Pat McManus was in the second grade, one of ten students in a one-room schoolhouse in Squaw Valley, Idaho. His teacher, who was also his mother, generally let young Pat run wild, spending his school day roaming the woods and stream banks around the isolated schoolhouse. He’d show up right after lunch when his mother would read to the students from Mark Twain, Jack London, Herman Melville, and others of her favorite writers. But at the end of the year, she flunked him, citing too many absences.
“Much later, as an adult,” he writes, “I realized that my mother had given me a great gift in allowing me to wander in joy and wild abandonment during my first two years of school, and that gift was a sense of freedom. From then on my life was set on a course of someday achieving that same actual freedom once again. I haven’t succeeded, but I’m still trying.”
But that’s another story.
In this story, he has built a sled out of scrap wood. He hauls it to the top of the hill, then slides down. One day Barbara, the only other second grader, taps him on the shoulder.
“Patrick,” she says. “Can I ride down behind you on your sled?”
This is remarkable, because Barbara has hated him since a scientific experiment the previous year involving a long pole, a piece of firewood for a fulcrum, an outhouse, and a little girl. McManus calls it his earthquake experiment.
“I got in a bit of trouble,” he says 70 years later, “because she had to blab.”
Regardless, the appeal of the sled has led to a momentary reconciliation.
They drag the sled to the top of the hill, point it down, and take off. But they are headed, he realizes, straight for the posts holding up the school’s porch. Unfortunately, the sled has neither brakes nor steering. He grips the sides tight, but neglects to warn his passenger.
Sure enough, they slam into the posts and Barbara flies over his shoulder.
“I get up,” he says, “and Barbara’s out cold.”
So Pat innocently slips into the schoolhouse, sits down at his desk, and starts coloring, figuring when her body is eventually discovered out there, everyone would remember him sitting inside quietly coloring.
“That’s when I realized I had a criminal mind,” he confesses. “Though I didn’t put it to good use until later.”
Barbara survived, of course. But Pat never recovered from his realization.
However, though some might insist he devoted his whole childhood to developing material for his literary career, it was only after several false starts that he found his voice, his calling, as a writer of humor.
Following graduation from Washington State College, a brief career in daily journalism, and then a master’s from Washington State College in 1959, McManus took a job teaching English and journalism at Eastern Washington State College.
“Teaching, much to my surprise,” he reflects, “turned out to top the scale of hard work. Bad choice!”
So he decided to get serious about his writing. Every night, seven days a week, he would sit down and write for two hours. Not do research, not take notes, but write. He started building himself a respectable career as a freelance magazine writer. He also produced television features about science and the outdoors. He figures he did about a hundred. They didn’t pay very well, he recalls, but they were fun.
Then one evening, he finished a story on the use of telemetry in wildlife biology and found he had an hour left in his nightly routine. So he figured he’d spend the remaining time writing a piece of nonsense about a future in which every animal wears a radio transmitter.
“It would simplify deer hunting enormously,” he says.
He whipped it off and sent it to Field and Stream.
There are two kinds of envelopes a freelancer gets, he says. There’s the big one with the returned manuscript. And there’s the thin one, with the check.
A few weeks later, he got a thin one. With a check for $300.
“I was so elated,” he says.
“And then I think, I wrote this in an hour, no photographs required… I’ll be rich!”
The arithmetic may not have worked out quite as well as he hoped. But opening that envelope began an illustrious career as an outdoor humor writer. Twenty-some books and hundreds of magazine stories later, he has done quite well with his unique blend of wild Idaho childhood, with its freedom and fears, and slapstick.
When Pat McManus began his undergraduate career in Pullman, no one would have mistaken him for a famous writer.
In fact, when he first arrived in Pullman, he wanted to be an artist, and he’d enrolled at WSC because he’d heard it had a good fine arts department. But it turns out his aspirations did not meld well with the sensibilities of the art faculty in the 1950s.
