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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

A Visit With Nelson Bryant Is Time Well Spent

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

In this December 2014 photo, Nelson Bryant prepares a frozen bluefish for dinner.

The publication on December 5 of “Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors, Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce On a Small Island” was an exciting moment for me. Having my first book listed for sale on Amazon is a milestone in an accidental writing career that began more than 27 years ago with publication of a fishing column in The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

But the fact is that until Tuesday I no books to speak of in-hand. Sure, the cover image was on the computer screen but I had only two actual books; one a proof and the other was an “author copy” provided by Create Space, the self-publishing arm of Amazon, which prints books “on demand.”

Print on demand offers several advantages over traditional publishing, which generally involves sending the job to an offset printing company in China. The wait for a book order is reduced from months to weeks, and there is no need to find space in the basement or attic for a few thousand books that may well become a permanent fixture once you run out of friends and relatives willing to take copies.

My book was for sale on Amazon but I had two books and I would not have my initial order of 100 books until Friday, December 22, or so said Amazon and UPS — until UPS decided not to honor its end of the bargain and end any hope I had harbored of providing some books for local Island bookstores to sell to last minute shoppers.

Up until Thursday, UPS said my books would be delivered on Friday, then changed delivery to Tuesday, Dec. 26. The trailer arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with my books and countless Christmas presents, and there it sat for the next three days. Even the much maligned Vineyard Haven post office opened for a few hours on Sunday so people could claim their packages. But UPS could not find a way to empty that trailer just days before Christmas. Anyhow, I digress (but it felt good to vent).

The first copy of my book was special to me and I knew just who I wanted to have it. So one week before Christmas I knocked on the door of the simple, rough hewn home where retired New York Times columnist Nelson Bryant and his longtime companion, artist Ruth Kirchmeier live in West Tisbury.

Stooped over with the weight of ninety-four years of active living, Nelson made his way to the door and welcomed me into the small, open living room and kitchen. He was in the middle of baking zucchini bread, made he said with just a hint of pride, from zucchinis grown in his garden.

The fact that he is around to bake anything is a story in its own right. Nelson was a member of the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division when at about 2:30 am on D-Day, he wrote years ago, “I lunged out the door of a jouncing C-47 that was flying low over the Normandy countryside. I recall that - even before my chute snapped open and yanked me upright - lazy arcs of tracer bullets were curving up at me, then hurtling past. And before I reached the ground I heard for the first time the tearing snarl of sound made by fully- automatic German machine pistols.”

Nelson was wounded by machine gun fire his second day in Normandy.

He was lucky to survive that experience but before he had fully recovered from his injury he left the hospital in England where he was recuperating to rejoin his unit which was scheduled to jump into Holland. Once again, in heavy fighting he suffered a gunshot wound.

After Nelson returned from the war he was for a time a newspaper editor and dock builder on the Island before the New York Times hired him to write about the outdoors. He was very good at the job. There was no gimmickry in the phrasing, just prose as clean and straight as a mountain brook.

Over the 26 years I wrote an outdoor column for The MV Times, whenever I thought I was on the wrong tack, I would open up “Outdoors,” a collection of Nelson Bryant columns. His straightforward approach to storytelling would help set me right.

A few months earlier I had stopped by to see Nelson and he was as usual up to something. Before I said goodbye I told him that for a man who had been shot twice, was a drinker and a womanizer, he was getting along pretty well.

Nelson thought about it for a moment and in his deep voice said, “One correction. I was not a womanizer. I liked women.”

When I was preparing my book I had asked Nelson to write something for the back cover. He had agreed, which I took as a compliment of the highest order. And I wanted him to have my first copy.

I presented him with my book. On an inside page I wrote, “To Nelson Bryant, an inspiration in so many ways.”

I pointed out that the cover was designed by Glenn Wolff, the artist who illustrated many of Nelson’s columns in the New York Times. That brought a twinkle to his eyes. Glenn was a very nice man, he said, and an excellent artist.

Nelson made his way to the oven and removed two loaves of bread which he placed on the counter to cool. Then he made his way back to the couch so we could chat.

Old age coupled with the lingering effects of the sound of gunfire and exploding shells has diminished his hearing and his failing eyesight makes it difficult for him to read or write, but Nelson still retains the enthusiasm for the outdoor life that permeated his columns over the three decades he wrote for The New York Times.

Before the end of the hunting season on Saturday, Nelson was looking forward to taking his muzzle loader out to the head of a nearby cove where he and his son hunt for deer. A ground blind they had purchased for the occasion sat in a corner of the yard. The thought of Nelson shouldering his muzzle loader brought a smile to my face. I asked if he had venison in the freezer. Yes, he said, friends had come by to make sure the old guy had venison. That’s the way it is on the Island.

This story was originally published in December 2017. Nelson Bryant died on Saturday, January 11, 2020 at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. He was 96.

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