BOOK SAMPLES

Bill Burkett
8 min readJan 11, 2024

I recently posted one chapter each from three volumes of my Venus Mons Iliad. My 2024 idea is to post samples from all my books. This begins samples from my Duck Hunter Diary trilogy.

Cash Book in Nassau

“The journals, stacked neatly in order, filled one large box and part of another…”Waystation by Clifford D. Simak

December 1969. We were living on Crawford Street in the Oakes Field section of Nassau that year, next door to a big lumberyard and right around the corner from the offices of The Bahamas Handbook, whose staff I had joined as contributing editor. Our “bed sitter,” as the British style one-bedroom apartments, was on the crest of a low hill above the defunct Tropicana Club.

I opened a faded, weathered ledger with the legend “Cash Book” inscribed on the spine that I salvaged from one of the abandoned apartments on the club property. The hard covers had taken a beating but protected the blank pages. There was a brown-edged burn-hole beginning on page 29, fading to a scorch mark on page 34. I found the endurance of the battered and burned old book appealing, as if it had been saving those blank pages just for me. I was out of pages in the notebook I had been using for hunting notes; finding the old Cash Book seemed serendipitous. So as the last hours of the turbulent sixties ticked into history, I began to write:

ON HUNTING

I am starting this in Nassau, Capital City of the Bahamas, located on the island of New Providence. I am 26 years old and have been since August of 1969. Tonight is December 30, 1969, the verge of a new year and an ideal time for thinking about things that I have been putting off…

I was living the expatriate life in Nassau, next to a lumberyard. I had read that Ernest Hemingway scored his first major literary success at about age 26, when he was an expatriate and lived above a sawmill in Paris. Lumberyard in Nassau, sawmill in Paris; close enough. It seemed a good omen. For luck, I kept a well-thumbed paperback copy of Fiesta (the British title for The Sun Also Rises) on top of my spiral writing notebooks. When I sat down each evening to write, I had the accompaniment of Zed-NS Radio’s music and the Out Island personal announcements: “Arthur. Please meet the mailboat at Clarencetown…”

Shirrel Rhoades, executive editor of the Handbook, had wangled me a job in the islands, even though expatriate work-permits were drying up under the advent of a political party that had come to power on a platform of The Bahamas for Bahamians. I wrote:

This has all come to a head because I shot a Bahamian coot this morning on Lake Killarney out by the airport with my newest gun, a 16-gauge straight-grip double barrel with automatic ejectors, of Spanish manufacture.

It cost me B$130 and $B5 for a shotgun permit from the Bahamas Police and $B6 to have a layabout from the Bahamas Ironmongery run around to all the offices and get all the proper receipts and stamps, etc. Dupuch Publications paid me back the B$11, because the plan was for me to write about the Out Islands for the company, including the shooting, and get paid for going on the trips.

It was the job I was hired to do because I am known as a good and workmanlike writer. The first person that I really worked at writing for, beside myself, was Charlie Brock, editor of the Florida Times-Union Sunday Magazine. The first thing I wrote for Charlie was a book review about another man’s writing. Then I wrote about deep-sea fishing, about Zeno Bass the skeet shooter, and about the Guano. The Guano was the first time that I tried to write for others about those things I had only written about for myself until then. I do not count my fiction. I write fiction because for some strange reason I am a Writer. Writing is something I can do without, but badly, as hunting is something I can do without, but worse…

That night in 1969, I was grieving the duck season I gave up to come to the islands. An archipelago that one early travel writer christened the “eternal isles of June” did little to assuage my longing for winter wind and ducks circling the decoys.

Our bed-sitter was both uninsulated and unheated, and the slight elevation exposed it to night sea winds that whistled shrilly through the jalousie panes on door and windows. When the temperature occasionally dropped near 40 it felt damned cold for an eternal June, and reminded me of hunting season too much. No ducks circled the kidney-shaped swimming pool behind the bankrupt, empty club — though it was swampy looking with debris from the trade winds. Nobody drained it or cleaned it or used it.

In the waning hours of the sixties, my fiction had stalled. I was trying to change genres from science fiction to “serious” fiction. Charlie Brock, a great admirer of Hemingway, bore some responsibility for that. While I worked for him I had been writing my second science-fiction novel. With youthful hubris fueled by success of my first, I intended the second to be far more ambitious.

But hardly a day went by that Charlie didn’t lobby me to put away such childishness. It was okay to sell a science fiction novel at age 20, he conceded. But it was time now for me to take up a man’s work. I resisted his blandishments — but they took root despite my best efforts.

