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Patrick F McManus Books Shaped my Childhood

With spring coming there is that overwhelming desire to get outside. To camp, picnic, even just fly a kite. Well, so far where I am it is still too cold for anything like that, but it is nice enough to go start to think about it! Whenever I am thinking of camping or doing any outdoor activities I am drawn to the books by Patrick F McManus. He had some of the best thoughts on the outdoors.

Camping Trips Have a Different Feel with McManus Books Around

My family went either tent camping or out to the lake cabin nearly every weekend in the summers. Usually, it was tent camping. We loved to camp. I even had special camping sets for my Barbie dolls. Which, probably unlike most girls with that set, I used for actual camping trips.

Our family camping trips carry innumerable memories for me. I imagine my brother, Todd, would say the same. Everything from my dad building a tarp mansion (it rained a lot) to Todd and I exploring the Alaskan wilderness pretending to be Link and Zelda while fighting off imaginary Moblins or Tektites.

One thing always stands out though.

Patrick F. McManus.

A picture of patrick f mcmanus

‘Who the heck is he?’ you might be thinking. Growing up in Alaska (or at least in my family) I believed he was the most famous author to ever exist. Turns out lots of people don’t seem to know about him. This is a shame because his books are hilarious. Seriously. HILARIOUS.

McManus wrote such classics as The Night The Bear Ate Goombaw, Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!, A Fine and Pleasant Misery, and many more. He was actually an English teacher and humor columnist for Field & Stream and other outdoor magazines and his books are compilations of those columns. I didn’t know that. For a young girl exploring the Alaskan wilderness, his books were fact. The truth, which was written as pure, side-splitting perfection.

I know my brother and Dad both read the books over and over all the time. I preferred to reserve these special works of literature for camping trips. His stories of the great outdoors deserve to be appreciated when one is in the middle of experiencing the great outdoors for yourself.

Plus, it makes it that much funnier to laugh at his stories of putting up tents when you have just spent a good hour trying to get your own tent up.

Here is an excerpt from his story “Mean Tents” out of his book The Grasshopper Trap:

I have just staked down the floor of the tent. The tent came with tough plastic stakes, which greatly eased this task, but of course, all of the stakes have now been lost. I have substituted crooked pieces of tree branch for the plastic stakes, pounding them in with a flat rock. This results in my having to perform the Crouch Hop, a primitive dance in which the performer holds one hand between his thighs and hops about chanting “Hai-yi-yi-yi!” and other chants, while his wife holds her hands over the ears of the youngest child.

Now comes the dreaded part. I must crawl into the shapeless mass of canvas to insert the frame. Powdery remains of last year’s insects come sprinkling down onto my face. The tiny, stickery legs are the worst, particularly when they go down the back of your shirt collar. I sneeze. As a cause of sneezing, powdered bug is just as bad as pepper. Some people think it’s a whole lot worse. Squeamish people almost always abandon camping during this phase of pitching (the tent).

Not all the bugs are dead. At least one daddy longlegs will have survived the winter for the sole purpose of racing up under your pantleg. When you are standing in the dark with a collapsed tent around your head, a daddy longlegs racing for your vitals feels as big as a Dungeness crab.

Fun side fact- the first camping trip I went on as an adult, we discovered the tent we had just gotten did not come with any stakes. Or poles for that matter. We attempted the tree branch maneuver that I remembered from McManus’s wisdom… but ended up just using rope and tying it all up to a tree.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

As a child, teenager, and young adult, I relished sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows while my dad would read to us from any random chapter of a McManus book. We would laugh so loud that I am sure there was no threat of bears anywhere near our camp. Although, after reading enough of McManus we probably would have started laughing all over again if we did see a bear. His title story in The Night The Bear Ate Goombaw would have certainly been going through all our minds. In the story, he was camping with several others and became cold during the night. He had a fur coat stashed in his gunnysack which his mother had made him bring for just such an occasion, so he quietly put that on while everyone else was asleep.

