Like PawPaw (Chapter 1)

The clatter and clang of the old Big Ben alarm clock jolted him from his hard-won slumber. Reaching over to the bedside table he fumbled with the clock trying to find the small plunger that would silence the din. Out of habit he reached up to switch on the lamp, “Not today.” He reminded himself.

In the cold darkness of the empty camp he swung his legs out from the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed. The air around him was cold and he fought the urge to dive back under the heavy warmth of the musty old army blankets. “The good old days?” he mused as he rummaged in the darkness, found the box of wooden matches and stuck one on side of the box.

By the wavering yellow light a coal oil lamp he pulled on an ill-fitting union suit and a thick pair of wool socks. He would finish dressing once the fire was going again. A warm bed of coals made short work of the scraps of kindling and soon a small but vigorous fire was burning in the pot-bellied stove. Tossing on a few respectable size splits he closed the slotted iron door and warmed his hands by the stove as the pot and roar within promised heat enough to knock back the chill.

Two more oil lamps cast a warm glow about the small cabin as assembled the percolator pot and set it on top of the stove. As he finished dressing he could hear the water begin to boil and soon the camp was filled with the smell of coffee, strong and black. In the heady mix of aromas, coal oil, pecan wood and strong coffee he assembled his gear and withdrew the old pocket watch. “Two and a half hours til shooting light” he said aloud to the empty room. ” Best get going. And with that he swigged down the last of his coffee, eased the pot over to the edge of the stove, tossed a few more sticks of wood on the fire and dampered down the flu.

The late December air was sharp on the exposed skin of his hands and face as he stepped out into the darkness, worn leather gun case in one hand, railroad lantern in the other.

Though he knew the path from the camp to the boathouse by heart, the short walk was difficult in the pail lamplight. Roots and vines grabbed at his feet and the step up onto the dock seemed to have grown in the darkness of the passing night.

He walked past several boats, decked out with the latest motors, blinds and bulging sacks of decoys. At the end of the dock he hung the lamp on the last post and looked down at the craft that would take him into the timber. Solid wood from stem to stern, made by his own hands, and today, powered by the same. In the back of the boat a canvas sack lay covered with frost, a glass eye of one of the decoys peering out at him through a small opening where the bag was cinched together at the top. “Those are gonna be heavy.”

He slipped down into the boat, set the oars in place and carefully stood to untie the bowline from the dock and douse the lantern. Seated, he shoved off shifted his feet and laid his back into the oars. The camp vanished in an instant. Above a half-moon shone down on his wake. The reflection of stars swirled and mixed in small whirlpools left by each oar. He did he best to set a rhythm to his rowing, glancing over his shoulder now and again to keep from wandering off the trail and into the thicket of button willows that flanked his path.

When the brushy willows gave way to the open lake he felt a chill run down his neck. Turning up the threadbare collar of the stiff canvas coat he made a mental note of the wind speed and direction. “Due North, or near enough.” He thought. “Not strong, but steady, should be a good day for the Y Tree.”

As the waves lapped against the side of the boat he put a little extra push in the right oar and again glanced over his shoulder to mark his course. “Head straight for the high cypress and keep your eyes on the rail-yard light.” The words from his grandfather’s journal ran through his mind, his memory of the grand old man making the written words ring through time in the old mans voice.

Apart from the sound of his rowing and the lap of waves against the boat, the world was silent. No one would be at the camp today; he had blocked out this morning just for himself. No guests, no family, no friends, just him and the woods and waters his family had hunted for generations. Today he would hunt these woods the way his grandfather had, for better or worse. No outboard motors, no fancy guns or hi-tech insulated clothes, today it was all old school. This was the day he would retire his grandfather’s gun and he would do it Papaw’s way, right down to the last detail or at least as close as he could.

Watermarked

Something tells me I must have seen it before then. The small trailer was far from new. It had served its time on the banks of Steel Bayou and Paw Paw bend at two of the deer camps my father had run. I had visited the latter with him but have no recollection of staying in it there.
My first memory of it was looking at it through a pair of binoculars from the levee along side Deep Bayou. Dad and his friends had just moved it to there to serve as our duck camp. It was stationed next to Strickland Deer camp, set on cinder blocks and at the end of a road that was notoriously bad after even the slightest rain.

