Hunting the Dream by M. R. James - Read Online
Hunting the Dream
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A Man, His Magazine, the Adventures

"Hunting the Dream" is much more than the typical info-packed book artfully crafted by award-winning journalist and Hall of Fame archer, M. R. James. Much more, it’s a candid and reflective memoir spotlighting the storybook life, remarkable career, and unforgettable outdoor adventures of a man whose millions of published words have inspired and guided legions of loyal readers for half a century.

Narrated with trademark honesty, this new book blends doses of wry humor with heartfelt sorrow, true-to-life dialog, meaningful anecdotes, and vivid word paintings created by a master wordsmith. The end result is an eminently readable, entertaining, and enlightening work that will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a long and successful life’s story well-told.

With tantalizing titles such as “Country Girls and Cut Pigs,” “One Way to Kill a Wife,” “A Bear’s in My Tent,” Christy Looks Different with Her Clothes On,” and “A $20,000 Haircut,”
"Hunting the Dream"’s unfolding chapters trace a boy’s long journey from his small town roots to a grown man’s leadership role in helping millions successfully bridge the chasm between an ancient outdoor pastime and a challenging modern sport embraced by a growing 21st century army of archers and bowhunters.

Published: M. R. James on
ISBN: 9780989033213
List price: $3.99
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Hunting the Dream - M. R. James

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I’VE FREQUENTLY BEEN ENCOURAGED to share the story of my magazine and my life. Faced with the sobering reality of advancing age, the increasingly common loss of good friends and industry contemporaries, and the ample time my so-called retirement affords, I’ve finally taken the requests to heart. The end result is a definitive autobiographical account that should provide insight and understanding for any reader, whether sincerely interested or simply curious.

Fans of my previous books and Bowhunter magazine features may experience a sense of déjà vu when reading a handful of adventure stories and most of my acclaimed From the Rubble chapter included in this book. However, most of the material is completely new and original, never before appearing anywhere in print. Also, it should be clearly understood that much of the dialog set off by quotation marks was never recorded. It is included here as a faithful representation of my own recollections and the collective memories of certain individuals involved in those original conversations.

Helping to ferret out historical details concerning the James and Wylie families were my sister, Melba James Bosecker; my niece and Melba’s daughter, Lorraine Bosecker Dishon; my late sister Margie’s husband, William Bosecker; and my cousin, Linda Wylie Alcala, whose father was my Uncle Ray. Special thanks are also due my wife, Janet Tennis James, and sister-in-law Mary Ellen Tennis, for their input concerning the Tennis family and its ancestral history.

Providing valuable historical facts about my southern Illinois small town roots were Claudia Dant, Director of the Wabash County Museum, and WCM board members Tommy Young, and Dick Shoaff. WCM volunteer Bill McKiddy helped by locating several old photos. A 1993 Wabash County Historical Society book, History and Families of Wabash County, assisted greatly in personal research about my home town.

Professional writer/editor Barbara Brabec and my daughter-in-law Sandy James, herself a frequently published author, offered helpful critiques of my writing, the book’s contents, word flow, and overall readability. Longtime friend and one-time college classmate Joyceann Dutton Agnew-Underwood, whose unflagging honesty and frankness over the decades of our long friendship, suggested several key changes that substantially improved several chapters. Another Hoosier friend and writer, Carol Ubelhor Troesch, offered beneficial critical commentaary.

Obviously, I owe my Blue-J, Inc. and Bowhunter magazine business partners—Don Clark, Bob Schisler, Steve Doucette, and Fred Wallace—special thanks for helping me write the story of our company’s amazingly successful publication. We met by chance, flourished through friendship, and endured by sharing a common vision. Also, two talented friends, Dr. Dave Samuel and G. Fred Asbell, have contributed much to the success of Bowhunter and deserve my sincere thanks. Dave has served as Conservation Editor since the magazine’s 1971 debut issue and Fred was Hunting Editor for more than two decades.

Finally, my wife Janet’s proofreading skills and encouraging words are sincerely appreciated, as always. She and the other helpful individuals already mentioned made my creative writing efforts especially gratifying—and the resultant manuscript much better than my book’s first draft.

Preface: December 6, 1940

THE WAR-TORN WORLD I enter on December 6, 1940 is still a year and one day of infamy away from the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that plunges America into a bloody South Pacific war. The day’s radio news reports spotlight England, where repeated firebombing by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe is killing hundreds of British citizens. Across the Channel, where France has fallen to Hitler, Germany is marshaling forces for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Closer to home, direct from the White House, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is announcing the abandonment of U. S. isolationism.

