I have an agreement with Ed Zern, the Field & Stream philosopher, by which I, too, am permitted to philosophize once during each ninth year–when the sum of the last two digits is nine. I got to write the profound department once in 1918, 1927, ’36, ’45, ’54, and ’63. In return for this concession, I correct the grammar and spelling in Zern’s manuscripts. Now it is 1972 and my turn again. I proceed herewith.
When my wife and I lived in Pleasantville, New York, the neighbor across the street retired one September. The other neighbors said he was worth a million dollars. I don’t know about that. He would only say that he had worked hard and made some good investments and now he intended to enjoy life. In November, two months after he quit work, we had a heavy snow. He started to shovel it off his walk, had a heart attack, and died.
I immediately quit my job in the city, to which I had been commuting five days each week, and returned to the West, determined to hunt, fish, and write about it. Why work hard and save money and then die before I had the chance to enjoy the things for which I had been saving it? The very idea was insane.
Of course, nonwriters might assume that writing is work. Not so. We writers know better. On days when we’re too tired to hunt or fish, play golf or go girl watching, we lie back in an easy chair with a scratch pad in our laps, doze, and stare at the ceiling, Occasionally we scribble down a few words for which editors pay us incredible sums, and when our wives and children disturb our daydreaming we run them the hell out and tell them we’re working.
Those were the days! For twenty-five years, I did just that and I told my friends and eager editors that I refused to work–pardon me, write–for money I didn’t need. Then I forgot the lesson I had learned in Pleasantville. I had one boy in college and one in high school and the same problems every man has. I got to working harder and harder and neglecting regular exercise. My diet wasn’t all it should have been. I smoked and drank too much. But worst of all, I worried.
I was asking for it, and I got it–a heart attack, and a good one. And let me tell every man who is heading toward one by the same route, it will scare you as you have never been scared before.
I was lucky. My old fishing and duck hunting buddy had one within days of mine and didn’t make it. We had both been working harder and relaxing less and we had hardly fished or hunted together at all during the past two seasons. “Next year,” we’d say on the rare occasions when we got together.
They had Jim’s funeral while I was still under oxygen and when I learned about it the shock was pretty bad. He was one of the strongest, toughest, most healthy appearing men I ever knew. His death and my close call were another lesson, and I decided not to invite a third.
While I was laid up, I read all the books on diet I could find, tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, and passed the more convincing ones on to my wife. And she was eager to read them because she’d had her scare, too. As soon as I was able I started walking, on doctor’s orders, gradually increasing it from less than half a block to four miles per day. I resolved to quit worrying. This was the most difficult part of all and I had to do it by myself. The reasoning that helped the most was this: “If I can’t get something done that should be done, the hell with it. I couldn’t do it if I were dead, either.”
My coronary came in February and by July I was able to wade a trout stream; by October I was hunting chukars. That is the toughest hunting I know anything about because they inhabit very steep, rocky country. Of course, I didn’t hunt as hard as I once had–or do now. When I began to feel tired I’d sit down and take five. I was happy merely to be there, appreciating the autumn scenery as I had never appreciated it before, and if I couldn’t kill chukars on the mountain, the hell with them, too.
It has now been several years since I hit bottom and I know I’ll never have any heart problems again. Thanks to a better diet, regular exercise, an after-lunch nap, holding my weight exactly where the doctor told me to, and not worrying, I feel better now than I ever did.
Only two things have bothered me physically: Walking into a cold, hard wind and starting to climb too soon after eating. As anyone who has had a heart problem knows, you get a warning in plenty of time–if you only heed it. At the first pain I sit down on the ground with my back to the wind and rest. And only once did I have problems by starting up a mountain immediately after lunch. I just don’t do that any more.
I have come to prefer doing all of the day’s hunting in one session, even though I may be half-starved before I get back to the car. If we do make a morning hunt and then another in the afternoon, however, I stretch out on the ground for half an hour after lunch–and often go sound asleep–before starting out again.
I tell this story not to show how clever I was–I wasn’t smart; I was scared–but to point up the futility of working full throttle for years on end with the hopes of stopping to enjoy life at some vague time in the future. Keep it up long enough and there probably won’t be any future. Even if there is, you won’t enjoy it. My father-in-law was a perfect example of that.
He was a salesman. When he was home on the weekends, he did nothing but loaf. He had a pleasant personality and many friends, but he lacked both vice and hobby. I suppose you could have put his lifetime consumption of whiskey in an eye cup and when my wife and I once talked him into going deer hunting with us he enjoyed it about as much as he would have enjoyed spending the weekend in a mortuary.
