Each fall the wind blows through the wheat stubble of Eastern Washington, and the sprouts of winter wheat bring on an emerald green to the fields that matches the hoods on the male Mallard duck. Waterfowl and upland game cross the fields and waterways and men of my family historically go hunting for them.
On a nondescript lake about 15 miles south of the town Sprague off a dirt road stands a green plywood structure perhaps 800 square feet in size, built for the express purpose of shelter for the duck hunters who come there each year.
It is 1972, and perhaps my third trip to what my family called “the duck shack.”
Fall meant time away from home and employment. For the boys it meant time away from school perhaps, just a few days, nothing that could not be made up. But more importantly it meant time to learn about manhood.
No one said we are taking you away from your mother so you can learn how to be a man. There was no handbook, no self help guide or other artificial means to pass on the lessons of how to be. Instead it was time away, time alone with the elders of our tribe.
I saw photos of some of the women of the clan at the shack once. The attempt to have them come along must not have worked at all, as it was never repeated. Instead large quantities of chicken were fried and brownies baked for the menfolk, and we set out in our cars from Spokane, Everett, the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, all to converge on this rude green structure standing alone in the stubble.
Rituals began. At 5:00 AM the alarm would go off. My great uncle Jim would stumble to an ancient lantern and get it lit, causing at first a huge ball of flame then eventually settling down into the glowing net of a white gas light. He would then light the day’s first cigarette, and the other men would likewise arise and begin their rituals as well.
Smoke bothers me so I would head outside as soon as I could. It was dark, and due to being so far from any source of artificial light the stars were still brilliant, close in, right down to the horizon. Dark shapes would pass overhead and I realized they were likely our game, perhaps coming in from the fields to land on the lake for the morning.
All assembled our company represented the various professions; a doctor, students, a millwright, a plumber, a priest. Guns still in their bags and unloaded, shells in our vests, we marched to the watercraft at the shore, boarded and began the ten-minute voyage to the blinds, strategically placed in a cross-fire across the lake from each other.
We would settle in and wait. If a flight appeared in the south one man would declare “Mark, to the south” and all would hunch down, waiting for the ducks to set their wings and glide into the decoys. There is a whooshing sound made by a flock of ducks when they are coming in to land in this fashion that one never forgets.
It is also when they are most vulnerable, and we took our toll.
Soon the lull would be on, few or no flights seen by 9:00 AM. We would return to the shack with our game to clean them so they could be preserved for the trip back to town and there frozen for meals all winter.
The day may be filled with pheasant hunting, or if the World Series was on television we had a small battery-driven television which would pick up signals broadcast from Spokane. The men liked Lawrence Welk because they said the show was “clean.”
If it was Sunday our priest would say Mass there in the shack. The spiritual dimensions of this monastic life should not be overlooked. I have often compared it to Native American boys becoming men; taken from their mothers, out in the wild, they are taught the ways of manhood which includes the sense one is not a world unto himself, but instead has a place in a greater cosmos.
One day it was just my maternal grandfather “Spud” out in the blind. His real name was Leslie Ralph Hartman and his brother-in-law Jim Little called him LR. I called him “Gramps.” I had only my 20-gauge single-shot Remington with a light load just heavy enough for ducks, 7¼. Gramps had his sturdy yet heavy 12 gauge, with perhaps 5 or 6 shot in it.
Two Canada geese appeared over the ridge on the opposite side of the lake. They seemed headed for us. Gramps said something about geese having heavier down than ducks and began to fumble about in the blind, unloading the lighter shot and replacing it with some 2 shot he had brought with him for this occasion.
Looking up he saw the geese had landed among our decoys and were swimming toward us. “Why didn’t you shoot?” he asked. I told him I was waiting for him, a deference learned on earlier trips. “Okay,” he says, “on three let’s stand and shoot, you take the one on the right and I’ll take the one on the left. One, two, three!”
We stand and shoot. I down my goose with the first and only shot I had. Gramps peeled off three pump action 2-shot shells and his bird got clean away. We send out the dog to bring in the bird and discover when it gets to the blind mine was a head shot.
After a time I saw another goose come over the ridge the pair had come from before. “Here comes another one Gramps,” I said. “That’s not another one Pete. That’s this one’s mate. They sometimes come back looking for the one we shot.”
Then he looks at me and says, “Geese mate for life, Pete.”
It might just be that life’s most important lessons can only be taught in such circumstances; alone with your grandfather, in the wild, miles from everyone else. Humility, a sense of proportion, and maturity are not available in school. You can tell a boy if he throws a rock into a pond he is responsible for the ripples, but unless he does so, and he sees the consequences, the lesson just won’t take.
Whatever childhood I had left was swept away that day. I had taken the place of men. A man knows his power, and is accountable for how he uses it.
(All photos by Pete Patterson. Visit the author’s website to hear him read this story.)