Always Entertaining

Remembering Dave Foster.
by James R. Babb
from the August 2008 issue

After four decades of observing life in enlightened New England, I’ve found two concepts Yankees don’t understand: gravy and funerals. I can’t bring myself to think about Yankee gravy, but Yankee funerals are grim, dour, and unpleasant. Of course Southern funerals also have their tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, but when the preacher finally says Amen, out come the ham and turnip greens and hilarious stories about the dearly departed. It is with laughter that Southerners memorialize the dead.

Most of you know by now that David C. Foster, Gray’s editor-in-chief for 15 of its 33 years, passed away in April after a three-year battle with renal cell carcinoma. And so given the subtitle of this piece it’s natural to suspect me of edging toward a eulogy here, except that when David hired me as editor of this magazine 11 years ago this month, he told me there were two things he didn’t like to see in Gray’s: dog stories, and eulogies. And so of course he wrote countless dog stories and eulogies—often both in the same column.

David Foster and his beloved Savannah. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Dave was nothing if not contradictory—courtly and rude, dignified and profane, cautious and reckless, thoughtful and impulsive, callous and sentimental, endearing and infuriating. If he were a cartoon character, he’d have been Foghorn Leghorn. “I just have a natural tendency to strut,” Dave wrote in more than one of his columns. Some readers loved this cockiness and some didn’t, but Dave enjoyed annoying people almost as much as he enjoyed making them happy. What he wanted was a reaction.

One column he wrote got more negative reaction than anything I’ve seen in the 13 years I’ve been at Gray’s. Dave said he’d gotten bored shooting birds—“bird flushes, gun goes boom, pick up bird and do it again”—and he was looking for more of a challenge, and so “about two years ago I decided I’d shoot upland birds only with a .410. One hand with a .410. With that kind of handicap, dropping a bounding wild quail or hitting a double on the target range is more than a hoot, and so is the little bit of intimidation it gives your fellow hunters (I’m nothing if not a showoff).”  

He was that.

I remember driving across the Colorado Rockies with Dave and Ben Estes. We’d been fishing over on the Roaring Fork and Gianetti Spring Creek near Carbondale and were headed back to the Denver Airport and home. It being the height of foliage season, and us not being in a particular hurry, we drove Highway 82 through Independence Pass between Aspen and Leadville, the second-highest paved-road mountain pass in Colorado.

It was a breathtakingly scenic ride, with an early snowfall just beginning to frost the golden aspens, and equally breathtaking because Dave, who was driving, spent half the trip turned around talking to me in the back seat, puffing that ever-present pipe of Captain Black and punctuating every point with a semaphore of hand gestures while I nervously eyed the valley floor several thousand feet below. As he told me what he expected of an angling columnist—“say what you think, and don’t worry about the advertisers”—I never took my hand off the uphill door handle. And he never stopped looking back to see if I’d wet myself yet. He was a man who truly enjoyed the discomfiture of others, as long as they weren’t in any real danger.

One cold spring day Dave and our art director, Wayne Knight, laid out of work and went fishing on the Savannah River. “We were in the rapids,” Wayne said, “with the water running fast and higher than usual, the bottom hard to see, and I was inching my way along when my foot slipped off a rock. I went under, my waders filled with freezing water, and with the current I couldn’t get up. Then I felt a hand grab me by the back of the waders; Dave pulled me out, gasping for air, and he said without looking at me, ‘Water cold enough for you?’ And he went right back to casting.”

Dave’s management philosophy was to ride you unmercifully until he figured out whether you knew what you were doing, and then he’d leave you alone to do it. He figured these things out afield as much as in the office, in a meandering, often unfathomable fashion. Shortly after Terry Wieland became Shooting Editor in 1993, Dave brought him down to Augusta, gave him the office tour, and then towed him off to a favorite farm pond. Terry wanted to talk about the details of his Gray’s column. As Terry tells it, David pointed out a log in the pond:

“‘Toughest crappie I ever caught, right off that log. Not the biggest, but the toughest.’

