He was getting on in years and I guess I don't know why I asked the question. He kept on hinting about the impending situation he was in, but I was too ignorant to understand the ramblings of the old man. [highlight]“Why the heck don't you get your butt in gear? I always asked him. “It's not hopeless.”[/highlight]
A THOUSAND GEESE, THE OLD MAN, AND ME.
He was getting on in years and I guess I don’t know why I asked the question. He kept on hinting about the impending situation he was in, but I was too ignorant to understand the ramblings of the old man. “Why the heck don’t you get your butt in gear? I always asked him. “It’s not hopeless.”
“Ya, I know,” he’d say. Good Lord, it wasn’t my job to keep him going. At least I thought that until it finally came to me; the closure Pop was looking for. That is what I called him, Pop.
He was a man in his 60’s whose body was starting to really say no. He could be fixed, but that was only temporary.
There was only one thing I could do to help ease his pain in the short term, and fall was coming fast.
Pop was one of the most beloved persons of waterfowl hunting I had ever known. Like myself, he was one of those guys who could stand out side somewhere in the spring as snow geese returned north in all their splendor and just watch for hours. We had done that before. I grew closer to him every time.
I decided since he hadn’t hunted geese in quite a while that the old man ought to get back to what made him happy. Maybe I could take his mind off the things inside his body that slowly were killing him.
I set it all up and in the middle of October we were ready to trek into northern North Dakota. I got land access from a farmer who took heart in my situation with the old man. He said he didn’t normally let people on his land, but with us he would make an exception. I would be eternally grateful to that farmer long after our hunt was over. My next step was to get Pop along for the ride. I wasn’t sure of his reaction. He still lived out on the farm, but hardly left the house anymore.
One week before we were to head north I got a phone call from the old man. He called me at least once a week to see how the hunting was the previous weekend. The conversation always began with me asking how he was feeling. I had been thinking the past couple of days that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go on the hunt. I figured that this time I had better feel him out to decide if I ought to ask him on the hunt.
“How ya feelin’, Pop?” I asked with a small quiver in my voice.
“Why”, came his terse reply, “did you hear something I don’t know about?” I thought maybe I should just come out and say it, but I held back.
“Oh, well,” he changed the subject, “how’d the hunting go last weekend?” “Pretty well,” I said, “We limited out on ducks and got a couple of geese. They are really starting to move in. Seen any up there?” “There” was his farm in central North Dakota, almost a hundred miles to the west of where I lived.
“Hell no…no, ya, I have seen a few birds by god,” he stammered. “There was a flock of 50 or so snows around yesterday, but they left. I saw a few Canadas, but they were east on the lake.”
“Oh, so you’ve been out driving around a little bit?” I asked hopefully.
“A little it. I can’t stand to stay in this damn house all day with all there is to see around here . Those Canandas were bit. Boy, I’d sure like to get on ‘em.” He sounded excited I felt excited.
“Pop, I gotta go. Wanna meet me at the Crossroads tomorrow for lunch? I’m buying.”
“Sure, 12 noon. See ya tomorrow, kid,” Pop said and hung up abruptly like he always did.
I sat at the booth overlooking the slough below the county café, admiring all the lovely mallards swimming around picking up all they could eat. Pop arrived and shifted across the parking lot, his eyes set on the same spot mine had just been. He came through the door, looked around, spotted me, and came over and plopped down.
“You should have brought your killer with you kid,” he said referring to my shotgun and those mallards.
“No, you should have brought yours,” I said.
“I did,” Pop replied. “There is a lot of water in the ditches, but them birds are too smart to be there. If I see any, I’ll be sure and let‘em know I haven’t forgotten about them.” We both had a good chuckle and continued with casual conversation that always seemed to turn back to hunting.
After we ordered and our food arrived, I thought to myself how wonderful it was that Pop finally got out the old shotgun. I began to tell him of all the geese up north that hadn’t quite gotten this far yet. He got a longing in his eyes and I thought I had probably hooked him.
“Pop, I got a proposition for you,” I began
“You ain’t gonna touch any of my guns until I’m dead, kid,” he said. I laughed and told him that wasn’t part of the proposition, although it would be a nice deal.
“No, really. I’ve set something up that you would love to take part in.” I was all of a sudden afraid I would be turned down as he stared at me. “All you have to do is let me pick you up. Bring a shotgun and some shells and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Oh, god, kid,” the old man said softly “I would love to settle into a marsh or hunker down in the mud and decoys, but I just don’t think I could take it.”