Spring rains and heavy snow melt up north had conspired to bring flood waters to its doorstep and in one of the strange social outings only a southerner may understand my father had rounded up some friends and their wives for a ride up through The Delta to see the flooding and check on the camp.

In a caravan of four-wheel drive trucks we had wound our way through the fertile, flooding farmland and from our perch atop the highest ground in the area, the levee, we glassed across the watery landscape to see if the trailer was still high and dry.

While the wives of the waterfowlers spread out a magnificent picnic on the tailgates the men took turns scanning the area with their field glasses and taking pot shots at snakes and other critters that had sought the safety of the levee’s high ground.

How long we lingered I can’t recall. The camp was still a foot or more above the water but with the river forecast to climb over the coming weeks dad and the men he hunted with agreed that the trailer wasn’t going to stay out of its murky path.

They spoke of past floods and pointed out the high water marks on the trunks of trees, each one telling those who knew the exact year of its birth. In The Delta time is measured in uneven increments starting from 1927, the year of The Great Flood. Scientists and the like call them 100 year events, and perhaps that is so when viewed through the long lens of geographical time. But even the floods that do not reach the catastrophic levels of 27 become benchmarks etched into memory by loss, destruction, change and the spirit of oneness displayed as the people of The Delta pull together to fight the inevitable and lend a hand to neighbors.

Floods destroy but they also renew. They renew the rich soil of the farmlands, restock old oxbows long abandoned by a river that we only pretend to control. The also renew our faith in our fellow-man. Rich and poor, black and white, the river on a rise makes no distinction.

So when the waters come it is all hands on deck. Banker, beggar or brother Delta folk stand shoulder to shoulder filling sand bag as the water rises, driving boats out to rescue those stranded and cleaning up and rebuilding once the waters recede. The wake of the flood brings brotherhood.

The waters of ’79 did not spare the camp, though mercifully the damage was mostly superficial. With my first season as a duck hunter approaching my father decided to take me along for the clean-up. To my young mind it was an honor and a rite of passage. I to would be “watermarked” by the recent flood. It marked my entrance into a world that has been the core of my being ever since.

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Duck season for us down here in The South ended almost three months ago to the day. Spring has arrived and only a handful of bluewings remain this far south. For the Southern Waterfowler the migration is all but done for this year. For many duck and goose hunters the “Off Season” is in full swing. Not for me.

In part by chance and in part by choice I grew up with a year-round view of waterfowling. From my earliest days there was always something duck hunting related that needed to be done on the weekends. My family was fortunate to own some very prime hunting ground in my home state of Mississippi and though I did spend a good bit of the spring and summer fishing local lakes and rivers, there was a large amount of time spent working on projects that directly related to duck hunting that had to happen in the so called “off season”.

It generally started just days or weeks after the close of the regular season. Large decoy spreads left in front of the big permanent blinds had to be picked up, boats hauled back to the camp, blinds stripped of things that would not weather well until we returned in the fall.

Were it not for the fact that our swamp seemed to always fill up with ducks just after the season closed these projects might have all been completed in a day or so. But as it was we spent a lot of time just watching the ducks and dreaming of next season. With such fine company it never really seemed like work.

As spring came on dad would set aside chores for turkey hunting. I gave it a try but it would not be for several decades that I caught the turkey bug. So while dad fought mosquitos and  pitted himself against the thunder chickens I would fish and wander the woods, always viewing things through the filter of a waterfowler’s eye.

I might have been casting lures between cypress knees or dropping jigs into thickets of button willows in search of fat largemouth bass or slab crappie but my time on the waters around my home were always also a survey of those places for their duck hunting potential.

Now days I have found some small corner of my father’s love for spring turkey hunting, but in all honesty I plan my hunts more for their waterfowl habitat scouting potential more than for their likelihood to end with a long beard on my shoulder.

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My family lost all their land long ago and life took me far away from home for a few decades. I returned to my beloved southland some ten years ago as the game keeper for a close friend whose family owns some of the most magnificent waterfowling grounds I have ever known. I worked for them and for other private lodges for several years and the depth of my love and understanding of waterfowl habitat grew.

Life now finds me seeking my fortune in the oilfield but my heart remains in the wilds. I do not own a patch of ground myself but at any given opportunity I am helping friends and acquaintances with their own little patches of heaven on earth.

It extends my season and feeds my soul.