Still suffering the aftershocks of Great Depression temblors, more than 50 million American citizens residing in our 48 states are living below the poverty level. The nation’s total population stands at 132 million, and the U. S. national debt is a mere $43 billion. But eight million workers remain unemployed, and another eight million citizens fortunate enough to have jobs earn less than the current minimum wage of 43 cents per hour.

The average worker’s annual salary is $1,299. The average house costs $6,500; and a new car costs $800. Filling a gas tank is 18 cents a gallon. Shop at any neighborhood grocery and you’ll expect to pay eight cents for a loaf of bread and 41 cents for a gallon of milk. The cost of a first class postage stamp is three cents. Life expectancy in America is 62 for males, 66 for women.

There are no TV sets in American homes, although the first televised black and white images flickered across tiny five-inch screens on public display around New York City during the 1939 World’s Fair. And our nation’s first computer, the 30-ton, two story tall behemoth called ENIAC, won’t be unveiled for another four years. Radio still reigns supreme. The popular medium offers news, music, and entertainment—from sports to soap operas, quiz shows to comedy programs—with the simple twist of a tuning dial.

Radio sports history is poised to be made on December 8 when the first pro football championship game will be aired nationwide on 126 Mutual Broadcasting System stations. Red Barber will call the 73-0 rout of Washington’s hapless Redskins by George Halas’s powerful Chicago Bears. Earlier this same fall Cincinnati captured the World Series by outlasting Detroit four games to three. The Reds’ Frank McCormick and the Tigers’ slugger Hank Greenberg were named MVPs of their respective leagues. Cleveland’s Bullet Bob Feller led all major league pitchers with 27 wins.

On this same early December day, the latest zany Marx Brothers film, Go West, is released, and the Nat King Cole Trio inks a recording contract with the Decca label. Walt Disney’s second animated blockbuster, Pinocchio, is being hailed as 1940’s most popular movie. That same film’s musical classic, When You Wish Upon a Star, will in due time become a familiar Disney television theme song.

Notable Americans celebrating the December 6 birth date include musicians Ira Gershwin and Dave Brubeck, Trees poet Joyce Kilmer, FBI Public Enemy Baby Face Nelson, silent movie cowboy William S. Hart, actors Wally Mr. Peepers Cox and Agnes Moorhead, pro football Hall of Famers Otto Graham and Andy Robustelli, and Yankee Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri.

In the world of book and magazine publishing, which eventually will play a key role in my own professional life, reading is flourishing. Inexpensive paperback books, first introduced in 1939 by Englishman Ian Ballentine, are sparking a sales surge that puts books into the hands and homes of millions. In 1940 American literature, Ernest Hemingway releases For Whom the Bell Tolls; Carson McCullers’s debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, soars to the top of best-seller lists; Dr. Suess publishes Horton Hatches the Egg; and John Steinbeck earns the Pulitizer Prize for his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Meanwhile, on the day of my birth, well known author F. Scott Fitzgerald has only two weeks to live.

Two relatively new general interest photo magazines, Life and Look, are thriving. Over the next two decades each news publication will grow to have a paid circulation of between seven and eight million weekly copies. A James family favorite, The Saturday Evening Post, with roots traced back to Benjamin Franklin, is fated to become the most widely circulated general interest magazine in America. But popularity proves fleeting. All three periodicals will be defunct by the early 1970s, when my own special interest bowhunting publication debuts. The decline of once popular magazines is due largely to the growth of television, which directly competes for advertising revenue and the attention of readers beset with ever-increasing demands on their leisure time.

It is against this depressing yet hopeful backdrop that a small town boy begins his long life’s journey. It will be a trip that his own children and grandchildren—as well as most family members and friends from three respective generations—might only have imagined without some gentle guidance and the insightful understanding readily available by reading the crafted words contained in this candid and retrospective memoir.

M. R. James

Cedar Ridge Farm

Perry County, Indiana

Part I: The Early Years

Chapter 1


You are in these hills

who you were and who you will become

and not just who you are . . .

~ James A. Autry

DRIVING ALONG the familiar tree-lined streets of my home town, I’m saddened to see a stagnating community of perhaps seventy-five hundred good-hearted and mostly ordinary souls. This Illinois village is an aging farmland county seat situated on a high hardwood bluff overlooking the Wabash River. Eddying below the shady escarpment, its muddy waters are lethargic in the summer sunshine. Here most inhabitants live out their unremarkable daily lives enjoying mundane successes—jobs well done, neat yards and weedless gardens, kids well-raised—mixed with assorted failures of many modern nuclear families everywhere: jobs lost, homes broken, sons and daughters estranged. People here still know their neighbors and their neighbors’ business. Such is the curious blessing and curse of small town America.

