American males, slumped in front of the tube, putting on a pot and approaching 40, arise! Take as your example in life Richard A. Wolters. To middle-aged millions reared on the unrequited dreams of Walter Mitty or diverted by the brilliant ineptitudes of George Plimpton, the positive achievements of Dick Wolters offer direction, inspiration and thrust.
Thirteen years ago Wolters was just another weary commuter, slogging home to a loving family, a relaxing drink and an hour in an easy chair. Then he discovered sports, and now, at the age of 49, he is a distinguished (and sometimes controversial) fly-fisherman, skeet shooter, retriever trainer, sailplane enthusiast and author of five books, Beau, a sporting memoir, Gun Dog, Water Dog, Family Dog and Instant Dog. The owner of multitudes of equipment, some of it ingeniously self-devised, he has a customized camper that draws wows on the back roads of Maine and Montana. In Manhattan he is a pillar of the Midtown Turf, Yachting and Polo Association, where he lunches with the likes of Lee Wulff, Ed Zern, Ernie Schwiebert and other mahouts of the outdoors. Wolters is generous with advice, even among his peers, and comparative strangers often phone him to inquire about hatches on the Batten Kill, the proper discipline for a listless Labrador or the name of a good little parachute rigger. Wolters is pleased to serve as a guru; as a matter of fact, he resembles one. He has a bushy mustache, and for the past three years he has allowed his naturally thick head of hair to grow almost to his shoulders, with the result that he looks rather like Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain Tonight. Dressed in a vintage Abercrombie suit, his hatband studded with field-trial pins, he is a sight to remember.
Wolters did not become interested in sports until he was 36. Like many another American male homing in on middle age, he was too busy with a career and building a home to get involved. He played tennis as a youngster in Philadelphia, but he gave it up when he went to Perm State to study chemistry. Upon graduation in 1942 he went into rocket and then atomic research for the government. He took part in A-bomb tests in Nevada and the Pacific but, bored with research, he gambled on turning his hobby of photography into a living. He succeeded and became a magazine photographer.
In 1954 he became the first picture editor of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and soon thereafter, more or less in line of duty, was persuaded to go fishing. He returned to the office proudly bearing a 4½-inch trout—a catch that should have got him arrested but instead set him on fire. "Given the way I've always embarked on projects, I'm sure that had I been on a construction magazine I would have learned to operate a crane," he says. "But suppose I'd been on a woman's magazine?"
August 17, 1969
Fly-fishing helped establish two basic rules that Wolters has since followed in choosing a sport.
1) The sport must be readily available. Fly-fishing was only minutes away on the Amawalk, an excellent stream in northern Westchester.
2) The sport must be within reach financially so that he can afford the best in equipment and accommodations. "I must go first cabin." he says.
Wolters is very methodical, and when he began fishing the Amawalk he kept a log noting stream conditions, water temperatures, fly hatches and the number of trout caught. In 1956 he fished a total of 45 times and caught 11 trout, much to the merriment of his friends. After the season ended he practiced casting on his lawn and started tying flies.
He built a rotary tying vise from sundry spare parts, including a shaft stripped from a motor his son Roger found in the street, and he constructed his own tying table. He also designed a fishing jacket with all sorts of special pockets. "Anything I go into I go completely whole hog," he says. "I go all the way out. I don't fiddle around watching television."
In his second year on the Amawalk, Wolters improved. He fished 50 times and caught 166 fish. Having learned his basics, he began fishing elsewhere in the East, and he even made a special trip to England to fish the Test. He set new goals for himself, to fish with the tiniest of flies and to catch and release the limit of trout every time he fished the Amawalk. He was very fond of fishing and the men he met in the sport. One of his best friends was the late Jack Randolph, the outdoor columnist for The New York Times, who on occasion made Wolters the subject of jokes or misadventures. Wolters did not mind, because, as he says, "I enjoy humor, especially the give-and-take between friends." Randolph sometimes got as good as he gave. Once he spent a baffling afternoon on a stream casting some flies Wolters had tied, and every time a fly hit the water, the feathers would disappear. Wolters, who was hiding nearby and chuckling to himself, had used sugared water instead of lacquer to glue the feathers to the hook.
