Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Mentors
[Editor’s note: We know many of our readers enjoy JB’s articles. With his latest article, here’s a chance to get a little personal insight into our friend and columnist "JB" and how mentors have influenced his life.]
I was in diapers when my parents were divorced and 7 when my second step-dad passed away. I do remember my first step-dad a bit. The rest of my growing up, or at least the rest of my first 17 years, I lived with my siblings and my Mom most of the year and spent summers with my Dad.
Several men served as role models for me, and together they shaped who I am.
It was my first step-Dad who planted the fisherman seed in me. He was “Daddy Bev.” Bev was a disabled WWI Veteran. He had lied about his age and gone to France as an ambulance driver. Drove through a gas attack to get his patients to the aid station. The resulting severe asthma eventually killed him. He treated me as his own; took me fishing with him where I rode on his shoulders as he waded trout streams skillfully casting delicate flies. He often talked to me about how wonderful it is to be in the outdoors.
When I was about 4 I was tossing sand from a bucket into the pit where we burned our trash. I forgot to let go and ended up on my hands and knees in the fire pit. It was too deep for me to climb out and I was terribly burned. My little half brother, Don, ran to the house, screaming that Johnny fell in the fire. Daddy Bev, who was desperately ill, came running out in his pajamas, jumped into the fire and handed me out to my Mom. He died a few days later. I carry third degree burn scars on my knees and hero worship in my heart to this day.
My second step-Dad was an older man that believed that children should be seen (as rarely as possible) and not heard. I had no relationship with him at all. He passed away when I was about 7.
My Dad, with whom I spent Summers, was not a fisherman. He was a philosopher and a tinkerer. In his basement we built scale model sailing ships and a tiny, running, two cylinder engine. . .all from scratch. Well, I think we bought the spark plugs. Dad loved sailboats and anything mechanical. Cars. . .sports cars and racing cars. We went to the stock car races at Rupert Stadium in Newark, NJ every Friday night and haunted the import car dealerships to see all the latest models. We sailed our model sailboats on the pond in Memorial Park in Montclair, NJ.
I never saw my Dad angry, never heard him swear. He judged nobody. He knew a lot about anything and everything. I could get him to talk informatively for an hour on any subject with one well crafted question.
Jim Willis, “Uncle Jim”, was an ancient man who lived in a renovated chicken house behind our home in the country. He did chores for us to pay his “rent”. Uncle Jim had been born a slave, ran away to Venezuela to live with other runaways in the interior, sailed the world as a merchant seaman and finally settled In the NC Sandhills. He must have been in his late 80s when he lived with us, but I once saw him knock his mule to its knees with one punch. Jim took me fishing a lot when I was just beginning and taught me the fundamentals.. . and patience. He would spend hours telling me tales of his adventures and of the men he had known, great and otherwise. Jim lived to be 110, and plowed tobacco the day before he died. I think he was the wisest man I ever knew.
Major Magid (I don’t remember his first name) dated my Mom briefly during the war. I really liked him. He treated me and my siblings like real people, not just “kids”. One day when Uncle Jim and I were getting ready to go fishing he said how much he loved fishing so we asked him to join us. He shed his uniform blouse and shirt, shoes and socks, and walked down the sandy path with us barefoot. I don’t remember how well we did that day, but he returned years later with a hand-made, split bamboo fly rod that he had bought for me in Japan after the war. I treasured that fly rod and the example of remembering kindnesses.
Hugh Carter had been my Dad’s roommate at Princeton. He lived nearby. Hugh was the son of an English Nobleman but lived modestly. He lived in a nice, simple, cottage and drove a Chevy. He did indulge himself with fine drink (a tale for another day) and fine, very fine, guns. Hugh took me hunting a lot and taught me to wingshoot bobwhites with a custom made Purdey 28 ga. double that cost more than his house.
What great men took me under their wings when I was a boy! They introduced me to the pastimes I have enjoyed, and I think of them whenever I engage in those pastimes. Daddy Bev, Uncle Jim and Major Magid are with me when I fish; Hugh Carter when I hunt, My Dad when I mess with cars or machinery. Sometimes I think they are all with me when I sit at this computer.
Don’t miss the opportunity to be a mentor. It is a way to achieve immortality. My mentors certainly have.