The Bryant Brothers

They’ve lived vastly different lives, but for Nelson and Danny Bryant of West Tisbury, the outdoors has always been their common love.

Nelson Bryant was nine years old when his family moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and his father marked the occasion by giving his son a sheath knife and a splendidly illustrated copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The gifts helped cultivate Nelson’s love of the outdoors, which led to a thirty-year career writing about it for the New York Times.

In those early days, the Bryant family lived modestly on the Island. Nelson Sr. had worked as an accountant for a publishing company in Wellesley, but when he moved from Needham to the Island in 1932 with his wife, Olga, he was captivated by the simplicity and camaraderie of small town living. In addition to being a West Tisbury selectman more than thirty years, Nelson Sr. did a small amount of insurance work, and Olga was the children’s librarian at the West Tisbury Library.

Nelson was eleven years old when his brother, Danny, was born, and he recalls their childhood as a somewhat hardscrabble life typical of many other Island families during those days.

“We really were as poor as church mice,” Nelson remembers. “When I was in grade school and high school I used to help Carl Magnuson hoe his corn, and Mabel Johnson had a big garden and I’d help her with that, and I’d pluck chickens for Carl Magnuson too, but half of what I made went for food for our family.”

Except for fishing and clay-pigeon shooting, Nelson Sr. wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, but he encouraged his sons to get acquainted with their natural surroundings. Since fish were readily available in Island waters, he would take his sons fishing, nurturing a lifelong love of the sport in the two of them.

When both brothers would call the Island home in their adult years, they hunted and fished together some, but Danny preferred to fish from a boat as their father had done, while Nelson liked casting from shore.

Though they had a common love of the outdoors, the two brothers lived very different lives, until Danny’s life ended last spring at the age of seventy-six from injuries he sustained in a fall.

Nelson Bryant

Both boys went to the West Tisbury School and then to Tisbury High, where Nelson did particularly well in English.

“But in those days,” he says, “there were no guidance counselors to suggest colleges to you or find out what you might want to do in life. I was lucky though. The Hull children – Danny and Richard and Rose – who were summer neighbors of ours, had an uncle who ran the Norfolk School for Boys in Norfolk, Connecticut, and sometimes he’d come here to visit. ‘Nelson,’ he said to me one day, ‘our school is on a farm and we grow a lot of our own stuff and cut our own wood. If you will help cut the wood and do some of the farm work, I’ll give you room and board and you can take courses.’

“Well, as it turned out, Dartmouth came out of that: I was using a farmer’s horse one day; her name was Nellie. I’d learned how to plow with her. This older man came up the hillside where I was working. I’d heard about him and knew he was a retired colonel in the military. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘I like the way you work. I think you’d be a good man for Dartmouth.’

“I told him of course I’d like to go to Dartmouth but that there was no money in my family for that sort of education. ‘To hell with the money,’ he said. ‘Let’s get you in first.’

“Well, I did get in, and my mother’s father, who’d been a ship’s doctor, died about then and he’d left a little money. I got enough of it to be able to pay for a semester at Dartmouth, which cost $350 in those days. So I went for one semester and then left because of the war.”

Nelson was born with a lazy right eye, but it didn’t keep him from serving in the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He managed to outfox the doctors about his eye during his physical exam and was accepted. He parachuted into Normandy and the Netherlands, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was twice wounded. The first time was just a few days after the D-Day invasion.

“I was a sort of a scout. I had a working knowledge of French from the Vineyard Haven school, where Lena McCoy had taught me, and I had taken French that one semester at Dartmouth, so I was taking patrols out at night because I could talk a little with the French people. We’d go to farmhouses and try to find out what the farmers knew about the Germans. I was on one of these patrols and a machine gun up on a hill was fired. It killed my fellow soldier and a bullet went through my right chest. I was just lying there on the ground and one of our patrols came by me. Then it came back and Major Shields Warren, the officer in charge of the patrol, stepped over me and said, ‘Nelson, if you don’t want to be taken prisoner, you’d better cut out of here,’ and so, with the help of a buddy, I got up. I spent five days after that hidden in a hedgerow with others who were wounded, and then an ambulance took me to a field hospital on the English Channel.”

When the war ended Nelson returned to the Vineyard, met and married Jean Morgan from Edgartown, and worked briefly at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution before taking advantage of the GI bill to return to Dartmouth College. Later he received a fellowship to study English in graduate school at Brown University. He decided, however, that he was not “a scholarly type” and left school. By that time, he also had a family to support.

