The outdoor life: Writing became worldly adventure for Carmichel
Oct 7, 2012 at 4:09 AM
Whether hunting a job in New York City or hunting for his job on six continents, Jim Carmichel aimed high and shot straight.
Carmichel was the Johnson City Press-Chronicle outdoors writer when he flew to New York in 1971. He recalls making $5-10 per story during his time at the newspaper, but it helped get his career off the ground. Nick Atkins, the business manager, liked guns, and liked shooting the bull with Carmichel.
“One time he mentioned to me offhand, he says, ‘If you want to go anywhere — fly anywhere — let me know,’” Carmichel said during a recent four-hour visit at his Johnson City home. “He says, ‘We’ve been trading advertising with Piedmont Airlines and they’re getting the best end of the deal. So any trip’s free.’ And the first thing I said was, ‘Do they go to New York?’”
Before he knew it, Carmichel was touching down in the Big Apple, determined to land a job with a highly regarded magazine in an era when Outdoor Life, Field and Stream and Sports Afield were gold.
Perhaps he looked like a Southern-fried Midnight Cowboy, but before long he was skipping over the ocean like a stone.
“I’d never been to New York,” Carmichel said. “I took a cab and told the guy, ‘Take me downtown.’ I didn’t have a hotel reservation or anything, just had my portmanteau and myself. He let me out in the middle of town at Grand Central Station.”
Carmichel found a hotel, began calling around and soon had his future in his sights — sitting across a desk in the form of Outdoor Life editor Bill Ray. Carmichel knew rifle editor Jack O’Connor was getting up in years.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is the only shot I’m ever gonna get,’” Carmichel said. “So I went in and introduced myself and told him I was a pretty hot writer and that the gun writer he had was getting pretty old and wasn’t gonna last much longer, and he better be thinking about hiring me. Of course, I was completely unaware that the editor that I was talking to and the gun editor at that time were good friends.
“But anyway, I was that brazen. I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this. But this is my only shot, so I better take it.’ Much more brass than there should’ve been. And he gave me a pretty fishy-eyed stare. And … he must have said, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you.’”
But Ray did call before long, and so began a career that stretched nearly 40 years, until Carmichel retired in 2009. The boy who grew up around Johnson City when his Knob Creek Road home “was still in the country” went on African safaris and hunted along the Russian-Iranian border.
“It was part of my job,” Carmichel said. “I was expected to go hunting and kill something or have some kind of adventure — fall off a mountain or one thing or another — and write an adventure story or a hunting story about it.”
He can make your heart race recalling the kill of a charging lion.
“We were tracking lions … and we couldn’t get close enough and they just stopped,” Carmichel said. “We said, ‘Okay, it’s too far to shoot. We’ve got to get closer.’ And the lions thought, ‘Well, that’s close enough.’ And boy, he (the lion) was (angry). I mean, he had his head back and his ears laid back and his tail sticking out and he was serious. And that’s where it got interesting. That was a full-bore lion charge — (ticked) off and he was coming after me.
“That’s when you’re adrenaline switches into high gear. Surprisingly … it was one of those things sometimes that people have written about, athletes, I think, in sudden intense moments when it’s like everything’s in slow motion. You’re super aware, hyper aware of everything that’s going on about you, and it’s like you have all the time in the world to think about it. And I hit him with a good shot.’”
Carmichel’s safaris could last close to a month. Now, hunters can essentially be spoon-fed big game in controlled environments.
These days, hunters generally bait and wait. Carmichel preferred tracking, which involved far more risk.
After his first trip to Africa, Carmichel wanted to read Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” which he had read in middle school.
“I came back through Rio De Janeiro — I had a few days layover there — and I went to an English bookstore and got a copy … and it seemed so much different from what I had experienced,” Carmichel said. “The other inspiration was the old movie ‘King Solomon’s Mines.’ I saw that, them shooting elephants and all of that. Allen Quartermain was the name of the hero of the book. I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds pretty good. I’d like to go over and shoot some of those elephants myself.’”
Carmichel’s wife Linda, a retired ETSU English professor, is an excellent shot, according to Jim. He said she spent three weeks in Tanzania back when such an excursion wouldn’t have cost your life savings, and he describes the scene as though it happened last week.
“That’s one of those places where you go in and you set up a camp by a river,” he said, “and lions are roaring at night and elephants are trumpeting and hippos are in the waterhole and all of that.”
Equally exhilarating was hunting on the Russian-Iranian border in the late ‘70s.
“There’s three sheep on the wall upstairs that I killed in Iran,” Carmichel said. “Again, that was exciting. Who in the hell’s ever been to Iran — to hunt sheep of all damn things?
“That was in the ’70s when the Shah was still there. I had met the Shah’s brother, whose name was Abdul Reza-Pahlavi, and he was a big-time big-game hunter. I had met him at a big-game conference and we got to be pals and he invited me to come over. … That’s how I pulled that off. … I think I may have poached some in Russia.”
Shooting came easily for Carmichel, who was on ETSU (then ETSC) rifle teams from 1959-63.
“I was a farmboy — the farm was on Knob Creek Road — and there were always guns in a farmhouse,” he said. “They were there like a hammer or an ax or a tea kettle. But none of my family were competitive shooters. I took that up myself.”
