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Behind the Scenes with Pat McManus

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Behind the Scenes with Pat McManus

On April 11, 2018, Pat McManus, one of America’s greatest humor writers passed away. He was known far and wide for his humor columns in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, as well as stories in Readers Digest, and, of course, his many books and plays. 

When Pat left us, I wrote a tribute on my Facebook timeline as well as a column in Outdoor Life which is appearing now on the newsstands (Summer issue). I indicated a while back that I wanted to do an expanded tribute on my blog. Here it is.

Before I met Pat more than 30 years ago, I expected him to be a jokester, an outgoing guy who loved being center stage and regaling folks with loud humor. But I was wrong. Instead, I met a man who was quiet, a bit shy, and content to be a listener. But once I got to know Pat, I found him to be a fun loving guy, who thoroughly enjoyed life even though he was somewhat of a private person. He had no problem poking fun at himself, and laughing heartily when either of us made an outdoor faux pas. 

Like the time we were fishing on one of our excursions, flinging flies and smoking cigars, and probably quaffing a beer or two. At one point I looked to see Pat standing on one foot, hopping around, trying to unravel the copious amounts of fly line wrapped around his legs and torso.  Of course, I ran for my camera, which caused Pat to gyrate more rapidly to unfree himself, and making for an even more hilarious photo. 


Or the antelope hunt in Wyoming that I orchestrated with Pat and several friends, including a couple writers. Pat wrote a column about that hunt, calling it THE DUMBEST ANTELOPE. He complained that my chosen camping spot was in an area so flat and devoid of vegetation that you had to walk over the horizon to make a nature call.  That was actually almost true. There were a couple gullies a few hundred yards from camp that you could drop into and get out of sight. Pat titled the story based on an antelope that he claimed he shot at and missed. Truth be known, he nailed it. The animal was confused, and ran toward Pat. He shot again, and he nicely put it down.  Whether or not Pat was actually charged depended on the degree of embellishment that you’ll accept. When Pat wrote the column, he said he’d missed the antelope numerous times and it made its escape. I often wondered why he wrote that. Perhaps it added the humor touch to the story. It wasn’t a trophy antelope, in fact it was a rather little guy, but Pat was thrilled with it. We loaded the dressed antelope in Pat’s rental suburban, and I won’t elaborate on the copious amount of blood on the vehicle’s floor, and what we tried to do to clean it up. But the bigger point here is that Pat wasn’t one to brag about his outdoor accomplishments in real life. For that reason, fans never really knew if Pat was really a woodsman and a good hunter or not. Having shared several outdoor experiences with him, I know he knew his stuff.

For a time, the entire editorial staff of Outdoor Life held an annual outing somewhere in the country. The group included everyone in the office, from the boss editor to the secretaries, and those of us who wrote columns. We had these get togethers in Pennsylvania, the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Chico Hot Springs in Montana, Cody, and in Maine. These meetings lasted several days and were intended to be workshops where we’d sit down and discuss internal magazine matters, and enjoy a bit of camaraderie. All in all, about 20 of us attended the meetings. At the Bob Marshall outing, we rode horseback into a wilderness camp a dozen miles into the boonies. This was serious wilderness country, with narrow trails etched into the steep mountain slopes. Picture, if you will, a bunch of novices from the New York City area who’d never ridden a horse, and a humorous picture emerges of the chaos that ensued. One secretary barely made it 100 yards from the lodge and decided this wasn’t for her. She dismounted, almost falling off the horse, and walked back to the lodge where she remained for several days while the rest of us were in a tent camp in a remote world. At one spot a hornets nest along the trail made matters a bit dicey as the horses were stung and tore up the trail with the riders hanging on for dear life. But I digress. When we returned to the lodge, we went to a saloon called Liquid Louie’s, a local watering hole. When we showed up, Pat was recognized, and some patrons headed for the pay phone. Within the hour the place was packed with McManus fans, many of them well in their 80’s, to meet him and collect an autograph. It was a wonderful time, and Pat, being the gentleman he was, stayed until closing to mingle with folks who obviously adored him. He continually answered the standard questions, such as, “is there really a Rancid Crabtree,” and “how do you come up with funny stories?” 

At the Cody meeting, the editor who ran the show perceived himself as a drill sergeant and ran the sessions with a bullwhip, so to speak. Pat and I arrived five minutes late for a morning workshop and the editor chastised us thoroughly, as if we were school children. Pat and I thought it was funny. Afterward, during the break, the president of the company, who was the editor’s boss, apologized to Pat and I. We still thought it was funny. 

