June of 1965 doesn’t seem so long ago. Be that as it may, fifty years ago this week I was a 17-year-old kid finding myself on the campus of School of the Ozarks College wondering what kind of fish I might find in the flowing waters of that big river they called Taneycomo down below the high bluffs of the school. It was the farthest I had ever been from my hometown of Houston, Missouri and the Big Piney River where I had grown up.

I started guiding fishermen on the Big Piney when I was about twelve years old and one of my steady clients was the editor of the local newspaper, Lane Davis, who also liked to fish the upper Gasconade and the Roubidoux Rivers not far away from the Piney so I often went with him to paddle the boat. Guiding fishermen was easy, and fun.

I was a third generation fishing guide; my grandfather, my dad and his brothers had been doing that long before I came along. In fact Lane Davis had fished with them all. He was a fascinating person whom I enjoyed spending a day with, and he knew about writing. Lane had taken some goofy things I had written in grade school and high school and published them in The Houston Herald.

But it was fifty years ago this month that I began a real writing career and my first real outdoor newspaper column for Lane Davis while I was in college. My new book about my time at School of the Ozarks beginning fifty years ago includes a chapter about Lane Davis and my column in the Houston Herald. The column was entitled “Summer on the Piney” and as it continued, only the name of the season changed.

What I wouldn’t give if I could have stopped time and stayed there where I was born and raised, and be there today with the river I knew fifty years ago. But it is gone, and so am I. I gutted out those years in high school where I felt very apart from it all. My only friends were those old timers at the pool hall where I went to work each evening at four o’clock. On the weekends, I had the Big Piney and my dad and grandfather and my main job--- guiding some fine local fishermen like Joe Richardson and Lane Davis.

Life there in that pool hall and on the river was wonderful! I never attended a social event at school; no proms, no parties, no football or basketball games. Honest to goodness, my father had to threaten to take away my johnboat for a month just to get me to attend my graduation ceremony. I didn’t even graduate in the upper half of my class and didn’t care!

When I began that job of writing weekly outdoor columns at the age of seventeen, it was to become something far greater than I could have ever dreamed. Never has a week passed since June of 1965 that one or more of my newspaper columns on the outdoors has not appeared somewhere and when you consider my lack of writing talent, that is amazing… to me at least.

Over the years, I’ve written more than 4000 columns appearing in more than two hundred different newspapers in five or six different states. I figure I have sold about 700 feature articles to outdoor magazines. I sold my first magazine article when I was 19 and a year later wrote my first article for Outdoor Life about a wooden johnboat I had used for many years on the Big Piney River, a story entitled “Old Paint” which won a national award in 1971.

That story is included in one of my nine books. I hope I can write 9 or 10 more. In my basement there are boxes and boxes of typed or hand written manuscripts dating back to the 1960’s. Many of them are embarrassing. It is something to look back on what you published when you weren’t yet old enough to vote.

I owe a lot to Lane Davis and old-time professional writers I came in contact with at School of the Ozarks where I was the very last of 200 or so students accepted in the freshman class in June of 1965, fifty years ago this week!

 

I hope you will forgive me for such reminiscences that mean little to anyone but me. In today’s world of writing excellence and professional writers groups that probably wouldn’t even let me join, I look back on a career that actually started fifty years ago this month, and thank God for His help and for the people I came in contact with who gave me encouragement.

Today, this weekly column you are reading goes to about 30 papers with readerships totaling perhaps a quarter million readers across the Ozarks in three states. It does not include newspapers in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, where editors would dump my best work in the trash can!

I ask Lane Davis once when I brought him an article when I came home one weekend if I could actually call myself a real writer. I remember him telling me that at the very least, I was a good fishing guide and outdoorsman… who wrote. “I think,” he said with a laugh, “maybe being a good outdoorsman and guide says more about a man than calling him a writer.”

As I said, memories of the hours and hours spent there in the pool hall with those old rivermen and on the Big Piney are treasured times I wish I could recapture. And I do of course, when I write about those days. If only I could stop time. But men like those are gone forever and the rivers of that time, like the Piney, are gone forever too. It makes me wonder if what I write and what I have tried to do with whatever talents God gave me hasn’t been a waste of time.

Fifty years of writing about the outdoors while rivers grow shallower by the year, polluted and filled, springs dried up and gone forever as well as creatures like the hellbender and rock bass and smallmouth declined to numbers lower than a boy could have dreamed fifty years ago. If the river and the Ozarks and the people could have remained as they were then, I would have been happier there than anywhere else, just as a good fishing guide and a naturalist who never ventured far from where he was born.

If you do the best you can at whatever God meant you to do, and it is what you love to do, you have to look back on fifty years with happiness and a determination to take what you have learned and do a better job with whatever time you have left.

And just for laughs, here is a paragraph or two from my first newspaper column in the summer of 1965 when I was The Houston Herald’s first outdoor columnist.

“The Big Piney River and the forest and farmlands around it are part of an ever-changing environment continually accepting new strains and hybrids. Species such as the bear, the prairie chicken and the bison have disappeared because of that changing environment. It’s interesting to note that the abundance and distribution of wildlife species in this state depend upon how well they can live with agriculture. This is one reason why quail are thriving so well despite heavy hunting. The greatest story of wildlife comeback though is that of the American eagle. During the fall and winter while floating the Big Piney we are seeing these big birds soaring above the water, following the wild ducks we hunt. Who knows what will dwell in the woods and waters of Missouri tomorrow?”

To contact me, you can comment on this blogspot or write to Box 22 Bolivar, Mo. 65613 or email lightninridge@windstream.net.