Patrick McManus, the bestselling author of such hilarious books as A Fine and Pleasant Misery and Never Sniff a Gift Fish, now offers readers solid thoughts on the qualities that define leadership, beginning with the need to be tall, and much more, in this outrageous collection of short pieces that reveals his tortuous trip along the writer's path.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)|
About the Author
Patrick F. McManus (1933-2018) is the author of novels, plays, and more than a dozen collections of his humor columns from Outdoor Life and other magazines. There are nearly two million copies of his book in print, including his bestselling The Shoot Canoes, Don't They?; The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw; and A Fine and Pleasant Misery.
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How I Got This Way
By Patrick F. McManus, Andy Myer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1994 Patrick F. McManus
All rights reserved.
How I Got This Way, Part I
A FEW YEARS ago, my friend Dave Lisaius and I were in my pickup camper, waiting out a storm high up in the Idaho Rockies. Dave sprawled on the cab-over bed while I prepared lunch. The conversation turned to hospitals, possibly because I was preparing lunch, and I remarked that I hadn't been hospitalized since I was five years old.
"How come you were in the hospital then?" Dave asked, careful to conceal behind a yawn his fascination with this intriguing bit of McManus lore.
"Oh, I fell out of a moving bus and landed on my head," I explained.
Dave laughed so hard he almost fell off the bed and landed on his head. Eventually, his paroxysm of mirth subsided to a few spasmodic shrieks and howls.
"I didn't think breaking my head was that funny," I said, still puzzled by Dave's unseemly outburst.
"Oh, it isn't!" he choked out, mopping up tears with his shirtsleeve. "But it explains so much!"
Dave at the time was a bank president but otherwise fairly decent, often enjoying extended periods of lucidity. Had I evoked this mirthful reaction only from Dave, I would have thought nothing of it. He is not exactly the epitome of normality himself. The problem was, I had provoked similar responses from other individuals on countless occasions. Melba Peachbottom, the prettiest girl in our high school, had almost burst a gut when I casually asked her out on a date. "You're so funny!" she cried. When I turned out for baseball, the coach laughed himself sick. "Stop! Please! No more jokes, McManus!" Sometimes in a restaurant I will glance up and notice a pretty woman across the room smiling at me in obvious bemusement. All I'm doing is drinking a glass of water. Suavely. I smile back and dribble water down my tie. The woman laughs and returns to her salad. I've never been much good at flirtation.
Just this morning I rushed onto a plane at the Minneapolis airport. My boarding pass indicated my seat was 17F. The rows of seats stopped at 16. It's fortunate that they did. Otherwise, I would have ended up in Baltimore instead of Spokane, my intended destination. No doubt a flight attendant would have announced that the plane was headed for Baltimore, but I never listen to those announcements. They get on my nerves. It's possible that the flight attendants would have noticed they had one more passenger for Baltimore than they were supposed to have, but that assumes some guy bound for Baltimore didn't absentmindedly get on the plane for Spokane — such a coincidence is commonplace in my life. Therefore each plane would have had the proper number of passengers, and I would have ended up walking around an airport parking garage in Baltimore looking for my car and eventually reporting it as stolen. "We've located your car, sir," the police would say. "The thieves left it at an airport garage in Spokane."
I have a lot of trouble finding my car. A few weeks ago, I came out of our local library and checked every space in the parking lot, my standard ritual, and my car wasn't in any of them. Just as I was about to report it as stolen, I remembered that I had walked to the library, not driven. My wife, Bun, doesn't like me to go out alone anymore.
Once, I returned home from work, hung up my coat, dropped my briefcase on the floor, and walked into the kitchen. Bun was at the stove cooking supper. She seemed different. "You're home early," she said, without looking up. She sounded different, too. Oddly, she appeared much taller than she had that morning. Then she turned around. There was a strange woman in my house cooking supper! We went through the usual leaping and yelling and feinting at each other that occurs on such occasions, until at last recognition dawned, she being the wife and mother of the family to whom I had sold our house the previous month. It was an exhilarating and memorable experience for both of us, and I know it considerably enriched the lady's conversational repertoire of humorous anecdotes, because I heard the story repeated around town for some years afterwards. It's that sort of thing that can easily give rise to a mistaken impression in a person's community that he possesses certain peculiarities. No one seemed to believe that the fault lay with my car, which, forgetting we had moved, returned to the same old garage it had been using for the previous five years and deposited me at a house that was no longer mine. Stupid car!
During a hunting trip in the wintry mountains of Idaho, I injured my leg in a fall through a tangle of fallen trees. It soon became apparent that I wouldn't be able to make it to the rendezvous with my hunting companions, so I did the only sensible thing. I built a lean-to and a fire and prepared to spend the night out. Every year people die in the woods, because they don't have enough sense to follow this practice. I was perfectly safe and comfortable and enjoying the experience, except for the occasional sounds of Sasquatches passing by. About two o'clock in the morning, I was found by a search-and-rescue team out of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Local weekly newspaper headline: LOST PAT MCMANUS SAVED BY SEARCHERS, FAKES LEG INJURY. That headline could just as easily have read, SERIOUSLY INJURED PAT MCMANUS, USING EXPERT WOODSMAN SKILLS, SAVES OWN LIFE AGAINST IMPOSSIBLE ODDS. But no, the headline writer had to contribute to the legend of Pat McManus as inept person, lost person, absentminded person. Once one becomes a legend, it is impossible to outlive it. I have always wanted to become a legend, but this isn't the one.