Nelson worked for a couple of newspapers in New England, but the lure of the Vineyard was always there, and in 1965 when his brother-in-law Bob Morgan started a dock-building business in Edgartown, he returned to the Island to work with him.

Then two years later, a newspaperman friend told him Oscar Godbout, the longtime writer of the New York Times “Wood, Field and Stream” column, had died. He told Nelson that with his writing ability and love of the out-of-doors and hunting and fishing, he would be the perfect replacement.

“So I wrote to the sports editor of the Times,” Nelson recalls, “and I was asked down to meet with Turner Catledge, the managing editor, and Clifton Daniel, who was married to Margaret Truman. It really wasn’t much of an interview. I just sat there smoking my pipe and encouraging them to talk about themselves, though Catledge, who was a Southerner, did ask me if I knew how to kill a possum and promptly gave me a description. Anyway, they asked me to go home and write three columns and they’d pay me for them whether they used them or not.

“Well, they hired me, but they wanted me to move to New York and with a young family, I said how in hell could I do that. I told them I’d have to have quite a pad in the city. It would have to be big enough for five canoes and twenty guns and twenty or thirty fishing rods and boxes of knives and tenting equipment and sleeping bags and decoys and a wife and four kids and an ailing mother. So it was agreed that I could keep the Vineyard as my home base.”

For the next thirty years, he worked full time for the paper, writing three to five 1,500-word columns a week. He did all the things that he loved: fishing and hunting and camping. He went grouse shooting in Scotland and salmon fishing with Bing Crosby on Admiralty Island off Alaska. He fished for trout in New Hampshire ponds and for Atlantic salmon in Quebec. He hunted elk in Wyoming, deer in Minnesota, and antelope in Montana. He traveled from Nova Scotia to Alaska to Costa Rica, sometimes being away from home for as long as five weeks at a time.

“For the first fifteen years, the column kept its original name and then they decided to change it to ‘Outdoors’ so it could include things like flying kites and climbing glaciers,” he says, a trifle disdainfully.

Divorced since the 1980s, Nelson now lives behind the old family house on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road with artist Ruth Kirchmeier. Decoys and fishing gear and old-fashioned garden rakes embellish the walls of their tidy home, which was converted from a goat shed. He still hunts and fishes on the Island. He saws his own wood in the fall with a chain saw, makes the frames for Ruth’s pictures, and proudly grows potatoes and squash and radishes and other vegetables in his garden. Now he is also recalling the adventures of the past in writing a memoir.

He says he feels about the Vineyard today “the way I might about a high school girlfriend who’s fallen on hard times. In the end, our species just isn’t slowing down procreation enough to leave room for the other species.”

In Nelson Bryant’s second book, Outdoors: A Personal Selection from Twenty Years of Columns from the New York Times, (his first was Fresh Air, Bright Water) he writes nostalgically of the Vineyard that he and Danny knew in their young days.

“Those were the years when the boy,” he wrote, referring to himself, “could spend an entire August afternoon, nibbling watercress and watching trout hover over the pebbles in a brook....It was the time when a gull’s cry, muted by fog and distance, could call a boy down miles of empty beach alone, his thoughts as wide as the Atlantic.”

Danny Bryant

During the same forty years that Nelson traveled far afield in his work for the New York Times, Danny made only occasional trips off-Island. There were deer- and elk-hunting trips in Minnesota with his boyhood friend Dave Tilton, an adventure in Alaska in which he came face to face with a grizzly bear, and a hunting trip in Montana where he suffered from severe altitude sickness and had to be carried back by donkey for medical help.

There were two memorable trips to Cuba. Once he went bird-watching with Sue Whiting and Flip Harrington of Chilmark. (On the Vineyard Danny always participated in the annual Christmas bird count.) On another visit he went fishing and saw tarpon and snook, “but they weren’t biting,” he reported philosophically. He more successfully hunted fulvous tree ducks in the mangrove swamps of western Cuba; meanwhile, his politically active wife – he had married Betty Ann Lima of Edgartown – enjoyed Havana and visited schools and children’s camps and sugar mills, and got a glimpse of Fidel Castro. One (possibly embellished) report of that trip – and one in which Danny delighted – has it that he and Raúl Castro, the brother of Fidel and current president of Cuba, had a wrestling match together on Fidel’s lawn.

Then there were ten days in France with West Tisbury’s Whit Griswold and Laura Wainwright. That trip, with no hunting or fishing involved, brought out an entirely different side of Danny.

