Russell Tinsley was a journalism student in the 1950s. The Austin American-Statesman commissioned him to write about nature.
Tinsley grew up hunting and fishing in rural Mason, Texas. An outdoor writer’s work often takes place off the sidewalk, so it was a given for the job. That being said, a recent graduate would work for less money.
His writing was “melt as smooth as butter”. Embedded in enough “Hemingway short sentences” to ensure that everything runs smoothly. He was also business-oriented. A good rental. He became her first outdoor editor.
One night while Russell and his wife Marjorie, 4 year old son Reed, and new baby Cynthia were in the living room, someone knocked on the door. The man introduced himself as a representative of Popular Mechanics magazine – a do-it-yourself publication that was successful at the time. He had an article to write for Russ if he was interested. Tinsley invited him. If they’d seen “The Twilight Zone” it couldn’t have been more surreal.
The Cold War was at its height. Khrushchev had boasted that he would bury us. Times were tense. The man wanted Russ, his wife, and family to pretend a bomb had just been dropped and they had to get out of town quickly, camp elsewhere for two weeks, and write about it. Marjorie probably checked the calendar to see if it was April 1st. They had joke friends.
But it was real. And for real money. You had time to make arrangements for the baby. Popular Mechanics had already received the statesman’s approval. They had 10 minutes that evening to pack their car for the two-week campout. They could only go as far as the gasoline in their car now. A three-quarter tank would bring them to Mason.
Marjorie grabbed bed linen, tinned food, a serving spoon, a saucepan and alcohol. Russ packed sleeping bags, hardware, fishing gear, a .22 rifle, and bullets. Two weeks later they left.
They camped in a place Russ was familiar, where Honey Creek meets the Llano River. There the onions went wild. That would help.
They were hot, cold, wet, sunburned, tick-bitten, hungry, and sometimes depressed. You have lost weight. A large fish tore the stringer from Russ’ hand and escaped. Coons ate catfish from their lines. Your dog ate a pot of rabbit stew. They worked together – survived with squirrels, rabbits, fish, wild onions, watercress, pecans – and prayed. Never give up. Russell credit scout training but wished he had packed an ax and a shovel.
Popular Mechanics and the Statesman both published his article. He served as the outdoor editor for 27 years before stepping down. His résumé included 11 authored books and numerous awards, most notably the Outdoors Writers Assn. of America’s Top Award for Survival Articles.
His conclusion on the article was: “I believe the nature lover has the best chance of survival. If things get worse, I plan to be prepared. I’m going into the forest with the idea of coming out alive and starting a new one. “
Woods, Waters and Wildlife columnist John Jefferson can be reached at 512-219-1199 or on his website at johnjefferson.com.