Then I got drafted into the Army before I finished the second novel. Two years in the military blew my daily writing discipline and flushed my grandiose science-fiction plot right out of my brain. The year I got out of the Army, I jammed the manuscript through to an unsatisfactory conclusion, but failed to sell it. Charlie’s seeds had sprouted, well-watered by two years of exposure to “real life.” I had lost faith in science fiction and it showed. You couldn’t smuggle poorly imagined work past the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. — especially when he liked you. But I hadn’t quite worked that all out yet in 1969.

Nassau was going to be my fresh start. I would regain writing form with the outdoor-oriented Out Island travel book I was hired to write, and spend off-hours learning to write “straight” fiction. But the book I had been hired to write was off the table because the publisher changed his mind.

My familiar nemesis, black depression, hovered at the edges of my mind. Writing and hunting had been my twin antidotes as a teenager. With the island hunting so poor, and my fiction stalled, maybe writing about hunting would lift the dark cloud. To prime the pump, I started consolidating my previous scraps of writing about hunting. I had with me, even in Nassau, a little Southern Maid Composition Book (10 cents and one Southern Maid coupon) in which I wrote my first words about hunting — a single line — when I was 13:

Gray Squirrel. Marlin 81-DL .22 with Bob Lovelace. First Game, 1956.

That 1956 entry had been called powerfully to mind the previous August, before I came to the Bahamas. But I wrote nothing about that at the time. In Nassau, I decided to correct the oversight:

I will here mention the year 1969 out of context…I was a civil service editor for a Navy newspaper — the job from which Shirrel rescued me — with mustache, long hair and sideburns, incongruous among the crewcuts, khaki uniforms and olive flight suits on a Navy parking ramp at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Fla. I was directing the news coverage of the return home of a Carrier Air Wing from deployment in the Mediterranean.

The Wing was led by Commander Robert H. Lovelace, flying an F-8 Crusader. He was a lieutenant when the editor was a 13-year-old boy with a Marlin 81-DL, following his faded flight coverall through the woods across the road from the Mayport Cemetery… about to be guided onto my first squirrel kill by the tall pilot who could catch Sheepshead off the jetties when the local niggers couldn’t.

I watched from a distance as his wife broke out the champagne and he and their son — about the age I had been then — pounded each other’s backs. When I introduced myself, he couldn’t seem to connect the 6’2, 208-pound civilian with too much hair who loomed over him with that crew-cut boy in 1956. I’m not sure he even remembered the incident. I left him to his celebration: home from the sea, the man who had set me looking for a hill to climb with a gun and a game bag for the rest of my life…

Thus in the waning hours of the infamous 1960s, which read a lot better than they lived, I formally initiated my Hunting Log in the charred Cash Book. I eventually filled its pages in Pennsylvania; I liked the sense of permanence the heavy, bound book gave me. So I purchased a similar ledger new at Hershey Department Store, the ultimate company store in the town built on chocolate.

When the Hershey log was full, I purchased another ledger somewhere else. The years and my personal caravansaries — what Clifford Simak called way stations in the quote above — marched by. The ledgers stacked up. Some of the entries provided grist for published duck hunting stories in various venues, from Ducks Unlimited Magazine to the reborn Saturday Evening Post.

Twenty years after I left Nassau, an exceptional editor named Nicoletta Barrie, who edited the DU magazine when Ducks Unlimited still was headquartered north of Chicago, expressed curiosity about tales so far unwritten from my hunting logs, particularly the episodic story of a pair of chest waders I purchased for Saunders, a Nassau air traffic controller.

Niki’s interest encouraged me to consider stringing together my unpublished hunting log into the narrative of a life. I was still thinking about it in the 1990s during a period of profound emotional malaise that essentially immobilized me.

An astute therapist finally gave me an official title for the lifelong darkness that periodically engulfed me: clinical depression. Only two things ever lifted the darkness for very long: writing and hunting. By the time I sought professional help, I wasn’t writing or hunting. Writing came back first. Then, well into the new century, I finally started hunting ducks again.

Forty years after I sat by a jalousie window in Nassau to write about hunting as a medicine against melancholy, I began this narrative inspired by Niki’s interest — for much the same motive. Old and crippled-up, trapped by a fixed-income, it looked like my hunting days were once more numbered. So I returned to my journals as a kind of Castor Oil for the soul.

My brother Earl gave me a working title for such a narrative: “Call it the Duck Hunter Diaries,” he told me.

And so I have.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.