Some were veterans and had been in this theater of operations
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It might have been the Kuwait/Iraq border in 2003. Or it might have been last weekend along Highway 22 in Samburg, Tennessee, with guys getting ready to hunt duck.
Our own squad met at Reelfoot Lake in the northwestern corner of Tennessee. In places, Reelfoot is more like a bayou, with cut channels through beds of marsh grass, leading to the dozens of camouflaged duck blinds scattered across the wildlife management area.
Reelfoot is wide and shallow, covering more than 50 square miles and an average water depth of about five feet. This lake formed in 1812 during the New Madrid earthquakes, when the ground sank and then filled with waters that spilled in from the nearby Mississippi.
Gerald led our hunting party; he didn’t get his nickname of “Cap’n” for nothing. The art of hunting spans generations in his family, and with his father Ron and his 15-year-old son Austin, three of those generations were present.
Their hunting dog was the final representative of their family -- a two-year-old black lab named after Gerald’s teenage crush, Emmylou Harris.
Austin’s buddy Daniel, Timmy, Jeff, and I rounded out our crew. We met our guide Tommy at 0500 am sharp, and loaded our gear onto two flat-bottom War Eagle boats, the second craft piloted by Tommy’s son, Frank.
“I been doing this guide work for 23 years,” Tommy answered the question. “I’m 48 and I been hunting this lake since I was eight years old. My granddaddy made his living on this. My daddy did. I was born into it, I guess. To be a guide. A duck killer. Whatever.”
Tommy handed Jeff a high-candlepower spotlight and told him where to point it. We idled out of the marina. Once on open water, Tommy and Frank gunned the engines and accelerated into the dark. The War Eagles planed out and we sped across the lake, hunters and spotlights in caravan in the blackness.
We neared the opposing shore and Tommy banked to the right, water spraying across the bow. Without slowing, he exited the open water and dove the War Eagle into a channel cut through the marsh. We figured he’d done this before, but as we sliced and weaved though chutes of tall grass, the words running through my head were: “Use the Force, Luke! Use the FORCE!”
The blackness softened to an inky gray as night yielded and we arrived at our duck blind, a small shack set on stilts in three feet of water. Frank and Tommy idled us in, passing their dozens of decoys bobbing in the water. The knees of half-submerged cypress trees bumped up around the blind, which was covered with the saw grass and wild grape vine that grew in the marsh around us.
The Rites of Passage
There are certain questions a guy does not want to answer with a “No.” Have you read Hemingway? Have you kissed a girl? Have you tested yourself in a fistfight?
Do you hunt?
You want to answer “Yes” to these questions.
The Cooks in this duck blind were three generations of hunters. Tommy and Frank were two generations.
Everyone found a corner to stash their gear, pulled shotguns from cases and propped them at the camouflaged shooting stations that faced west, giving us shots at ducks that we expected would be flying south from nesting areas in the north.
The light continued to rise and Tommy said, “Everbody be safe with your guns” (in western Tennessee, “guns” comes out in two syllables like “gouh-uns”). “We’ll say a prayer to get started. Everybody ready?” Hats came off and hands came together.
“Dear heavenly father, we thank you for this day,” Tommy said. “Thank you for these gentlemen here. May their homes be blessed and may we have a good duck hunt today. Dear lord, thank you for all our blessings and keep us safe on this hunt. In Jesus name, amen.”
Ducks can see color, hence the full camo and faces blackened
with burnt cork. A duck’s sense of hearing, however, is not as acute. Deer hunting, to my understanding, requires you to sit quietly in a ground blind, or alone in a tree stand. Duck hunting may therefore be the better deal for us. Deer hunting means we'd have to shut up. Ducks don’t care if we tell jokes.
In our little band of brothers, we’ve said it doesn’t matter so much what we do, insomuch as we’re doing it together. It could be – and it has been – ice fishing, houseboats, mountain cabins, beach houses, gulf coast fishing, sporting clays, pistol ranges, or a summer WWII movie series – every one of these accompanied by smoked meats, cigars, and bourbon sipping.