Back in the untamed Illinois Territory of 1817, this same forested elevation was christened Mount Carmel, after the biblical locale where Elijah smote the prophets of Baal. The town was named by a trinity of hopeful but largely impractical Methodists from south central Ohio. By all accounts, the three founders were devout and proper Christian men who envisioned a society built on liberal and advantageous principles, where the sale of town lots would generate funds for the establishment of seminaries of learning and religious principles.

These same pious founders—the Reverends William Beauchamp and William McDowell, and Doctor Thomas Spotswood Hinde, a physician born in Oxfordshire, England—steadfastly forbade public drunkenness, profane swearing, gambling, Sabbath breaking, raising riots, and breaking the peace. Further, they deemed that no playhouse or theatre shall ever be built within the bounds of this City; theirs was an optimistic mandate for any mud-streeted frontier river town. But if the spirits of these long-dead servants of God and man could somehow rise after nearly two centuries and return to assess the results of their collective theocratic vision, each inherently honest man of the cloth and healing arts would be compelled to admit that the town’s settlers and their descendents had systematically devastated his idealistic dream.

During the oil drilling boom of the mid-1940s, when the seeds of my own awareness and this small community and its kind and common people first took root in the arable furrows of my mind, gambling and drinking and loud music—punctuated by routine swearing, frequent fist fights, and the occasional knifing or startling gunshot—were not unknown where town toughs gathered. These were places named the Bloody Bucket, Basil’s, the Salty Dog Saloon, the Stone Front Tavern, the Stag Pool Room, Chapman’s Café, and multiple southside greasy spoon dives. Blood and booze sometimes merged on sticky tavern floors beneath the hovering clouds of cigarette smoke and a cloying sweat-stink of thirsty working men jostling about within dimly lit bar rooms.

Our own small four-room frame house on Cedar Street, where we moved in 1946 when I was a first grader at red-bricked Bancroft School, was situated within easy earshot of the bustling Twin Gables Tavern on West Ninth. There a thick steak dinner cost one dollar; however, beaded mugs of cold beer and crystalline tumblers of fiery liquor quickly inflated the nightly meal tab. Each evening, but especially on Friday and Saturday nights, begrimed oil field workers and railroad men gathered to unwind after toiling since before sunup in the tri-state oil patch and west side train yards. Farm hands, too, weary from their work in fertile Wabash County fields, joined the town’s thirsty throngs. And the humid, stifling summer air seeping through our home’s open windows and screen doors brought with it random strains of honky-tonk music or some raucous laughter emanating from the tavern’s parking lot.

Only three short blocks east on the corner of Ninth and North Market, the flickering marquee lights of the American Theatre garishly illuminated titles of the latest Hollywood offerings to small town America. And it was on the street-facing side of a one-story metal warehouse between the movie theatre and tavern, just past the railroad tracks glinting in sunlight below the Bluff City Mill, some crude and illiterate clod had once used red paint to smear FUK U in foot-high capital letters on the building’s corrugated side. So much for the dreams and mandates of the sanctimonious and naïve Methodist visionaries who founded Mount Carmel.

Yet back in 1818, when Illinois became a free state, shared utopian dreams were not uncommon. In truth, it was European dreamers who first settled the lower Wabash River Valley around 1735, erecting their crude homes near Vincennes, that French riverbank outpost hacked out of the tenebrous woodlands deep within a frontier territory that originally was a part of Virginia and Louisiana, but in due time would become Indiana. What began in the 1700s as a westward trickle of adventurous people, had swollen to a steady flow of hopeful settlers by the time Mount Carmel was surveyed and its Article of Association recorded. Barely a decade had passed since adventuresome Lewis, Clark, and their daring Corps of Discovery returned from the shimmering Pacific with stories of a vast resource-rich land awaiting further exploration and ultimate settlement.

Understandably, a westward surge soon began in earnest. Lured by promises of cheap, fertile, accessible homesteads, newcomers arrived in southern Illinois from points east to put down roots in Palmyra, this region’s first county seat. Situated near the mouth of Crawfish Creek and Hanging Rock, just three short miles upriver from modern day Mount Carmel, Palmyra was a fledgling log cabin community of several hundred hardy beings. Other early settlers gravitated further south to construct rough-hewn huts or shacks near the Wabash, mostly in the old French settlement of Rochester. However, many more chose Mount Carmel or an even newer frontier settlement—the prairie town of Albion—some fifteen miles to the west.