It was Randolph who, perhaps in an attempt to get even, suggested that Wolters go bird shooting. Wolters accepted the challenge, figuring he might be able to get some feathers for fly tying. On the trip Wolters fired three shots and hit three grouse, the only member of a party of six to get a bird. Randolph was stunned. Wolters was elated, and to improve his shooting he took up skeet, setting the private goal of winning the Outdoor Editors Shoot the next spring, a competition that he figured was within his class. He won it, all right, while giving a little bow toward Randolph.
Wolters enjoyed bird shooting, but what really intrigued him was watching a dog work in the field. He just had to have a dog, and he bought an English setter pup. It died of distemper, and he bought another, which he named Beau. He began training Beau when the dog was only seven weeks old. Gun dogs, so tradition has it, are not to be trained until they are at least six months to a year old, and they are then supposed to be approached with a spiked collar and whip. Oldtime handlers also have maintained that teaching a dog when he's a pup is supposed to take something out of the dog. But, as Wolters later wrote in Beau, he was able to take a fresh tack, because "I came to dog training late in life. I didn't have the advantage, or what I might now call the disadvantage, of having a father or a grandfather to teach mc how to raise a hunting dog. Traditional dog training is an art that's based on too many old wives' tales. Like the one about never keeping a hunting dog in the house, it will ruin his nose for game. That was written by an old woman who hated dogs and her husband."
By the age of three months Beau sat, stayed and came on command. Wolters took daily walks with the setter, and whenever the pup would start to walk behind, Wolters would turn around so that the dog was in front. Beau quickly learned his place was out front, but when he got too far out, beyond what would be shotgun range, Wolters whistled to bring him in closer. At five months Beau could quarter a field following hand signals. The dog learned to hold point on a bird in the front yard through an unusual trick. Wolters rigged a grouse wing on the end of a line on a fly rod. As he swung the rod, Beau would get excited seeing the "bird" in flight. Suddenly Wolters would lower the rod and drop the wing on the ground. Beau instantly would freeze on point. In the field Beau proved to have a good nose to go with his eyes.
When Beau was eight months old Wolters received an invitation to lecture at North Carolina State College, where Dr. Frederick Barkalow Jr. of the zoology department was teaching an adult education course in hunting. Dr. Barkalow had read in Randolph's columns in the Times about Wolters' training of Beau, and he offered Wolters some fine quail shooting if he would come down with Beau and lecture. Wolters went, and Beau did very well indeed, earning glory in the field on the final day when, as a substitute for older dogs that failed, he stood on point 28 times for the excited class.
Wolters had no idea that he had been doing anything revolutionary in dog training, but after returning from Carolina he happened to hear about a study on dogs being done at the Animal Behavior Laboratory at Hamilton Station, a division of the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Maine. Wolters, his wife and Beau drove to Bar Harbor, where they met Dr. J. Paul Scott, a former Rhodes scholar, who was heading a scientific investigation of the behavior of dogs in the hope that it might shed light on the behavior of men. Olive Wolters, then doing graduate work in psychology, was able to translate some of the research to her husband, and it was immediately apparent to him that he not only had been right in starting Beau so young, but that Dr. Scott and his colleagues had made some truly important findings for dog owners everywhere.
These discoveries were fodder for Wolters, and he immediately began work on a training book, Gun Dog, which was published in 1961. "I had never written, I was a poor speller, but I told myself I was going to do the book," Wolters says. "There is no use making excuses for yourself." The book got rave reviews and it is now in its 12th printing.
By now Wolters was hooked on dogs. Unfortunately, the training fields he had used for Beau were giving way to shopping centers and housing developments, and there was a dearth of grouse and pheasant next to the Wolters home. He decided to switch to Labrador retrievers, a breed he very much admired and which did not necessarily need a ready supply of live birds. Using Labs and what Dutton, his publisher, calls the Revolutionary Rapid Training Method, Wolters wrote two books, Family Dog, which deals with the dog as a house pet, and Water Dog, for the amateur retriever owner-handler. Both books have done well. His latest book, Instant Dog, is a humorous work done in collaboration with Cartoonist Roy Doty. There is some sound advice in the book, but most of it is broad satire, such as how to teach a dog to sit by stepping on his tail or how to feed a dog from the dinner table. There is even an elaborately long recipe, "Instant Supper," for dogs that calls for a dressed three-pound pheasant, green pepper, fresh asparagus, heavy cream and rice. To Wolters' great delight, some reviewers have taken Instant Dog as a serious work.