“‘Hmm’, I said. Since all fish look alike to me, it didn’t mean much.  ‘So, David, about the shooting column . . .’

“‘And over there? I was in my float tube one day,’ he said, in his unmistakable voice. ‘Big water moccasin came over to check me out. Afraid he’d hit the tube instead of me, and I’d go down with it . . .’

“‘Hmm,’ I said, looking around for water moccasins. ‘So, about the shooting column . . .’

“‘I’ve stood on this bank and caught all kinds of stuff,’ he said.  ‘Turtles.  Snakes. I come fishing, but I usually go back with something else. About the column? Tell it straight and let me worry about the heat.’

David didn’t mind a little heat. He even encouraged it, as his one-handed shooting column perfectly illustrates. And he was never shy about heating it up in public, either. Paul Fersen, another Georgia good old boy who now lives in Vermont and works for Orvis, tells about the time he and David were dining in one of Denver’s most respected Japanese restaurants, one of those places “where the shoes come off and the Japanese waitresses are gracious and proper and beautiful in their traditional dress. The conversation turned to the Gray’s television series and in particular the episode of turkey hunting at Wade Plantation. Dave began to expound on his personal turkey tactics. He was particularly proud that he needed to carry so few calls because he’d perfected a number of mouth-made locator calls. He then proceeded to demonstrate his barred owl monkey hoot at full volume. The entire restaurant froze, the waitresses were stunned, and the sushi chef almost amputated his fingers, but Dave finished and then continued the conversation without changing tempo.”

As I said, he was a contradictory man. Our managing editor, Russ Lumpkin, wrote that “Dave’s complex nature had two primary layers: a prideful, often profane intellect covering a great deal of human tenderness. Most often I saw only the first, occasionally saw the other, and very rarely saw both at the same time. When the two manifested themselves simultaneously, something memorable always happened. One time we were returning home from bird hunting, and he mentioned a position opening up at one of our sister publications, Alaska magazine, that he thought might interest me. ‘Well, are you happy with the job I’m doing at Gray’s?’ I asked. He turned to me, whipped off his glasses, and said, ‘Read between the f***ing lines, Russ. I wouldn’t ask you to go hunting with me if I was unhappy with your work. I f***ing love you. Jesus God. Jesus God. Read between the f***ing lines.’ He’s the only person who ever made me feel good while cussing me out.”

Before I stumbled into editing books back in 1987, I’d done a tour in the navy, worked as a commercial fisherman and a long-haul truck driver, and thought I knew a thing or two about profanity. But I couldn’t begin to touch Foster’s ability to burn it up blue when the mood struck him. David was a fountainhead of divers knowledge, from the profane to the arcane, and, as his long-running and award-winning history column in the Augusta magazine proved time and again, he was a far-from-amateur historian.

Roger Pinckney, a frequent Gray’s contributor and the sage of Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, said that “some months ago, I was working up a new book, The World According to Deer, and e-mailed Dave about the volume of skins shipped down the Savannah River in 1720, the peak of the Colonial Indian trade. He got the answer back to me in about 15 minutes. I know of no other man who could have come up with this so quickly. And that’s why I asked him.”

He wasn’t always right, of course, but that didn’t stop him from offering an opinion. You could usually tell when he was on shaky ground, because he’d preface his lead sentence with, “a lot of people don’t know that . . .” Whenever he sent me his photo-essay copy for editing and I’d see that phrase, I knew I had some fact-checking to do.

An example: “A lot of folks don’t know that Walt Disney got the idea to write Bambi from watching the red deer of the Andes mountains in Argentina.”

