Journalist, author, historian David Halberstam
Journalist, author, historian David Halberstam
Editor's note: Just as we were preparing to ship this issue to the printer, David Halberstam was killed in an April 23 car crash. This, undoubtedly, is one of the last interviews Halberstam ever gave, and the thing that impresses us most about it is what
- By: Stephen Camelio
"The journalist as samurai," is how The Washington Post once described author David Halberstam. It is a fitting tribute given Halberstam's ability to produce a body of work that reflects the Japanese warriors' values of nobility and service. Born in New York in 1934, he graduated from Harvard in 1955 and embarked on a career in journalism that would lead him to The New York Times, where he won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for his international reporting on the Vietnam War. Vietnam was also the focus of Halberstam's 1972 The Best and the Brightest, which is just one of 15 bestsellers Halberstam penned.Many of his other bestsellers, including the Red Sox versus Yankees saga Summer of '49, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made and 2006's The Education of a Coach, about Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, made Halberstam one of America's most prolific and respected sports journalists. The sportswriter was also a sportsman, which was why FR&R asked him to share his thoughts on fly-fishing, family and friends. Did you grow up fishing? I've been fishing all my life. When I was five years old till my early teens I fished at a lake near my uncle's house in Winsted, Connecticut. We just had a line on the end of an old metal telescopic rod and used worms, crawfish or live bait. In my 30's, we got a house on Nantucket and I started saltwater fishing. Saltwater fly-fishing was just emerging at that point, but I used really light spin tackle to fish for stripers and blues. My daughter would come with me and she can handle a spinning rod pretty good. So is fishing a family thing? My uncle was an obsessive fisherman, but he also had Highland Lake right in his backyard. My father liked to fish and was good at it but he was a doctor and he didn't have a lot of chances to do it. I mean, he grew up in the Great Depression and he didn't get to travel a great deal. I look at all the places I've been and realize that the changes in society in the last half century, most notably the democratization of travel that has occurred, have allowed me to be fortunate enough to travel to these amazing places that my father never got a chance to see. We're going to take a family trip out West this year but I don't think I will be able to convince my daughter to pick up the fly rod. When did you pick up the fly rod? I didn't get into fly-fishing till late in life; until my late 50's, early 60's really. The first time I did it I was in Wyoming and I wasn't really good at it. I'm still not a great fly caster but I've gotten a lot better. I'm up to about a "B." How did you improve? By repetition and just wanting to do better. I was going on these great trips but I wasn't fishing well enough. I got a couple tips from my friend Richard Berlin, and then when I would go out to Nantucket I would go off by myself and just practice casting. Now at 73 years of age I am getting better at it. And at my age there aren't too many things that I can say that about. Was there one day on the water when you felt like everything clicked? When we went salmon fishing on the Miramichi, I was just casting hour after hour and then I had a moment where it all came together and I was really moving it. That's when I started to feel I could put the fly where I wanted to. Now, if the wind's not too heavy, and someone says, "Bonefish at 10 o'clock," I can hit the spot. That's nice. And you recently escaped the Northeast winter to chase some bonefish? Yeah, I just got back from a trip to the Bahamas. I really like bone- fishing. It takes a certain amount of skill, which, as I said, I am starting to develop. There is a nice combination of solitude and action. It is very still while you are floating around on the skiff, but then there is the strike and that brief moment when all the water around you explodes. Where else do you fish? My friends set up these great fishing trips. We've been everywhere from the Zhupanova on the Russian side of the Bering Straight, to Patagonia to fish the Rio Grande. It's so cold on the river you look like the Michelin Man. I got two 25-pound trout down there but it isn't as demanding as salmon fishing on the Miramichi River, which I enjoy. Part of it is that it is such a gorgeous place. But it is also because you are really lucky if you can catch just one fish up there. When you land one it's a very sweet thing since a lot of times it just doesn't happen. Who do you fish with? I fish with a group of guys, which my friend Richard has dubbed the "Dirty Dozen," though I think there are 14 or 15 of us now. We go on trips all over the world. These are accomplished men and some happen to be brilliant, world-class fishermen. I will never be in that class, but nobody plays "Big Ass Pete." Instead everyone checks his ego at the door so that the trips are really enjoyable. Again, it allows for a nice combination of solitude and friendship. Between Summer of '49 and Teammates, you wrote a lot about Ted Williams. Ever fish with him? I deliberately didn't tell him that I was a fisherman. I remember, it must have been 20 years ago, I was leaving his house and I thought about telling him that I started fly-fishing. But I was really embryonic at the time and I know if I had mentioned it he would have demanded that we fish. If he had seen me fish at that point, he would have thrown me out the door. I did fish with Bob Knight. He's very serious. There is a lot of fly-fishing writing out there. Anything catch your fancy? I enjoy reading Thomas McGuane. His collected essays are wonderful. He's a really talented writer. I like the fact that his stories aren't just about fishing, they're about America. How about doing some writing on the subject yourself? Back when our little group started doing these trips I wrote some pieces about it for GQ. I also did an article in the Boston Globe about the return of the striped bass to the waters around Nantucket. Right now I am actually working on the introduction to a book of fishing stories edited by Nick Lyons [The Gigantic Book of Fishing Stories]. And who knows, some day I might write more about fishing and try to collect the stories into a volume. So where does fly-fishing fit into your life? I take great pleasure in getting out on the river and letting go of the self. When I was young I remember the pleasure of waiting for the strike and I still find that thrilling. Plus, there is always that feeling that if you can make just one more cast something will happen. Or if you can catch one more fish it will be the biggest of the day. I see being able to do this with my friends as a benefit of a rich life. Plus, it's fun.