Almost a century and a half later, I carried a .22 rifle and plinked rusty-hued fox squirrels for the family dinner table in those same bottomlands where old Palmyra’s cabins once stood. This now forgotten town died directly after its birth, stricken fatally by the drought of 1820. That was the year the wide Wabash ceased flowing and shrank into stagnant pools of brackish water standing fetid amid stretches of grayish, sun-cracked mud. Dark, billowing clouds of whining mosquitoes swarmed over the shadowy bottomlands, their bites bringing fever and lingering death to scores of area settlers. Survivors stumbled away to more healthful climes; only the dead remained—entire families and solitary souls alike—moldering in shallow, unmarked graves scooped out of a sandy knoll southwest of the frontier settlement. The prophecy of Chief Nomednakipo, the visionary Miami warrior, was fulfilled.

Indian die here, squaw die here, papoose die here, Nomednakipo warned the first Palmyra settlers, adding an ominous prediction. White man die here.

Death on the Illinois frontier was not limited to the ravages of disease. In 1815, near where I later picked sweet June blackberries with wet, juice-stained fingers, Plankashaw braves clubbed the life from two Rochester youths, Joseph Burway and Joseph Pichinaunt, staining their own hands with sticky crimson of another kind. And three years later, an unfortunate settler named Cannon and his son, Samuel, were butchered while cutting a bee tree in the Wabash River bottoms. Neighbors nervously collected the violated remains, including Samuel Cannon’s severed head, wrapped the bloodied father and son in a single green horsehide, and lay their mutilated bodies in a common grave beneath land I would later walk, plucking phallic-shaped morel mushrooms each warming springtime and shooting darting cottontails for the kitchen pot each cooling fall. My roots truly run deep into this black and rich Midwestern soil; it is a fertile land—my land—fused over long decades with the tears and sweat and blood of its former residents.


My own rather lengthy life had its beginning in late 1940. My mother was thirty-six years old at the time, with two pretty teenage daughters and a pleasantly surprised husband. Seven months after she detected and announced her unplanned pregnancy, I arrived on a bitter December night, weighing in at ten-and-a-half pounds, emerging after a long labor and difficult delivery. Country doctor C. W. Brian and nurse Mary Risley were in attendance when I was born in my parents’ bed inside the tiny rental house that my family shared in Bellmont, a roadside cluster of small frame homes situated just off State Route 15 midway between Mount Carmel and Albion. By all accounts, I was a robust, healthy, and happy infant. I quickly grew into a chubby and spoiled toddler, which I believe is not that uncommon with any family’s youngest child, especially an only son.

Named for uncles on separate maternal and fraternal branches of our family’s tree, I took my first tottering steps when barely nine months. I’ve been told that I smiled often and fretted infrequently, crying mostly over periodic ear infections and a persistent penile rash during bouts of painful balanitis. Other than a routine tonsillectomy and belated foreskin removal, I remained physically intact and sound throughout my active childhood (not counting a fractured left wrist suffered in a fifth grade playground fall and the multiple broken fingers sustained playing basketball and baseball as a teenager). I matured to young adulthood within a few miles of my birthplace, sheltered within the once-promising river town where for so many people their faith and aspirations gradually dulled and gave way to doubt and skepticism—or at least a grudging acceptance of failed hopes. The boneyards of Wabash County hold more than mortal remains; thousands of unfulfilled dreams lie buried there, too. I vowed early on, God willing, that my own dreams would never be counted among those failed visions.

Today, my mother and father rest side-by-side for all eternity in Highland Memorial Cemetery, just off College Drive, not far from the grave markers of my oldest sister, Margie, and her husband, William Bosecker. The inscribed headstones of my other sister, Melba, and her own husband, Raymond Bosecker, are there, too.

One year before I was born, my thirty-something father led his young family east to Illinois from south central Kansas. There he’d played semi-pro baseball, worked as a welder in the Wichita rail yards, and leased drilling lands for Vickers Oil Company to support his quiet wife and dark-haired daughters. A Missouri native, grade school dropout, and indefatigable workaholic, he toiled long days in the Midwestern oil fields, starting from the bottom up—swamper, roughneck, roustabout, pumper. But by the time I was in high school, playing ball and coasting through my classes, he owned his own drilling company and leased oil lands in three states. His sweat, his obsessive quest for the black gold that pooled deep beneath rich Midwestern farmland, had finally paid off. Family fortunes turned.

