Oregon Magazine
The Duck Hunter
  by Eric Blair

In those days, boys had guns and when the fall rains swept across the Pacific Northwest, we would begin to talk about the hunting prospects. 

Jeff was a tall, skinny kid who  drove a pickup.  It was an odd choice during the Fifties when most sought out the gloriously beautiful coupes and convertibles from recent decades:  elegant works of art with round fenders, twin tailpipes and tuck 'n roll upholstery.  But, Jeff had a '39 International half ton.  It would take him places that a '50 Ford two-door dropped to the deck would not. 

September was the month for doves.  October was for quail and pheasants.  Fence rows and woodlots, wheatfield stubble, untended patches of land thick with wild grasses and dead Queen Anne's Lace.  Deep blue fall skies and quiet like you cannot imagine if you did not live back then.  The monastic passages between the filbert trees, the dried stalks of cattails in the evaporated little swamp along the railroad embankment.

But, then, the rains were here.  Like a modern basketball floor closing over a skating rink, the gray clouds closed over the northwest corner of the state.  We dug out our hip waders from that last fishing trip, oiled the barrels of our shotguns, donned our war surplus rain gear and headed for the wetlands, large and small.

Jeff, the skinny kid with the pickup, knew all the places. (His last name is a Scottish term for a lonely, rainswept coastal landscape. His first wife came from a family whose surname means "wetlands.")  He never ran for school office, went out for any school team, ran with any crowd, attended the periodic beer bashes or bought tickets to the appearances of the new kings of rock and roll that now included Portland in their circuit.  If given the choice between dancing in the aisle at the Paramount Theatre to the rhythms of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, or arising before dawn to drive through the rain to an unheated duck blind, there was no angst of  decision facing Jeff.  The duck blind won, hands down.

Jeff wasn't a loner.  If there was somebody to go hunting with, he would do it.  But, unlike most, if there wasn't someone to hunt with, he would go, anyway.  He rarely had much to say to anybody, but his conversation with the woods and the lakes and the skies went on constantly.  You can visualize him alone in an icy rain, sitting in the dark beneath a crude roof made of wheat stalks.  It is the silence before a deep and gloomy winter dawn.  The clouds to the east lighten, and the wind picks up, sending sprays of raindrops across the surface of the dark pond.  As the light builds, you can see the decoys he has set in the shallow water, and now the kehonk of geese can be heard as they begin to circle to get their bearings for the day's flight south.

There is a whisper of wings, then two mallards drop amongst the decoys.  Jeff looks at his watch, which has a radium dial.  It will not be legal to shoot for another fifteen minutes.  In silence, he speaks to the silence around him --  to the thunderingly quiet clouds, to the cold wind bearing the cold rain, to the cornstalk spears sticking up out of the field pond, to the dark form of the oak in the middle of the field and the shadow forest of firs on the distant hill. 

You may, if you wish, fix that picture in your mind as though it were a hardware store calendar illustration,  the cover of Sports Afield in November of 1957 or even the first duck stamp ever printed.  The quiet, tall kid hunkered down in the dark of the morning.  The International pickup off there about a half a mile from the pond, waiting quietly for his return.  The smell of the gun oil on the barrel.  The mouldy smell of the old hay duck blind roof.  The sting of the tiny raindrops against his bare face.  His quiet eyes studying.  The soft whisper of the cold gray November Oregon wind. 

They are one, and always shall be.

© 2007 Oregon Magazine