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by Mark DeHaan | Dec 7, 2020 | BIRD HUNTING, HUNTING
A Chance of Frost

After the Storm by Rod Crossman


Deep within his soul, he needed the marsh and its ducks, perhaps now more than ever.
“Come duck hunting with me.”

What?” she asked as if she must have misheard him.

“Come duck hunting with me.”

Now Terri was no foreigner to hunting. She enjoyed walking the grass fields of the Dakotas, the angles of autumn’s golden light, the dog-work and the thrill of the flush. She loved the kaleidoscope of rich colors as she held the still-warm bird.

She had even endured and come to understand the rigors of elk and deer hunting. But to “get up dreadfully early, to sit in the dark, in a wet swamp and to shoot something you can’t even eat,” as she put it once – well that was beyond her comprehension. He might as well have asked her to step inside a strip joint.

Jack wouldn’t have even bothered to ask except that it had been three years since he last went duck hunting. Their son had married and moved cross-country and all of his old duck hunting buddies had either quit or died. Not that this really stopped him. He used to relish solitude and the challenges of solo hunting. But age and a recent stay in the hospital had made him readjust his expectations.


Ringnecks by Rod Crossman

He had gone 40 years without missing a single opening day. Or was it 50? He couldn’t be sure without checking his duck stamps, but he was certain that his soul needed the marsh and its ducks, perhaps now more than ever. When he was younger, he had hated the overwhelming feeling of winter closing in and shutting down all he loved. He needed to breathe again.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll make sure you stay warm.”

“Yeah, right! In a swamp?”

“You’ll see what I love about it.”

But he wondered if she really would enjoy it. What makes one man enjoy duck hunting and another golf? Logically, duck hunting did sound like the final stage of a terminal insanity – ”I’m sorry, Mrs. Thompson, there’s nothing more we can do for him. It has progressed from ice fishing to duck hunting.”

“Remember how you didn’t want to go deer hunting, but we ended up having a great time?”

“Yeah.”

“And I wouldn’t have gotten that big buck if you hadn’t seen it first.”

She always had an ability to see game. Even his buddies had noticed, and he felt an odd pride when they commented on it. Never mind that his wife was pretty, she was a hunter and a good one at that!

“Deer hunting can be a lot of fun. Duck hunting is beyond me.”

Silence followed and he knew it was hopeless. Still, he recklessly threw out a Hail Mary – “But we do everything together!”

Immediately he recognized the horrible disaster this pressure tactic could produce, so he was actually relieved when she said, “No, Dear. You are all on your own on this one.”

All on your own. Wasn’t that really it? As he felt his life closing down on him in that hospital, he had experienced a peculiar tunnel vision. He loved his praying wife with all his heart. But in what was perhaps his last hours, it was just he and his tunnel vision focusing on survival. It was ever narrowing until it was just a thread, it seemed. Even though he knew God was somewhere in that tunnel, he struggled to grasp something to haul himself out.

She had nursed and prayed him back to health, and for that he was forever grateful. But he sensed that in the end, we are all on our own.

Well, I’m not getting any younger, he thought to himself. Someday I won ‘t be able to hunt, even if I want to.
He laughed and said aloud, “Hell, I’m a spring chicken compared to what I will be in five years.”

Terri made a face. “What?”

He smiled and said, “That’s okay, Sweetie. I can go by myself. Have for years. No problem at all.”

Jack had actually enjoyed the physical test of duck hunting. The battle with the cold. The exertion of dragging and paddling the boat through the tules. The skill of navigating in the dark to a particular spot on the marsh. The sense of challenge and danger, then eventual freedom as the sun rose and the marsh came alive.

With age and all that had gone on recently, he felt danger closer than ever. But early in life he learned that fear can rob you of joy. He wasn’t sure who was worse: people paralyzed by fear or those who wasted their time worrying if their glass was half-empty or half-full. He still thought it was easier to drink straight from the faucet than to mess with a glass. He vowed to press on with his hunting until he simply could not do it anymore, and then spend his remaining time reliving all the wonderful memories. Besides, he wouldn’t really be hunting alone. He had Early, his faithful Labrador, along with him.

He remembered another storm he had been in once. The waves had come up and he had watched one of his wooden decoys dragging anchor. He was cold, and so he told himself he would just keep an eye on it and retrieve it if it got too far out. Though he spent most of the next morning walking the shoreline, he never found the decoy. He learned something deep that day.

He checked the weather report for the next day, then dug out all the tools that made duck hunting such a unique sport. Decoys, calls, camo, waders, boat. He scowled as he packed away the box of steel shotshells. Like Viagra. An expensive, poor substitute for the original, he thought to himself.

It took him a half-hour to find “Billy,” the lucky old decoy. Long ago, his then 8-year-old son had broken the decoy’s head and bill on their first hunt together. His son had felt terrible, and later had done his best to make things right by gluing the head on backwards, making it a “sleeper.” He wouldn’t consider hunting without it now.

In the Clouds by Rod Crossman

Jack set the alarm that night, but he slept fitfully, dreaming of ducks and missed alarm calls. He hit the alarm before it rang, gently kissed Terri, said a prayer and quietly slipped out to the living room where his clothes had been laid out. He dressed and grabbed a bowl of cereal. He’d never been a coffee drinker – bitter stuff unless you put enough milk and sugar in it. So he grabbed a Coke for the road and was out the door. Early whined in the kennel – she knew there was only one reason the Boss got up at 4 a.m.

Though he was excited, it seemed harder than usual to stay awake during the half-hour drive to the marsh. Early was wide awake though and whined in anticipation. He patted her, then reached into his coat pocket to be sure he hadn’t forgotten Gunner’s collar. Damn, putting Gunner down was the most painful thing he’d ever done. His first real face-to-face with death. Everyone told him it was the right thing to do. The “kind thing.” If they had seen those wondering yet trusting eyes like he had as his buddy breathed his last would they dare say the word “kind”? The sobbing had come from deep within as he apologized over and over to Gunner.

Afterwards he felt like a protective blanket of naive innocence had been ripped away. A huge sadness settled on him that he couldn’t shake. Finally, Terri told him he had to get another dog. And indeed the puppy they named Early had worked wonders with his attitude. The words from an old Pete Seger tune ran through his head: “Wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then.”

He shook it off as he pulled into the empty lot.

“Good, all alone.”

He turned off the truck and stepped out. He paused to soak in the ancient murmur of restless ducks in the marsh. His favorite song of all. The ink-black sky was bursting with stars. All of it was salve to his soul.

Putting on his headlamp he found the water was at a good level, with just a touch of ice along the edges.

“Great!”

He launched the boat and began loading it with gear when he saw the headlights of another rig coming down the lane.

Darn it! Better hurry so I can get to my spot first.

He heard the approaching footsteps and was dreading the delay from morning chit-chat. Instead, he was startled by, “I couldn’t sleep anyway. I was worried.” He saw Terri had rummaged around and found some old gear.

“These clothes make me look fat,” she shrugged.

He gave her a hug and a kiss, and they finished loading the boat.

They watched the sun come up together, and he made a nice shot on a decoying ringbill. But she didn’t have enough of the right clothes and he saw her shivering. She apologized as they pulled the dekes, but he said, “That’s okay, Honey. I guess some people are just wired to enjoy all this stuff.”

Back at the truck with the heater at full blast, she put it differently – “The minister said ‘for better or for worse,’ but he never once mentioned duck hunting.”
 
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