A duck call should not be a weapon or a flotation device.
Earl was a modern day Dr. Doolittle. He was also my dad and I swear he could actually talk to ducks – calling to them like the Pied Piper called to rats. He apparently knew the right thing to say because they always seemed very comfortable and relaxed right up until the moment they were blasted out of the sky with 2 3/4″ magnum sixes. Boy, did my dad know how to call ducks!
NB: A magnum 6 is a shotgun shell that makes a huge roar and sprays little pellets at cute feathered animals with the force of a tiny Hiroshima. In hunting parlance it would be considered the humane and sporting way to kill defenseless animals for fun.
There is something visceral and primordial about sitting in a duck blind trying to kill as many birds as possible, but even when I was young something seemed not quite right about letting good meat go to waste. I guess I liked what it felt like to have my picture taken with dead animals hanging around my neck and knowing that I was a pretty darn good shot and I felt a weird sense of pride at being able to kill so well. I even fooled myself into thinking that I was a good at putting meat on the table. Technically, it would be more accurate to say that I was good at putting meat in our freezer because the meat never actually got to our table. The frozen duck carcasses lay in our freezer for years until we moved. At that point they were thrown away without a second thought. But, at least having them in the freezer tucked away for years, nestled under the pizza rolls and boxes of ice cream, made me feel better about hunting.
I was never thrilled with hunting the night before a hunting trip. Sleep rarely came easy because of the one thought that ran through my head on an endless loop: “there are living things out there right at this moment that didn’t know they would be dead in the morning.” I was all bravado in the evening as we sat around talking about past exploits and how much we had killed, but then when I went to bed I would be racked with guilt. The guilt would pass in the morning with the sunlight, but would crop up at times during the day whenever I had to wring the neck of a duck or goose that I hadn’t cleanly killed. It has always been hard for me to grasp a creature by the neck and kill it because I decided it shouldn’t live any more. But hey, I hunted on because you know the old maxim, “If there is no lead a flyin’ there’s no meat a dyin’.”
I hope you’re not getting the wrong idea about me. Just because I’m not a huge fan of ME hunting, doesn’t mean that I don’t think others should hunt, even if it’s just for sport. You will not find a single redwood splinter on me from hugging a tree or boat marks on my back from getting run over trying to protect the whales (whalers have to eat too). I know where meat comes from and I have a 1/4 beef sitting in my freezer right now waiting to be charred over a hot bed of coals. However, it does give me an added feeling of justification if the meat from my, or anybody else’s, road kill actually goes to some good use.
My dad and his friends used to come home from deer hunting with so many deer slung over the stern of the boat that it looked like the boat had a hairy brown fungus growing over it. I have heard that Orca migration patterns were changed permanently because of chum trail left in the boat wake on their return.
Once the pictures were taken at the dock and the posturing was done, and the talk of how there was going to be a huge a wild game feed was over, we would go home and the meat would never be seen or heard from again. There must have been over 4000 pounds of meat on that boat and I never saw a single 8 oz. petite sirloin cross my plate. I never, once, and I mean ever, had venison for dinner. Where it went was a mystery. It was like a giant sheet was placed over the deer pile and when it was pulled back a fanfare was played and the meat was gone.
We never ate any wild game, not even salmon we caught, and we caught a ton of them. I can remember catching salmon, cleaning salmon, fileting salmon and storing the eggs to catch more salmon, but I can’t ever remember eating any of it. We gave a lot of it away though (mostly to Judge Keene). I guess I’m now wondering if Earl was greasing the skids in some way. I’m not sure if he was trying to get rid of the meat because we wouldn’t eat it, paying the judge for the many times he didn’t get thrown in jail for fighting, or just showing off because he always sent me down with the biggest fish.
The only salmon I ever remember eating was when my mom made salmon cakes, and I know for a fact that the salmon for those cakes came from a can because I loved to open cans when I was a kid (more weirdness). Can you imagine living in Alaska, being a salmon fisherman and eating only canned salmon? I’m sure it was canned locally, but still, the idea of it is bizarre.
I hated salmon cakes because none of the bones in canned salmon were ever removed. Most of them were soft enough to eat, but once in a while you would bite down on a vertebrae and it would make a soft, crunching sound like you were breaking the back of a slug (I know they are invertebrates, but that’s what it was like). To this day I can’t stare a salmon cake in the eye without flinching.
Earl was an excellent caller of game. Given his personality it makes a lot of sense. He was always good at getting people to buy what he was selling, luring them in with wacky advertising or promises of grandeur and then making the kill. Whether it was furniture, fishing gear, golf clubs, totem poles or getting Governor Egan elected state governor, he always found a way to get people (or animals) to buy what he was selling.
He loved the hunt and the kill, but he was terrible at the follow through and he left the dead meat of countless “friendships” in his wake. No one really got close to Earl unless you let Earl be Earl and did what he said and what he wanted. If you didn’t, there would be hell to pay. People either enjoyed the ride with my dad or they wanted to get out of the car really quickly. Being young, I was in and out of his car so often that I wasn’t sure if I was driving, riding in the trunk or watching it peel away from the curb.
Earl loved almost nothing better than duck hunting though. Some of my best memories of my dad come from sitting in the blind with him. He wasn’t demanding or hollering or telling me or my mom what to do or reading his paper while you were trying to talk to him. He was attentive, kind and encouraging and the only thing he wanted from me was to pour him about a half of a cup of coffee (a full cup got cold too quickly and he loved his coffee hot) into the red plastic cap of the thermos and kill as many ducks as possible. I never drank coffee, but when I poured that half cup and the steam from it curled to my face I wanted more than anything to WANT to drink coffee. He would hold up his hand and say “give me some skin” and when I slapped his hand he would hold on to it for just a second and then take a sip of his coffee.
Earl never wore gloves no matter how cold it was. He always said he liked to only wear them on the way home because it felt so good to put them on (I thought it felt good to have them warm both to and from the boat ride to the blind, but this was his logic, not mine). His pale, thin-skinned hands, mottled with age spots would be red and looking like they had the beginnings of frost bite as he gripped the call like he was holding onto a roll of pennies during a fist fight. He would cup his other hand over the end of the call to vary the sound, like a trumpet player using a mute. He would press the call to his lips – a small bead of clear liquid always precariously clinging to the end of his nose – and blast away on his duck trumpet until my ears would split and then we would watch.
You could almost see the interest on the faces of the ducks as they turned towards our decoys. It was like a siren’s call that they had to answer. He would blow a few more times even louder letting the ducks know that our decoys had seen them and were excited to have company. As they got closer he would chortle into his Pied Piper’s flute and the feeding call would make the ducks think they were coming to a feast. Closer they would come and then they would set their wings and my dad would say “now!” and we would jump up and blaze away into the overcast sky, ducks falling from the clouds like cats and dogs.
Earl was constantly buying duck calls because he was always looking for the perfect sound. He was like the Ace Frehley of duck calling. The closest he ever came to finding the perfect call was when he brought home “Magnum.” It was huge and about the best thing I had ever seen. I have learned recently that the call was never designed to be used in the field. It was a store display used to advertise a much smaller version, but it was his go-to call and had a mellow deep sound like the Barry White of duck calls (it’s probably why we shot more hens on those trips). It was a pain to pack around since it was so large and looked like something a German soldier would throw in WWII movies, but Earl was never without it when we were in the blind. He hunted for years with it and I think he even used it to club baby Harp seals once or twice. I found it in his garage when he passed away.
I never hunt anymore, but I have duck calls. The closest I’ve come to using any of them is when the kids and I sat in my room the other day and tried to play the Vandal fight song. These calls are not me.