By John A. Hallock
I saw her from across the crowded room. I had just pushed through the swinging book case door and into an upscale bar with a speakeasy decor, in the local Ramada Inn. She was tall, blonde, and beautiful, and wore the classiest red dress I’d ever seen. I had to meet her ... right away!
The place was packed. I had to hurry, though at the time I had no idea how much. She was only there for a few minutes to say hello to her brother, who was the bartender. The tables were all full, the dance floor was packed, and there were people milling in the aisles between tables, or standing three deep at the bar. The music was blaring, smoke hung like a dirty curtain, and it was kind of dark. She was standing off to the side, by herself at the end of the bar. I just kept moving through the crowd. Bumping shoulders and nudging, even pushing, my way along. “Excuse me, excuse me, watch it there Lady, excuse me!”
I couldn’t take my eyes off her as I moved through the sea of people. I couldn’t believe no one was talking to her. She was alone for God’s sake. What’s wrong with these guys? I had to hurry. Was she too beautiful? Is that what intimidated them? Well, I wasn’t afraid. I was a woodsman. This was nothing. I could walk through the pitch dark mid night woods by myself and not be afraid.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him, like a sharp eyed owl spots a rat. Whoooo? There was another guy moving toward her from the opposite direction. He wasn’t afraid, either. I pegged him in an instant. A Glamor Boy, Sweet Cheeks, Mr. Slick with the ladies. He wore a confident smile and a skinny tie. I hate skinny ties. He was a predator! Use them and loose them. I could just tell. Probably had money, and on that night if he had more than 22 bucks, he had more than me. He was a woman stealer. A wolf! I’d seen his type before.
“Not this time,” I shouted into the din. “Not this one.”
She didn’t see him. But he was closer and got there first, in front of her, and was saying something to her. I’m sure it was something slick. That’s when, in the nick of time, I made my move. I managed to step out of the crowd and in-between him and the blonde. Then, acting the well intentioned super hero who hides inside all of us guys, I had to come to the rescue of a beautiful girl. Okay, sure, there may have been a hip check to nudge him away into the darkness of lost chances and missed opportunities, and into the oblivion of our lives. After he straightened his tie and slinked away I never gave him another look or a second thought. It was now just me and the blonde in the red dress staring straight at each other.
Up close she was even more gorgeous. A vision! Did I mention she had long, long, wavy, hay colored blonde hair? That her eyes sparkled so blue, so deep and lucid, I nearly drown where I stood? She smiled. I swooned.
“My name is John,” I said after a pause and some Heaven sent courage. “How do you do?”
“I do,” she said almost a year to the day.
We stood under swaying willow trees in my parents back yard on the hottest day of the year.
That was that. It wasn’t long before we left Elgin, IL, the place I was born and raised, and headed north forever, to the big woods, and a life of independence and adventure.
And it happened like this ...
It was not just another day in our lives, it was a water shed day, the day everything changed ... forever! March 5, 1989, our business and our family were born on the same day. That wasn’t the plan, but then you know what they say about the best made plans ... For the first time in our lives Lori and I were stepping over the line of no return. Like it or not, we were committing to something larger than both of us.
Ironically, it was a very radical move that finally sent us in the right direction. The last carefree indulgence, defiance if you will, before succumbing to a life of commitment and responsibility. We quit two permanent, full time jobs, with benefits, to start an outdoor adventure magazine. At the very same time, our first child was on the way. It was all so scary, but at the same time so exciting. We knew we had to do it. We hadn’t just tossed caution to the wind, we threw it down and kicked its guts out.
Before this actually happened there were several years of fear and indecision about starting a business and actual magazine production. But first things first. After we got married beneath those swaying willow trees. Lori and I were foot loose and fancy free, living a sort of vagabond life those first few years together. We traveled around southwestern and northwestern Wisconsin like gypsies looking for the next side show crowd. We never really got too serious about any one place because it had always been our intention to eventually settle up north in Wisconsin’s great northwoods. But first we had to find a way to make a living, a decent living, in a place where the jobs are as scarce as the truth at a Liars Club convention. We wanted to eventually own and operate our own business. We just had to find the right one.
In the meantime it was a great life. Just the two of us. We hiked, biked, and fished our way across the state and back. There was great lake and river fishing up north, and great river fishing near LaCrosse. This was also the location of some of the most pristine and productive trout streams any fly caster could pray for. We also knew the location of every cheese store and bait shop and which taverns had the coldest beer and biggest burgers. We laughed, partied, and enjoyed life whether it was those hot summer afternoons skinny dipping in the creek at Timber Coulee or tobogganing through the wintery forest the winter we holed up in the family backwoods cabin on the lake. It was a life where back country auctions and berry picking were favorite pastimes. There was never a sale too far away, or a stream to deep to swim or fish.