One of Carmichel’s first gratifying wins came at Camp Perry in 1957, although he says it was a handicapped class. This past St. Patrick’s Day — fittingly in Dublin, Ga., at the Shamrock Shootout — Carmichel set a world record for bench-rest rifle shooting from 100 yards in the light-varmint classification. In the competition, the first bullet hole is the target for the remaining four shots of a grouping, and on Carmichel’s painstakingly validated record target, you can barely detect that the subsequent four bullets increased the size of the initial one’s hole.
“There are many different kinds of shooting,” Carmichel said. “The kind of shooting I did at Camp Perry, for example, took a lot of physical training — like the Olympic shooting. That’s pumping iron and running and staying in shape, because it’s an endurance thing. But in more recent years, I got into a more technical type of shooting, which doesn’t require the physical stamina. It’s more of a mind game, not that all shooting is not. But it … requires more technical and ballistic knowhow.”
A steady trigger finger and a feel for variables such as wind and heat, which alters the powder composition, are critical during the lengthy competitions. Carmichel can make his own bullets. His RV is like a traveling lab.
“The other half of the game is having super-accurate rifles that you have to build or have built for you,” he said.
He proudly holds up a rifle that’s helped him triumph. The scope and action were made in Idaho. The trigger came from Texas and the stock from Tennessee. The wood was grown in California, and the gun was assembled in Tennessee.
“It’s a game for rich old men. … I say that facetiously,” Carmichel said. “But it’s the kind of game that appeals to engineers and physicists and gunsmiths. … I was just hoping I did well in Dublin. There are tournaments like that held all over the country every weekend, several places every weekend. … It’s an annual event which was pretty important this year, because it was one of the tryouts for the world team. So some of the best shooters were there from all over the country.”
Writing apparently comes as easily as shooting for Carmichel, although the latter is enjoyable. Asked if he ever felt pressured by a particular deadline, he immediately responds with a convincing, straight-faced “every one of them.” Typing wasn’t his forte either. For many years his secretaries typed his stories from his accounts penned in longhand.
“I hate writing,” he said as though his life has been an inability to avoid it. “It hasn’t been a difficult thing to do from the beginning, particularly writing humor. … But at the same time, I’m just too lazy to do it. That’s the reason I hate it. It’s fine when I’m finished, because I got it over with.
“I’m not a compulsive writer. Jack O’Connor was. He just couldn’t stay away from a typewriter.”
Carmichel says Outdoor Life had six million readers at one point, and he inherited a large letter-writing following from O’Connor.
“Sometimes twice a week I would get big packs of reader mail,” Carmichel said. “A lot of it was technical questions. Sometimes it was someone just wanting a letter back — pen-pals. In a couple of hours I could dictate — my secretary could type all day and we had a pretty good system. It was part of my job and I was glad to have that job. I went into that job knowing that was part of it.”
The job description included writing books for the magazine’s popular book club.
Carmichel has written five books, including “The Book of the Rifle,” which is a Bible of sorts to many rifle enthusiasts. He smiles recalling slippery people in the book business.
“Even the guys on our side were trying to cheat me,” he said with a chuckle.
The book-publishing arm of the magazine wanted thin books quickly producing fat bottom lines.
“Of course, I never did live up to a deadline,” Carmichel said. “It was years later. ‘The Book of the Rifle’ was a lot bigger than they wanted it to be, because they wanted a thin book. … It didn’t matter to them if it was any good or not. I wanted it to be damn good. So I took my time and wrote a lot. And it was big. Of course, then they had to charge more for it, which made it harder to sell. But they sold a lot of them. …
“My heroes were really the more technical writers, not the great adventure writers. If I’d had a writing hero it would’ve been Mark Twain, you know, the guy who can tell the story. But other than that a lot of my reading was for information. I liked the more technical stuff.”
Outdoor Life began in January of 1898.
“And I was just the third shooting editor of the magazine, which shows they really get the blood out of you when you’re there,” Carmichel said. “I was pretty young, probably in my 30s, to take over that department, and they said, ‘You’ll never amount to Jack O’Connor,’ which is probably true. But my only thought was, ‘I’ll make it just as hard on whoever follows me.’”
And Carmichel was right on target.
“He is a living legend in the outdoor community,” said former Johnson City Press outdoors writer Gregg Powers, who lives in North Augusta, S.C., where he’s the managing editor for Turkey Country. “When I meet folks around the country and tell them I’m from Johnson City, many of them will ask if I know Jim right away. He knows his stuff.”
Carmichel still writes. He has a blog on BlueBookofGunValues.com, and his thoughts on the idea of using laser pistols in the Olympic pentathlon was well received.
“I still hate writing,” he said with a sheepish smile. “I like shooting. I have a knack for two things. I have a knack for gun design, from an engineer’s standpoint, ballistics, which is physics — things I like — plus having a competitive inclination. I like the idea of shooting in competition. When I shoot in competition, for some reason, I shoot better than when I’m practicing. Maybe I’m more focused or try harder.”
Certainly, once he was focused on what was in his sights, Carmichel only needed one shot at his dream.