catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 8 :: 2002.12.20 — 2003.01.02


Second chances

The goose hunt on Thanksgiving morning is a tradition on our farm, an annual event that stretches back over four generations. It is a rite of initiation, a crossing from childhood to adulthood. I passed that rite at the age of ten, pretty standard in comparison to those who had gone before. My brother, Jack, eight years my senior, had gone at age nine, but only one month prior to his tenth birthday. My father had gone at age eleven.

The Thanksgiving I first went on the hunt was also our first hunt without Jack. He had been drafted earlier in the year and shipped out to Vietnam in September. We didn't know how he'd be spending his Thanksgiving, although Dad, a World War II Veteran, probably had a pretty clear picture of it in his mind, having spent two Thanksgivings himself buried in a bunker eating C-rations. It was just me and Dad and Mom that year.

I had some taste for hunting, both its mythos and its sensuality, before that first Thanksgiving goose hunt. Since the age of eight, I had gone out with Dad and Gramps and Jack for rabbit and pheasant. Still, I could hardly sleep the night before. The Thanksgiving hunt represented something different, something more. The next morning I was to be admitted, at least in this one area, to the circle of elders; I might still be a boy, but at the pond tomorrow I would be judged a man.

The Thanksgiving morning of my first hunt, we rose at four, threw on our barn clothes, and shuffled across the backyard in the misty light of a full moon. The air carried winter's icy edge, and I shivered inside my flannel shirt and wool coat. The thermometer hanging on the barn said it was twenty-one degrees, the coldest Thanksgiving morning I could remember. We milked the cows an hour and a half earlier than normal. Behind the barn, the hogs had to grunt and groan and nudge each other out of their sleep to trample over to their unusually early breakfast.

When we departed for the woods, the moon remained our only light. It was a bitterly cold morning, and a stiff wind was blowing out of the west. The pond where we hunted was in the woods we owned about two miles west of our farm, and for the first quarter mile I walked behind Dad, letting his broad shoulders and taller frame block as much of the oncoming wind as possible. As I ducked inside my coat behind him, I stole occasional glances at his back. He walked tall, the wind and the cold seeming to have no effect on him. He cradled his gun in the crook of his right forearm and buried his hands deep in his coat pockets.

"Dad," I said, as I scurried up beside him, "did you know that you walk just like Gramps used to walk?"

"Do I?" he said, smiling down at me. "And how's that?"

"Like this." I cradled my own gun across my arm and thrust my hands deep in my pockets and proceeded to take the broadest, most sweeping steps I could. I looked more like a fat duck with its wings clipped than I did like Dad. He laughed, but his eyes were sad.

"This is my first Thanksgiving goose hunt without Gramps," he said. Gramps had died last March. "I miss the old guy sometimes. Actually, I miss him all the time."

"I miss him too, Dad."

"It's also the first hunt I've been on without Jack since he turned ten," Dad said. He stared straight into the wind, straight at where the dark line of woods was just visible in the moonlight.

I didn't know what to say to that, so I changed the subject.

"Do you think we?ll bag a couple of geese this morning?"

Dad studied the sky around him, sniffed the air, and then announced his conclusion: "Hard saying."

Not quite what I wanted to hear.

"It's a clear sky, which makes it good weather for them to fly, but the wind is blowing pretty fierce, and this weather, well, I don't have to tell you how cold it is. That'll make them want to sit a spell. Of course, the last couple of days the temperature hasn't gone above freezing, and now with this, the pond might be frozen over."

"What then?"

"Well, the ice will be thin enough that we can take some branches and punch a hole in it, but I'm not sure such a small opening is going to attract that many geese."

By the time we had reached the woods, the first feeble rays of daylight were leading the way. In the early morning light, the woods glowed, appearing almost ethereal. Frost sparkled on tree trunks and bare branches, catching the meager light and then amplifying it a dozen times over. Each blade of grass, bent under the weight of the ice, glittered like a knife blade. Every shrub, rock, branch appeared to have been dipped by God into some vat of silver and then spattered by a collection of tiny diamonds. Never had the woods looked so beautiful to me.

As we entered the white wood, Dad stopped me and put his finger to his lips. From now on there was to be no talking.

Our duck blind was nothing fancy, four two-by-fours wrapped with chicken wire, with a little more chicken wire covering half of the top. We had come out a few weeks ago to make minor repairs and to weave some new reeds and branches through the chicken wire where the old had rotted away.

We had just stepped into the blind when we heard it, some kind of slapping, whacking noise, almost like the beating of a miniature helicopter, only more sporadic. We looked out of the opening onto the pond. A single goose sat in the pond twenty feet from shore. It beat its wings madly, but it went nowhere. Its body merely bobbed from side to side.