Even though most of us have changed jobs at least once or have moved from state to state, it’s the conversations and the jokes and the sense of chosen brotherhood that has kept these guys driving and flying across the country for the past 14 years to be together.
Tommy was having his own conversations. Some with us, some with his son Frank, and some with the ducks. I’d always thought ducks made only one sound: “Quack.” Tommy talked us through about eight different calls that ducks make: the highball, the greeting, the feed call, the comeback, the lonesome hen.
“It ain’t even about shooting them,” he said. “It’s about talking to them, working them and getting them to come to you and do what you want. That’s the beauty of all this.”
We weren’t the only ones trying to have conversations with these ducks. With nearly 60 duck blinds on Reelfoot, plenty of other hunters were within earshot. At each passing vee formation, the surrounding blinds and tree lines erupted with the squawking and keening of competing hunters using their calls to entice ducks to “land here.”
It was like being in an open-air bar full of guys with no women. When the ladies finally show up, the guys bring out their best pick-up lines (after sucking in their guts and freshening their breath with a spritz of Binaca): “I seem to have lost my phone number. Can I have yours?” Or “Do you have a Band-Aid? Because I just scraped my knee falling for you.” Or “I don't have a library card, but do you mind if I check you out?” Quack, quack.
While Tommy was trying to sweet-talk the ducks down to us, we were talking amongst ourselves. And who says ‘guys don’t have intimate conversations’? We talk about feelings. We talk about relationships.
“Ducks mate for life, huh?” Timmy said as he shouldered his Benelli and dropped a gadwall into the water. “I think what we’re doing here is creating some dating opportunities for the other ducks.”
A single mallard flew fast, north to south but too high to take a shot. “I think somebody just got a booty call,” Jeff said.
Gerald was telling the story of a friend who’d split from his wife, “…whom he now refers to affectionately as ‘the plaintiff.’”
And we’re sensitive to each other’s histories. We want to make sure our brothers know they’re being heard and understood. For example, after an hour with no good shots, Jeff wondered aloud: "Do you think we’re doing something wrong? They seem to be coming in for a look, but then they turn around and fly the other way."
"Kind of like your second and third wives?” Timmy offered.
See? Men in this group never have to doubt that their personal histories are being honored and valued, their inner child being nurtured.
But it’s not all talk. Like any good music, there’s just as much to love in the spaces between the notes. In the quiet and in the silence.
What You Can See
When the conversation lags and the ducks are absent, you can lean your head down and listen to the earth and feel the motions and witness the sights of creation. The splash of water upon itself and against the pylons of the duck blind. The rustling of
The calls from distant blinds and the booms and volleys from other guns. It might even occur to you that, 150 years ago, those same sounds might have greeted you in Tennessee as you approached the field at the Battle of Shiloh.
The blind sways gently to the pull and push of wind and water. Egrets and heron and bald eagles glide beneath clouds that variegate the water in light and shadow, cool and warmth.
The Talk Again
Somebody grabs the coffee pot from the propane cook stove. Naptime and introspection are over, John Muir. But the growing sense of connection to nature remains, as does the heightening sensory acuity of the hunter. Our eyes and ears are trained to the sky. Somebody hears something.
“Was that a mallard?”
“No, it was my zipper.”
Here we go.
The conversation picks up, guys insulting each other, telling stories of previous hunts, judging the technique of hunters in nearby blinds, commenting on the grace and dignity of a passing bald eagle.
You know Emmy is well-trained when she goes the whole day without barking. The only things she licks are a duck’s head and the stock of Gerald’s shotgun.
Jeff speculates on the absence of waterfowl: "Do you think the ducks called a meeting? 'Listen, fowlks, we're hearing reports of gunfire out there. Everyone be on your toes. Your feet. Your little webbed feet.'"
Timmy: “I feel like the ducks must be coming up behind me. Tapping me on the shoulder and flying off. Like their version of ‘ding dong and ditch it.’”
