The Roman stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote this piece of eternally good advice in the year 174 A.D.: "Cherish the little trade which thou hast learned and be content therewith."
R. Madison Mitchell has done that. More than a half-century ago he learned the principles of duck and goose decoy making at the foot of his mentor, Samuel T. Barnes of Havre de Grace.
It was a simple trade and, when coupled with Mitchell's profession of mortician, it would provide him a good and full life here along the flats, where the Susquehanna River feeds the Chesapeake Bay.
But times change and sometimes men don't change with them. Over the years Mitchell has stuck with his two trades. He views decoy-making as an occupation secondary to his profession. But now the world sees him as an artist.
The phone rings incessantly at the cluttered workshop behind the funeral home wnere Mitchell and his three assistants work 12 and 14 hours a day cutting, sanding, whittling and painting the pieces that made up a wooden decoy.
And the people line up to buy them. But not many float them on the flats to lure in ducks and geese anymore. They want a piece of the master's work for posterity. A piece of art for the mantelpiece, to bring to the decoy shows. They know these decoys are the last of a dying art and someday they will be worth big money.
None of which makes R. Madison Mitchell particularly happy. "I'm a decoy maker," he says, crustily. "That's all."
Mitchell knows his decoys are worth a lot more than he sells them for, and that's why the orders pile up until he's working far longer hours than a 77-year-old man ought to. He knows people buy them from him as decoys, then turn around and sell them as art.
If he wanted to, Mitchell could probably make a handsome living by carving a few ornamental decoys a year. But that suits him not at all.
He believes his decoys are better than the plastic junk that has taken over the trade. Infinitely better. They are heavier, so as to float true in a gale, and sturdy and lifelike.
"A man buys a plastic decoy, he's lucky if it lasts him two years. Then he goes out and buys more. My decoys will last 50 years if they're taken care of."
So Mitchell keeps building his good decoys the old, labor-intensive way. The heads are whittled by hand, with a knife.The bodies are turned from 100-year-old pine beams on a machine he invented. The cutting lathe Mitchell redesigned from one that once made gun stocks for World War I weapons.
The bodies are sanded and painted by hand five times. The heads are drilled and nailed to the bodies with five nails. It's impossible to say how many hours go into a single duck or goose.
The workshop smells of pine and cedar sawdust, of paint and cigarette smoke.
Mitchell works across a battered bench from C. B. Bauer, a painter who has been with him for 30 years. In a corner young Bobby Jones is whittling heads. Downstairs the belt sander is whining as Johnny Reisinger, who has worked here 25 years, finishes decoy bodies.
Bauer and Mitchell are painting at an incredible pace. They are working on buffleheads, Bauer says. He paints the white wing slashes with two quick strokes; the gray underbelly is splashed on; the brown upper body feathers, the deep brown of the tail. He casts on three quick wing patches, then hands the half-finished bird to Mitchell.
The boss works with a broad brush, dabbing on ridges of feathers, a blot of gray at the tail to signify where the two wings meet.
It does not look like a bufflehead. "By golly, you're right," says Bauer. "That's an American goldeneye hen. We paint so many sometimes we forget which is which."
Bauer and Mitchell light cigarettes, take a drag and settle to work. It's the only drag they get, because by the time one duck is painted the cigarettes are burned out. The pace continues for 2 1/2 hours, nonstop, until 16 goldeneyes are in the drying racks, with only eyes and bills left to paint.
There's an interruption when a buyer comes calling. "What lie did I tell you?" Mitchell asks.
"You said I could have a dozen-and-a-half mallards, but then you said you couldn't get them done, so you'd see what you could fix me up with."
Mitchell sighs, gets up from the bench and gathers a basketfull of finished decoys. He takes them out back, lays them out on the ground and collects some cash.
Bauer looks out the window. "I know that guy," he says. "He buys decoys and takes them somewhere else and sells them. The boss doesn't like to do business like that. Sometimes he'll refuse them. I've seen him."
Mitchell comes back to work. He curses softly because a dab of black falls from his brush onto the brown tail feathers of a bird he's working.
"Dammit," he says. "I'm getting too old for this."
Mitchell's prices range from about $13 apiece for small ducks to about $20 for a Canada goose.
A signed original can go for five times that much, and ought to. They are magnificent replicas. Before I left, I asked Mitchell if I could buy two ducks and a goose. He sighed and went to gathering them up.
As he handed over the duck, a pair of bluewing teal, he told me, "If you can't get $50 for these tomorrow, don't sell them."
Then he turned over the goose, heavy and perfect, and filled out the bill.
"That'll be $47.50," he said.
"Here's $50. Will that suit you?" I asked.
"No sir, that won't suit me." And he handed me the change.