Caught by the River

The Old Man and the Boy

25th April 2010

a letter from Tim Balcombe.

Dear Jeff

Just wanted to drop you a letter to say that how much I enjoy the Caught by The River website despite not being a fisherman myself.

My father in law gave me a book recently that I thought you might be interested in. It is called ‘The Old Man and the Boy’ and is written by Robert Ruark. I’d never heard of the book or the author but my father said he’d read it when about my age (32) and something of the book had stayed with him ever since.

At first glance it appears to be about game hunting and fishing in prohibition era North Carolina and in this aspect it is beautifully written, meaning even someone like me, who has little or no interest in these pursuits can get caught up in these arts. But at it’s heart this book is the authour’s (the boy’s) tribute to his grandfather (the old man) and how the old man used the local hunting and fishing grounds and the changing seasons as a classroom to teach the boy values and lessons about life. And it was this combination of nature and reflection that put me in mind of you guys and some of the articles I have read on your site and in your book.

I’ve worked in the outdoors with kids and there seems to be an assumption that just by taking young people out into a wild place something will happen deep inside that young person that will make them more confident and emotionally intelligent individuals when they return to their usual environment. In my experience this rarely happened. It takes a very skilled teacher to make someone realise how experiences had on a river, in a wood or up a mountain can have relevance to everyday life.

I’m sure the author wrote this book with a certain sentimental exaggeration about his childhood but it is still inspirational and makes you consider some of your own values.
Ruark talks about his childhood as a “life amongst giants” where he is treated as an equal to the adults. But as well as the boy being trusted not to blow someones head off whilst out hunting, the adults are also trusted with the boy, be they a close family friend or the local drunk. And everyone involved adult and child alike take their responsibilty seriously as something precious that can be taken away at any time.

“It seems to me that 65% of the men that took me to raise couldn’t be admitted to a club, a church, or a teaparty. I reckon that most were unread, most were profane, most broke laws, most didn’t work, most drank too much and most had dirty fingernails…(but) in my life as a grownup I have managed to stay out of jail, pay taxes andy live a life in which the values are pretty clearly drawn”.

We’ve got our fair share of drunks in our neighbourhood and I’m not suggesting I’m going to entrust any of them to install any moral fibre into my son as he grows but it’s perhaps just as unhelpful only to allow your child to mix with people who have made more or less the same lifestyle choices as yourself. I think the author’s feeling that he lives life in a world where the values are clearly drawn is the strongest testament to the old man’s teachings. It’s very easy to say everyone should know right from wrong but it’s the grey areas in between that give us all the problems.

The old man wasn’t afraid to bend the rules or knock a man off the dock with one punch when circumstances dictated it but everything he did was considered and sat comfortably on his shoulders and clearly in his conscience:

“I don’t do nothin’ I do except for a reason. The reason may not suit other people, but it suits me, because I have tried it all and made two mistakes for every mistake I didn’t make. I am what you might call a monument to trial and error.”

Just sitting and watching the world go by is important to the old man and he passes this value onto his grandson who writes:

“Today there’s a lot of people who don’t understand when they see me sitting out in the yard in an easy chair, that I’m not really loafing, I’m doing what the old man said, I’m recovering from the past and storing up for the future” which is a pretty admirable philosophy to have passed onto your grandson.

It is a beautiful piece of nature writing with a spirit that I definitely think you guys and your readers will enjoy.

All the best,