People are always rushing to my aid when I'm not in trouble. They seem to relish rescuing me. If you were to believe the stories, I have been rescued by approximately 5,000 people. Once I was standing at a candy vending machine with nothing more on my mind than trying to choose between a Milky Way and a Snickers. A woman I scarcely knew came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "I don't know what's troubling you," she said, "but it can't be that bad, dear. Sometimes problems can just seem overwhelming. Let's go have a cup of coffee and talk about it." What could I do, tell her my only problem was choosing between a Milky Way and a Snickers? I went and had coffee with her and made up a cock-and-bull story about an identity crisis or some such thing. After we had talked, she said, "Don't you feel better now?" I said yes, and I did, too, because I had made up my mind. I'd go for the Snickers.
What got me to thinking about all this was Dave Lisaius's comment about my falling on my head at age five: "It explains so much!" I decided the time had come to reveal how I got this way.
Falling on my head had nothing to do with it, but here's what happened anyway. My family and I were transferring between trains on different sides of a city. The railroad bus that transported us had a door at each row of seats, for what reason I don't know, unless for instant evacuation of all passengers in case of a calamity. As the bus sped on its way, I began exploring the mechanism of the door handle. Through no fault of my own — even our lawyers said so — the door popped open and shot me into empty space. To this day I can remember the exhilaration of that first flight, even though it lasted but a second. I didn't land on my head right away, choosing to put that off until the second or third bounce, an early indication of my inherent good sense. By the time I stopped bouncing, I had pretty well concluded that tinkering with the door mechanism hadn't been such a good idea, as various parts of my anatomy seemed to have undergone major rearrangement. The worst was yet to come, however.
Although the visits to doctors and clinics and hospitals continued for several years, the worst part was my imprisonment in a hospital. Within a couple of days, I was up and around, much to the consternation of the nurses, who were of the opinion that some of my essential parts might fall off. The nurses raised a big fuss, apparently for the purpose of impressing upon me that I was supposed to stay in bed instead of fiddling with the mechanism that opened the window above a parking lot five stories down. After being subjected to a frightening display of hysteria by the nurses, I decided it was better to stay in bed, rather than put up with their ranting and raving and screeching. My only entertainment was a little man who marched around inside my head beating a drum, and that quickly palled. Endless waves of boredom washed over me for hours, days, and weeks, with no land in sight. I began to make up little stories, often about nurses being eaten by monsters, one of my favorite plots. The nurses must have liked me, though, because when the day finally came for me to leave the hospital, a group of them gathered around laughing and smiling and applauding my departure. Several even leaped in the air and clicked their heels, which I thought a bit excessive but appreciated anyway.
My father died when I was six years old, leaving my mother as the sole support of our family, which then consisted of Mom, my grandmother, my sister, Patricia "The Troll," and me, now the lone male in a family of women. Mom earned our livelihood by teaching school, an occupation that at the time absolutely forbid its practitioners to smoke, drink, or gamble, none of which my mother did to excess. Well, at least she never drank to excess or even much at all. Two out of three ain't bad.
In addition to her teaching, Mom also farmed. She pretty much single-handedly built a large farmhouse, then cleared the land, and raised wheat and chickens. I think that may have been why she gambled and smoked so much, to take her mind off farming. All by itself, you would think farming might have satisfied her appetite for gambling. It didn't. Then there was her other hobby: smoking. Besides helping to relieve stress, cigarettes at the time were considered particularly good for the heart and lungs. And they were. Without sucking in great deep draughts of smoke and tar and nicotine, most folks wouldn't have got any aerobic benefits at all. A good coughing fit served as a workout. Dedicated smokers could work up a good sweat just from coughing. When they got done with a coughing fit, they relaxed with a cigarette. Smokers didn't worry about getting killed by cigarettes in those days, mostly because they figured something else would get them first. Usually it did. As Mom used to say, something's always stalking you.
I doubt most of the people in our little logging community thought much about death or were even terribly concerned about it. Dying was fairly common among members of our family, and our friends and neighbors did a fair amount of it, too. I don't mean to imply that dying ranked high on anyone's list of favorite activities. But when Death knocked, the person went along with it as best he could, and tried not to raise too much fuss. Death didn't have quite the bad reputation it does now, probably because people were more familiar with it, as if it were some eccentric character in the neighborhood who made a pest of himself: "Oh, for gosh sakes, weird old Mort is knocking on the door again. I wonder who he wants this time?"
