteran of World War II having served in Okinawa. His essays run a grand gamut from enjoying nature to dogs to fine shotguns to learning from old men to trying to outwit his wife.

In my space here, I can only share a small portion of the gold to be found in their writings. Hopefully it will be enough to encourage you to read these wonderful books. Right now as I type this it is pouring down rain so it seems appropriate to quote from Gene Hill’s essay on rain: “Rain makes men sort of huddle together in spirit. I can’t remember a hunt in the rain that I didn’t enjoy.

Especially the soft wetting of the upland woods on the tag end of Indian summer. That’s the kind of a day to gun Partridge! The woods are as silent as wet wool, the birds fly good and tight and once you’re soaked and get warm again you can understand where they got the phrase ‘happy as a clam.’ … You’ll have to admit that one of the nicest things about getting wet is getting dry. How about the feeling of sticking your feet in the some nice warm, dry sheepskin slippers! A fresh clean shirt and britches and snuggle your backside up in front of the fire—if you can move the dogs out of the way… Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to go dig out my old tweed hat, my duck hunting coat, and rubber boots. I’m going to get one of the dogs for an excuse to go for little evening walk. I might even have to turn my pipe upside down—it seems it is starting to rain.”

From I’m A Sucker That Way by Havilah Babcock, “Whenever I see a good-looking dog, only utmost restraint and the inhibitions that come from living with a good one prevent me from running up with my hand in my pocket and a Mr.-how-much-will-you-take-for-him look on my face. Even then I sometimes get myself in this situation that appeals to my wife’s peculiar sense of humor. Once while hunting I came upon a handsome Irish setter on point. ‘My friend, I’ll give you $50 for him as he stands,’ I offered in a burst of wild enthusiasm. ‘That’s thoughtful of you,’ the man answered with quiet amusement. ‘I just paid $1,000 for him.’ The fellow’s hunting coat was nearly as shabby as mine. How was I to know that I was watching a famous dog, owned by a man whose income-tax refund was bigger than my salary. I have bought old dogs on their last legs and young dogs that were all legs. Any gangling, big-footed, friendly eyed puppy who looks at me the right way can find a niche in the family budget… I have accumulated some good bird dogs and a lot of expensive experience. I have owned incorrigible flushers, shot-breakers, egg-eaters, rabbit-runners, chicken-chasers, bird-chewers, intractable hellions and just plain congenital idiots. And one flashy little debutante that never outgrew the profound conviction that her sole mission in life was to point butterflies, which she did with her nicety of technique that would have disarmed the most captious critic.” Any dog-lover can understand totally!

Robert Ruark’s stories of life with his grandfather can only be described as priceless. Not only are they hunting and fishing stories but we also find choices to make, responsibilities to acquire and how to grow up to be a man. His bond with his grandfather comes through in every story: “The Old Man cornered me one drizzly day after dinner—I mean the meal we ate in the middle of the day—and he said that he had an awful crick in his back and that he reckoned he was getting old and rheumaticky and that one of these days he was just going to say to hell with it and then lay down and die. ‘There are two things got no place in this world,’ he said ‘an old dog and an old man. They perform no useful function, and generally smell bad, too. It seems to me you need to start branching out on your own hook, boy, because I have wet-nursed you long enough. My back aches and my feet hurt and I feel like a mess of quail, but I’m too feeble to go out in the wet to help you shoot ’em. It’s about time you investigated the delicate art of making a dog behave himself in the woods, all you’ve ever done with the dogs is listen to me holler, ‘Whoa!’ And one of these days you will have to train dogs of your own. The best way to learn to train a dog is to let a dog that’s smarter than you are train you.’ When young Ruark arrived back home with a mess of birds he reported the Old Man wasn’t the least bit impressed: “I told you, he said, that this mangy puppy had the right blood in him. When a dog or a person’s got the right blood, all he needs is a couple of suggestions to use the blood right. I hope you turn out as well as the puppy, but, like I said, the puppy’s bloodline may be a little better than yours. At least, though, I didn’t have to cure you of the mange.” Read. And enjoy!

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