If you are one of those guys who got roped into watching the Titanic movie you'll remember that moment as the ship was about to go down and all the rescue boats went far away from the sides of the ship to keep from being sucked down as it sank. It was terribly sad as they sat and watched and listened as the people called for help, yet out of fear of being swamped, the captains held their ground until it was too late for almost all of them. It was a glaring example of how we can be many times when people go through very tough times in life. If your “marriage ship” has ever sunk you may have experienced this as I did a few years back. A year or so before the ship really began to go down I began to see all of my closest friends jump ship into their rescue boats and row like mad to get away from the sinking ship that had been my life for 18 years. In their defense (if there is one) my marriage had become quite toxic and I can imagine it was getting difficult to be around.
As a duck hunter you probably know that my closest friends consisted of other duck hunters and those duck hunters were the ones I chose to hunt with all the time. Therefore, in the event of the rescue boats racing away from the sinking ship, my duck blinds got quite lonely for a season. As they stood off to watch from a far, one small rescuer dared to row near me to keep me from being alone.
He had never really been an avid hunter. He had never spent a moment in a duck blind. He had never experienced that half-crazy passion of sitting in the worst winter weather listening for the far off “herrronk” of an approaching flock of Canadas. He had never experienced the bite of freezing rain on the face while you stare into a dim-lit sky waiting for way-too-fast woodies to appear out of nowhere and give you a split second shot. He had never been in the predawn darkness, setting decoys, hearing the whistle of wings overhead, wondering what kinds of ducks we would be seeing that morning. He didn't know that there would be lots of mornings of cold, wet, waiting only to find that nothing was coming. He only saw me, a duck hunter, alone. He knew I needed a hunting partner, a companion, a back up, and a friend.
“I want to go duck hunting with you.” He said one afternoon as we were driving home from a job. My father never wanted to go duck hunting with me. “He's lost his mind” I thought. At 65 you don't just take up duck hunting. He explained that he knew I didn't really have anyone going with me anymore and he had always wanted to try it so he wanted to go. I knew he was lying. I knew he had no desire to get up at 4:30 a.m. on the coldest mornings of the year and leave my mother at home and go sit on the side of a lake somewhere. Yet, I took him up on his offer.
I don't remember clearly the first hunt we had together. I remember going to Mansfield in the rain. Not just a misty rain. RAIN. We sat up on a point easily accessed from the truck, the wind at our backs, the rain pouring down, and waited for geese. It was freezing. Everyone in their right minds were at home eating a warm breakfast beside a fire somewhere and my dad and I were sitting on five gallon buckets in a cow pasture on the side of a small lake getting drenched waiting for geese. For me, there was no better place to be. I was in my weird kind of heaven. He just sat there with me, enjoying the conversation I guess. We worked together almost all of my working life. I have no idea what we could possibly have to talk about in a duck blind, but we did. We talked and laughed and waited. At 8:30 I called it. He went to get the truck and I went about getting up the decoys. After he made his way down through the pasture in the truck I dragged the last of the gear up out of the tall grass and mud we began to load the truck, the geese came in. We just stood there in the rain watching them turn and fly right at us and then flare away realizing we were there. Then a second flock appeared and did the same thing. “Well, that's the way it goes” he said as he slid up into the truck. Rock steady as always, still teaching me lessons about accepting things as they were.
He drove with me to Louisiana to hunt with a dear friend named Jeff Guidry. It was 11 hours of enduring a driving rain that literally stretched from Atlanta to Western Louisiana without stop. We arrived at 10:30 pm their time. That made it 11:30 our time and I knew he was usually asleep for 3 hours by that time. He was a champ. We had to get up at 3 a.m. To make it to where we were hunting. I knew he had to be tired. He went about it like he was 30. We were hunting the coastal marsh so after a long drive and a cold boat ride, he saw his first sunrise over the marsh while duck hunting. He had plenty of stories of being on the salt marsh in North Carolina with his own dad but they were more about fishing than hunting. To my knowledge it was the first time he had been sitting in a salt marsh with a shotgun in his hand waiting for the buzz of ducks overhead. They came and some of them died. It was a good day. A long, very tiring day, but a good day.
