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Nelson Bryant – the true American Sportsman

By Barry Stringfellow

I was a new reporter at the MV Times in 2014 when I pitched a story for Veteran’s Day — to ask Vineyard vets from different wars what it was like to return to this bucolic Island after surviving the life-and-death chaos of combat. 

I asked my editor, Nelson Sigelman, if he knew any World War II vets who might talk to me. He casually suggested I call Nelson Bryant.

I was stunned.

I’d discovered Nelson Bryant 30-plus years ago, when I was a college student and new subscriber to the New York Times. He’d transported me all over the world with his lyrical prose, dry wit and encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna. His column was ostensibly about the outdoors but it was always underpinned with observations on the human condition. He also wrote with remarkable candor about himself.

I’d spent most of my adult life in California and had no idea this legendary outdoorsman, described in his New York Times obituary as “the dean of outdoor writers in America,” was not only alive and well, but in the Island Book.

When I called, a kind, gentle voice answered, not the gravelly baritone I associated with the pictures I’d seen of him over the years.

I nervously explained who I was and why I was calling. He invited me to his home the next day. When he gave me directions to his place on West Tisbury Road, he said there was a sign with a striped bass nailed on it. “Not a real one,” he said, with a dollop of irony.

We sat at his dining room table for hours. He’d occasionally put a small pinch of dip in his lower lip, a replacement for the pipe that I’d seen in pictures of him over the years. 

He was 90 years old at the time. He’d just finished writing his memoirs and he was looking for a publisher. He said he wanted it to be “brutally honest,” and his partner, Ruth Kirchmeier, said he’d definitely achieved his goal.

Nelson and Ruth had palpable simpatico.

After I turned on my recorder, Nelson dispassionately recalled his war exploits.

He recounted the night before D-Day, when fellow Islander Ted Morgan wished him luck on his first combat jump. He recalled falling asleep on the flight to France. He recalled descending into France “the lazy arcs of tracer bullets curving up at me, then hurtling past.”

He recalled the anguished shouts of fellow paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne who’d ended up tangled in trees, wounded or worse. He recalled getting shot, laying on the ground in a morphine haze, watching ants crawling in the blood that was draining from his chest, while the fallen soldier next to him cried for help, then died. He recalled his commander telling him he had a choice — get moving or get captured. He recalled convalescing in hedgerows for several days, before getting to a hospital in Wales where he stayed until he heard his regiment was jumping into Holland, then hitching his way back to their base in Nottingham.

He recalled getting wounded again, this time in the Battle of the Bulge. “First, my canteen was shot to shreds. Then, my M-1 rifle was shot out of my hands. Then, two of us were crawling through the snow, and I saw a puff of snow on my left, then another on my right, then I feel bang! I got hit in my right ass. I remember thinking of the ignominy of being shot in the ass,” he said, grinning.

He recalled returning to the Vineyard in November, 1945 and being met at the Vineyard Haven terminal by his parents and his younger brother. Before he settled into Island life, Nelson went to Boston to see the mother of a close friend who had died beside him after being shot by a sniper. He went to assure her that her son didn’t suffer.

“Battle fatigue” stayed with him. He recalled going out on a date, not long after he got home, on a cold windy night in Edgartown, when a metal sign above squeaked, sounding like the dreaded German 88 artillery shell, and he flung himself to the sidewalk. “It was absolutely instinctive,” he said. “For a long time, sudden noises did me in. I hated the 4th of July. Still do. And I don’t like planes overhead.”

After I turned off my recorder he showed me his extensive vegetable garden. He showed me the pulley system he’d rigged in a tree that he used for butchering deer. He said he loved to butcher deer and always ate a chunk of raw venison while he did it.

He was looking forward to hunting deer during muzzle-loading season.

Nelson in his yard, with a shotgun that felled many deer over many years.

When he hunted and fished, he only took what he could eat. 

“I feel just as bad about cutting down a sturdy tree as I do about shooting a rabbit. They’re both alive,” he said.

He recalled how his family moved here in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression. He became friends with Beanie Alley, who showed him how to fish and hunt on the shores and fields of the Vineyard. Hunting and fishing wasn’t just recreation, it was to put food on the table. Times were hard but he glowed at the memories.

I saw Nelson several more times after that day. He and Ruth were always gracious with their time. The last time I saw him, he showed me a knife that he’d lost parachuting into Holland, which had been unearthed in a field and personally returned to him in West Tisbury by the Dutchman who’d found it.

I asked him about his storied New York Times career, which started when cold called the newspaper and got a three column audition. He went on to become one of the most prolific and well-known outdoors writers ever to appear in newsprint. From 1967 to 2005, he estimates he wrote about 6,000 columns.

I asked how he kept his notes dry when he was in the field.  On several outdoor assignments, water from the sea and from the sky had reduced my notes to an abstract watercolor.

He said he didn’t take notes, at least on paper. He committed the details to memory and wrote furiously when he got to wherever he was hanging his hat, then called in his copy over the phone. 

Last year, I wrote an article for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about Cooper Gilkes, the eminence gris of Island outdoorsmen.  Like Nelson, Coop is a study in Yankee reserve and humility. When I asked him about Nelson Bryant, he lit up like a lottery winner.

“Nelson Bryant is my hero,” he said. “He’s taught me more about fishing and hunting and life, than anyone I’ve ever known. There will never be another one like him.”