Jim Zumbo - Everything Outdoors

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It All Started Here - Part 2 - Continuation of my Writing Career

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Part 2. Continuation of my writing career.

In Part One I recounted my early years, addressing my love of the outdoors as a kid, and then my years in college when I first started writing. Part One leaves off when I’m at a forester’s party and a professor bets me a case of Lucky Lager beer that I can’t sell a story to a magazine. At the time I was writing an outdoor column for the university newspaper.

IMG 2374 1I’d been thinking about the idea of actually selling an article for some time, but the beer bet was what I needed to get motivated. Besides, I wanted that professor to eat humble pie. If I was successful, I’d be wildly ecstatic, and at the same time have me a supply of beer which, in those days was a great treat, given our pitiful financial situation.

So, now that I was mentally determined to go through with the project, as crazy as it sounded, I had to think of a story idea and a magazine to send it to. I knew absolutely no one in the writing industry. I figured my chances were slim to none. In those days, the major outdoor magazines were, in order of their circulation, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. I was partial to Outdoor Life, primarily because I was a big fan of Jack O’Connor, the Shooting Editor. There were a few smaller magazines, but I decided to try Outdoor Life. That done, now I had to come up with an idea. As far as hunting articles go, I knew nothing about elk and next to nothing about mule deer. I’d been in Utah only a couple years. Then I hit upon a wild idea. There’s a crazy phenomenon that occurs every year at Bear Lake, a large, deep body of water, beautifully turquoise colored, that straddles the Utah-Idaho border. The lake, about 40 miles from campus, has a unique fish called the Bonneville Cisco. It lives nowhere else and can’t be caught using conventional methods since it eats plankton and other microscopic organisms. The ciscoes spawn in January in shallow water along the shoreline. Anglers, who travel long distances, scoop them up in long-handled nets. It’s a gala event, with hundreds of people having fun, warming themselves next to big fires, and patronizing vendors who sold hot dogs, hamburgers, and warm beverages. It’s almost always a bitterly cold activity, often well below zero. Most of the time the deep lake isn’t frozen over when the ciscoes spawn, so anglers wear waders.

So that was my idea, BUT would New York editors care about such a small event that would appeal to few people? I had to borrow a camera from a professor (not the one I made the beer wager with) and took pictures of the crowd in the carnival- like atmosphere. I knew just enough about magazines that I needed to send a query, which is basically a sales pitch to the editor that gives a thumbnail sketch of your proposal. I looked at the Outdoor Life masthead, noted that the editor was Bill Rae, and sent him the query to the address that was on the masthead. One month passed, no word from Mr. Rae. Two months, then three months. I was convinced he wasn’t interested, and I felt like a fool for sending such a stupid idea to a major magazine.

Then lightning struck. Bill Rae sent me a letter! He said I incorrectly addressed my query to the circulation/ subscription office in Boulder, Colorado instead of the editorial office in New York City. Then he said he’d be willing to look at the story on speculation. That means he’d take a look, no guarantees, and would let me know. I was beside myself with joy. I couldn’t believe it. Now, the challenge was to write the story and hope he liked it as well as the pictures. I got down to business and wrote the story on my manual typewriter. For lack of anything more to the point, I simply titled it NOTHING LIKE IT. I assumed that on the long odds that they’d buy it, they’d change the title to their liking.

A few weeks later I received a letter from Bill Rae. I was trembling so excitedly that I had trouble opening the envelope. My God, he liked it, and was paying me $350! That was a fortune in those days. I celebrated appropriately and got my case of Lucky Lager beer from the professor. I think he was almost happy to give it to me and sometimes I wonder if he made that wager just to spur me on and motivate me to make that giant leap.

Interestingly, the check hadn’t arrived for several months and I began to wonder if I’d ever get paid. One day I was going through a stack of old mail and saw an envelope from Popular Science. I assumed it was a magazine offer. I opened it with disinterest and saw the check inside. I didn’t know Popular Science owned OUTDOOR LIFE. What a dummy. I not only got the address to the editor wrong, but now I didn’t know enough to find the check. Luckily, I didn’t put the envelope in the junk pile and throw it out.