As his time for retirement approached, we tried to get him interested in something–anything–that would help, hopefully, to make the coming years enjoyable. One example:
We live in a geologically rich area where enthusiastic rock hounds, as people who hunt rocks are called, find fossils, agate, jasper, geodes, and other stones, some of which are both valuable and attractive. We knew retired couples who spent several days each week during the spring and fall–it gets too hot in the summer–hunting rocks. During the winter they cut and polished their finds and arranged them for display. Organized rock-hound clubs held field trips in season, meetings and displays during the cold months.
We took Dad out into the desert, to places we had discovered hunting, and showed him where and how to find agate and petrified wood. We got him to visit a local hobby shop and look at the equipment for cutting and polishing what he found. We gave him a good rock book.
IT was all of no use. And this is not to say he didn’t try. He did try, both this and other hobbies, but he had waited too long. He had forgotten completely how to play.
Meanwhile, Mom, who had always enjoyed a hundred things from playing the piano to fishing, went along enthusiastically. She liked to look for pretty rocks. She enjoyed cooking lunch over a little fire. She had a camera–Dad never took a picture in his life–and no matter what we proposed, she was ready.
At last, Dad retired. He and Mom took a few trips and then he sat down to watch television. He went downhill day by day and died ten years later. Mom is still going strong, playing pinochle with her friends and enjoying her music when she is alone in her apartment.
This is another reason for enjoying life as you go along. First, of course, you want to stay alive. Second, if you wait until retirement to start doing the things you’ve always wanted to do, it will be too late.
So don’t wait until you retire to go fishing. Don’t even wait until your annual vacation. Go at every opportunity. Things that appear more urgent at the moment may, in the long run, turn out to be far less so. And if fishing is out of the question, there are other activities that will restore you both mentally and physically.
What are good hobbies? Well, of course, everybody who reads FIELD & STREAM hunts or fishes, or does both, and I don’t have to sell anybody on these activities. Either will sustain a lifelong interest, but both have two drawbacks from a practical standpoint: First, in many regions they are seasonal. Second, in some of the great metropolitan areas getting to the spots where you can enjoy them is quite a struggle.
To be beneficial, exercise must be regular. An ideal hobby for the man who sits at a desk all day is one that requires physical effort; if your muscles get a workout during the day, some less strenuous activity is better. I had a friend who made a lifelong–and profitable–hobby of restoring antique clocks.
A hobby must have two qualities to give long satisfaction: It must be relaxing and it must provide a feeling of accomplishment. Photography does both. You take a hike through the park–thereby getting the exercise you need–and forget your weekday problems as you find and record on film the interesting pictures you see. Later, when you develop and print the negatives, you become engrossed in discovering how well you captured the scene, the mood, the feeling that caused you to snap the shutter in the first place.
No matter how amateurish you may be, you will experience a feeling of accomplishment. Better, you can take the same walk a week later, photograph the same things, and come up with finer pictures. And better yet, you can keep on doing this, each time realizing the glow of accomplishment, until you are no longer able to hobble around the paths or see through the viewfinder.
This is but one example. There are as many others as there are stars in the heavens or bugs struggling through backyard grass–and believe it or not, many amateurs have not only found fascinating hobbies in these very subjects but have contributed to our store of scientific knowledge through their efforts.
And since this is mostly a personal column, anyway, I’ll give another personal example to prove the statement I just made. About twenty years ago, when my wife’s hobby was photographing wild flowers, she became interested in mushrooms. She bought a book and learned the common edible species. Her interest grew. Soon she had more books and after a while a microscope and was learning how to identify all kinds of fungi. The flowers were all but forgotten.
The time came when she knew enough about mushrooms to begin collecting for one of the great universities, and to date she has made 4,881 collections. She now knows more than anybody else about the fungi of the high desert of northern Nevada, eastern Oregon, and southern Idaho. She has found many of the mushrooms that are well known in other parts of the country but had never been reported in this area. She has also found more than twenty new species never before found anywhere.
Now working with the aid of her second grant from one of the foundations that help support scientific research, she will eventually produce a publication that will become a permanent addition to the store of human knowledge. And remember, it all started as a hobby. She had no special training; she didn’t even go to college. She just dug in and the more she learned the more fascinating the subject became–as is true of all good hobbies–and I am sure that fungi will sustain her interest as long as she may live.
So there is no limit to the number of interesting hobbies that anybody can take up–hobbies that are both relaxing and challenging. The important thing is: Don’t wait too long. If you wait until tomorrow, tomorrow may never come.