November 03, 2010
A spot worth remembering.
Illustration by Bob White.
This was the first time I had gazed upon him as an old man, for his beard was the sheen of a full white, bright moon and the skin on his hands was no longer taunt but lay in limp folds and flecked with brown liver spots.
The same man I called "Pappy" and the same august man who branded into my consciousness, "Lord, just one more time," was withering. Time was no longer his friend, but a sworn enemy.
His wife had passed away several years ago and he lived alone, for they had no children. And I lived out of town and out of a suitcase. So it was while on a rare visit home that I stopped by for a visit.
I was amazed when he shook my hand, for he still had a grip. He pointed to a chair for me to sit. A chair that had been in their modest home for over 50 years. A home where I spent many a Friday night in anticipation of a Saturday morning duck hunt. No sleep and all nerves. Mallards on my mind. Greenheads in the teeth of a cold blow.
He asked me how I had been doing and said that he continued to keep up with me through my newspaper writings.
"I doubt if you're making much money, but I know you're having a fine time."
I laughed and told him that he was right on both charges. We continued to talk, but I sensed what was coming. I knew he wanted to go back to the swamp to shoot mallards as he had done before my birth and during my early youth. I had not the heart to tell him it was over where once it had been the high tide of his life. His entire being, as has been mine, was marked by the coming and the passing of duck seasons.
"I'd like to go back to the swamp before I get to old," he said with a slight chuckle to mask his heartache, for he could hardly muster a breath.
"I should've died in the swamp. I can still hunt my memories, but it ain't the same and don't ever let anybody tell you different. No, sir, it ain't the same as the real thing," he said blinking dreamily into the past.
He knew that he was yesterday's leaf.
"Do you remember?" he started and then faded to somewhere. But where? Only he knew or maybe he didn't. I hoped it was to a time when daylight had emerged from its birthing place and spread its steel-gray fingers over the swamp. That quiet time after the wood ducks had flown and before mallards stretched their morning wings. A time of life that passeth all understanding for those who don't know.
His time lapsed and he came back as if he had never gone away. "Sorry," he said but I do that quite often these days. Then he drew in his black eyebrows in an authoritative way and I knew what was to come had been given to much thought and memory.
"Did I ever tell you about a place in the swamp that I christened 'Bloody Hole?' It was the darndest place I ever found to shoot mallards."
He had told me this story many times and I always enjoyed listening to the narrative.
"This happened many years before you were born. We could shoot 12 mallards in those days. 'Course the old timers wouldn't have wasted their time for so few birds. They remembered when there was no limit. They saw what I never saw and I saw what you'll never see and you've seen what generations to come will never see. Sad but true. But like I've always said: anything can happen and all things are possible."
I smiled and agreed.
"Oh, again to taste the prime of duck hunting," and again his eyebrows drew in slightly with some cerebral effort and thought, for there was a growing power in his mind. I felt an elation of spirit rising within him. A rapture of life.
"There had been a heavy fog that morning, and to be honest, I'd gotten lost. I somehow had missed a creek that would've taken me to where I had been killing mallards for two weeks. I knew daylight was on the make and I wanted to set-up and get ready before the fog thinned.
"I'd been lost several times in the swamp but this was the worst. I'd never been so disoriented. And I could get no speed from the motor since there was no visibility. I was like a blind hog rootin' for an acorn. I knew for certain I wasn't where I wanted to be.
"I became so flustered that I cut the motor off and took a ride on a slow current. He took a breath and dozed off.
The fire had dimmed in the fireplace and I walked over to the wood box and refueled the embers. The fireplace was his only source of heat. But he had weathered worse during his years of duck hunting.
"Why don't you go to a nursing home?" I once asked him. He got a cold, calculating look of disgust in his blue eyes and said, "I'd just as soon die alone in this house. I used to pray that I would take leave of gravity on a duck hunt. Didn't happen. No, I'll not spew out my last lukewarm breath in a nursing home. That might be fine for some folks but not for me. Such a place is nothing more than a death camp to me."
Truth was, I shared his feelings. And still do.
The small room was once again with heat and he began to stir. While he was working his way back to the present, I went into the kitchen and brewed us each a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar. He never did like coffee. Neither did I.
I was grown before I asked him why his scorn for coffee. He laughed and said, "Once when I was a boy of about eight years of age, I went with my Moma out into the country to visit her old spinster aunt. Maggie was her name. I'd never seen the woman and Moma said that she was ugly and that I shouldn't take notice of her appearance. To do so would surely hurt her feelings. Moma said that her aunt's beauty came from within. She was right, because she didn't have any outside looks.
"Moma's aunt asked her if she would like a cup of coffee. She said yes. Then I spoke up and asked for a cup of coffee. That old woman looked in horror and said, "Little boy don't you know that coffee makes children ugly?"
"To that I said, "Is that what made you so ugly?"
"I got the switches when we got home, and I've never once had a cup of coffee. Don't even like to smell it."
He had recovered from his retreat when I came from the kitchen and into the living room.
Stretching, he asked, "How long was I gone?"
"Oh, just long enough
for me to make us hot tea."
"Like I said, I was not only lost but confused as well. I'd never been in such a predicament," and there was a stirring of old instincts deep within. A journey back to when all men hunted.
"The boat kept drifting down this fog shrouded creek until the boat struck a log and turned broadside and came to a halt. I figured I'd just sit tight until the fog lifted. The water depth was about two-feet deep, according to the paddle. So either the creek was shallow or I had floated into a flooded flat. And seeing that time was no longer on my side, I decided to put out a dozen decoys. This I did and had gotten back into the boat and poured a cup of hot tea when there came a whirr of wings the likes I'd never heard. So fast and so hard did the ducks come that it sounded like what I think coconuts would sound like hittin' the water! But I couldn't see 'em." His colbalt eyes glistening and snapping as he recalled the story.
Again I was drawn to that special place I had never seen. I was a kid again feeling the warmth and smelling the smoke of a campfire.
His words were rapid fire now and he spoke as if the air was a gossamer of glittering ice.
"The fog was weakening now and lifting as morning's sun began to punch and drill its way into the whitish-gray veil revealing what had been locked away in nature's treasure chest. So thick were the mallards€¦.thick like earthworms€¦.and more were dropping from the stainless-steel azure sky."
Once again I saw within him a joy and a throb that had dominated his personality throughout his life.
"It was if time had stopped with hundreds of eyes pointing at me. Then suddenly they began to lift. A squawking the likes I'd never heard then or since then. So loud were they that I don't believe I could've heard a person shout if sitting next to me.
"I cooked off two quick shots. A pair of drakes wrinkled. I tossed out two spent hulls from the double and reloaded and reduced another pair to rag dolls.
"I would have thought they would have beat it out of there. They didn't. They just kept coming and coming and I kept on shooting and shooting until my 12 mallards€¦.10 drakes and two hens€¦.were heads down on the water. I never once got out of the boat. Picked 'em all up, and the decoys, by paddling. It was for certain a bloody hole.
Strange thing is that I was never able to find that spot again and I tried and tried. It took me over four hours to work my way through a maze of creeks and flooded flats before I found my way back to where I had put in."
Then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and withdrew to perhaps another duck hunt.