If you know me, I believe this post will surprise you.
Remember guys, in 2016, we are moving forward in the spirit of adventure. This is not the year of saying no. This is not the year of saying someday. This is a year of fighting the status quo and fighting the complacency and rigidity that come with age. This is the year of embracing new experiences and ideas, through moments of joy.
When I saw Joel Sartore at the Annenberg Space for Photography last week, a young woman in the audience asked him if he had advice for her as she begins a career in animal activism. He said the most important thing to remember is that nothing is black and white. In order to move forward, in order to make meaningful change, we must accept that there are many, many shades of gray. I would ask that if you read on, you will do so with this in mind.
So, now… let me tell you about how I watched the sun rise this morning from inside a duck blind on a private hunting compound while smoking a cigar.
First, I should introduce John. He is the husband of a very dear friend of mine. For years I have heard stories of his part ownership of a 600-acre property north of Los Angeles, where he and 49 other members of an elite duck hunting club gather during the season. I have always been fascinated, because it seems so old school, so masculine, so rugged. I might as well admit my infatuation with Hemingway right now. It will help you understand the journey.
Recently, I gathered the courage to tell my friend that I would love to go duck hunting someday with she and John. It seemed like a once in a lifetime experience. She informed me that John’s club is a private hunting club. There are a limited number of hunting days each season. This year the season is from October 24 to January 31st. She also told me that each member is only allowed to bring one guest at a time, so she was unsure if I had missed the window for this year. She called about an hour later to tell me that John had an open day and was excited to take me.
I was told to be at their home at 3:55 am, to dress warmly, and not to worry about breakfast because we would eat when we arrived at the club. She said she would not be waking up to send me off, but she would see me when I got back.
After freezing at the Rose Parade, I took the advice to dress warm seriously. I went into my husband’s closet and borrowed a fleece, a thermal and some wool socks. Then I went back to my own closet and put on purple bicycle shorts and rust striped thigh-highs stockings under my jeans. I had a fleeting thought that if I was in an accident, the doctors would forgo life saving measures just to prevent similar fashion choices in the future. Whatever. I was warm.
I arrived at John’s home at 3:52 am as he was putting a shotgun into the back of his wife’s Mercedes SUV. I had a camera bag, a down jacket, and a purse. We were on our way.
Now John and I have met before, but our conversations have been mostly brief and cordial. It was a bit intimidating to know that we would spend the next several hours together and that he would be armed for most of it.
Everything today is going to be new, I thought.
About an hour later, we exited the freeway and began driving west on a long unlit road through strawberry fields. A military station was in view. It was still an hour before sunrise as we pulled up to some ranch-style buildings. There were a few men arriving at the same time. They wore camouflage clothing and fresh haircuts. I could hear roosters crowing in the distance.
We went inside the ranch house, saying good morning to the people who had already gathered. There were eight or ten men, two women, and a couple of tow-headed pre-teen girls. I saw a young man preparing a catered breakfast in the kitchen and was thrilled when I caught a glimpse of an industrial size coffee maker.
John showed me down the hall of the house to his room. The rooms in the house are private, and utilitarian. We put our gear down on a twin sized bed and went to the kitchen to have breakfast. There were scrambled eggs, or fried eggs to order, bacon, sausage, toast, hashbrowns, and juice. We made our plates and sat down.
I had been told that the families of several of the members have been with the club for generations. John inherited his membership in the club from his father and will probably pass the membership to his own son one day. Recently after much debate, a movie star whose name you would know was permitted to join the club. He had to promise to keep the club free of outside scrutiny. The members enjoy the peacefulness that anonymity provides.
As I sat at the table, I was introduced to a few members of the club. The men I met were, for the most part, retired. I thought one had a remarkable resemblance to the late director, John Huston. In fact, several of them did. The two women I met, were there with their fathers. I chatted with one of the women about her business of making soap out of goats milk and she told me that I should come visit her baby goats in the springtime for a cuddle session. (You KNOW I will find a way to work that into the list.)
Once we finished eating, we went back to John’s room. He pulled waders over his hunting pants and explained the items he brought for me in a backpack. There were gloves, electronic headphones that simultaneously protect your hearing from gunfire while allowing you to hear the voices of your hunting mates, a fleece hat with lights built into the bill, and some granola bars thoughtfully included by his wife, my cute friend.
We were called back to the living room. One of the members was holding a velvet bag in the air and the hunters were all in a circle. The first man picked a ball out of the bag. Next was John’s turn and he let me pick the ball out of the bag. The ball you get determines the order in which you are permitted to choose your duck blind. I chose #3 which gave John the third choice. Even though that was a good position, another hunter kindly switched with John to give him an even better chance, presumably because I was there as a guest. We looked at a large diagram on the wall and John showed me where the duck blinds were located. Our names were entered into a leather bound ledger along with the information: two persons, one shooter.
We gathered our gear and went outside where there was a truck waiting for us. The bed of the truck was outfitted with wood benches inside and hooks for hanging gear on the outside. I made my way up the metal steps into the back of the truck and off we went. We dropped off hunters as we reached their blinds, until we got to our spot. We unloaded our gear and stood in the middle of the dark field watching the truck’s taillights bob down the dirt road away from us.
Now, up to this point, the only duck blind I had ever seen was in a national park somewhere in the Southwest. That blind was like a large room with shuttered windows and had seating for about 20. Imagine my surprise then when we walked up to our spot, which consisted of two green hubcap-like circles on the ground in the middle of a marsh.
