The Old Man and The Boy

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Considered by some critics to be an Ernest Hemingway spinoff, Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy (1957) is the North Carolina writer’s most famous work.   In it, he remembers his North Carolina boyhood and the life lessons learned from his maternal grandfather 

Robert Ruark appreciated the novelist Ernest Hemingway’s work, so it is accurate in many ways to refer to The Old Man and the Boy as a Hemingway spin-off.  Yet that label dismisses Ruark’s writing and original, story telling abilities and his national appeal. 

The book is a collection of previous Field and Stream monthly columns.  Americans enjoyed reading Ruark’s bucolic tales emphasizing nature and man’s interaction with it. The accounts of a grandfather and grandson’s friendship also appealed to Field and Stream’s wide readership. The boy always learned something from his grandfather, who guided him through the rites of passage for manhood and outdoorsmanship. 

Ruark’s childhood memories and visits with Edward Adkins, his grandfather in Southport, provided material for The Old Man and the Boy. Critics correctly stated that outdoorsmen and nature lovers would think Ruark’s stories were the best. Ruark paid great attention to detail when describing the countryside and animals, and he devoted that same amount of attention when describing the relationship between the old man and the boy.

Here is a representative excerpt from the story “Along with His First Gun Came and Education in Using It Responsibly”:

“Can I really shoot it now?, I said.

 “Load her up,” the Old Man said.  “Then walk in, and when the birds get up pick out one and shoot him.”

 I loaded and walked up to the dogs and slipped off the safety.  It made a click that you could hardly hear.  But the Old Man heard it.

“Whoa,” he said.  “Give me the gun.”

I was mystified and my feelings hurt, because it was my gun.  The Old Man had given it to me, and now he was taking it away from me.  He switched his pipe to the outboard corner of his moustache and walked in behind the dogs.  He wasn’t looking at the ground where the birds were.  He was looking straight ahead of him, with the gun held across his body at a 45-degree angle.  The birds got up and the Old Man jumped the gun up.  As it came up his thumb flicked the safety off and the gun came smooth up under his chin and he seemed to fire the second it got there.  About 25 yards out a bird dropped in a shower of feathers.

“Fetch,” the Old Man said, unloading the other shell. 

“Why’d you take the gun away from me?” I yelled.  I was mad as a wet hen.  “Dammit, it’s my gun.  It ain’t your gun.”

“You ain’t old enough to cuss yet,” the Old Man said.  “Cussing is a prerogative for adults.  You got to earn the right to cuss, like you got to earn the right to do most things.  Cussing is for emphasis.  When every other word is a swear word it just gets to be dull and don’t mean anything anymore.  I’ll tell you why I took the gun away from you, You’ll never forget it, will you?”

“You bet I won’t forget it, I said, still mad and about to cry . . . . “I don’t even know why you took it.  What I’d do wrong then?”

“Safety catch,” he said.  “No reason in the world for a man to go blundering around with the catch off his gun.  You don’t know the birds are going to get up where the dog says they are.  Maybe they’re running on you.  So the dog breaks point and you stumble along behind him and fall in a hole or trip over a rock and the gun goes off—blooey.”

“You got to take it off some time if you’re planning to shoot something,” I said. 

“Habit is a wonderful thing,” the Old Man said.  “It’s just as easy to form good ones as it is to make bad ones.  Once they’re made, they stick   There’s no earthly use of slipping off a gun intil you’re figuring to shoot it.  There’s plenty of time to slip it off while she’s coming to your shoulder after the birds are up.  Shooting a shotgun is all reflexes, anyhow.”