I called him up and said, “Dave, an Austrian writer called Siegmund Salzmann, whose pen name was Felix Salten, wrote Bambi in 1923, and Bambi was a roe deer, not a red deer, and Salten got the idea in Italy, not in Argentina, and in the movie Bambi was a Maine whitetail, because the animator who brought Salten’s book to Disney, Maurice Day, was from Damariscotta, Maine, which was where the world premiere was supposed to have been except the state of Maine objected because it might discourage the deer-hunting tourist trade, and E. B. White wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the Maine woods being full of Bambi sketch artists, though some information suggests that Disney got some of his inspiration for the grander wide scenes from a visit to the Argentine mountains in 1941, though by then I think much of the animation work for its 1942 release had already been finalized, and besides—”

“Damn, Babb. How you know all this shit?”

“I went to the library and looked it up.”

“Must be why I hired your mouthy ass.”

But David was a dogged researcher when the subjected interested him. Usually, the research interested him more than the writing. In his long-running blog about his battle with cancer, he wrote, “Today, I am supposed to finish a Gray’s piece on Shoal Bass in Georgia’s Flint River. Going down for the research (here, fishy fishy) was a ton of fun. Writing about it? Well, if I didn’t have a mean old editor, I could just skip that part; each day passes with me ‘meaning’ to write it. So the mean old editor [that would be me] calls up a few minutes ago and asks if I still wanted to go to South Dakota for pheasants on the company’s money. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Well then, send me that shoal bass piece. Today!’”

David could be a mean old editor when he wanted to be. Sometimes he’d forget who was editing a piece and who was writing it. “That’s not how I’d have written that,” he told Charley Waterman one time. Charley, the undisputed dean of outdoors writers and an original from Gray’s earliest days, said, “that’s because you didn’t write it, dammit. I did.” David said he never backed down from an untenable position so fast in his life, and it was one of his favorite stories to tell on himself.

His instincts for a story and his insistence on getting it right made him a helpful editor, too. E. Donnall Thomas wrote that he received his “first acceptance letter from Gray’s in 1991. Shortly thereafter I received a surprise call from David himself asking to schedule an evening to review the manuscript. Our telephone editing session began with David announcing he was going to have to pour himself another Scotch. Three hours later, the bottle and my ego were both hurting, but I finally had a real idea what it took to write for Gray’s. And I never forgot the lesson.”

David was a proud man, proud of his accomplishments, his children, and especially proud of Gray’s Sporting Journal. Sometimes to a fault. One time we were up in Montana and stopped in at a fly shop for licenses and some local knowledge. Dave spied a half-dozen copies of last month’s Gray’s on the magazine rack and began flamboyantly autographing them, one by one. The owner rushed over and yelled, “What the hell’re you doing?” Dave said, “I’m the editor-in-chief of Gray’s, and I’m signing these magazines for your customers.” As Dave strutted out the door, puffing his pipe, the shop-owner, stunned, turned to me and said, “How the hell am I supposed to return these now?” I handed him my credit card and buried six copies of GSJ under “miscellaneous office expenses.”

Bill Klyn from Patagonia told me about doing a TRCP Media Event in Montana a few years ago. “David was paired with another individual possessing a good deal of self-esteem, John Randolph, the long-time editor of Fly Fisherman. Guiding them was an avid Fly Fisherman reader, ecstatic at having his hero for a client. Placing John in the prime spot in the bow, the guide began a morning-long campaign of ensuring John caught his share of the Missouri’s famous football-sized rainbows, while David was exiled to Siberia in the stern. His circuits finally overloaded when they stopped for lunch and his guide jumped out and enthusiastically invited every drift boat in sight to come meet the incredible celebrity he had in his boat. When our boat beached, I thought a new pope had been elected in Cascade County, Montana, as a column of white smoke flowed from David’s pipe. As introductions were made, our forgotten friend held out his hand in a charming Southern handshake, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Chopped Liver.’”