“Danny had always said he would never go to the city,” Whit, his longtime fishing companion, recalls. “And he said if he did, he would have to pack a sidearm and he’d never go on a subway. But we spent three nights in Paris on our way to a wedding and he embraced the city completely. He came alive in a way that was exciting to watch. He was observant of the architectural detail. He enjoyed the museums and was interested in the history. He was knowledgeable about the food and wine. For all the macho bluster that he put forth, Danny was a very bright guy. I knew that, we all knew that, but you could really see it on that Paris visit.”

Still, what Danny really enjoyed was fishing the waters and hunting the woods of the Vineyard he so loved. He delighted in his sometimes outrageous ventures, and in bringing pleasure to his hunting and fishing companions.

How much pleasure he brought to them was made clear at this past summer’s celebration of his life: Nearly three hundred people gathered at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury to pay tribute to Danny Bryant’s independence, his charm, his skills as a woodsman and fisherman, his impishness, his good-heartedness, and even his unruliness. Iconoclast that he was, he lived a life that many of his less daring friends envied.

After attending Tisbury High School, Danny learned house-painting from Tony Rezendes Sr. of West Tisbury, and began to earn a living painting houses and finishing floors. He was remarkably adept at his trade and renowned for his ability to paint with two hands at once, thereby shortening the number of hours a given job took. Most of the time, of course, he was paid in cash for his work, but there were barter arrangements too, by which he acquired paintings of favorite Vineyard spots to decorate the walls of the 1840s Chilmark house in which he lived with Betty Ann until her death in 1994. In more recent years, he shared that home with Evelyn Dengler, a substitute teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, whom he had met when he was doing a house-painting job in Cambridge, where she then lived. By his own admission, Danny was never particularly interested in continuing formal education after high school, as his brother had done. Confinement of the kind found in a classroom never appealed to him.

While he was painting houses, he was often singing opera with his rich tenor voice and endearing himself to his customers. But of course he preferred taking painting jobs when the bass and the bluefish weren’t running and it wasn’t yet deer- or goose- or duck-hunting season. If he were at a job and felt the urge to go fishing instead, he was very likely to put his brushes in turpentine and close up the can of paint until another day.

He also scoured bottle dumps for old glass treasures and dug in the green sand – a type of clay near the Gay Head Cliffs – that he said helped preserve the fossils he liked to collect. He adorned the shelves in his living room with arrowheads and fossilized leaves and quahaugs and sharks’ teeth, one of which he estimated to be twenty million years old.

Danny had developed an enthusiasm for guns because of his father’s extensive collection. He packed the powder and shot into the shotgun shells he used for hunting, and arranged spectacular fireworks displays for Fourth of July celebrations at Quansoo for family and friends and his dogs. (One, Duchess, was always delighted when she could chase bottle rockets on the beach.) And sometimes he quietly did some unsung kind deed, such as searching tirelessly in the sand with his metal detector for a tearful child’s lost ring.

At the celebration of his life in July, he was variously remembered as a Renaissance man who played the piano, organ, recorder, and guitar; collected art; cooked with panache; was a man’s man, but also very much a woman’s man; was ever curious and ever playful; and was an old-time Vineyarder whose likes will not be seen again.

His ashes are in the garden of his house, mixed with things that he loved: beach glass and fossils and seashells that his granddaughter, Miranda, found on the beach. They are in a plaster garden statue of a teenage boy – Danny Boy, Evelyn calls it, because it reminds her of him. Beside it in the yard stands a dogwood planted to commemorate his mother, Olga, at the time of her death in 1996.

Fishing fresh and salt water

Nelson warmly remembers his first trout-fishing expedition, when he was ten, with his friend Little Beany (so-called, though not to his face, because he was the son of Big Beany – Albion Alley Sr., who first clerked at, and later owned, the West Tisbury general store).

“April first was the start of the fishing season in Massachusetts in those days, and Beany got me all fired up. He told me we would need night crawlers to fish with and that we could get them with a lantern at night. If you mixed dry mustard and water and poured it into their holes, the night crawlers would come right up, Beany said, and he was right. We managed to collect a lot of them for that first day of trout fishing. By 4 a.m. that April 1, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep anymore, so I went to Beany’s house and up to his window and tapped on it. Of course, he wanted to stay in bed.

