The calendar says duck season is finally over, having died a fitful death when the sun set across the frigid state of Maryland on Saturday. I say good riddance.
As far as I am concerned the season ended 10 days earlier in an obscure tidal marsh south of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. That was New Year's Day, a holiday, a day of rest and relaxation and reflection; a day for calm and reasoned assessments of one's pursuits in life.
Duck hunting, you lose.
Here's why: Duck hunting requires a willful suspension of reason. One of the mandates is unflinching optimism in the face of unflagging hopelessness. This is fine in October, November, even early December. But in the cold grip of winter a man who intends to live a while has to ease up on positive thinking and grab hold of himself.
"We will go," said the organizer of the New Year's Day hunt, "for half a day only. This is in deference to the women, who like to go to parties New Year's Eve and talk to people they don't even know."
Just what is a half-day? To a duck hunter a half-day starts the night before the hunt, when his gear must be organized and packed. The preliminary work is briefly suspended in deference to the women, who drag their protesting partners to parties and other silly stuff like that, and resumes at 7:30 New Year's morning when the bank of alarm clocks begins its claxon ringing.
The half-day wriggles through early-morning meetings at preordained points around the Beltway where vehicles are abandoned and gear is transferred. Finally the push east begins with four men, three boats, four guns, a trailer, six Thermoses, three portable blinds and enough clothes to keep an Alaska pipeline crew happy.
Why this, of all half-days?
"Because the ponds are frozen and the ducks will be seeking open water, and we will be there," said the organizer.
What's to assure that ducks will fly at all?
"They will fly because a cold front is due, and they will go to the fields to feed and then they will return to the marsh for protection. Only we will be there waiting."
There were indeed some ducks in the marsh on New Year's Day. The men saw them in a creek when they crossed a bridge in a red Jeep, and again in another creek when they were pushing along in one boat with the other boats tied behind and the gear stacked to the gunwales. The ducks erupted from sloughs and backwaters and flapped franticallay away.
However, when the men were all secreted away, hunkered down in their makeshift blinds and surrounded by decoys, there was nothing else around to frighten the ducks into moving.
The birds held fast through the long, leaden afternoon and the men sat. They split up to cover separate areas. The tide was high. The water never diped below ankle depth in one hunter's blind and as the day wore on his feet grew numb and number, until he couldn't feel them at all.
Then it got dark and the half-day was over. The man with the numb feet stood up in his blind and cranked the shells out of his gun. And waited.
"Do they know where I am?" he wondered.
He remembered the story he'd heard the year before of the two men who lost their boat in the marsh in January and tried to walk out. Fortunately, they were rescued after both collapsed. They were on the verge of freezing.
He made a resolution: If they come and get me and we get home safely, I will kiss this duck hunting goodbye for the year. It's beautiful sport, yes.But this is madness.
After awhile he heard the roar of the outboard. An hour later the hunters were all at the Jeep.At 11 p.m. the man walked in the door at home, his half-day complete. EPILOGUE
On Jan. 4, 1981, the phone rang.
"How about duck hunting Wednesday? Here's the deal. There's a little spot on Chickahominy Lake that the ducks keep open. Everything else is frozen. We can't miss our limits. We'll be home by noon."
"No," said the man, "thanks."