I should point out, by the way, that I'm not writing about death merely for the purpose of depressing the reader, nor to get one to stop smoking, cut down on cholesterol, wear a seat belt, take out a membership in a health club, avoid late-night walks through the park, nor jog five miles before work every morning. It seems that if you even mention the word "death" today, your listeners immediately burst into a frenzy of healthful activity. No, my only purpose here is to set in perspective a way of life in a distant time and place that may seem to the modern reader to be crude and harsh and uncivilized, but which in truth was a way of life that was, well, crude and harsh and uncivilized. It explains to some degree how I got this way.
Our lives in those years alternated between famine and famine with an occasional feast as a surprise. Mom taught mostly in little one-room schools scattered throughout the mountains of Idaho. The Great Depression was still under way, and a great many people had retreated into the mountains for its duration. They built little cabins, cut their own firewood, grew big gardens, and harvested fish and game from the streams and forests. They got their light from kerosene lanterns, their water from the creek, and their entertainment from wherever they could find it. It was not a bad life and required very little money, which was a good thing, because that's what most people had.
Mom got a job teaching in a little log-cabin school in a remote mountain valley near Priest Lake in the Panhandle of Idaho. It was there that I entered first grade. I learned to read in approximately one day, and from then on took an extended vacation from the tedium of school. While the other kids were hunched over their books, my mother cracking the whip of learning over their heads, I would wander outside, roam the woods, try to catch trout from the creek, and enjoyed a great sense of freedom. It was a nice way to spend first grade. Mom didn't seem to mind. During the long winters, I exhausted most of the books in the school, not one of which was particularly interesting but better than nothing. Mom spiced up each day by reading for fifteen minutes from books by Mark Twain, Jack London, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, and other of her favorite authors, thereby giving me a taste for actual literature. During my second grade at this same school, I again roamed far and wide while school was in session, returning to it only when I felt the risk of being subjected to education had sufficiently diminished for the day. Once again, Mom showed no disapproval of my freewheeling ways, and it began to appear that she and I shared the same theories regarding the proper schooling for a young boy. The next year, however, Mom got a job teaching in town, where I assumed I would attend third grade. "Nope," Mom told me. "Second grade." I was astonished and enraged. My own mother had flunked me! The reason for this act of maternal treason, as she wrote on my report card, was "Too many absences." Since we had lived right in the schoolroom, I eventually regarded my flunking second grade on the grounds of too many absences as being a major achievement, and I still do. Much later, as an adult, 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.
The following year we returned to live full time at our farm, where my mother attempted to achieve total self-reliance. She had no faith in the beneficence of government and would have grimly starved us all before accepting charity in any form. I for my part would gladly have voted for charity, but our family didn't operate under a democratic form of government. 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. Take chickens for instance.
Every year Mom and Gram and Troll took dozens of chicken lives there on the farm, committed these tiny murders and never even thought twice about it. Probably never even thought once about it. I myself was much too sensitive to participate in the callous slaughter of chickens and rabbits and the occasional hog or steer. In fact, when I was six, I was ridiculed at length by the women for crying over the death of a flower, a trillium I had found growing in the woods. The real reason for my tears, however, I never revealed to anyone. I figured it was better to stick with the trillium and not stretch my luck.
The winter of 1939, the year of first grade, was a particularly hard one, even for North Idaho, and we had been snowbound at the log- cabin school in the mountains for at least half a century, probably longer. Then, suddenly, in early April, chinook winds came up and almost overnight wiped out the snow. Soon bright green blades of grass shot up in the pools of sunshine scattered through the woods, pussy willows budded out along the banks of overflowing creeks, and robins drifted in to check out the new worm crop. Finding ourselves free from winter at last, my mother cranked up our cantankerous old Chevy sedan, and we set off for a wild spree in town. Ten miles or so down the road, the car stopped, possibly because the radiator boiled over or one of the tires had gone flat. I can't remember the exact cause, because I paid little attention to calamities not of my own making. We piled out. I saw right away that this was a problem Mom could solve, whatever it was. She shook a Camel cigarette out of her pack, tapped it on the back of her hand, lit up, and blew a cloud of smoke up into the blue spring sky. Seeing her smoke a cigarette during a predicament always had a calming effect on me. I knew whatever was wrong, she and her cigarette could fix it. Thusly comforted, I wandered off into the boggy woods to explore, and there I came upon the little white trillium. I gouged it up, bulb and all, and carried it back to the car.
Excerpted from How I Got This Way by Patrick F. McManus, Andy Myer. Copyright © 1994 Patrick F. McManus. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
How I Got This Way, Part I,
Ethics, and What to Do About Them,
The Big Woods,
There She Blows,
The Blue Dress,
The 400-Pound Pumpkin,
Letter from a Kingfisher,
The Ultimate Bull,
My Greatest Triumph,
Another Boring Day,
The Complete Curmudgeon,
The Liars Club,
A Couple Pickles Shy of a Full Barrel,
Excuse Me, While I Get Out of the Way,
The Two Masked Raiders,
My Hike with, ahem, the President,
Ed in Camp,
How I Got This Way, Part II,
BOOKS BY PATRICK F. MCMANUS,