“If there’s a little boy in your life, I hope you’ve read Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and The Boy. If you haven’t, you should snare a copy soon. My ambition is to be the ‘Old Man’ in Wyatt’s world.”
As a brand-new grandfather, I wrote those words on Father’s Day 2004. Since that time, six other grandsons and a granddaughter have climbed onto my knees. And all eight love tromping in the outdoors just as much as their grandpa and their fathers.
Ruark, “The Old Man,” used the woods and waters of North Carolina’s coast for a classroom to educate his grandson, “The Boy.” The curriculum was more than just hunting and fishing. Equally important were lessons on how to become a gentleman. As Ruark wrote, “A gentleman starts down at his boots and works up to his hat.”
Wyatt Wilson turned 16 on Dec. 10, 2019. So far, he has aced all the exams on outdoor sportsmanship. From his boots (and Nike running shoes) to his hat (and camouflage cap), he displays the traits of a true Southern gentleman. When Wyatt gives you a firm handshake, he looks you in the eye. He says, “Yes, sir”; “no, ma’am”; and “thank you” in distinct, courteous tones. He is a thoughtful conversationalist. I couldn’t be more proud.
And since Wyatt has grown up cheering for the Georgia Bulldogs, his grandpa suggested we take our barks to the Sugar Bowl and celebrate his milestone birthday. “The Old Man” and “The Boy” traded blackwater swamps and cypress knees for exploring the concrete-and-steel wilderness of New Orleans.
Over four days, we packed our itinerary. We packed in food, too. The menus ranged from alligator-sausage omelets to gumbo to fried-shrimp po-boys to iconic beignets to bananas Foster in the French Quarter’s Brennan’s. Not to forget Wyatt’s favorite: Waffle House, going and coming.
On our return—somewhere in the middle of Mississippi—Wyatt narrated his “highlights film.” The game and victory over Baylor in the Superdome was tops. Despite the depleted roster, Coach Kirby Smart had the Dawgs ready to play. Before the game, Wyatt—the athlete—assured me, “Grandpa, don’t worry. This is a time for the young players to step up.” And they did just that, 26-14.
We could have spent all four days at the World War II Museum. Wyatt’s main focus was on the South Pacific exhibit. Both of his great-grandfathers served in the Army in the Philippines. Every 16-year-old in America should—at a minimum—sit in the 4-D theater and watch the introductory movie that shows the sacrifices made for our freedoms.
On New Year’s Eve, Wyatt and I got an education on enslaved African Americans’ journey to freedom. My friend, Dr. Percy Pierre, the nation’s first African American to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, grew up in New Orleans. His storybook life is for telling another day.
All eight of Percy’s great-grandparents were slaves. We visited his rural roots in the communities of Freetown, Jamestown and Donaldson, along the Mississippi River levee. He pointed to the patch of weeds where his family’s house—his birthplace—once stood.
Percy can trace his ancestry to his great-great-great-grandmother Theresse’s capture from the Macou Tribe of East Africa’s Mozambique. And as we walked the historic grounds of Whitney Plantation, you could all but hear the chains rattling and the whips cracking. The Whitney should be a must-see experience for America’s 16-year-olds, too.
Before our road trip was over, I’m sure “The Boy” thought “The Old Man” was trying to pour a gallon of experiences into his teenage quart jar. Nonetheless, I had to exit I-65 in Montgomery and wend our way to a hilltop in Oakwood Cemetery Annex. On the blustery second day of 2020, “The Boy” leaned on the towering tombstone of country-music legend Hank Williams, while “Praise the Lord, I saw the light” blared from his iPhone.
Robert Ruark never wrote about taking his grandson to the concrete-and-steel wilderness of lower Louisiana. But “Praise the Lord,” Wyatt and I will be talking about our Sugar Bowl adventures for a long, long time.
Let’s hope those talks are by a campfire or while pitching crickets in a cypress swamp. That’d make this “Old Man” smile.