We left the cramped frame house on Cedar Street, crossing the railroad tracks for a commodious pre-Civil War soft brick home on oak-lined Cherry Street in an older and nicer part of town. My once dirt-poor father wore a large diamond ring, drove long Cadillacs, and carried fat wads of hundred dollar bills for pocket money. He took a special and pretentious pride in being a self-made man whose long years of constant labor ultimately brought financial security to his small family. Energetic into his early eighties, he faded mentally toward the end, fretting over imaginary IRS agents and FBI investigators prying into his lucrative oilfield dealings and personal bank accounts.

Finally, one early February morning in 1990, dad collapsed at the foot of the bedroom stairs and died later that same day, his strong heart shredded by age and mental tribulations. I flew back to Illinois from a riverside home in northwestern Montana for the funeral—and to confront this latest undeniable proof of my own earthly impermanence. Days later, I left my home town pondering the lessons that my father’s life taught me about the rewards that hard work can provide dreamers who refuse to fail, no matter the odds, and prove all their doubters wrong.

A full decade later, in June of 2000, my widowed homemaker mother again took her rightful place by my father’s side. Born in Oklahoma Territory in 1904, three years before eventual statehood, mom grew to adulthood in south-central Kansas, but lived well over half of her twentieth century-spanning life in Mount Carmel, among her small town friends and my older sisters and their families. A born again, deeply religious woman, she remained an active member of the First Baptist Church until the end; a once-voracious reader, she largely ignored her failing eyesight and used a large hand-held magnifying glass to continue reading her Bible, the Daily Republican Register, and most of the published stories, articles, and books authored by her only son. I was hunting black bears two thousand miles away deep in the Saskatchewan bush when an Indian policeman found our campsite and delivered news that an emergency call from Illinois informed local authorities my mother had died peacefully in her sleep.

I’d last spoken to mom by telephone the Sunday before leaving by boat for the lakeside camp where I’d spend a week with my wife, Janet, and friends who shared my passion for hunting big game animals with the bow and arrow.

Be careful of the bears, mom warned before hanging up. Love you.

Those were her final words to me. She never would know that I arrowed a hulking bruin the same day she drew her final breath. But I’ll always remember that particular irony.

It was my mostly self-educated mother, having left school at fifteen to help raise younger siblings, who first introduced me to the magical world of books. Even before I started grade school, she’d read a single chapter each night from any classic of my choosing. Twain. London. DeFoe. Scott. Cooper. Other great writers who penned classics. And in this thoughtful, motherly fashion, she left me not only a passion for reading but a priceless legacy and timeless gift whose value is vividly reflected in Strickland Gillialan’s tribute to his own mother:

I had a mother who read me things

That wholesome life to the boy heart brings

Stories that stir with an upward touch,

Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be

I had a mother who read to me.

My own assorted writings in newspapers, magazines, and books stand today as mute testimony of a mother’s love and a son’s inspired vision. Shaped by personal experiences with love, life, adventure, and death, my millions of published words remain a lasting gift to those readers who are moved to see what I see, hear what I hear, and feel what I feel. Such sensory sharing is both a doorway and bridge, connecting minds if not souls, while opening limitless possibilities of exploration and examination. It is my own endowment to all astute readers who seek solace and reassurance in the printed word, who seek some connection with their own past in order to better comprehend their future. Consequently, I find great comfort in looking ahead to the day when I will return a final time to the place of my roots and rest near family and friends.


The late spring day is dying as I make one final pass along Market Street’s business district, seeing too many closed and shuttered buildings. I remember once-crowded streets and sidewalks that gradually emptied after the oil boom ended, the rail yards and coal mine went away, Snap-On Tools closed its doors, and Interstate routes replaced the old two-lane Dixie Highway running south from Chicago to sunny Florida. Economic opportunity and growth mostly bypassed Wabash County in the decades I’ve been gone. The evidence is everywhere I look.

Not that all progress has been bad. Gone are the de facto Jim Crow laws when people of color could work in Mount Carmel but had to be out of town by sundown. None could stay overnight or own houses here. I remember playing ball against only one Negro athlete, a husky kid from Lawrenceville, during my high school years. Common sense, decency, and the Wabash Valley Junior College finally brought overdue integration to my home town.

Turning left on Ninth, I drive west past the Pizza Hut and Hogg Heaven, turn right onto Poplar Street and move slowly to the edge