Now I was walking on water. I perceived myself as a full-time outdoor writer and fired off a couple more queries to Bill Rae. He nixed them, but amazingly, his rejection letters were two pages long and he told me why the ideas would never sell. I learned later that Bill Rae was one of the most respected editors in the industry. He was always on the lookout for new talent and was the primary reason why many of the writers in my genre became successes. I don’t know how many writers I talked to who had nothing but admiration for him.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I took a job with the Utah State Department of Forestry and Fire Control in Price, Utah. It was during my tenure with the Utah Forestry job that I received notice from OUTDOOR LIFE that my article would soon appear. When the time approached, I called all my friends to see if they’d received the issue in the mail. Mine hadn’t arrived, and I went to a local store that had the largest magazine selection. The clerk said the truck would arrive early in the morning. I was parked in front of the store at 5 am, and waited nervously, about as anxious as awaiting a child to be born. Finally, the truck pulled up and the driver loaded bundled stacks of magazines on a hand cart and pushed them into the store. I followed him like a puppy dog. The clerk knew what I was hoping for, and immediately looked for the bundle of OUTDOOR LIFE magazines. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he found it. He gave me an issue, I paid him, and ran with it out to my pickup truck. And there it was! So beautiful! NOTHING LIKE IT, the title said, and there was my byline, the story, and the photos. I read it probably 6 times, tears streaming down my face. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

Despite my continuous effort to write more stories, I still hadn’t been able to sell anything more to Bill Rae and gradually came to the conclusion that I’d struck it rich on my first effort and that was it. After two years with the Utah agency I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere as far as advancements and found out about a job at the US Military Academy at West Point. It was for the position of forester, wildlife biologist and game warden — whatever it took to oversee the outdoor activities on the 14,000-acre installation that had beautiful hardwood forests, many ponds and lakes, and a several-mile trout stream. I really struggled with the move, because I was passionate about living in the west, but I saw the West Point job as a great opportunity to work outdoors. Besides, I was born and raised 15 miles away, and my family and old friends lived there. I took the job.

Not only was the West Point job enjoyable, it offered me many new opportunities and ideas for articles. One day I realized that hickory trees turned yellow long before other species in early fall. Squirrels love hickory nuts and I noticed concentrations of squirrels in and around those trees. This was a brand-new wrinkle to squirrel hunting — simply look for yellow trees and hunt near them. I sent a query to Bill Rae, and he told me to proceed with the story. I did, and he accepted it. I was, of course, ecstatic. The article appeared, and the editors called it BEACON IN THE FOREST.

My next submission was called, NO BONES ABOUT CHAIN PICKEREL. It described, in pictures, a relatively unknown way to eliminate the Y bones in these fish. Again, Bill Rae accepted it.

But my big break came when a fishing buddy figured a way to attach a small lightbulb and batteries to an icefishing tipup in such a way that when a fish struck the bait, the light would go on. This allowed us to fish at night for walleyes. We stood by a big bonfire on shore, and when a light blinked on we’d race out on the ice to the tipup and hopefully catch the fish. I sent a query to Bill Rae along with a drawing that showed how to make the device. He responded and said he liked the idea, but the art department was having difficulty with the drawing. He asked if I could box it up and send it to the office. Thinking quickly, I told him I could bring it down personally since I needed to make a trip to New York City, anyway. That was a lie. He wrote back and said that would be fine and he’d arrange for lunch!