By the early 1960s Wolters was moving in pretty doggy circles, and doggy people can be bitchy. "He had the gall to own one setter and to write a book about training gun dogs," says one doggy critic. "Just who the hell is he?" Another doggy acquaintance says, "When Dick moved into Labs he irritated some people, especially in the rich Long Island crowd. Dick is not the most self-effacing guy in the world, and a lot of people resented him." Wolters says. "Part of the resentment may have been caused by my books. New ideas go down hard, and there are people who just didn't agree with my theories, so they didn't like me. I wasn't in Labs for more than a few months when I saw they didn't have adequate training equipment. I went to a field trial when I first had my young Tar, and a woman said her dog couldn't compete because he didn't know how to work far enough. She said, I can't throw the dummy that far in training.' She was like most of us. She couldn't afford bird boys or raise live birds or hire a trainer. So that night I got to thinking, and some people couldn't take the results of my thinking."
What Wolters thought up was a sort of Rube Goldberg rocket device that could propel a dummy farther than any human could fling it. He worked out a rough idea and then got in touch with Arthur Johnson, a ballistics expert in Washington. Together they co-designed the finished product, the Retriev-R-Trainer, a hand-held device that can shoot a dummy 100 yards. Twenty-two blank cartridges serve as the propellant, and the charges can be changed to vary the distance. For some time Wolters took delight in visiting field trials to hear gasps of amazement from some of his critics. The Retriev-R-Trainer is sold nationally, and Wolters collects a small, but ego-pleasing, annual royalty. The Retriev-R-Trainer has since proved to have a number of other uses. It can be adapted to hurl a fishing lure 250 yards, throw a line 100 yards and fire a flare, among other things. Once Wolters loaded up with a magnum charge and shot a golf ball out of sight. "This business of trying to come up with new things, with new ideas, innovations, this is really a lot of a sport to me," he says. "To me, the sport of a sport is going in and giving it everything you can and coming up with something new."
In 1962 Wolters became president of the Westchester Retriever Club, and he approached the job with characteristic zest. Until then the club had been somewhat loosely organized, holding only "fun" or "picnic" trials. Wolters set out to make the club more attractive and more effective by getting American Kennel Club recognition and permission to hold sanctioned trials.
Meanwhile, Wolters was active on other fronts. Fishing and dogs were his passion, and if some Eastern field-trialers were snippy, Midwesterners and Westerners were friendly and open. Wolters bought a camper truck, and he and Olive, the two children, Roger and Gretchen, and a pair of Labs would drive west on vacation, stopping to fish, visit kennels or attend field trials. Wolters spent hundreds of hours remodeling the camper. For instance, he built a special kennel compartment for the Labs above the right rear wall, installed extra lights, put in a shower, made fitted dish racks, rigged up a canopy for an outside patio and built an observation deck on the roof. He bought a climbing bike, which fitted on the back and when the family stopped to camp he would tootle off on the bike to fish. Should Olive need him, she only had to call on a walkie-talkie. The camper, named Lablubber's Landlubber II, is so self-sufficient that when they visit friends the Wolterses stay in the camper instead of the home. When the Wolterses visit a camper rally people line up at the door for a tour. To many persons, unfamiliar with Wolters' other sporting activities, he is reverentially referred to as "the guy with that camper." Wolters says, "The camper falls in with my idea of having things that are compact. I enjoy small things that are well designed."