We went back to Louisiana again a year or two later. One of the mornings we were there we were sitting in a boat way back in the swamp hoping for wood ducks and mallards to show up. My nephew had come along on this trip and as it happens sometimes the ducks weren't cooperating that day. The conversation turned to reminiscing about how Jeff and I had met which ultimately resulted in him giving his life to Christ and I said I only regretted not getting out there to see his baptism. He informed us all that the baptism had never taken place and my dad, being an ordained deacon in the church, said he could take care of that. The decision was made and when we got back to the boat ramp my 66 year old dad pulled off his waders and went waist deep in water that had been frozen just days earlier and baptized my closest friend. How many duck hunting trips have ever ended in something like that? There was a father and son at the boat ramp waiting to launch their boat who stayed to witness the event. With eyes brimming with tears that cajun dad, sitting up in his boat said, “ I think that's the nicest thing I've ever seen!” My rescue boat continued to pick up stragglers with my old man at the helm.
One afternoon I called him. “Let's go over to Mrs. Jones' place and see if the geese are coming in.” “Son, it's gonna be snowing hard by this afternoon.” he answered. “I know, that's why we should go.” I reasoned with him. “they will fly early and we'll slay 'em!” Needless to say, in a couple hours he sat with me as the snow fell heavy all around us. Once again as all the sane people we knew were bundled up indoors and getting ready for being snowed in for a day or two, I had the two of us on the side of a pond waiting on waterfowl. He sat patiently until we heard them in the distance. As the first flock came within shooting range we had our way with 2 of them. The second flock came a few minutes later and we killed 5 from their group. We both got one more before it was all over. I have lots of great memories of duck hunting from nearly 3 decades of water-fowling. There is no better memory than that one, sitting in falling snow with my dad, my best friend, my rescuer, my best hunting partner ever, killing Canada geese while the sun raced toward the horizon to close the lid on a great snowy day.
Sitting in that same blind another day, he and a friend of mine and I were hoping for mallards that I had been seeing for days before. My retriever at the time, Woodie, was a little over zealous about fetching birds and would notoriously go on “auto-retrieve” once the shotguns barked. Knowing this, I back tied him with a 8' leash to a small tree on the bank to my right. I sat on the far right side of the blind with my friend in the middle and my dad on the far left end. As usual, 5 gallon buckets served as seats and I had constructed a stand up blind of sorts for us to crouch behind. There was not a lot of cover so fooling the mallards would be difficult. As the first group of mallards came in from the right and bent their way toward the decoys, lowering their landing gear, I snapped the order to kill them. We all stood in one motion and fired. My duck folded as did one more to the left. They were well within range of a second shot and I took another shot but missed becoming distinctly aware that my partners had quit shooting. I was trying to process why I wasn't getting help to dispatch the escaping ducks as I killed one more. In my peripheral vision I picked up some awkward movement to the left of me. I heard my dad curse my dog as he fell to the left and out of the duck blind followed by my buddy Matt who as yelling “Woodie! I thought we were supposed to be on the same team!”; as he... and my dad... and the blind... and the dog... and the leash... and the tree, all ended up in a pile of camo and shotguns. Woodie had cut across the back of us taking them out at the back of their knees with his leash and tree. Somehow, I had escaped the mayhem of it all and was left standing there staring at the chaos. Finally, Woodie had pulled his way free and was fetching the first of three ducks, leash and tree in tow. Matt and dad untangled themselves and we all had a great laugh. We patched the blind back up and proceeded to kill a few more mallards. Needless to say, Woodie got a stern talking to and was aptly tied to a larger tree for the remainder of the hunt.
Dad and I enjoyed many more duck and goose hunts before he began to opt out and let others take his place. Our duck hunting was for a short season of a few years. Now he looks at me like I'm crazy if I mention him getting up at daybreak when it's 35 degrees and threatening rain or snow. I know he fell in love with my sport to an extent but I know it was more about him coming to my rescue. Some of my original friends have returned now that the waters have calmed. I don't hold hard feelings towards them for their temporary abandonment, it is what happens. In fact, I should thank them. Had it not been for them holding back he may have not come and rescued me. He may not have gone duck hunting with me and we would have missed so many great mornings together. There are lots of ways to enjoy someone's company but few of them are as rich as when you do that in a duck blind. I thank God for every second I have spent with my dad, but I deeply appreciate the time spent with him in a duck blind. I love you pops. And I miss you in the sunrise, smelling the marsh or the mud, watching the birds flying, and talking and laughing with you. I am glad we had our days there.