“A few weeks before that,” Klyn continued, “David was bragging that he’d been teaching some ladies to shoot, trying to impress them with a display of his infamous one-handed shooting. With his newly installed chemo pump at his right side, he explained the importance of focus and follow through, then gracefully lifted the shotgun one-handed to his shoulder, fired at a clay bird, and set off the pump, spewing blood all over his shirt. ‘Pardon me ladies; got a little matter to attend to.’ David said it was the first time he’d been embarrassed in many years.” But he never let minor inconveniences like embarrassment or cancer slow him down.

David fished and hunted just about everywhere you could imagine, but his favorite place was Georgia’s Wade Plan-tation, about which he harbored both proprietary and protective feelings. Paul Fersen and Dave were down there for the annual quail hunt, had arrived early, and were going for a pre-hunt ride through the swamp. “Dave had a chemo pump on one hip and a revolver on the other. Dave is a lover of bobwhite quail and therefore the archenemy of egg-eating armadillos, and when we came upon two of them cavorting on the road Dave got out, strode toward them like Wyatt Earp, drew, and killed one. This enraged the other, which turned and charged like a miniature rhinoceros. David coolly stood his ground as it ran between his legs, then he turned and fired, thus ensuring the future of Wade’s quail. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”

One of the funniest things I ever saw was Dave chasing Savannah, Dave’s famous Drahthaar and the dumbest dog I ever knew, across Clark’s Hill Reservoir in a commandeered aluminum skiff with one paddle and one oar. We were at Ben Estes’s house having dinner—Dave, Ben, Dave’s wife, Sherry, his daughter Alex, and Savannah. Savannah was trying to help us fillet bluegills, and when we didn’t want her help she wandered off to the lake. Soon we heard barking, a splash, and saw her chasing two fluffy white ducks of the picnic-panhandler breed out into open water, dodging Jet Skis and bass boats and baying like a Plott with a coon up a tree. And then she began rather dramatically drowning. Dave got to her just as she was going down for the count, leaving a contrail of pipe smoke behind him like a steamboat pushing up the Mississippi.

We could go on and on with funny Foster stories, and at the funeral I hear that’s pretty much what happened, but sooner or later you have to come to the end of everything, and you always want to save your best story for last.

Dave’s infamous column about one-handed shooting came out not long before the SHOT show, an annual gathering of most of the world’s gun manufacturers, gun nuts, and gun writers. The vitriol from this hard-core crowd about Foster and his alleged shooting skills made the angry Gray’s readers sound positively lovelorn, but Dave never said a word; just walked around with his boys—me, Terry Wieland, and our new General Manager, Steve Walburn, meeting, greeting, shaking hands.

Finally, at “range day,” Dave and Steve inevitably gravitated toward a skeet range. “You wanna shoot, don’t you?” Dave asked. Steve didn’t, because he figured he knew where this was heading. But of course Steve said, “Sure. Let’s shoot.”

Steve writes, “Dave walked onto the shooting platform and asked the guy pulling clays, ‘You don’t mind if I shoot one-handed, do you?’

“‘Uh, I guess it’s okay,’ the puller said, and handed him a brand-new 20-gauge.

“Dave tamped out his pipe, stuck it in his back pocket, and jacked in some shells. With the shotgun cradled in one arm against his ribs and looking like The Rifleman, Chuck Conners, with a bellyache, Dave proceeded to powder eight out of ten clays thrown from three different directions in a howling wind. I was stunned, and next in line.

“When the puller handed me the shotgun, I asked him, ‘You don’t mind if I use two hands, do you?’

“‘Yeah,’ he said, shaking his head.

‘I don’t know what the hell that was all about.’

“It was just about Dave being Dave. Shooting from the hip and pushing the limits in everything he did, whether that was writing, business, or pleasure. Like everyone, Dave had his flaws, and indulging in an occasional boast was one of them. He was often right, sometimes wrong, but always, always entertaining. And as the old saying goes: ‘It ain’t braggin’ if you can actually do it.’”

The Gray’s Sporting Journal Web site is hosting a video memorial to David Foster. To view it, go here.


James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from 

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