John pulled the lids off the blinds which were about four feet away from each other. Each blind was about 36 inches wide and about five feet deep. They looked rather like large green trashcans that had been dug into the ground, leaving only a 10-inch rim exposed. There was a stool in the middle and a shelf along the inside edge for small belongings.
Before I got in, John used his head lamp to check for snakes, spiders or other critters. When the blind was determined to be safe for occupancy, I climbed inside. I could feel water moving underneath the floor. John had a large mesh bag full of duck decoys and he split them between the ponds just east and west of us. He returned and got into his blind.
John told me that he was not allowed to shoot ducks until 6:32 am, and we would be signaled by an opening bell. It was around 6:00 am so we chatted for a bit. John told me that he was allowed to shoot a maximum of seven ducks. There are several types of ducks that come to the pond. John knew how many of each bird exists in the wild, and whether the populations were in a state of increase or decrease. The hunters can come to the property twice a week during the season. The most prized of the ducks is called a pintail, because they are widely believed to be the tastiest. At present, they are trying to grow the population of these particular birds, so the daily limit is currently only 2. There are serious penalties and/or fees for people who don’t follow the hunting regulations and California Fish and Game shows up regularly, without warning, to enforce them.
John showed me his shotgun, saying that the best guns are always Italian. It probably goes without saying then, that John is also Italian. His shotgun is an under over, break action gun. He showed me how he loads the shells. He can load only two at a time, and then he carefully placed his gun outside his blind, across two backpacks, which were sitting on the ground.
It was an overcast morning, so when the sun began to appear it looked liked like a melting pink grapefruit as it inched its way above the horizon.
I said, “Sure, why not? When in Rome.”
Then he trimmed the cigars using special cutters and lit my cigar for me. I had never smoked a cigar before so I was surprised to learn that you don’t inhale cigar smoke. Also, I didn’t expect the cigar wrapping to be lightly flavored with honey.
Though I looked like Muammar Gaddafi, I actually rather liked smoking the cigar, though I found it difficult to keep it lit.
The opening bell sounded and moments later we saw a few ducks fly overhead. It was still pretty dark and the ducks were moving fast. In one deft move, John picked up his shotgun, aimed at a duck and down it went. He had shot a Spoonie.
Many of the men have bird dogs, but John does not. He left quickly to retrieve the bird. As I sat there in the blind, with cool air blowing up from the surface of the pond and shorebirds gliding on thermals across the marsh, I heard revelry sound at the military base. Then to my delight, across the quiet landscape, I heard the familiar distant notes of the Star Spangled Banner. Magic.
I know this is going to sound stupid, but when he returned with the bird I was surprised to see how dead it was. I know death is absolute, but still, I was surprised. There were no death throes, no last haggard breaths, it was just gone. There wasn’t even an easily visible gunshot hole. I suppose I had imagined a hole the diameter of a shotgun shell like you see in a fizzling cartoon duck, but apparently bee bees fly out of the shotgun casing and they are what bring down the bird.
John got three birds in all, which is pretty good for the end of the season. Two spoonies and a pintail. Two of the birds landed in the middle of the pond and he had to wade out to get them.
I love birds, but being a cook and the grand daughter of a butcher, I don’t get squeamish about my food having a face. John told me that the birds would be taken back to the lodge where they would be cleaned and placed in coolers for us to bring home.
We decided to quit just before 10:00 am, since ducks weren’t really flying any more. John told me that the ducks like to fly out to the ocean and bounce around on the waves. Apparently, they’ll stay out there for hours until they get thirsty and then they fly back to get fresh water. John wanted to get home to watch the football game, so we packed up our gear and headed to the road. The truck picks up from the stop every hour on the hour. While we were waiting, John asked me if I’d like to shoot the shotgun. I said, “Sure.”
He loaded the shotgun, showed me how to put the safety on, and how to position the butt of the gun against my shoulder. I put on safety glasses, and then aimed the gun at a little dirt hill about 30 yards away. When I pulled the trigger, the recoil of the gun nearly knocked me off my feet. My shot landed no where near the hill. He let me shoot two more times and then we caught our ride and headed back.
There was a lunch of chicken, carnitas, rice, beans, tortillas and a pot of chili waiting for us when we got back. John was the envy of the hunters with his score of a pintail duck. We left instructions with a man named Jesus in an outbuilding, and he cleaned the ducks while we sat down to eat.
One of the men had a little fat round black lab puppy that was walking about with a bright pink camellia in her mouth. She was unwieldy and her hindquarters swayed to and fro as she proudly pranced around with the flower in her mouth. I played with her for a little while and she sank her teeth into my jeans and let me drag her around a bit before she ran off to play with the flower again. I looked at the burly man on the porch and asked if she was his puppy. “Yes, ma’am, “he said, “And she’s about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
As we drove back home, I thought about how differently I had thought about hunting in the past. For some reason, I hadn’t considered how aware hunters are of the natural landscape. I was happy that these particular hunters had joined together to preserve such an unspoiled parcel of wetlands. In the off season, the property is used by the Audubon Society to observe and record all the species thriving there.
It was a beautiful and peaceful place, undisturbed and alive, within an hour of Los Angeles. It was also a spectacular place to see the sun rise.
349 days to go!