The local press in Erie, Pa., has tagged Bob Zawadzki "The Polish Falcon," apparently in honor of his ability to bring down migrating ducks with his aging Winchester Model 50.
But to his colleagues in the Northwestern Pennsylvania Duck Hunters Club he is Capt. Sandbarsky, so dubbed after he ran his 30-foot steel minidestroyer "Quarter Keg" up onto Seagull Point while mesmerized by a flock of passing mallards.
No harm done, Zawadzki and his hunting partners are the kind of can-do folks that regard every misfortune as an opportunity to exercise agile mechanical minds. Their town of Erie is a working city of full of working people who actually know how things work.
Which comes as a mild shock to a visitor from the nation's capital, where things seem to run more by accident than on purpose when they run at all.
So Zawadzki & Co. kedged and tugged and rocked and rolled till they were afloat again. He earned himself a nickname, but it was only a minor disgression in one of the most meticulously arranged and orchestrated hunting efforts around.
The men and women who hunt and fish the big waters of Lake Eric leave little to chance. These are unforgiving waters, wide, cold and deep, where little mistakes can lead to big disasters. Canada is only 28 miles away by boat, and the storms that thunder down across the lakes can come quickly and with devastating effect.
In his 20 some years of hunting Erie, Zawadzki has developed a routine for just about everything.
The day begins before dawn at his tumbledown boathouse at the foot of Walnut Street, hard by the railroad tracks. The party last week consisted of George Glecos, who runs a shoeshine parlor on 11th Street and Jack Smith, a 280-pound machinist.
Each has a job to do. Glecos outfits the skiff that will ferry hunters to and from low, gray one-man float-boxes that hug the waterline, surrounded by decoys. Smith is fixing horrendous coffee ("just cook it till its Peking, right?").
Zawadzki is firing up the Quarter Keg, a battleship gray clunker that he rescued from the scrapyard and onto which he welded a new bottom last year.
The hunters slide out into Presque Isle Bay, the port of Erie that serves as a dumping-off spot for the huge ore freighters that steam down from the Minnesota mines. The freighters are aglow in the predawn blackness, and there are sounds of big machines at work big jobs.
Outside the harbour, skirting along the tree-lined shore of Presque Isle Peninsula State Park, the scene changes instantly. It is another of the mysteries of Erie, where in one hour you can see places far uglier and others far more beautiful than you will ever see in Washington.
A hunting spot is chosen and Zawadzki hops in the skiff, takes two gray float boxes in tow and sets them at anchor. The hand-built boxes are being enough for one man to hunt from, his head and gun tip peeping above the plywood sheathing.
Next, six dozen hand-carved decoys are crammed onto the skiff. There are canvasbacks, redheads, scaup, mergansers, even a halfdozen Canada geese, just in case a flock of big birds swings through.
Zawadzki and Glecos set the decoys in strings of a dozen, anchored at either end. The work goes quickly and, as the sun rises in cold, cloudy skies, the first pair of hunters is taxied to the float bowes.
Zawadzki shouts from his box to his guests 25 yards away: "Look for a long string in the sky. That's how a flock looks when it moves in. We may not see anything today, but you can't tell."
Within minutes there is indeed a black string wheeling across the horizon out in the lake. The birds careen around Seagull Point and almost instantly they are in ranges, swerving in and out of the decoys directly across the float-box bows. "Now," shouts Zawadzki, who has passed up his shot.
The visitor, bewindered at the speed of the marauding scaup, gets off only one shot and misses a mile.
"You'll never get a better one than that," chuckles Zawadzki. He's right, but in the course of the day several more flocks come wheeling in almost as near and six birds are landed, half of them lowly prized mergansers, which are bad table fare at best.
It is dark again by the time the Quarter Keg makes its way back to harbor. The birds ae gutted, the boxes and decoys are back aboard the steel ferry. At port, the freighters are still brightly lit and the church and crackle of machinery still resounds.
The men gather around a card table in the upstairs cabin of the boathouse, sated by the long day in the weather and the hard work of hauling float boxes, decoys and chasing downed birds.
There is good news and bad. Glecos phones his wife and chats quietly for a minute. He comes back, shaking his head, "I feel sorry for anybody don't have a wife like mine."
Zawadzki phones homes and learns his mother has fallen ill and is in the hospital. He hurries home.
Glacos stops at a friend's house on the way back to town and drops off the mergansers. The friend is the only one around with a decent recipe for these tough birds. "He marinates them in wine for five days and crooks them for two days," says Glecos, "Even then I can't see how he can eat them."
And life goes on in Erie.