“‘We’re not going to go fishing in the dark,’ he said. ‘Go home and come back when the sun is up.’ I didn’t want to go all the way back to my parents’ house half a mile away, but Beany had a beagle I was very fond of, so I went out to her doghouse and I said, ‘Can I share your house with you?’ and she indicated yes and there was room for us both inside and I slept very soundly there and didn’t wake up until Beany was approaching with a bowl of food for the dog and he dropped the bowl when he saw me in the doghouse with her and said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ Anyway, we did go trout fishing finally and I found out that Little Beany was a very good instructor.”

About the same time, with George Magnuson Jr., young Nelson began setting traps for muskrats, for it was possible to get three dollars a skin for a muskrat “and the hourly wage for someone my age doing a regular job was ten cents an hour,” Nelson says.

“We had about forty traps that we set on Tisbury Great Pond and up the Tiasquam and the Mill Brook, and we’d empty them every day and skin the muskrats and dry the skins on a shingle in George’s mother’s backyard and then we’d ship them off to...a company in the Midwest that used them to make clothing from them, I guess.”

For fishing, it was salt water that Danny cottoned to rather than fresh water, twice winning the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby – once for bass and once for bluefish. But he liked to fish for “anything that has fins on it,” he would say with enthusiasm.

When he went out in a boat after fish, he often took a pistol along with him, according to Dave Tilton. “Danny had a damn good eye,” he remembers, “and sometimes he’d insist that I change course so he could shoot at Portuguese men-of-war in the water, or balloons, or anything else that was floating by. He’d frequently shoot two hundred or three hundred rounds a day.”

In their teens, he and Dave would take one of Nelson’s pup tents and camp out for a weekend up-Island either in the Purdom property off South Road or on the Woods property on North Road. They would fish for trout in the Seven Gates Mill Pond or Woods Pond.

He learned the art of fishing well. Menemsha fisherman Everett Poole says Danny was so skillful with a rod and reel that “he could catch a striped bass in the middle of Main Street.”

Like his father, who had had an outboard to fish from, Danny had a boat – the Alcove – that he kept at Menemsha for fishing and for lobstering. He also crabbed and oystered and clammed in season and, for a time, fished for swordfish.

The summer when he was fourteen, in search of adventure, he went on his first swordfishing expedition. It was to Georges Bank aboard Alton Tilton’s Southern Cross out of Vineyard Haven. It wasn’t the happiest of adventures. The bounding sea on Georges Bank was too much for him. He vowed that he would never go swordfishing again, but Danny was not one to be put down for long and the following summer he was at it again. In his adult years, he swordfished out of Menemsha, proudly harpooning his own fish with Benny Mayhew, and later fishing commercially for a time with Walter Manning.

Hunting ducks, deer, and more

When he was eleven, Nelson got a very special gift for Christmas: a single-barreled 20-gauge shotgun – his first gun. It wasn’t, he admits, really legal to be the owner of a shotgun at that age, but his parents knew how long he and Little Beany had been playing at duck hunting.

Nelson’s aunt Cecile Simmons had bought a piano and inventive Nelson asked if he could have the crate it had come in. He and Beany then carefully carried it down to the upper end of Tisbury Great Pond’s Town Cove and fashioned the crate into a duck blind, nailing it against a wild cherry tree to keep it stationary, equipping it with a door and a window and a bench and a plumber’s candle for light. They put decoys out in front of it as the grown-up hunters did. The ducks and the Canada geese came in, but the boys – equipped only with BB guns – had no luck in shooting any, despite their most diligent efforts.

So as soon as he had his own real shotgun in hand, Nelson walked from the family house on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road down to Town Cove to shoot his first duck. “It was a very quiet, sunny Christmas Day,” he remembers. “It wasn’t at all a good duck-hunting day. But I was determined. I didn’t bother with Beany’s and my blind, but I hid behind a muskrat house and waited patiently.

“All of a sudden I saw a lone black duck come flying up the pond. I shot at him and down he fell,” Nelson recalls. “I very proudly took him home to Mother to cook for dinner and she said, ‘If you want to eat it, you’re going to have to clean it.’

“I’d plucked chickens before when we were having them for Sunday dinner, but a duck’s feathers are stuck on harder. But I did the job.”

His appetite thereby whetted for hunting, Nelson next constructed a blind at the head of Mill Pond and from behind it would happily shoot at passing ducks. “And when there weren’t any more flying by, or I was tired of hunting, I’d walk up to Charlie Turner’s store – that’s Alley’s now – and lean my gun up against the porch and go inside and talk around the pot-bellied stove with the old timers. Yes, it was a different era then.”

