A twist of fate and a kind gesture sparks a lifetime waterfowling passion.
The upheaval of a personal tragedy can lead to a life-changing event. For me, the tragedy was the divorce of my mother and father when I was 8 years old.
As a result, I began spending more time beyond the city limits of my small hometown nestled in the oaken folds of northern California's Coast Range Mountains. I explored far and wide on my bicycle, tramping through wild oat fields and foothills, toting my newly acquired Red Ryder BB gun, stalking blackbirds and sparrows. There, I found freedom and solace. I became a child of nature and a dedicated hunter of the air-driven, spheroid ball.
While my young pals longed to imitate sports heroes of the mid-1940s on the baseball diamond and gridiron, I only wanted to get my hands on a single-shot hammer 12-gauge shotgun. Somehow, eventually I talked my mother into letting me buy one from the proceeds of my newspaper route. It had a stock and forearm made of a brand new plastic material called Tenite, swirled to look vaguely like real wood. It also had one other redeeming feature: it made the gun super light. It was all just barrel and breach.
Every time I shot, it kicked like a mule -- with both feet.
With the new cannon in hand, I turned my attention to the huge, sprawling marsh south of town. I set my sights on bigger game than blackbirds. I decided to become a dedicated duck hunter, and my whiskerless ingenuity kicked in to help me. After finishing my paper route in the dark before dawn, I discovered I could use the newspaper bags to transport shotgun shells, a sack lunch, bottle of soda pop and hip waders in the big front and back pockets. If I actually killed a duck, which was seldom, it went in the bag. A little later when I scrounged up five big cedar decoys discarded at the town dump, they made the trip, too.
Mine was truly Spartan duck hunting by any measure. I haunted the fringes of the big marsh -- tiny potholes, beaver cuts, rainwater ponds and any place I thought a bird or two might sit. Farther out, in the bowels of the Great Marsh, I heard the steady staccato pop of shotguns in lush, private duck clubs where gunners hid in cunningly sunken concrete barrel blinds, floating 100 decoys per set. I often paused to wonder what shooting out there must be like. It was simply beyond imagination. Yet in a strange twist of fate, I was about to find out by the most unusual circumstances imaginable.
My mother's divorce lawyer, Mr. O'Hara, was a short, quiet man who always wore a plain brown suit and glasses. He had a small, dingy office upstairs in the next town. On what would be our final trip there, he engaged me in conversation after finishing business with my mother.
"Your mom tells me you're quite a duck hunter," he queried, studying me through his owl-like eyeglasses. "I have a friend in Fairfield who owns a very good duck club out on the road to Little Honker Bay. His name is Mr. O'Dell. Would you like me to ask him if he would take you out for a shoot?"
The author and his son pick up decoys in the same haunts where the author cut his waterfowling teeth as a boy.
I could only nod my acceptance, too stunned to stutter a "yes."
A week later, O'Hara made good on his promise. O'Dell called to invite me out with him and his son, Tanney, for a hunt the following Saturday morning. That week, all I could think about was the hunt. What if I shot poorly? What if the birds didn't fly that day?
Who else would be shooting on the club? How could I stack up my meager shooting skills against seasoned gunners like that? Then, a magic thing happened that would wash all my fears away.
Every winter, big north winds would suddenly sweep through the foothills and valleys to whisk away the last residue of fall. The gales always lasted exactly three days before they blew themselves out and gentler west winds returned. The night before my hunt, the north wind began huffing and puffing. When I delivered my papers in the dark the following morning, bare tree limbs bent and rocked under street lights as leaves whirled into the night and telephone wires howled.
When I finished my papers, I stood by the kitchen door, peering down the darkened street for the O'Dells. Right on time, at 5 a.m. sharp, headlights came slowly into view.
"I'm going now, mom," I called out into the back bedroom. "I'll lock the door behind me."
I stepped outside clutching my single-shot 12-gauge, a box of red wax Winchester shells in High Base No. 6 shot, hip boots and a warm neck scarf.
I slid into the back seat, and Mr. O'Dell introduced himself and Tanney as we pulled away.
"We're in for a real howler today," he called over his shoulder. "With this big north wind, it should put the birds up moving all over the marsh. I hope you brought plenty of shells? I think you're going to need them."
We sped five miles out of town, turning down the rutted, two-lane blacktop leading to Little Honker Bay. Several miles farther, we stopped at a locked gate. Tanney got out and unlocked it. We drove through, then down a dirt wheel track another half mile to the big pond. We got out, huddling against the icy blasts as my eyes fell on the huge pond rolling with wind-driven whitecaps under brilliant stars. After pulling on our hip waders, O'Dell gave me instructions.
The author's son retrieves a duck from the chilly waters of the Great Marsh decades after his father's first real duck hunt.
"Art, you head straight out from here to that single barrel in the middle of the pond. Don't go left or right or you might go over your waders. There are plenty of decoys, so let the birds work in close. They like that spot. Tanney and I will shoot a double barrel over on the south end of the pond. Now, goo
d luck, and shoot straight."
I carefully made my way through surging waves to a barrel barely visible in pre-dawn light, and then dropped into it, getting out of the roaring wind. After I caught my breath, I sat back on the swivel seat to peer up at a billion pinpoints of brilliant light powdering the jet-black sky. The stars seemed so close I could almost reach out and touch them. This was it -- the hunt I'd dreamed about. It was going to happen.
The wind eventually blew the night away. The silhouette of the Protrero Hills rose on the western skyline, and with it, ribbons of birds moved across the awakening marsh. I'd never seen so many ducks in my life. Soon, the wind-blown thud of distant shotguns barked all around me. I twisted and turned, looking for approaching birds.
Suddenly, right in front of me, the blocky shape of a mallard loomed from the shadows, barely 10 feet off the water. I cranked the hammer back, leapt to my feet, threw the big gun to my shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Flames spewed from the barrel, and the greenhead plunged straight down to a shower of spray. I'd killed my very first duck club bird and with my first shot!
As the sky brightened, a flock of two-dozen graceful pintails coasted only 20 yards high around the far side of the pond. I marveled at their poise and grace as the birds balanced on the fierce wind -- colorful bulls with chocolate necks pinstriped in snow white in the lead. They circled the pond once, twice, then hooked downwind, arching straight back toward me as I peeked over the rim of the barrel with my heart pounding like a jackhammer. The birds fought the last few yards, hanging almost motionless above roller coasting decoys. I came up firing, folding the lead bull as the rest of the flock skyrocketed straight up, lifted by the howling gale.
The wind never stopped that day. The winter sun rose higher and whitecaps painted the pond, but the ducks kept on flying. The hunting was spectacular, thrilling almost beyond description.
Later, when I splashed ashore, O'Dell handed me four ducks, placing a hand on my shoulder. "You did very well, Art, for your first time out on a club shoot. I know your mother will be proud of you. I hope you enjoyed yourself, too."
I found it hard to describe my feelings at that moment. All these years later, it comes easier. For me, an invitation -- kindness of two men who had it in their hearts to help a fatherless kid with a single-shot hammer gun -- fueled my burning desire to hunt waterfowl. Neither a boy nor a man ever forgets generosity like that.