The editor had the bright idea to send Pat and I off on a hunt together, with each of us writing the true version of the adventure. It would be a double feature appearing on facing pages. I’ve written about this hunt several times, but it’s humorous and indicative of Pat’s clever mind, so I’ll include it here if you missed it. At first we though about doing a goose hunt, but changed our minds because there wouldn’t be much drama. So we decided on a Canadian black bear hunt hosted by Linda Powell, who was press relations manager for a firearms company. We were part of a group of half a dozen scribes. As it turned out, British Columbia had a severe winter, and when we arrived there wasn’t much exposed grass where we normally hunt. The forage was still covered by snow. Interestingly, many bears were high up in cottonwood trees, gorging on the fleshy buds. Since the trees had no leaves yet, we could see the bears a half mile away. Unfortunately, all were small. The bigger bears were somewhere on the ground or still in their winter dens. It was tough hunting, and I wasn’t very enthusiastic when the last day rolled around. My guide and I were driving in to camp after a long day of hunting when we saw a bear standing in the snow looking at us. It was maybe 100 yards away, and seemed to be rooted to the spot. I eased out of the truck, set up the shooting sticks off the side of the road, and settled in for the shot that I figured was a piece of cake. When I fired, I was astounded at the bear’s reaction. There wasn’t any. The bruin simply turned and wandered off, in no big hurry. It quickly disappeared in a thicket of saplings. I knew I missed, but walked over to where the bear was standing. I found his tracks in the snow, and that was it. As I expected, there was no blood, fur, or sign of a hit. I followed his tracks a ways in the snow,  and learned that he simply walked off at a normal pace. Puzzled, I shouted to the guide, who was standing in the road, to go to the precise spot I’d fired from. I drew a straight imaginary line, and walked directly to the guide. And there it was — the answer I was looking for. Lying in the snow was the top of a slender fir sapling, neatly clipped by my bullet, which was deflected. I was relieved to know that at least I hadn’t missed that easy shot by terrible shooting. But it got worse. Back at camp, I learned that Pat had gotten a bear. Hooooo boy. I could see it all now. The humor columnist gets a bear and the hunting columnist misses. Ouch. There was a spot on a rise near camp where there was cell service. I called the editor in NY and there was a long silence on his end when I gave him the news. Then I told him that this was the perfect story, entertaining and good for laughs. The two features appeared, and Pat’s version was priceless. He’d written that I was really after a trophy sapling, and when the bear walked behind the one I’d selected and offered a dark silhouette I fired, nicely scoring on the sapling. It was perfect. McManus had come through again. 

Pat and I often enjoyed lunch together or cocktails before dinner when we were at conventions and shows. He had the humorous habit of ordering the same exact drink I’d ordered. It would go like this. 

ME: “I’ll have a Sapphire Bombay martini, straight up, a little dry and dirty, with two olives.”

BARMAID to Pat: “And you sir?”

 PAT “Um, let’s see. I think I’ll have exactly what Jim ordered.”  

 When he tried it he’d say, “well I’ll be. This is pretty good.”

I usually asked for an unusual drink to see his reaction, just for kicks. Here’s another. 

ME: “I’ll have a Perfect RobRoy on the rocks made with Johnny Walker Black, a little on the sweet side with a cherry.”

BARMAID to Pat: “And you sir?”

PAT:  “um, gee, let’s see now. Maybe I’ll have exactly what Jim ordered.”

And so it went. He never complained about a libation. It was so much fun to hang out with him. 

I’ve seen Pat angry only once. I joined him in that anger. Outdoor Life had two new top editors who were bent on changing the editorial direction. Each of them came from high end men’s magazines. Not only did they abandon the traditional format in favor of trendy articles, they severely edited all copy, not only from freelancers, but from those of us who were columnists as well. They changed words, expressions, and meanings. In at least one instance they added a vulgar word which infuriated the author. It’s a given in the industry that you do NOT edit humor, especially those words written by Pat. Every word has its place. This editorial intrusion on our words had all of us unhappy.  I was embarrassed to say I worked for Outdoor Life. So was Pat. He and I discussed it over lunch at the SHOT show and decided we’d had enough. We were ready to resign, and agreed to send our letters of resignation via FAX at a certain time on a certain date so they’d arrive in the NY office at the same exact time. I’ll never forget it when Madonna began to send the fax. I was on the back deck, wired tight, and was totally despondent. This meant leaving a magazine that I loved, or once loved, most of my life. The phone rang and she picked it up. It was the Editor in Chief who said he’d just received a letter of resignation from Pat, who said I was resigning as well. The editor asked Madonna if that was true. She calmly told him to walk to the fax machine and read the letter from me, and hung up. One hour later I got a call from the President of the company who was superior to the two editors in question. He asked why Pat and I resigned. I told him, and he asked what it would take for us to come back. I told him we wouldn’t come back as long as the two editors were in place. The next morning the phone rang and the President said he wanted us back and said the editors were gone, their offices empty. They were no longer employed by Outdoor Life. Pat and I returned, and the magazine went back to its traditional direction. 

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As I write this it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Such a wonderful gentleman, salt of the earth, brilliant, talented, and loved by millions. On the bright side, his words will long live on through his books and magazine columns. Rest In Peace, Pat. We all miss you. 

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