(atricle by Glen Beavers)
The full moon shone brightly through the windshield of the idling truck. The only sound to be heard was the rustle and whimper of the anxious lab as she stared out into the dark. The old man didn’t even hear the restless dog, as his mind was a thousand miles away in thought. He didn’t even notice that his cigarette had burned to his knuckles, or his coffee had gone cold. He wasn’t in any hurry; they had arrived an hour early anyway. To sleep was a thing of the past, something he didn’t do much these days. The wind blowing threw the gap in the window told the man it was going to be a cold one. No sense in sitting in the cold blind to early with a warm truck available he thought to himself. Besides he had some things to work out before he was ready for this hunt. He felt a sense of dread, grief and loneliness wash over him as his mind drifted back to a better place in time.
The year was 1955 in a little town called Paris, Arkansas just west of Little Rock. The boy was 10 yrs old and hunting ducks for the first time. He sat shivering in the blind holding tightly onto the old Parker double barrel, listening to the adults calling on their homemade calls. He was just waiting for his chance to prove that he was a water fowler like his pa. As the sun rose over the horizon, he could hear the wing beats over his head. And then he heard “ takem boys” and from that day on he was a duck hunter. When he turned 18 he joined the marines like many in his family had. It was a family tradition to serve your country, to give back a little for the freedoms everyone enjoyed. He found that he enjoyed the lifestyle and decided to become a lifer. He reveled in the structure and formality of the corps. Plus traveling around the country gave him many opportunities to feed his passion for duck hunting. Luckily he missed that hell called “nam” instead staying stateside training others knowing most wouldn’t be back. From the Texas gulf to the Chesapeake Bay, he hunted every species of waterfowl you could imagine. Then he met his wife in Virginia, a no-nonsense type who was raised in a hunting family and understood his passion for the great outdoors. While he was out training or away on deployment she ran their house like an old drill sergeant, cooking cleaning and raising their one son named jack. When jack was born in 1976 it was the greatest day that the old marine could ever remember. The boy was born to be a hunter; he was constantly walking around wearing dads hunting boots with a small broom handle he used as a shotgun shooting at imaginary ducks. Drawing a bead on that big whitetail or using his toys as decoys and setting out his own spreads.. He loved playing with dogs always trying to get them to fetch up his “ducks”. As he grew so did his love for duck hunting, learning everything from his dad. And when he turned 18 he also followed in his dads step by joining the Corp. Not long after the old man retired after 28 years as a master gunny ready for a well-deserved rest.
The only advice the old man gave his son the day he left was” always do what you know is right and listen to your heart”. It made the old mans heart heavy knowing his hunting buddy of so long was grown a man and going on his own path in life. But every year jack made sure he came home on leave to duck hunt with his dad. Even after he got married he would bring the wife because he wouldn’t miss his yearly hunt. After several years went by the old man got a phone call from his son. The old man could hear the excitement in his son’s voice as he told him about his new dog. He said” dad I bought a pretty chocolate lab and I named her Dutch.” He explained he was already starting to train her so she would be ready for next season when he came home. Several months had gone by when a tragedy struck the nation. Terrorist destroyed the twin towers and many innocent lives were lost. The next day he received a phone call from his son explaining he was heading to Afghanistan. His unit was shipping out the next day and he wanted to tell his dad he wouldn’t be home for hunting.
He remembers it like it was yesterday, 6 weeks later there was a knock on the front door. After that the rest is a blur, but he vaguely remembers standing next the coffin and receiving the flag from a fellow marine. It was like he was kicked in the gut and yet numb at the same time. He just wanted to be left alone to his grief and rage. He never once thought about duck hunting that year. Even when his chessie had to be put down from old age he never actually reacted, just no longer caring. The only thing he had to hold on to was the memories of the good days before all the madness. He spent the next year just wandering around pretending to be alive but feeling dead inside. Then one night he received a call from his daughter-in-law Susan saying she was moving back with her folks but needed to drop by and visit them. She said that jack had left him something special and she was bringing it by. A few days later there’s a knock on the door and when he opens it, out of nowhere there springs this brown streak. Instantly the dog jumps up and puts her paws on his chest and looks in his eyes. He pushes the dog away and says” SIT” quite forcefully and instantly she obeys. Grudgingly he remarks that at least the dog listens. Then Susan explains that jack made her promise that if anything happened to him to give dad his dog. Also when she delivered Dutch to please give dad a letter he had written. The old man took the letter with a trembling hand. He walks out back behind the house taking the dog with him. Sitting on the old tire swing, he stared at the envelope. Slowly he opens the letter to read the last words written by his son and it says
If you are reading this then you know i am not coming home. I asked Susan to please give Dutch to you, to hunt and take care of. I worked countless hours training her and even though she is young I’m sure you will find her a good and loving dog. I wish I could be there to watch her retrieve her first bird but I guess ill have to be there in memory. Take good care of her she is special. Also I would like to thank you for being the man and father you were. Thank you for the countless hours you spent making me the person I am today. Thank you for teaching me to hunt, fish and to take responsibility for my actions. And lastly thank you for teaching me to be a marine. I willingly go to fight for my country, as it is my duty. And if I don’t make it back then you know im where all good marines go when their time is up. Tell mom I love her, I know she will cry but please don’t grieve because I died for something worth fighting for and that is freedom. Lastly I want to say dad I will always love you and when you’re sitting in the blind and hear the ducks flying think of me.
Your loving son,
A sharp bark awakes the old man from his reminiscing as Dutch lets him know the suns starting to rise in the east. He notices his hand in his pocket touching the letter that he has reread at least a thousand times. Quickly he opens the door and slips on his hip boots and heavy coat. There is a sharp cold wind blowing out of the northeast, and the air smells like snow. He grabs the old Parker and the bag of dekes, whistles for Dutch to follow as he heads towards the blind. The old blind sits in a little cove on a river that flows into the Chesapeake. He methodically sets his blocs and arranges some marsh grass on the blind. As he waits for the morning flight he pours a cup of coffee from his thermos and watches Dutch. She sits poised perfect on the boards, ears alert and eyes looking everywhere at once. They hear a distant quack across the cove and she starts shivering in anticipation. But the old man notices she never breaks or barks, holding herself ready. He says “Dutch, jack would be proud of you girl. “Just at that moment a pair of drake mallards comes whistling by. The old man throws a couple high balls out and watches them circle the dekes. As they lock up he see Dutch is following them with her eyes, he shoots the lead bird and knocks feathers out of the second. Then he calls fetchem up Dutch and out the blind she goes. She quickly covers the distance to the downed bird on a perfect line. As she swims back to the blind the old man watches how strong she swims and thinks how great a job jack did training her. As she climbs the ramp and sits next to him bird in mouth, he gets a shower as she violently shakes the water from her coat. He gently takes the bird from the dog, smoothing the feathers of the beautiful drake. For the first time in a long time the old marine feels at peace. He realizes that he shouldn’t be angry for his loss but thankful for the time he had to share with his son. That ultimately god had fulfilled his plan through jack and his job was done. The grief that had weighed down his soul seems lighter. He realizes that indeed this dog is special; through Dutch he can hunt with his son again. He pets the dog and gives her due praise for a job well done. They finish the morning with 2 more mallards and a black duck. As they head back to the truck with Dutch leading the way. The old man says ” hey Dutch, what you say we try jacks favorite spot tomorrow? The dog barks as if saying “why not” and the old man just smiles and whistles as he climbs into the truck.
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