Some of us get a little overconfident and cocky and presume to judge Tommy's duck-calling technique (even if in hushed tones… you cowards).
“I don’t know. That call sounds kind of… what do you think… needy? If I were a duck, I’d be hearing co-dependent and I’d be flapping my feathered ass in the other direction. I think he needs to sex it up a little bit.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s quacking and I’m hearing ‘WHY? WHY?’ It reminds me of my first wife. And my second one, come to think of it.”
Waiting for ducks is hard work. Sure, Tommy and Frank were doing all the heavy lifting, but don’t underestimate how hungry you can get jaw-jacking with your mates.
Early in the morning, Tommy handed out Styrofoam cups, steam curling off the tops: "You men ever drank spicy V8 warmed up in a duck blind?"
He offered these cups with the same reverence that a Tibetan lama might have when handing you a wooden bowl: "I offer you the fresh warm blood of a Himalayan yak."
We took it and drank. It wasn’t as salty as yak’s blood, but it was pretty good.
Midday, Timmy went back to the cooking area and emerged with two brown cake-like objects. He bit into one and handed me the other, without words or explanation. I sniffed at it and scrutinized his face for any sign of malice or trickery. Finding none, I took a big old bite and chewed.
My mouth full of cake, I recalled a line from Field and Stream writer Bill Heavey and asked Timmy, “What did I just eat?”
“Lil’ Debbie Fudge Rounds,” he said, his mouth full and some cake flying out on the “eff” of “Fudge.” “He got a whole box of them in there,” Timmy said and pointed. “And Oatmeal Pies.”
Food during a duck hunt doesn’t promise to be fancy. But trust this: Scrambled eggs and sausage with American cheese on a paper plate, or fried baloney on Wonder Bread, these things never tasted so good as when prepped in a duck blind on a cool November morning. Son of a biscuit.
When the ducks started coming, they came. In singles and pairs and braces of six, Tommy’s calls started paying off. His highball calls turned them from their flight paths and grabbed their interest.
As they neared, Tommy switched to a greeting call to keep their
interest up without scaring them. As they closed in on final approach, Tommy gave them the fast clucking of the feeding call to signal, “We’re chowing down over here… plenty for everyone.”
They cupped and flared, right where Tommy wanted them to be.
Hunting as Art
In his book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, outdoorsman and writer Steven Rinella says:
I’ve learned to see the earth as a thing that breathes and writhes and brings forth life. I see these revelations as a form of grace and art, as beautiful as the things we humans attempt to capture through music, dance, and poetry. And as I’ve become aware of this, it has become increasingly difficult for me to see hunting as altogether outside of civilization.
Maybe stalking the woods is as vital to the human condition as playing music or putting words to paper. Maybe hunting has as much of a claim on our civilized selves as anything else. After all, the earliest forms of representational art reflect hunters and prey. While the arts were making us spiritually viable, hunting did the heavy lifting of not only keeping us alive, but inspiring us.
Put more simply, we asked Tommy how often he was out here on the water. He said, “I hunt every day out here in God’s creation.”
Tommy said “hunt” like “houh-unt.”
When he’s on a hunt, Cap’n carries a copy of The Sportsman's Bible. It’s a standard edition bound in a waterproof camo cover, and it has appendices with titles like: “The Hunter’s Code” or "Setting Up a Ground Blind" or "All Good Things Seem to Happen at Sunrise."
In the rising light just before daybreak, our guide Tommy had opened with a prayer: Keep us safe and give us a good hunt. Later, before serving up a breakfast of eggs and sausage, Tommy again offered a blessing.
Now at the end of the day’s hunt and back at the dock, and we were hauling our gear from the boats. I looked to the gravel lot and saw Cap’n and Tommy standing in private conversation. I saw Cap’n hand something to Tommy. Tommy looked down, accepted what he was being given, and then reached out to shake Cap’s hand.
Cap’n walked back to us. I said, "Did you just give Tommy your copy of The Sportsman's Bible?"
"I've never had a guide open a hunt that way,” he said. “It was the least I could do."