Up until then Lori, a talented graphic artist who knew all aspects of the printing business, and I, an experienced sales person and ‘meat and potatoes, writer, never had trouble finding jobs. Everywhere, in all of our homes, jobs, and travel we found pleasant people and good neighbors. We soon discovered Wisconsin had a population made up of hard working, friendly people who were always willing to lend a hand. We made friends.
It was during a detour in LaCrosse, around 1986, where the concept for our own magazine came to life. One day, I stopped into the print shop where Lori was working. While looking over her shoulder, I noticed she was putting together a magazine style program for the Shrine Circus. It had several pages of stories about the circus and the performers and it had places for local businesses to advertise. The light bulb flashed in my mind.
“That’s it!” I shouted and pointed down at her drawing table. “That’s the business we’ve been looking for! We could do that! I will sell the ads, write fishing and hunting articles, and write short stories and you can create, design, and put it all together.”
It was a natural for us. It just wasn’t time ... yet. I had a job in the circulation department for a local newspaper. It was a middle management job that paid just enough to keep the wolves at bay. At first, being the good employee, I tried to sell the magazine idea to my boss. We were living in the middle of a sportsperson’s paradise. Hunting, fishing, and many outdoor activities are popular and productive in the Coulee Region. My idea could have been a money maker for the company and brownie points for me. My idea being, at the very least, that I could get some of my stories published in the new outdoor magazine where I already worked. Wrong!
My boss didn’t like the idea. He was an executive, and I soon became aware in big business executives don’t take anything from the lesser employees. Not even good ideas. I couldn’t have sold him an idea if his own mother had helped write and endorsed it. He told me it would never work and I should stop wasting my time and energy on grandiose business ideas and short story writing.
Well Sir, that was a horse of different color. He could criticize my work, my looks, even my writing. But, I wasn’t going to let him criticize the dream I need to help me someday get away from jerks like him. One thing led to another, words were said, gestures were made, he got red in the face and a week later he fired me. (I think it was the gestures.) Anyway, Lori and I packed up our belongings, including our magazine idea, and moved on, once again.
Two years, two more moves, one writing course (I never finished though I should have), and several unpublished short stories later we found ourselves living in Bloomer, Wisconsin. We were getting closer to the northwoods, Lori was pregnant and working for an Eau Claire printer, and I was selling cars in Chippewa Falls.
The year was 1988, and the summer had been hot. In fact, it was a drought year. I began my bow hunting career that fall. I discovered deer hunting, like writing, takes practice, practice, practice. In the winter it was as cold as it was hot only six months before, and it was very snowy. The only thing that crossed that car lot in January and February of 1989 were snow drifts and empty McDonald’s wrappers. There just weren’t very many customers, which meant few commission. That meant fewer groceries. I had a pregnant wife, hardly any income, and no prospects. At the dealership they told me to ride it out until spring and I could make up for it with big car and truck sales then. But that wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t waiting for anything anymore. That’s when it happened. It was time!
“I can make more money selling something else, anything else,” I said to other salesmen who sat idle, too. “Why, I could sell printing. Or better yet. I could sell ads in a magazine. My own magazine.”
“Your magazine?” A fellow salesman said. “You don’t own a magazine.”
I remember laughing out loud. It was the turning point in our lives.
“Not yet I don’t,” I said as I reached for the phone. “But come this time next month ... I will!”
I called Lori at home and asked her to make up the mock Woodsman Magazine cover we’d been talking and dreaming about for the last few years and to divide the inside pages into five different ad sizes like she did for the Shriners.
“We’re going into business for ourselves ... tomorrow!”
The next day was my day off at the car dealership. I was going to take the mock cover and go to town to sell ads. I remember that first day like it was yesterday. I only had seven dollars in my pocket for the day. It would be a race to see who got hungrier first, me or my gas tank.
“I’m not making anything now. We’ve got nothing to lose. It’s time!”
For the next couple of weeks and with the help and support of our good friend Don Imm, we took the magazine cover around the towns of Bloomer, Spooner, and Hayward. We planned a circulation area of northwest Wisconsin. But, it sure wasn’t easy.
For one thing, just two or three months before we started selling our ads, some con men had come through the area selling ads on place mats for restaurants. They collected money but then skipped town without printing the place mats. Now comes these two guys selling ads in a non existent magazine. But, aside from that, the small town business communities were very supportive for the most part.
We soon sold enough ads on our days off to pay for the printing of our first issue. Someone asked me back then, at the beginning, what would I do with advanced ad money if we went out of business? My answer was quick. “We’re going at this with our eyes open. If I planned to fail I’d still be on that empty car lot.” It had to be that way for both of us, with total commitment to each other and to the idea. It was an, ‘us against the world’ attitude. No looking back or backing out ... only going forward. We would not fail. After all ... it was time. Lori just didn’t let me come home until I sold an ad everyday. It went something like this ...