He admired Norman Rockwell. The art establishment at WSC tended more toward the abstract.
Meanwhile, his development as a writer was not taking a particularly auspicious route, either. In fact, he recalls getting failing grades on his first six essays in freshman composition.
Try as he would, his teacher, Milton Pederson, handed them back with a big fat F at the top.
But then one day, Pederson advised the class, “Look for the telling detail.”
A lighbulb went on.
“Suddenly, I realized what writing was all about,” and his grades began a slow climb: D-. D. C+. And finally… an A+! And a note that Pederson had recommended him for honors English.
McManus even remembers the subject of that A+ paper: Norman Rockwell as the artist for ordinary people.
Years later, McManus ran into Pederson at a social event and recounted his composition experience.
“I never gave anyone an A+ in my life,” said Pederson.
Regardless, armed with newfound ability and terrified by the thought of having to get a job when he graduated, McManus was driven to take every writing class available at WSC. His desperation drove him into a creative writing class, in which he produced his first piece of published fiction. “The Lady Who Kept Things” was a wickedly clever little story about a woman whose refusal to throw anything away drove her husband to a desperate ploy.
Not only might this well be the first time that McManus was able to implement his sledding-induced criminal mind, but it also led to his first actual attempt at writing humor, as the professor assigned a paper outlining the thought process involved in the short story. For whatever reason, McManus seemed incapable of treating such an analysis with sufficient academic gravity, and he had the class and teacher in hysterics by the end of his presentation.
Well that should get him that A that so often had eluded him, he thought. But when the paper came back, it had only a B.
Our young writer was furious. He stormed into the teacher’s office and reminded him how the paper had affected not only the class, but the teacher.
“Yes, McManus,” he recalls the teacher saying, “it was a very funny paper, very funny indeed. But this is a class in the writing of serious literature. And you have to admit, that paper of yours wasn’t serious.”
Never mind that, chastened by the demagoguery of serious literature, McManus did not again attempt humor for another fifteen years. Instead, in spite of the delay, we should pause and be thankful that he did eventually join the ranks of Robert Benchley, E.B. White, and Mark Twain rather than succumb to seriousness.
“He always put me first,” says Norm Nelson. “Anything involving death and mayhem, he’d say, ‘Norm, why don’t you try it first?’”
Nelson, who appears in McManus’s stories as “the little fat kid,” and McManus grew up together and shared, for better or worse, many of the adventures on which McManus builds his stories.
And Nelson, as the little fat kid, along with the other characters that populate McManus’s stories—Rancid Crabtree (based on Nelson’s uncle), Retch Sweeney—populate a rather absurdist backwoods version of a Norman Rockwell childhood.
In fact, were it not for his unique humor, his stories might well be too idyllic to stomach.
From age twelve on, I ran traplines, hunted with my own shotgun, fished every spare moment, roamed wild and free in the woods and mountains, and cultivated the company of ornery old men who smelled of tobacco, whiskey, and hard living. It was nice. My friends and I often went on expeditions deep into the mountains, and it was there I first explored the fine, sweet, secret terror of wilderness and the night, and the heavy tread of Sasquatches passing near.
The beauty of this passage with its tweak at the end is trademark McManus.
The reason he got this way, which he explains in the aptly titled How I Got this Way, is he fell out of a bus when he was five and landed on his head. It takes a bit to realize that it wasn’t the fall on the head itself, but rather the long time he had to spend in the hospital and its excruciating inactivity cured only by his imagination.
And then his father died the following year, when Pat was only six, so he became the lone male in a family of very strong women.
His mother taught school and farmed. Although McManus’s story is idyllic and comic, one also glimpses a harder, darker version.
Mom despised weakness, not of body but of will. She was not particularly fond of order, either, but thrived on chaos, confusion, and crisis, all of which are bountiful in the lives of people who attempt to achieve total self-reliance.
As comic as McManus’s vision is, his mother stands apart, confronting hardship with determined stoicism. His mother is as close to a tragic character as any in his work.