Wolters stayed active in Labs until 1965. But by then he felt there was little more he could do with dogs, and some of the people were unpleasant. One day while walking down the street with a royalty check in his pocket, he saw a car he liked. It was an MGB GT, and he bought it at once. Why not race cars? He took driving lessons. But he was not long in finding that sports car racing was not for him. He didn't care for too many of the people ("somewhat flashy," he says), and then he really did not understand engines. He would have to rely on someone else to do the tinkering. Moreover, racing looked as if it might be expensive. One day while racing at Lime Rock in Connecticut, Wolters saw a youngster cartwheel a car. "It didn't bother me to see the accident," Wolters says. "The boy walked away without a scratch. But he totally wrecked his car. I realized one thing then. He had a wealthy father, I didn't and next week he'd be back in a new car. I wouldn't. I saw myself getting into something that was going to be over my head financially."
A year and a half ago a friend, Phil Gilbert, president of Rolls-Royce Inc. in America, suggested that Wolters try soaring. Wolters went aloft with another friend, Arthur Hurst, and he was enthralled. Soaring was convenient at the Wurtsboro, N.Y. airport, only an hour's drive from home. "It cost me $450 for lessons to get my license," he says. "And after you get your license you can rent, and the cost will come to about what it costs you to ski." In his first year of soaring Wolters set a personal goal of 100 hours in the air. "I made it," he says. "I held my wheel off from landing until the sweephand came around to the minute, and then I touched down. That's a lot of flying for a sailplane, especially since my early flights were only 20 minutes long. But I find this to be one of the most challenging sports I ever set my mind to."
After getting his license Wolters bought a German-made sailplane, a Ka-8B, and then a Libelle, a compact fiberglass ship also made in Germany. He recently sold it and got back what he had invested, because the demand for sailplanes exceeds the supply. He now owns a new model Std. Libelle. "The people in soaring are tremendous," Wolters says. "They're hot competitors, but they help one another, and they are out to help you. Some dog people wouldn't talk to you if your life depended on it. They keep their little tricks to themselves. But the people in soaring, the top people I've met, George Moffat [the 1969 national soaring champion], Gordie Lamb, Gleb Derujinsky, are out to help others. George will come up to me and say, 'That landing wasn't quite right,' and then he'll tell me what to do. When I bought my first Libelle I got a phone call from Ben Greene down in North Carolina, the 1968 champion. I had met him briefly at the Nationals and had flown with him in Pennsylvania. And he warned me I was getting into a slippery little ship and told me what to watch for. This is the camaraderie in this field and I really enjoy it."
Last year Wolters qualified for the silver badge, becoming only the 1,494th American to meet the standards set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. To do this, he had to climb 3,280 feet above release by the tow plane, make a flight of five hours' duration and make a 32-mile cross-country flight. Olive crewed for him on the last, keeping in touch by radio (Wolters' call sign is "Old Dog") as she sped along roads in the camper truck with the 28-foot-long trailer for the glider hooked up behind. Wolters completed the flight by landing in a startled farmer's field. Having gotten his silver badge, he qualified for the Eastern regional cross-country competition and won the standard class. During the flight he got extremely low and feared that he would have to land in an apple orchard. Inasmuch as the trees were only 25 feet apart and the wing-span of the Ka-8B is 50 feet, he thought he might have what he called "a real problem of geometry." Fortunately, he hit a good lift and shot up to 6,000 feet. Upon landing, he asked about the apple orchard and was told, "That's no apple orchard—them's cherries."
"I think I can get pretty good at soaring," Wolters says, "but I'm not too sure I want to become a really hotshot competitor. My ambition is to qualify for the gold badge in 1969 and then go for diamond. There are only 109 diamonds in the history of American soaring. In diamond you have to make a 300-mile flight and climb 16,000 feet above your low point. I'll probably go out to California to do that. I hear that the lee wave off the Sierra Nevada is just sensational."
With fishing still available in season on the Amawalk, the Labs at home ready to retrieve and a book on soaring in the works, it would seem that Wolters' time is filled. (Since 1956 he also has held a full-time job as illustrations editor of Business Week.) Yet he has noticed a small chink in the calendar in January and February when the Wurtsboro airport is closed by snow. That happens to be the time of the year when the nearby Hudson is frozen over and iceboaters from a hundred miles around take to the river. "Iceboating sounds very attractive," Wolters says. "I am sure I will want to delve into it. Some of the principles I've learned in soaring apply. Iceboating might be just the sport to fill in the entire year very nicely."