The sight of the goose going through all the motions of flight without actually flying was so strange, so hypnotic, that for a moment we did not recognize what had happened. Apparently while the goose had slept the night in the water, ice had formed around it. Now it was trapped, a live popsicle. We stared silently until the goose gave up its useless exertions.

"We've got to get him out of there," Dad muttered. He leaned his gun in a corner of the blind and disappeared out the door. I followed. He stepped quietly through the woods, but anyone who's been around wild game can tell you that human standards of quiet mean nothing to animals. The goose had heard us enter the blind, and now it heard us walking the edge of the woods toward it. With renewed fury, it beat its wings against the ice.

Dad ducked behind a clump of leafless raspberry bushes and reappeared, a fallen tree limb eight feet long in his hands. Quickly he crossed the shoreline to the point nearest where the goose was entrapped in the ice. The bird flapped madly, and its honking grew in a screaming crescendo as it sought to escape us while some unseen assailant held it in place.

Dad reached the limb out as far as he could, getting on his knees and leaning on one hand several feet out onto the ice. He brought the point of the limb down like a gavel. It punched a small hole in the ice about twelve feet out from shore but still eight feet shy of the imprisoned bird. He tried several more times from his position, but came no closer.

As Dad attempted to break up the ice near the bird, I studied the animal's frenzied attempts to break free. A Canada goose, although not as refined or dignified as a swan, is hardly a slouch when it comes to carrying itself with a sort of quiet decorum and ceremoniousness. But this particular goose had lost that presence. This animal, although it had spent a lifetime struggling for its own survival, had never so certainly realized its own vulnerability, its own mortality. The goose heaved and twisted and flopped. Its gyrations littered the ice with feathers and puffs of down. And then I noticed the blood, the slight pink tinge the ice had taken where the wings scuffed in bursts against the sharp crystals.

"Dad, I think it's bleeding."

He stopped long enough to confirm what I had said, and then he returned to his task with a new sense of urgency. This time he slid the limb several feet out onto the ice. Then, getting on his belly, he began to slink his way onto the frozen pond. Inch by inch he snaked forward, sliding the limb ahead of him. Finally, he lay sprawled on his stomach, his entire body born aloft only by the thin skin of ice. Slowly he reached the limb into the air and let it drop. The limb glanced the ice but did no more. He needed more force behind the blow. He raised the branch again, higher, and was just about to bring it down when the ice creaked and then snapped beneath him. With a shout and a splash of water, he was gone.

Where he had fallen through the ice the water was only about six feet deep, but I had been warned about playing on thin ice enough times to know the dangers of disorientation, of cold, and ultimately of being trapped beneath the ice. I screamed for my dad, waiting for him to reappear, and that the same time the goose shrieked from its imprisonment. We were mirror images of each other, each of us frightened, each of us dependent on that man who had disappeared beneath the ice, each of us utterly alone.

Without warning the pond erupted beneath the goose. Water, shards of ice, and a goose caught unawares exploded into the air. The goose tumbled end over end, skidded across the ice briefly, and then with one final shrill honk, took to the air. In its former grave stood my father, already turning blue with the cold, teeth chattering, hair wet, clothes plastered to his body. But what I remember, what really sticks out in my mind, was the smile on his face, a smile barely discernible and yet a smile of such deep contentment that I do not know that I've ever seen such since.

Dad stumbled out of the pond. He was so cold he could not speak; his teeth chattered uncontrollably, and shivers rattled his frame. I offered him my stocking cap, the only clothing I had that would fit him. He dropped his wet hat where he stood and replaced it with mine. Then we began the long trudge back to the house.

The wind was unforgiving. We hadn't even broken through the woods surrounding the pond before Dad's clothes started to freeze. His skin was going from blue to purple, and the ice that clung to his beard shimmered in the morning sun. By the time we had crossed half the distance to our home, Dad's clothes, except for the area around his knees, were a solid chunk of ice. He was nearly as encased in ice as the goose had been. The black of frostbite had spread to engulf the tips of his nose and ears, both of his hands, and once inside we learned his feet also.

Dad spent that Thanksgiving curled up in bed and went on to spend the better part of the next week in bed as well with a mild case of pneumonia.

In the years to come, we would go out on Thanksgiving, each of us calling in our prey, each of us squeezing the trigger, each of us bagging a goose or two. We would share Thanksgivings filled with laughter and adventure, Thanksgivings filled with love. But on this, my first Thanksgiving hunt, I brought home something more. For one moment, heaven visited earth; the strong became weak so the weak could become strong; and a single goose, a single man, and a single boy were redeemed.

This morning, I'm going to take my daughter on her first Thanksgiving goose hunt. She has no desire to carry a gun, and that's just as well with me. I'll have one, but for the first time in my life, I don't really care if I come home with a goose or not. Thirty years down the road and Dad two months in the ground, what is most important is a story I have to tell her. When my daughter and I go out in a few minutes, we will hunt for something more elusive and far, far more noble than Canada geese.

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