Gray’s Sporting Journal published a piece I wrote entitled “Absaroka Rams” in its fall 1979 issue, and I have been a subscriber ever since, exposing me to the tales of John Hewitt, who wrote regularly for Gray’s over several decades until he suffered a stroke seven years ago at age 62.
So imagine my delight when I read Christopher Camuto’s book reviews in the back of the last issue of Gray’s and saw that Hewitt has just published a collection of some of his works in a book with the unlikely title of “The Model 12 Winchester as a Way of Life.”
I immediately wrote a check for $25 and sent it to John Hewitt, 920 Amanita Way, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99712. In less than a week I had the book in hand (Hewitt pays the postage!) with a lengthy personal note on the inside page, complimenting me for serving with Marine Recon, telling me a tale or two from boot camp, and wishing me good hunting. (Hewitt served with Lima Co., Third Battalion, Seventh Marines as a 2nd Lt. He was wounded by an enemy hand grenade in 1968, moved from his native Kansas to Alaska, earned a graduate degree in creative writing, and spent his career working as a carpenter.)
Camuto says it best when writing about Hewitt’s book: “If the literary world weren’t literally gun-shy, Hewitt’s memoir of a hunting and fishing life would be broadly received as an important work of non-fiction, a valuable recollection of rural American life deeply rooted in 20th century Midwestern culture — in its fields, forests, and rivers as well as its struggling farms, modest homes, and dusty hardware stores. This is a book richly evocative of fading traditions.”
If you grew up in North Dakota, if you froze in autumn duck blinds, fished under sweltering summer skies on the prairie, you will love this book because Hewitt is a master story teller right up there with Robert Ruark. And as a North Dakotan you’ll be able to identify with all of it, except our duck hunting always has been lots better than in Kansas.
There are 335 pages in the book divided into 39 short chapters, each a different tale ranging from bass and catfish fishing and duck and goose hunting in Kansas to caribou hunting in Alaska and pike fishing in Manitoba. Each chapter is a fresh story with colorful characters — Clyde (John’s father) Ted Zercher (his grandfather) Tom (his twin brother), and friends Terry and Butch. There are conversations with Jug, the best catfish angler in the area, and World War II veterans long since passed on in a chapter entitled, “The Soldiers They Had All Once Been.”
Amid the hunting and fishing is the continual youthful struggle to scrape together enough money for gas and shells — a common memory if you grew up in a working household on the northern plains. Read about failed romances, preferred stink baits for catfish, and about the day they quit making Model 12s and the hilarious quest to buy the remaining few still on gun store shelves.
Some chapters will have you laughing aloud; others so heart-wrenching they bring one to tears.
Copyright laws being what they are, I will just quote a single paragraph from the chapter entitled, “Tall Cotton on Cedar Ridge”:
“I’ve always been wary of places with names like ‘Cedar Ridge Farm.’ I’d lived in Kansas too long to believe that there was any terrain feature in our end of the state warranting being termed a ‘ridge,’ and that if there were, all the cedars from two counties, brought together and growing simultaneously on it would never warrant it being termed a ‘cedar ridge.’ It seemed that every semi-rural ex-urbanite in the country (or his wife) dreamed up such titles for their four or eight acres, and hung a sign at or over the gate to that effect, while truly rural families who owned enough acreage to be accurately classified as a ‘farm’ simply scratched their last names on their mailboxes with screwdrivers and left it at that.”
In any case, if you do not buy another book this year, please buy this one! You will not be disappointed!
This is the 40th anniversary of Bernie Kuntz being an Outdoors columnist for The Jamestown Sun