“A bear!” Goombaw shouted. “A bear’s got me!”

Since I was lying right next to Goombaw, this announcement aroused my curiosity no end. I tried to leap to my feet but, wrapped in the fur coat, could only manage to make it to all fours.

“Bear!” screamed Crazy Eddie. “Bear’s got Goooooo—-!”

“Bear!” shrieked Mrs. Muldoon. “There it is!”

Goombaw made a horrible sound. I could make out the big round whites of her eyes fixed on me in the darkness, no doubt pleading wordlessly with me for help, but what could a small boy do against a bear?

“Holy bleep!” roared Mr. Muldoon. He lunged to his feet, knocking over the ridgepole and dropping the tarp on us and the bear. Figuring Goombaw already for a goner and myself next on the bear’s menu, I tore out from under the tarp just in time to see Mr. Muldoon trying to unstick an ax from the stump in which he had embedded it the night before. Even in the shadowy dimness of moonlight, I could see the look of surprise and horror wash over Mr. Muldoon’s face as I rushed toward him for protection. He emitted a strangled cry and rushed off through the woods on legs so wobbly it looked as if his knees had come unhinged. Under the circumstances, I could only surmise that the bear was close on my heels, and I raced off after Mr. Muldoon, unable to think of anything better to do. With his abrupt departure, Mr. Muldoon had clearly let it be known that now it was every man for himself.

Reading McManus in the Outdoors: Perfection

Fishing in the winter quote

Camping trips, road trips, or really any vacation, are perfect times to read. There are many books, 130 million actually (per Google), you can choose from. Might I recommend, however, that if you are traveling somewhere out of doors that you pick up a McManus book and give it a quick read? Actually, even if you aren’t going out of doors… these books are just that good.

Patrick F McManus had a way with words that could make the most mundane of topics cause you to double over with laughter. The average weight of backpacking supplies for instance. That sounds somewhat boring.

Not when he writes about it in “The Backpacker” from A Fine And Pleasant Misery.

These late-comers don’t know what real backpacking was like. The rule of thumb for the old backpacking was that the weight of your pack should equal the weight of yourself and the kitchen range combined. Just a casual glance at a full pack sitting on the floor could give you a double hernia and fuse four vertebrae. After carrying the pack all day, you had to remember to tie one leg to a tree before you dropped it. Otherwise, you would float off into space. The pack eliminated the need for any special kind of ground-gripping shoes, because your feet would sink a foot and a half into hard-packed earth, two inches into solid rock. Some of the new breed of backpackers occasionally wonder what caused a swath of fallen trees on the side of a mountain. That is where one of the old backpackers slipped off a trail with a full pack.

Those books hold a special place in my heart as well as my bookshelf. They have been a staple of my life. A physical representation of my past. My childhood, teenage years, even as a young adult… these books were always there. When my dad was on his deathbed, he asked me to read to him from McManus books to distract him from the pain. I’m sure he was also hoping to get the whole family laughing rather than crying. To this day, I often find quotes from the books popping into my head. It makes me sad whenever I find someone who has not had the benefit of enjoying these literary works of art.

As McManus said, “Every kid should have an old man”… well, to me, McManus may have filled that role.

Every kid should have an old man. I don’t mean just a father. Fathers are all right and I’m not knocking them, since I’m one myself, but from a kid’s point of view they spend entirely too much time at a thing called the office or some other equally boring place of work. If you’re a kid, what you need is someone who can take you out hunting or fishing or just poking around in the woods anytime you feel the urge. That’s an old man. Doing things like that is what old men were designed for.

If you’ve never had an old man of your own before, you may not know what to look for or how to use one once you find them. I am something of an expert on the subject, having studied under some of the best old men in the business. Someday I hope to get into the field myself. In any case, I am eminently qualified to advise you on getting and caring for your first old man.

                (“The Theory and Application of Old Men” from the book A Fine And Pleasant Misery)

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