From The Duck Hunter Diaries, Volume Two; an opening day 40 years ago.

Opening day fever dream

October 11, 1981 — something new this year: violently ill Friday before opening day, then lying weak and emptied on Saturday, hearing the occasional far-off ka-POW of a deer rifle from the foothills. It just doesn’t seem like the season can have opened without me. A signal that reminds me, in my darkening depression, that all too soon all the seasons will open without me. Domestic matters remain chaotic with gray hopeless tinges that may presage final parting. In families of blood, you drag back together and go on — by which what do I mean? I mean gray, hopeless memories of arguments with Mama and Frances about me going hunting too are supplanted by other, better memories; they never kicked me out. Why should a wife these days bother to stick? There are plenty of men around to pander to a woman’s sense of self-importance. As my sexual powers wane I am probably little better than they. Since her and my ways of looking at everything else differ so greatly, why stay? But changes of that sort are but passing phantasms in the march of seasons toward your final one if you have made hunting seasons your talisman and your belief. Religion? Doug Dohne said hunting is what we have instead of religion.

I drift into a fevered dream of a room not unlike the one where in Corey Ford’s prose the Shooting, Angling and Inside Straight Club met to struggle into warm clothes and hip boots before heading into the gale to hunt ducks. The room shakes with the force of a pre-dawn storm; the ticking, gurgling wood stove in the ill-lighted room casts moving shadows on chairs close to the stove, where in the red firelight my fever conjures shadowy forms of hunting companions over the years…

There stands my brother Earl, magically a teenager again, his fair face puffy and slit-eyed from not-enough sleep, blonde hair standing up. And Ray Stafford who introduced us to deer hunting, and Larry Gwaltney who went with us. From high school days: Cricket Wampler, his watch cap permanently stuck on the back of his head, mock-cynical grin firmly in place; Kenneth Willis with his new Mossberg shotgun of which he was so proud, and Ray Headen; companions of my youth, ever-young in memory.

There’s Saunders, the black youth from the Out Islands; we hunted ducks on the lee side of New Providence Island and I ordered chest waders for him from the mainland but never was able to deliver them, which is a story of its own. But in this fever-dream he climbs into them. There sit the Italian croupiers from the Paradise Island casino, who donned gumboots and stylish wool pullovers over wilted night-shift working garb. With their expensive Charles Daley shotguns, they shot every shorebird that flew, legal game under liberal Bahamian hunt regs.

The ghost of my other brother, Jimmy, with whom I never hunted his Ohio River ducks. We caught eight-pound carp on pizza crusts off the stern of our father’s 32-foot cruiser in a yacht club moorage in Madison, Indiana and planned duck hunts that never happened. He died in a car crash at 21.

The redheaded guy in Pennsylvania, whose name I never knew, but shared his boat and blind with me on the wide Susquehanna River behind the steel mills, and showed me how to make handmade cork decoys. He could call black ducks like you wouldn’t believe, and used a J.C. Higgins pump with an action slick as glass. Ed Parsons, of “the Sho,” as Marylanders term it. We never shared a blind, but Ed made trips to the Eastern Shore special, telling the funniest duck hunting stories over coffee; Ed hunted with a Browning Auto-5 that he purchased in person in Belgium when he played there in an Army band. His wife would sit in her corner smiling quietly over tales she’d heard more than once. They never troubled their guests with the fact she was dying of cancer. Later he married her sister. The things you remember in the grip of a fever…

Doug Dohne of course: we worked together at the Harrisburg Evening News quite a while before we recognized each other as hunters; hunting was not a thing you admitted in the anti-gun news rooms of the 1970s. I gave Doug my cast-off but serviceable decoys when I left, and sold him my river jonboat for $40. Logs shift in the stove. Almost invisible stand the nameless trio of hunters who gave me a cold Coors beer one California bluebird day. The storm off the Pacific failed to materialize and they bemoaned forgetting their suntan lotion. One told me how to make goose decoys from used stereotype mats when daily newspapers still used hot type. There’s the other unnamed Californian I met in a Kern County refuge waiting line, up from Orange County with his Irish setter, which he had to board at a vet’s all week because, left alone while he was at work, it howled and neighbors complained. Fridays they escaped together in his camper, traveling two hundred miles to sit in a line and hope for an hour or two on a public marsh.

Vence was my editor for Fishing and Hunting News and my duck-calling mentor; his Lab Duke taught Harry to swim. Sullen and Oddjob-like in size, strength and newsroom demeanor, Vence became a happy Buddha in a duck blind, fingering his duck calls like prayer beads. Around Vence in my shadowed room gather the rest of the news crew: Terry, Paul Bunyan-size Northwesterner, grinning like a giant kid at any outing from duck hunting to capturing urban Lake Union crawdads in an inverted umbrella; Dan, quintessential tight-lipped news editor — until he used my Browning to scratch down his first duck, then grinning as if amazed; his assistant, the always-smiling Dave; Wayne with his hand-made Morseth knife and dogged pursuit of ethical behavior afield. Last but not least, big Warren, owner of the Springer that thought he could call ducks if he barked loud enough. Years later, Warren’s second Springer was better-behaved.

From the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phil and Sandy smile out of the shadows, conveying an illusion of our Long Lake campsite, over a mile in elevation, with mesquite-wood perfume, antelope steaks on the grill and widgeon whistling in the dark. Dave the quintessential javelina guide and Ed Dulin, the publisher from Delaware I got out hunting again. Don the wildlife manager with his Lab Trooper; Paul and Dave from Headquarters — all professing injured innocence when the rancher caught us trespassing on his duck marsh; the rancher almost had a stroke when he saw Game and Fish uniforms under the camouflage. There’s Jeane, the real estate man who sold me a house in Arizona and sold it for me when I left, and introduced me to desert quail hunting in between, close to the fire; it’s a little cold in this room for Arizonans.

The darkness fades, as if dawn is coming. The room empties out. The old timer who told me about mosquitoes swarming in a duck blind during a snowstorm slips on his worn canvas coat. I see Mike the Liquor Board auditor, retelling his tale about almost dying of hypothermia to set up a remote duck camp in pre-season weather supposed to be mild. Bob Harvey, the purchasing agent for all liquor sold in Washington State, talks about his three-inch Browning and Sauvie Island “rubber duckies,” a term to make a lover of decoys shudder. Bill Sherwood shoulders his worn .300 H&H elk rifle and leaves this waterfowl talk with a bemused, good-natured grin. Dave Bauman tucks his .30–30 over his hickory-shirt sleeve, shifts his snoose, and says he may try duck-hunting one day.

The fever-dream room is empty. But there were two others. My wife of all these years. And “the other woman,” as smirking custom always styled her. Both redheads. Both loved me. Both therefore wound up in duck blinds. But one left the blind to raise our children. The other left the blind — and me — to go on with her life. I hunt alone now but for Harry the Dog, who is growing old. My fever has broken in a drenching sweat. A few more doses of strong tea laced with honey and bourbon and I’ll mend. The opening-day storm drives against the house with redoubled fury. Weak daylight shows actual empty chairs that provoked my fever-dream. Others hunted with me, but were not here. Perhaps in years to come, others will show up. But I am alone now. Which leaves Beau, my son; eight years old. Asleep in a different room in this house, snug and comfortable beneath handmade quilts handed down through both sides of my family. Dreaming — what? Will he thrash all night before opening morning, the excitement too much to bear? I wonder.

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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.