Texas informed him. If you had torn open his chest, you would have seen the Lone Star on his heart. He was just under 6 feet tall, built like the light-heavyweight boxer he once was, and possessed of a set of electric-blue eyes. He was one of the most ferociously competitive human beings who ever drew breath. He could outdrink you, outwrite you, outtalk you, and God knows if you gave him a shotgun he could outshoot you. But on June 14, 2005, having survived every other ailment known to medicine, Bob Brister succumbed to cancer.
Born in 1928 in Kerens, Texas, Brister was a hunter and fisherman from the get-go. He served in the Army, and in 1954, he became the outdoor editor for the Houston Chronicle, a post he was to hold until 1993. When he retired, the paper certified him a living legend.
Brister began writing for FIELD & STREAM in 1965 and became its shooting editor in 1972. He quickly established himself as the premier writer on shotguns and an honest reporter.
I met him when he was in his mid-40s, just past his peak as one of the foremost smoothbore competitors in the world. He was simply uncanny, a combination of preternatural hand-eye coordination, cat-quick reflexes, and a profound knowledge of the mechanics of shooting. Once, after a live pigeon shoot near Houston, there were a few of us watching the sky-rat survivors flying circles around the field.
Someone said to Bob, “Bet you can’t hit that one,” and pointed to a circling speck a football field away. Brister threw his gun to his shoulder and fired, and down came the pigeon.
“You can’t do that again,” said a shocked eyewitness, and down came a second pigeon. The distance to the first was 97 paces. The second one was a few steps more.
And that is why, when his book Shotgunning: The Art and the Science was published in 1976, it went on to become the standard work on the subject.
He might also have been the world’s champion talker. Once, when he met Ted Trueblood for the first time, something like love passed between them and they yakked “so hard that smoke rose,” as someone said afterward. If you listened to Bob talk and did not know him, you were inclined to write off a lot of it as b.s. because no one could know that much about that many things. But it was true. All of it.
Here is a list of some of the things at which he was truly expert, aside from shotgunning: big-game hunting, speedboat racing, bass fishing, saltwater fishing, flyfishing, news photography (the Chronicle nominated him for a Pulitzer prize in 1971 for his coverage of Hurricane Carla) and, of course, writing.
Turning out a highly regarded newspaper column for 39 years is a feat of staggering endurance, and when you factor in the features and the shooting departments he did for F&S for 40 years, it takes your breath away.
Every month his column came in, followed by a phone call, and it was always the same call: “It’s not very good, but I ran out of time and anyway I had to see the doctor yesterday so I hope you can use it.” And he knew good and well that it was terrific, but he just liked to hear someone else agree with him.
He was equally accomplished as a hypochondriac. He never went anywhere without a supersized toilet kit filled with a stunning array of modern pharmaceuticals. If you told him that you had developed yaws or beriberi or equine encephalitis, he could reach into that kit and get you some help.
And so he is gone now: no more Chivas Regal, no more “R. Brister” at the top of the scoreboard, no more mile-a-minute conversations. But his words are still around, and he would be pleased if you would give them a read, because that was the heart of the man.
Adios, Uncle Robert. We are going to miss you. –DAVID E. PETZAL
THE MAN IN HIS ELEMENT: Uncle Robert, doing what he did best and loved most.