“Ah, Pop,” I said, “I got this brand new pop-up blind that would be perfect for you. There is a little window in the top that you look out of and when the geese come, you just let the top flip over you and you’re in business.
“Come on, Pop, you need this. You need to take your mind off your health. I set up a hunt up by the border and got on some prime goose land. The farmer said no problem and we’re going next weekend.”
“Dang, kid, I don’t know,” Pop replied, ever so softly again. His eyes were staring to light up like they used to. “You’ll have to let me think about it. Call me tomorrow when have time.”
We talked some more about hunting and I told him some more about the trip I had planned. I told him I would pick him up at 4 o’clock in the morning and we would be there by 5:30. I’d set up all the decoys and we would be home by midday. We departed, both of us smiling at the thought of one more goose hunt together.
At about five the next afternoon, I picked up the phone and hurriedly dialed up the number to Pop’s farm. He answered with the sure-handed response I’d ever heard.
“That you, kid?” he spoke into the receiver.
“Ya, it’s me,” I answered.
“I don’t think my old camouflage coveralls fit me,” he said hysterically. “What in the heck am I gonna do now?”
“Does this mean you’re gonna go?”
“Be stupid not to. I need some coveralls, boy. Got any extra you think’ll fit? He was serious again.
“Got an extra set for you in the basement” I said. “I’ll pick you up at four on Saturday morning.”
“Okay, kid,” he said and the phone went click. I hung up and flung a fist in the air, letting out a whoop at the same time. I would make him happy one last time. It was all set: The forecast was a high in the 40’s with 20-mile-per-hour winds and maybe even a little spit from above. I hoped Pop would handle the cold. A high in the 40’s meant hunting temperatures around 30.Beautiful waterfowl hunting weather.
I knocked on the old man’s door about a quarter to four, leaving the pickup running.
“You must be all tuckered out, kid, driving all night,” he said as he ushered me in.” “Here, have some eggs and bacon while I get my stuff,” I wondered if he slept all night. His excitement woke me up fully.
We were on the road by a little after four and Pop was asleep not much later. So much for excitement. He awoke just as I clambered off the highway onto a prairie trial. Rain spit on the windshield and the wind blew tumbleweed across in front of the pickup. He told me how this certainly brought back some vivid memories he had witnessed afield while hunting.
“Let’s make a new one this morning.” He said as we quartered off the prairie trail and out onto the field. I asked Pop when was the last time he had limited out on geese. He said it was back in the 70’s. Since then, he figured he would rather watch the birds than shoot them. But he assured me that wouldn’t be the case this morning.
I began to spread the decoys while the old man gathered our things and set up the blind. I spread out somewhere in the vicinity of 200 decoys and came back to the pickup for a cup of coffee. When I had Pop settled into the blind, I told him I would take the pickup back to the road where there was an abandoned farm yard to park it in. I told him the small lake that was supposed to hold geese was just to the southeast of the burnt barleys we were hunting.
I wanted to be back by sunup, but the walk from the farmyard was about 400 yards. The old man told me I could make it.
“If you get your butt in gear,” he prodded. “I ain’t cold. Just excited. Get going now,” he said and motioned me away with his arms. As I climbed into the pickup he yelled at me. “Oh, and kid, thanks.” Old friend, you are most certainly welcome, I thought.
I parked the pickup and began the trek back to the decoys. I would lay out amongst the decoys in white coveralls while Pop sat inside the blind. I don’t know why we were worried about his coveralls since he was concealed inside the camouflage blind anyway. There were some splotches of barley on the ground that hadn’t burned off. I thought the blind would fit nicely in one of those areas and hoped the geese wouldn’t mind.
As I grew closer to the set, geese started waking up to the southeast. Anyone who hunts knows that hen mallards begin the morning conversation. Pop always said that women would always wake up a man early for no reason. I thought of it and chuckled. As I got closer I noticed Pop was standing outside the blind staring off to where the geese were making quite a commotion. It would have been a great pre-dawn picture.
As I approached the old man, he turned around and smiled, “Alright, now I’m cold,” he said. He crawled into the blind. “By god, there must be quite an influx of birds to the south there. The wind is kicking up a storm, but they’re still loud.”
“Perfect,” I replied, “northwest wind. They should come right at us. I called the landowner last night and he said there wasn’t a lot of birds here yesterday. A few before they hit the water at sundown. We both figured they would wait to the bitter end and then eat up this barley.”
