Continued from April 24 Protect America’s Hunting Heritage: A Time for Tough Guys
By R.E. Massey
Petersen’s Hunting (Dec. 1989)
The following story was written by R.E. Massey and published in the 1989 December issue of Petersens’ Hunting magazine.
“Darn it!” I barked. “It’s as bad as having to worry about a kid.”
Jimmie glanced at me and chuckled. “Your old man does what he has always done,” he said. “It’s you who will have to change.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“He’s got to do it,” Jimmie began. “You’ve got your game—that’s football. He’s got his—that’s a night like this. This is what he’s good at.”
“Was good at,” I corrected.
“Don’t count him out yet,” Jimmie continued. “Watch that water—you’ll see.”
He was smug. He couldn’t imagine the old man failing, it seemed. But wait. If he was confident, why was he here? I was here because I was scared. He must be, too.
“Jimmie,” I said, “you’re here because you’re worried. You know you are.”
“No,” he said, “I’m here to help the old man lift his boat.”
Suddenly Jimmie threw open the door and ran down the headlights to the shore. There he was! My old man. Jimmie grabbed the prow and pulled the little skiff out. Its canvas body was a sheet of ice as Jimmie dragged it in.
The old man couldn’t move. His hands were “froze to the oars,” as he sometimes said. His old brown jersey gloves were crusted with icy spray, and Jimmie had to beat him free by pounding the old man’s hands with his fist. When he stood up, he could barely move. We lifted him by his elbows and walked him over to the Chrysler and in by the heater. Gradually he began to loosen up.
“Ahhh,” the old man began.
“Pa,” I said, “you’re a lucky man.”
He couldn’t talk yet. He began fumbling in his coat for his chew.
“Couldn’t spit,” he mumbled as he tucked a gob of tobacco leaf into his cheek. The heater was getting to him now and he was stretching out, working his old joints around: knees first, then elbows, and lastly fingers. “Mmmm,” he mumbled, rolling down the window and spitting.
The old man unbuttoned his parka and shrugged out of it. Then the two of us watched Jimmie pull in and stow the anchor—that was one of Pa’s tricks in this kind of weather. Sailing with the wind from the island as he had been, he had thrown out the anchor to slow things down. It had dragged behind, roped from the stern, and had kept the duckboat headed straight. He had not needed to do much but hang on. If there had been skim ice forming, he could have turned by using his paddle and slowed up before he piled into a sheet of ice that could have ripped that canvas duckboat wide open—he was canny, my old man.
Through cupped hands, Jimmie yelled, “Get out and help throw this boat into the pickup!”
“Where’d you put the ducks?” the old man asked Jimmie when we gathered around the boat. “Don’t try and steal ‘em,” he said. “I’ll give ‘em to you, but I’m not that done in—you can’t steal ‘em!” Jimmie rocked with laughter. The old man could barely straighten up in the snow when we slid his skiff into the pickup, but he had enough left for a wisecrack.
“Pal!” I yelled. The water spaniel was somewhere about, I knew that, but she never seemed to listen to me. Pal was an American water spaniel. My old man loved that ugly but tough breed and had made them a part of his life. He had raised his first litter back in 1904, and had had ‘em ever since. They reminded me of a muskrat with that hairless rattail and chestnut color. “Pal, come here!” I bellowed. I was always having trouble getting that dog to mind me. She seemed to take pleasure in being stubborn with me, just like the old man.
“Pal,” the old man mumbled, and the dog walked up and sat. “Hup,” he said, and she climbed into the car through the open door he had offered. We backed up and swung in behind Jimmie as he led the way out.
The old man sat there in his old cape-collared sheepskin coat and tickled Pal’s ear. I looked at my watch. Six-thirty—time to get to the locker room and tape up for the game. He would be in the stands, I knew. He always was.
He’d join with Ma and tell me to be careful and try not to get hurt in the game. At such times he would be on her side, of course. He would see plenty of danger ahead in every game—just as she would. He had seen me through broken collarbones and a broken nose, but he had not gotten in my way, and he had not let my mother stop me, either.
She was right, of course; I was wrecking myself. Now, 30 years later, her predictions of arthritic knees have come true, but I wouldn’t have traded it. The danger of injury just gave it spice—like the old man’s hard hunting after bluebills. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—pain and all.
Now, every life has its lessons and I think I’ve learned a few. Sometimes you have to hurt some to get what you want. Sometimes, like in football, you have to get slammed around, belted, and nicked by flying objects. You have to play through some pain and cold sometimes to be the person you want to be. It hurt the old man—I saw that, but he let me know it was worth it every time. He took pride in the beating he took to get at the sweet parts of a duck hunter’s life.
The old waterfowler? I didn’t get in his way, and he carried on for many a year after that. Me? I learned many lessons in endurance at that stage of my life, and now I see before me that very special time in life when the hours are few that I’ll have in the marshes and the cold times will tend to get to me. I can feel it myself. I’ll take it like the old man and Jimmie. I’ll meet it head-on and go as far as I can go. The end can be as good as the beginning in life. I learned that by watching my old man. He played his game to the end, as we all hope to do. Old age is a feeling—a state of mind. I’ll be out there like the old man with the anchor draggin’, going home with the storm. I want to grate onto shore and hop out to friends who didn’t think I’d make it.