Deer-hunting was Danny’s first love. He was fifteen when he got his first shotgun from his father. In those days, he recalled this past spring, contrary to most people’s notion, “deer were a lot thicker on the Island than they are now. Now you put up a gun and you see a Mercedes-Benz. You can’t shoot within five hundred feet of a house and, of course, there are houses everywhere these days,” he said sadly.

“When Danny was hunting deer, he had nothing else on his mind,” Nelson remembers, recalling his brother’s impatience with him when they hunted together because Nelson’s attention might stray to a cluster of oyster mushrooms on a rock or he would pause to smoke his pipe or try to lure a chickadee to share his sandwich. Danny, Nelson says, was a truly dedicated deer hunter.

“If he saw an antler, he would get the deer,” reports Trina Kingsbury of Chilmark.

In the early years of deer-hunting season on the Island, it lasted only six days – hardly enough for inveterate deer-hunters like Danny. So, many an Islander would jack deer after dark, blinding the deer either with the car headlights or a hand-held spotlight.

Dave Tilton recalls one of Danny’s most infamous deer- jacking escapades: “He and Towser Tilton were road-hunting – that’s shooting at deer from the highway – one night down near Craig Kingsbury’s in Vineyard Haven. A big buck had crossed the road near Craig’s and Towser shot at it. Of course that made noise and woke Craig up and he came out with a double-barreled shotgun. Danny was driving and had just turned the car around to head back up-Island when Craig came out and fired at them. One shot went through the side of the car and the other through the trunk and it lodged in the seat right under Danny.” This is the way Dave Tilton remembers the tale. In the 1960s, a Vineyard Gazette Invitation Edition article about the deer-jacking adventures of Davy Briar and his jeep station wagon, the Bull, was really about Danny and his jeep station wagon, the Bug, according to Dave Tilton, who adds, “But we all jacked deer back then when there was only a six-day hunting season.”

Danny’s encounters with the Island game warden Ed Bannister are often remembered by his hunting cronies, including the time when Warden Bannister went to Danny’s house, sure that a deer had been jacked and that he would find it somewhere. Danny protested innocence – until his dog came along, wagging its tail, with part of the deer’s head in its mouth.

Deer-jacking episodes ended after the hunting season was extended and there was plenty of opportunity to get a deer and when Danny’s frequent hunting companion, West Tisbury’s late Police Chief George Manter, warned that if he caught him jacking again he’d take him off to the jail in Edgartown.

Both brothers have always cooked what they shot or fished. Danny tended to dress things up with a fine sauce, while Nelson prepares his fish or game in a more forthright fashion, but both have always been known for the fine fare from their frying pans or grills. His “lunch duck,” Danny always said, was the species of teal “because it is small.”

Danny shot his first deer at age fifteen, on the first day of the Island’s first deer season, when he and Dave Tilton were walking the Quansoo Road in Chilmark after school. He never missed a deer season after that. Nor, of course, did he ever miss goose- or duck- or rabbit-hunting seasons. His regular rabbit-hunting companion was Tony Rezendes Jr.

“He just liked being out-of-doors. He was hardly happier than being out in a blowing gale at Black Point in Chilmark looking for ducks,” Dave Tilton remembers.

Danny knew the marshes of Chilmark’s Black Point better than anyone on the Island, insist the members of what was known as George Manter’s hunting “gang,” to which Danny, along with Mike Lynch, Tim Rich, and his sons, Jonathan and Josh, Dave Tilton, Whit Manter, Flip Harrington, Prescott Walsh, and Skipper Manter, belonged. In his hunting heyday, it was a feasting ground for teal and mallards and black ducks and he was a staunch supporter of Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit wetlands-conservation organization. After one of his less stellar duck-hunting adventures, however, he earned the nickname “Clumps,” which stuck with him.

Hunting at dusk, so the story goes, he alerted his companions to ducks he saw bobbing in the water in the distance. He moved in for the kill – only to discover the three ducks were actually three clumps of grass. Thereafter, he was “Clumps” to his hunting friends.

Danny and Nelson explored different roads in their lives, but over time their love of the out-of-doors and the stories of their experiences there proved the most common ground between them. Nelson’s deftness in writing about his experiences in wood, field, and stream, sometimes including his younger brother in the stories he shared, allowed countless readers entry to the outdoor world. The raffish Danny delighted in the re- telling of his many adventures – by himself and others – almost as much as the experiences themselves.