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‘You can’t make this stuff up’: Jim Carmichel reflects on life’s tales

Jim Carmichel penned “The Great Jonesboro Pigeon Shoot” after spending time in his office across from the courthouse in Tennessee’s oldest town. (Photo contributed)

Spending time with writer Jim Carmichel is a lot like enjoying a great concert — the more you listen, the more you want to hear.

Carmichel is, forgive the cliché, a colorful character, but there is nothing cliché about him.

Retired after 40 years of writing for Outdoor Life and several other publications, Carmichel is a wealth of information and the tireless teller of tales. That talent for turning a phrase and telling a story, coupled with his interest in shooting and the technicalities of the sport, led Carmichel to his life’s work.

“I read a lot of shooting magazines,” he said. “The articles really weren’t all that good. I got to thinking and I figured I could do as well.”

So Carmichel went to the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, walked right into the office of the editor, the late Tom Hodge, and said, in essence, “Here I am, a ball of fire. You need a weekly column on guns. Believe it or not, he hired me and they paid me $5 a column.

That was all the encouragement it took to inspire the young writer to take a shot at even bigger game — national magazines.”

He began sending his writing to various publications and even landed a couple of jobs that paid $100 a column.

“The columns were just free enough of mistakes,” Carmichel said. “Editors liked me, so more and more magazines wanted my writing.”

Finally, when a friend offered him a free airline ticket, Carmichel took the biggest risk of all. He flew to New York City with $60 in his pocket and called on the editors of Outdoor Life.

And it paid off.

“Bright as brass, I walked into their offices in Manhattan and said, ‘Here I am,’” Carmichel recalled. “They gave me a fish-eyed look and they said, ‘We’ll call you.’ You know how that usually goes, but a few months later they did.”

This rest is history.

A native of Jonesborough, Carmichel’s work as shooting editor for Outdoor Life has since taken him to 21 countries, and his stories have been as varied as the game he has hunted.

“The more exotic the game, the fancier the story,” Carmichel said.

At least one of his hunting stories is neither exotic nor fancy; It is a humor piece about shooting pigeons in downtown Jonesborough.

In the 1960s, Carmichel married his first wife and moved to Arizona where he worked for a variety of publications. A divorce ensued and he returned to Jonesborough in the 1970s. Carmichel is currently married to the former Linda Crookshanks, of Jonesborough.

Upon his return to the area, the young writer rented upstairs office space in the building belonging to Harry Weems, who ran the local mens store (now the Jonesborough General Store).

That office and its windows facing the Washington County Courthouse gave Carmichel a perfect view of the hundreds of pigeons that roosted along the building’s roofline. Carmichel spent his spare time looking down the barrel of his rifle that he stuck out his office window, blasting away at the pesky birds.

He wrote about his escapades in “The Great Jonesboro Pigeon Shoot.” (The first installment of that story is printed on Page 7A of today’s Herald & Tribune.)

He writes about using the high-end air rifle he kept leaning against his windowsill, taking out pigeon after pigeon that dared perch on the courthouse ledge. He writes about his brush with the law because of his activity and the community’s reaction to his fowl vendetta.

Surely he made all that up. Nope.

Carmichel recently drove along Main Street and pointed out the two windows on the second floor that had offered his perfect vantage point.

“I saw all those pigeons up there,” Carmichel said, pointing to the roof of the courthouse. “I thought, what the heck, I’ll shoot anything.”

After making several unsuccessful attempts with an obsolete air rifle, a determined Carmichel purchased a more powerful weapon from Beemans air gun catalog.

“So there those pigeons were, all lined up,” he said. “They lived up on that lower rail. I shot one on the end and he flopped off. So, now they’re all looking, leaning forward and fluttering to see what happened to their buddy.”

Day after day, Carmichel’s shooting continued. He was soon joined by a local judge — the late Eddie Williams who also enjoyed the sport. Between the two, the pigeon population in Jonesborough decreased dramatically.

Someone jokingly told Carmichel he had shot so many pigeons that they had stopped up the gutters of the courthouse and caused the flooding in the basement.

“Of course, that’s nonsense,” he said, “but it sure added to the story.”

Several of Carmichel’s published stories are centered in Northeast Tennessee. Such an example is his saga of the opening of the first liquor store in Johnson City.

“Now just think about it,” he said. “How could that not be funny?”

The humorous stories were way off kilter for Carmichel, who normally wrote technical stories about guns.

“These weren’t my usual style and I was surprised when they published them,” he said.

His publisher liked his lighthearted stories and used them as a sort of tapering off from all the other heavy stuff, always printing them on the last page of the magazine. The articles carried the moniker “Just Jim” and many are filled with colorful stories of characters he encountered during his time living in his native East Tennessee.

“It wasn’t that hard to write all those tales,” he said.

“You see, in Jonesborough, you don’t have to make up anything,” he said with a grin. “Like my wife’s line about the old days in Jonesborough, “There’s a pink flamingo in every yard and an idiot on every porch.”