“Well, that’s usually the way it goes. They scatter around and get what they can get before they hit the buffet line when freeze-up gets here.” Pop was a veteran of the goose hunt. He thought they would head to the burnt barley this morning. As we settled in, the wind picked up and rain began to pelt the ground a little harder. I was afraid for Pop, gut knew for sure he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
All a t once all hell broke loose to the south and the air above the lake began to overflow with snow and blue geese.
We both knew the limit was 10 light geese and two dark ones, but that was a long shot. Then again, the morning seemed to be magical.
Twenty or 30 mallards buzzed the decoys without a sound but the whistle of their wind-filled wings. I thought I heard someone say something profane, but it could’ve been the wind.
I yelled at Pop to leave the ducks alone until the geese weren’t so heavy in the area. Again I thought I heard an expletive. I chuckled and a whirlwind of geese began to string out toward us. Geese always fly and land into the wind so they were having a devil of a time getting north. But, alas, they were coming, and coming in droves.
The first flocks went by to the south and around our decoys. Thousands of screaming birds were in flight in search of food. It seemed they were destined to go around the burnt barley to the south and then head north. As that thought started to disappoint me, two large flocks reined in and beelined for our decoys.
“Jackpot! Here they come kid,” said the old man excitedly.
On cue, I began to call the birds in. I didn’t think I really had to call them because they seemed to have their minds made up. Just as the first birds pulled up and dropped their landing gear. I heard the pop-up blind snap.
“Take’ em kid,” yelled Pop, “behind us, take ‘em!” I whirled around and saw that the first bunches that went around us had circled back and were coming in hard and fast. There were already 10 to 15 birds on the ground. I decided to take the geese in the front. I heard a volley behind me as I pulled on a mature blue goose and pulled the trigger. He was right over me and I downed him. I swung to the east and doubled up a big snow goose. The rest of the geese were peeling out of there. I turned back behind me and the old man was gazing at the fading lines of geese contentedly.
“Three, kid, three,” he said quietly. Then with a chuckle. “I hit two in one with the first shot and then licked one who was burning wet out of here. I haven’t hit two in one in years.
“They were right behind the blind, on the ground. They didn’t make a sound.”
“I’ll pick them up in a minute,” I said quickly. “Here come some more.”
Flocks continued to come off the water for about 45 minutes. We collected six geese apiece by then and were in disbelief at our luck. Neither of us even felt cold, although I saw the old man use his inhaler quite a few times.
When the goosing slowed down, we spent up some shells on the crafty wizards known as mallards and pintails. When those beautiful birds winged it into that wind, it was like trying to hit a housefly with a BB gun. I think we shot up a fox of a half of shells between us and only knocked down four mallards and one pintail. Oh well, I thought some things never change. A lull in the action came at about 10 o’clock and the cold started to get to me. I walked back to the blind to check on the old man.
He scared the breath out of me because his eyes were closed. I felt fear hit me from my boots to my hat.
“Pop!” I exclaimed. “you alright? Oh, no!”
“What, what, “his eyes popped open and he grabbed his old Browning, He had been napping. “Geez, I ain’t dead, I’m getting’ the willies, kid. Think it’s time to head out. I’ve had more fun than you know, but I’m feeling the wind through these old bones.”
I told him to sit tight whiles I went after the pickup. When I got 200 yards away from our setup a bunch of geese winged into the decoys heading back to the lake. I watched them in their majesty as they gave the dekes the once-over and headed in. I thought they were in for doomsday if Pop wasn’t napping again.
The geese swirled in and landed in the decoys. The old man wasn’t shooting. I admired that and was jealous that I wasn’t in the blind watching the action. The perfect end to a perfect goose hunt.
As I started the pickup and headed out to the spread, pop sprung open the blind and the geese busted out of the decoys. Never firing a shot, Pop stood up and signaled the birds that he had beatened them again. We picked up and headed home.
Just a few short months later in December, Pop called me from his hospital bed. He wasn’t doing too good.
“I had the best time with you that morning, kid,” he said softly. “Last October in that blind. That’s a new memory we created. Ten thousand snow geese you and the old man.
“Don’t forget times like that. Make sure hour kids know how it is, what it’s like. By god, maybe even buy another blind!” I began to get choked up as he continued. “I’ll miss it, kid, I’ll sure miss it. Ahhh, I think my goose hunt is over.”
Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn’t muster even a word to this old friend of mine. I just hoped the good Lords had a 12 gauge and some decoys in heaven waiting for him.
“The goose hunting is never over, Grandpa,” I whispered.
He died later that day, making heaven all the richer.