This is one image of my mother inscribed indelibly in my mind: She is sitting there at the kitchen table in her coat, nightgown showing around the edges, her feet in boots. She is slumped slightly forward against the table and the cold, with a cigarette dangling from her lips. Her eyes are hard and as sharp and frigid as icicles. Her silence is stony and ominous. She is marshaling her resources, preparing to ride against the Furies. This is not a good time to disturb her with such a ridiculous question as ‘What’s for breakfast?’ Her plan of action and cigarette both finished, suddenly, miraculously, she is transformed. She is on her feet, joking, laughing, snapping out orders—do this, do that, get a move on. Her cheerfulness is terrible and incomprehensible. The Furies still await.
McManus’s sister, Patricia the Troll, was six years older than he and took her role very seriously. She was always convincing her younger brother there were wolves hidden in the trees and monsters and ghosts in the attic.
“See that old man. He’s not real.”
“No, he’s a ghost.”
“How do you know?”
“’Cause you can see right through him, dummy.”
“He looks just like old Mr. Ferguson.”
“It’s his ghost. Mr. Ferguson died last week, you know.”
A week later I’d almost died myself, bumping into Mr. Ferguson coming out of a store. “What’s wrong, son? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Patricia the Troll and Patrick the Little Brother later co-authored Whatchagot Stew, a combination memoir and cookbook.
I’m well aware of E.B. White’s warning that dissecting a piece of humor has the same effect as dissecting a frog—the thing “dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Nevertheless, I was an English major, too, and can’t help myself.
McManus himself is little help. He seems generally bemused by the activity and will likely change the subject when pressed.
For example, in his Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor, upon being asked for some philosophical musing on humor, McManus parries with long-honed skill.
“Think what a fine thing it is that only we humans can laugh,” he writes. “Think how annoying it would be if your dog or cat could laugh. You step out of the shower and your cat bursts out laughing. For that very reason, God mercifully deprived animals of a sense of humor.”
So what makes THAT funny?
Frankly, I’m tempted, now that YOU’ve been diverted, just to let the subject drop.
But I’m an honorable man, so onward.
The “Deer on the Bicycle” story itself is classic McManus. The premise is simple. Young McManus goes off on his first deer hunt. His only transportation is his bicycle, with his rifle tied to his handlebars.
I cannot recount the whole story here without repeating the whole story, but suffice it to say that it involves the young hunter bagging his first deer, solving the transportation problem by tying it to his bicycle, and then feeling the hot breath of a not-really-dead deer on the back of his neck.
The resulting denouement is more than a little absurd. But McManus’s formula depends on his creation of a world of oddly named characters with generous and adventurous souls. Whatever the exact nature of that formula, it works very well. The “Deer on a Bicycle,” for example, first appeared in Field and Stream as “My First Deer, and Welcome to It,” was collected in They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?, picked up by Reader’s Digest, and finally anthologized several times. It is also a cornerstone of his plays, performed by actor Tim Behrens.
McManus and I are having lunch one day at the Globe restaurant in Spokane. He is in the midst of telling me another story (“Have I told you this one?” is probably his most repeated line) when the waitress approaches the table to inquire about his half-finished meal.
“Would you like me to put that in a box for you?” she asks.
“Yes, please,” says McManus, delighted by the offer. “My wife hasn’t eaten in a couple of days.”
So the waitress asks what kind of salad dressing his wife would like.
In spite of his one-liners, McManus as an author is not a joke-teller. He’s a storyteller. His most engaging—and funny—stories are based on an intricate mythology. That mythology is, curiously, rather Norman Rockwell-ish, perhaps real, perhaps not, depending on who tells it.
The other Norman in McManus’s life, the little fat kid, points out that “Unfortunately, there’s some truth to everything he says. I hate to admit it.”
In fact, Nelson says Pat calls him occasionally to confirm a childhood story.
“My friend Norm is totally unreliable!” writes McManus in an email.