By late afternoon, I would start telling perspective customers I couldn’t go home until I sold an ad. They all laughed, and some felt sorry for me, but many could care less. Some of them would even get on the phone and call ahead to other businesses. “Salesman on the way.” Welcome to the real world. Though, it seems like everyday there was someone who cared, usually a sole proprietor establishment, up here we call it a Ma and Pa store or business, who, with pleasant, knowing smiles listened to my sales pitch more intently than all the others. Unbeknownst to me, in the early days, I, we, Lori and me, were one of them. We were Ma and Pa ourselves. They cared. They had to.
It was 17 below zero, on a Tuesday, and now I show up at their store with a Woodsman cap, icicles in my beard, and big boots on cold feet. These people were, and still are, the very definition of Empathy. As it turned out most of them supported me because at one time someone supported them. I was them from years before ... I ‘d usually get my ad and I’ll never forget them.
Then, there was the time I walked into a bar in the middle of nowhere to pitch an ad, but the place was empty. I yelled, “Hello,” and received a response, “I’m in the cooler. C’mon back.” So, with an ad contract and pen in hand, I walked around the bar to access the back room. But I was met by a huge, snarling DOG. A German Shepard/Grizzly Bear cross. I froze in my tracks. He growled and began barking savagely. Terror seized my entire body. I was a goner. I was sure of it. That’s when the proprietor came running from the back and grabbed the dog. “Sorry,” he said. “What I should have said was, ‘come back if you don’t have white hair or a white beard. Ha! Ha!’” For some reason the dog hated guys with white hair and beards. I, of course, have long white hair and a bushy white beard. It took several minutes for me to calm down. The guy bought me a shot and then took the ad. That was almost 25 years ago, they are still a Ma and Pa business and they are still my customers today.
Anyway, it was now March 4, 1989. Our living room floor was covered with art boards. This was still pre desktop publishing. At least it was for us. Pasted onto the boards were the ads we sold and Lori created, along with stories, drawings, and photos. Lori does great work, a true artist. I had written or purchased the articles. When she finished numbering the boards with the page numbers, she handed them to me.
“There you go,” she said. “We take our baby to the printer tomorrow. You’re a daddy sooner than you thought.”
She was right. Even though our baby wasn’t due for weeks, it was sooner, or maybe later, than she thought, too.
The next day dawned cold and overcast. The moisture hung in the air so thick you could taste it. Lori and I piled into the car. She’d found a printer in Menomonie to produce our first issue. It took a while to drive from Bloomer and find this printer. The weather had turned bad, but we delivered on time. Again, it’s an understatement, but our business was born.
By now it was snowing hard. Real hard. Almost a white out. Big, fluffy, wet flakes built up on the ground faster than beer cans at a smelt fry. By the time we made it back to the country house we rented just outside of Bloomer, the wind was whistling and the roads had disappeared. In fact, we drove off the road at the end of our driveway and into the ditch. And I mean into the ditch. There was no getting out on our own. We abandoned the car. I went looking for the farmer and his tractor to pull us out while Lori trudged through the deep snow down our long country driveway to the house. Minutes later, while I was getting the car out, Lori went into labor. The difficult walk through the heavy snow was too much, and we suddenly found ourselves heading back into the storm for the little hospital in town.
Doctor John Larson at the Bloomer hospital was concerned when he examined Lori. He didn’t like the idea this baby was coming six weeks early. The small town hospital wasn’t equipped for all the eventualities that might be associated with an early, or risky delivery. She had to go to a larger hospital, and right away. But it was snowing too hard for a helicopter ride to the Twin Cities. So he called an ambulance and Lori was transported behind snowplows to the city, I followed behind in our car. Ironically, we passed within a few miles of the very printing company running off our first magazine.
Our daughter Kate was born a few minutes before midnight. (Three years later Maggie Mae came along.) It had been a long day to say the least. Lori had birthed a magazine and a baby on the same day. She’s always been a show off.
That was many years ago. To date we have published over a million copies of our magazine. I have written and published over 200 short stories, hundreds of business stories, and written and published 3 paperback books. Recently I have started selling many of my stories in e-books available on our website, www.thewoodsmanmagazine.com We’ve never missed a deadline or ever looked back. We never doubted ourselves. If I had to do it over again, the only thing I’d change is to start it sooner. And though we’ve not accumulated that proverbial million dollars, far from it, we have been a great success in many ways. Our girls were raised in the wholesome, clean environment of the great northwoods. We have made a life and living for almost 25 years now. We can go fishing whenever we want, pick sweet, wild blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries in our yard, and I can bow hunt 175 class bucks in the woods behind our house. Did you ever experience one of those warm, beautiful days when you just wish you could take the day off, get away from it all and go for a walk? We can do that any day we want too. This is truly an American success story. After all, it was time.
Personal note: Thanks again to all the wonderful business people who have supported us with their ads for all these years. And to all the readers of the magazine, the website, and now my e-books, I want to give a special thanks. Without you, we have nothing. Thank you and God bless you and yours.