My friend, editor, and fellow writer, Don Zaidle, is gone. He was only 55 years old
He called me a few years ago to talk about this end we’ll all face. “I think you understand me more than most people. When my time has come, I want you to talk about memories, heritage, and what it means to be Don.”
“You feeling bad?” I asked.
“Yep, and the time will come soon, so you be ready. Are you taking notes?”
“Start. I don’t want to have to repeat myself. So on the morning of March 25, 2009, I took notes on a Texas Outdoor Writers Association notepad.
I met Don back in 1993, at a TOWA conference, and we became instant friends. He attended the sessions that year in Rockport, wearing snake boots, blousy safari pants, a canvas shirt, a weather-beaten, and a black eye patch.
He was lying in bed as we talked. “Rev, tell ’em I never wished for anything but for full being, and good.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that life has been good to me, and I think I’ve honored the privilege of Life. I’ve experienced things that most men only read about, but they came to me natural. I had a great time as a kid. I’ve trained dogs, worked in emergency services, raised a good family, and written words that other people want to read.
“Tell them that when I was six or seven, I was outside when one of those big Texas storms rolled in. It was black, powerful, and full of lighting. I stood outside in it as that cloud passed over the land. It slapped me with wind that almost knocked me over, and I took my shirt off and let the rain lash my ski, and I shouted into the wind to take me if it could.
“Rev, it was invigorating to a kid, and I haven’t felt anything like it since, though I’ve looked for it in everything I’ve ever done.” He laughed weakly. “One time I even dove nekked off a bass boat during a thunderstorm to try and find that feeling again. But it didn’t work.”
“That’s a disturbing image, Don.”
“Forget I said it then. I’ve been shot, snake bit, bitten by attack dogs, and severely injured my hip, but I always rebounded. But my wife’s stroke was almost insurmountable.”
He often called me after her devastating stroke, and we never hug up in less than an hour.
“I worked hard to make an enduring mark. I always wanted more than a headstone. I wanted books and words to remain behind, so my descendants would know me. I wanted to leave something behind that people can pull off a bookshelf in fifty years, and read.”
Published by Safari Press, American Man-Killers came out in 1997.
“I always admired Ruark, Babcock, and Corey Ford. Their books are still out there, and I’m constantly re-reading their outdoor stories, and look how long they’ve been gone. As long as people speak of the dead, they’re alive.”
“This sounds like a eulogy,” I said.
“That’s what I’m talking about. I wanted my thoughts to be in the hands of someone I trust. It’s kind of spooky how much we think alike, you and I.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in me.”
“You understand me, Rev. You and I were born at ta time we could grab a fishing rod, or gun, and head off into the woods and fields only to return at dusk to find the old folks waiting to hear what we’d been doing. They didn’t worry about kids running around alone all day.
“We’ve stepped off the porch and hunted quail in the surrounding pastures. We’ve shot dove in sight of the house. We were taught honor, respect and discipline, and it made us the men we are today. I want you to write my words, because you know more about me than most, because we’re brothers.
“Here’s what I think is going to happen when I’m gone. I think I’m going to that wonderful place, by whatever name it’s called, and when I get there I’ll find those who went on before.
“Some of the old folks will be stalwart, and they’ll gather to hug my neck, and I’ll hear quiet ‘I love yous’ and then I’ll get to look around that glorious place and see what was promised.”
Then he told me what to write next, and made me promise to put it down exactly as he dictated over the phone that blustery March day.
“But Don, I wrote something similar years ago about one of my uncles who passed. I got some danged interesting hate mail from folks that said Heaven isn’t the way I described it.”
“I don’t care, and they don’t know. It’s what I want to say, and I’ll be gone. It won’t matter to me.” He gave a congested chuckled. “You’ll be the one who’ll have to suffer the consequences.”
“You’ve always been a cranky, cantankerous old curmudgeon, you know that?”
“Yes. Now, here it is. One of those things I’m really looking forward to is when I’ll touch the hem of the Man’s garment, then whistle up the dogs I loved, and we’ll go hunt birds with Corey Ford and Robert Ruark, and shoot in the shadow of God.”
Don passed last Saturday, October 12, 2013, and I believe he did just that. This outdoor world is going to miss the voice of that bewhiskered gentleman. I only wish this article could have done him justice, because there was so much more to Don Zaidle then I could write in 1000 words.
As I looked through my notes from that day with teary eyes, I pulled my copy of American Man-Killers from the shelf and read the inscription he wrote to me. It’s perfect Don in every way, and something I’ll always cherish. “To Reavis, who, despite not knowing how to pronounce his own name, is one of the finest writers I know. All my best, Don Z. TOWA, 2001.”
He also gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received when I wrote a Father’s Day article on his request for Texas Fish and Game Magazine. Five minutes after he read the article on my dad, Don sent this to me. “Damn, son! ’nuff said.”
Oh, he wanted me to tell you one more thing that he was proud of. “I never wished hurt for anybody.”
You couldn’t ask for a better epitaph.