Regardless, they both tell me a remarkably consistent story about hiking with two other friends into Harrison Lake, up the Pack River. At the time there was no easy trail into it and required a very steep climb.
Shod in tennis shoes, the boys were otherwise outfitted from Grogan’s War Surplus and hauling in canned goods, eggs, a side of bacon, the standard camping fare of the era.
This being the Idaho mountains, it started snowing. Fortunately, they found an old trapper’s cabin. After righting a rusty stove and evicting a dead porcupine, they built a fire and holed up for… Here the details diverge. A blizzard raged for three days in McManus’s version. The snow melted the next day in Nelson’s.
However, memories converge again as the other two boys head off to find the lake, leaving Nelson alone at the cabin with McManus. That was always scary, says Nelson.
McManus found a sheet of rusty metal and decided he’d bake biscuits on top of the stove. An hour or two later, he decided they must be done.
For some reason, they were quite hard. In fact (and both agree on this), Pat offered Norm a biscuit, then offered to split it with his hatchet. Or it may have been his war surplus machete. Regardless, the lethality of the flying biscuit is where versions diverge again.
“As far back as I can remember, I have always seen funny,” McManus writes. “What may horrify normal people may strike me as hilarious.”
Nelson readily concurs. “His memory and my memory… what sounded funny, I wasn’t laughing at the time.”
“I certainly don’t see the human situation—pain, disease, old age, death, TV talk shows—as comic, or particularly tragic either,” writes McManus. “Maybe it’s that absurdity is the deeper reality of human life, and some of us are born with absurdity detectors, a kind of X-ray vision, a power to see beyond meaning and into lack thereof. I like that. Just thought it up, too.”
After 40-some years of writing humor for Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, McManus has turned to the novel.
Simon and Schuster has published four of his Bo Tully mysteries. Tully is the sheriff of Blight County, Idaho. He is gallant, handsome, and the heartthrob of every woman he encounters. He also dreams of giving up sheriff-ing to paint full time.
So if much of his earlier work is based on his childhood, is he now Bo Tully?
“I’m Pap,” he says, referring to Bo’s irascible father, who was previously the sheriff of Blight County. Pap and the author are the same age. “So I’d know where he was at various ages.”
The novel is much different from writing the short humor of his earlier career.“Humor has no reason for its existence except to be funny.” The novel gives continuity day to day.
But the fifth in the series is now languishing on his agent’s desk. Simon and Schuster was recently bought by another company, and the new management decided to drop its mystery division. In favor of more fiction.
“I thought mystery was fiction,” says McManus.
“Writing is harder than it used to be,” he says. “I’ve used up all my experiences.” I’m not sure whether he’s joking or not.
I tell him a story about my first night camping by myself in the woods. In the middle of the night, I heard something rustling in the brush. So did my dog Tip, who took off after what surely must have been a bear, though maybe a raccoon, taking with him the tent pole he was attached to. I spent the rest of that very long night cowering under the collapsed tent until it became light enough I could dash the quarter mile to the house and safety.
“That’s good,” says McManus.
You can use it if you like, I offer.
He nods. “Have I told you this one…?”
A group of old fishing buddies is driving along a high mountain road. Suddenly, they are nearly flattened by a logging truck. Whoa, that was close, they say.
After a long stunned silence, one asks, did you hear that Archie died? They all nod solemnly and are quiet for a while. But finally they get to the river and the best fishing they’ve ever had in their lives.
The fish rise to every cast. The branches are perfectly positioned to hang their hats. The fire starts immediately, and the steaks are superb. Great cigars and a bottle of Scotch appear out of nowhere.
They are having a wonderful time. What a great spot, they agree.
But, one says, there’s just one problem.
And what’s that?
Here comes Archie.
It is with sad news that we must report that Patrick McManus has passed away. Read his obituary in The Spokesman-Review.
On the web
Patrick McManus’s website (via the Internet Wayback Machine)