My God! I was finally going to meet Bill Rae, over lunch, no less. I didn’t sleep for a week. I lived 60 miles from NYC and there are all sorts of buses and trains that make multiple runs to the City. With the tipup in a bag I got on a train and made it to Grand Central Station, then a subway to the office. I looked up at the imposing building and trembled with anticipation, excitement, and fear, all rolled into one. I walked into the lobby, saw a directory near the elevator and punched the 7th floor button where the Outdoor Life Editorial offices were located. My legs were weak and I was a bundle of nerves. Reaching the 7th floor, I walked out the elevator door and saw a woman sitting at the reception desk. She asked who I was, and I told her I had an appointment with Bill Rae. She pressed a button on the phone and soon a man opened the big entry door, smiled, extended his hand, and introduced himself as Vin Sparano, who was one of the young associate editors. I was led into the hallowed halls where editors sat and hammered away at their manual typewriters. After a brief, casual conversation, Vin dropped me off at George Haas's office, who was senior editor. George was missing several fingers, but he typed like a madman while finishing up some work. Then he looked at the tipup and said he’d turn it over to the Art Department. At one point a man walked by, stuck his head in the door, and said hello. Then he continued on his way down the hall. “That’s Bill Rae, the boss,” George said. Then George told me he had a restaurant picked out for lunch for the two of us. What? Not only was I not having lunch with Bill Rae but I never got to shake his hand. Suddenly depressed, I followed George, we had lunch, and he spent the entire time talking about schooners and whalers and vintage boats. Even more depressed, I jumped in a taxi to Grand Central and then took the long train ride home, but at least I’d sold another piece to Outdoor Life, and got an inside look at that hallowed building, at least in my mind.

From then on, I began having success selling feature articles to Outdoor Life. I soon learned that all the editors were city-raised. The fact that I had two degrees in forestry and wildlife established me as an authority in the woods and was a huge asset. If, for example, I wrote that whitetail deer prefer white oak acorns over red oak acorns, they accepted it as gospel. I was also writing an outdoor column in the local Newburgh, NY. paper, The Evening News.

At one point I attended a meeting called SOS, which stood for Save Our Stripers. It was about a plan by Con Edison, New York’s huge utility company, to build a power plant along the Hudson River in a prime breeding area for striped bass. A woman walked up to me, looked at my name badge, and said, “I know you. I just edited your story yesterday.” She was Maggie Nichols, a Senior Editor for FIELD AND STREAM. The article was about blood-trailing wounded deer. As it turned out, Maggie, her husband Mike and I became great friends. They made several trips to West Point where I showed them around, especially the forests where we had a deer hunting program.

As time passed, I began selling stories to a variety of magazines, not only outdoor-oriented, but those covering youth activities, travel, backpacking, resource management, even gardening. I incorporated my family into many articles. One of my favorites was an adventure into the remote woods of the vast Adirondack Mountains where I rented a bush plane to fly my wife and two oldest children, ages 6 and 8, so they’d hear a loon. The float plane dropped us off at an unnamed lake, we set up a tent and gear, and I heard a loon at 2 am. I woke everyone up, and the rest of the trip was wonderful. We fished, caught frogs, hiked, and enjoyed the wilderness. As a result of the trip, I sold a feature to OUTDOOR LIFE called, SHOW YOUR KIDS OUR GREAT OUTDOORS. The editors surprised me by running a four-page spread with a dozen pictures.

Though I loved my job at West Point, running the hunting and fishing program and working full-time in the beautiful hardwood forest with plenty of fishing waters, I realized that I was stuck at a dead-end street. I was a civilian in a military world and wouldn’t be going anywhere. Importantly, the West was calling, and I began looking for jobs with either the US Forest Service or the US Bureau of Land management. As it was, we took all our vacations in the west, and I hunted mule deer and elk as much as I could, mainly in Colorado and Utah.

Then lightning struck again. I landed a job as a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal, Utah. I was able to transfer my 8 years at West Point into my retirement package. The year was 1974. The next four years with this government agency, for me, was bittersweet. I loved the idea of being in the Rockies but working for this federal agency was depressing. Let’s just say that wildlife matters were a very low priority, under grazing, oil and energy exploration and pretty much everything else. However, I was able to spend most of the summers working on forest fire suppression, which I’d done extensively during my two-year stint with the state of Utah and at West Point. I attended fire simulator schools in the west and was Fire Boss on countless fires. Nowadays the top firefighter is called “Incident Commander.” Evidently Fire Boss is politically incorrect. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with the guys who worked for the state wildlife agency, which put a smile on my face. I was involved with a lot of wildlife projects that actually saw positive results on the land. And, of course, I was writing like crazy, hunting and fishing during my spare time, weekends, and holidays, and enjoying many acceptance letters from editors, especially OUTDOOR LIFE.

Then, on May 15, 1978, the phone in my office rang. I answered and heard the voice of an editor from OUTDOOR LIFE. My life would never be the same again.

TO BE CONTINUED to Part 3...

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