Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Richard Frisbie: An Appreciation

In 1970, on the new books display at Susan E. Wagner High School’s Library, I found Richard Frisbie’s It’s a Wise Woodsman Who Knows What’s Biting Him: Advice for the Weekend Outdoorsman. 

Richard introduced the concept of “red blood density . . . describing a man’s awareness of himself as red-blooded and alive.” 

In a recent conversation, Margery Frisbie, Richard’s wife, recalled that, after he developed the concept of “red blood density,” that Richard had an appealingly subjective way of calculating red blood density points, as follows: “Suppose you drive to a state park, pitch your tent, and cook on your camp stove a supper of canned stew and coffee with butter, store bread, and cookies.  You gain points for sleeping in the tent and eating outdoors, but the meal itself is neutral and you lose points for using your car.”

He also introduced the miniaturized adventure.  A person might not be able to sail across the Atlantic, he observed, “but you can rig a sail on your canoe or rowboat and leave the shore astern.”
Richard Frisbie's author photograph on the back cover
of "It's A Wise Woodsman Who Knows What's Biting Him"
It’s A Wise Woodsman bowled me over.  It made being outdoors seem fun and something a person could learn to do.  The writing was funny and insightful.  When my father took me and my sister camping at Rudd Pond, he trailered a small, Frisbie-esque sailboat.  He also tried to convince us that hamburgers were a breakfast food; my sister persuaded him to get cereal instead.

Since high school, I’ve taken many excursions, made mistakes, learned things and enjoyed it all.  The spirit of Richard’s writing went on all these trips.
With retirement approaching, I wanted to re-read this book.  My daughter found a copy of it and gave it to me for Father’s Day, 2017.

Writing styles and reader interests change.  Books can be different when re-read.
Yet, It’s A Wise Woodsman reads as well in the 21st century as it did when I was in high school.  Despite 50 years of changes in outdoor technology and practices, it remains relevant and indispensable.  Part of the reason for this is that Richard concentrated on basics rather than on products.  For example, he focused on staying dry while hiking or camping, instead of whether the materials should be Gore-Tex, nylon, plastic or rubber.

One of my most vivid memories of It’s A Wise Woodsman was the witty and irreverent way that Richard dispensed his advice.  “All campsites,” he observed, “include a ridge of granite, virtually invisible in the afternoon, that rises during the night in the middle of your back.”
Richard related many canoeing adventures.  He and Margery vacationed on Cape Hatteras and Richard wanted to sail his canoe on the Atlantic.  “When I mentioned this to my wife,” he recalled, “she held up the book she was reading so I could see the title, Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Considering Margery’s advice and chastened by the sight of big waves every day, Richard discovered Currituck Sound.
Because the Sound was shallow, few boaters used it.  In his sail-rigged canoe, Richard discovered that “Afloat on the sound I was highly conscious that one shore was the mainland of North America and the other . . . was an island out to sea.  Currituck provided a classic miniaturized adventure - - an ocean crossing between lunch and the cocktail hour.”

After writing "It's a Wise Woodsman" and sailing a canoe,
Richard built his own sailboat and wrote a how-to book about building sailboats.
This painting of Richard's sailboat, Dawn Treader, was done by Richard's daughter, Felicity.

After re-reading It’s A Wise Woodsman, I wondered what had happened to Richard.  A Google search revealed his e-mail and I wrote him a fan letter.

Richard, who was 90 at the time, wrote back.  He explained that he no longer roamed as far afield as he had in the book.  But he continued having miniature adventures nearby, along the Des Plaines River and in the Cook County Forest Preserve.

In July 2018, Richard sent me a copy of a memoir he wrote for Write AcrossChicago.  It detailed how he came to see himself as a writer in eighth grade, when Sister Florence O.P. looked up from a story he wrote and said, “Richard, this is really funny.”

Richard Frisbie reading his memoir.  Photograph by Thomas Frisbie

Richard and Margery, who was a college press officer at Mundelein College (since absorbed by Loyola University) met when Richard was covering a press conference at the College that introduced a new faculty member.  That faculty member was Elizabeth Bentley, a courier for Soviet spies who renounced that life and converted to Catholicism.

Margery is the author of six books, the first co-written with Richard, and a newspaper and magazine writer.  It was she who wrote me this past summer with the sad news that Richard died.

With Richard’s departure, we have lost a great nature writer.

But Richard and Margery have passed on their love of nature and writing.  Their son Thomas observed, "We all still feel his presence every time we put on a backpack or a pair of hiking boots and head out the door."  And all eight Frisbie children are writers. 
Margery told me that she and Richard took their children, “a bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a gallon of milk and hied ourselves to the Field Museum.”  “We would,” she continued, “eat lunch on the picnic tables in the basement and then spend the day in the museum.”

This family lore inspired one of the family’s grandsons, to rent the Museum’s Stanley Field Hall for his wedding.  “Will they,” Margery wondered, “serve peanut butter and jelly in honor of our early glorious visits?”

Author's note: Richard had a witty and informative website on writing.  As of now, it is operational and well worth the read. The site also includes Richard's memoir on writing, mentioned above.

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