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"Jeez, you should see the shiner my old man's got! He got in a fight in the tavern last night, and he really caught one. But he knocked the other guy down so I guess he won."
The school bus that hauled us country kids rattled down Waldo Boulevard on its way to Woodrow Wilson Junior High in Manitowoc. In the seat beside me, Frank was laying it on thick, making his old man's scuffle at Romy and Helen's Tap sound like a title fight.
But I was impressed, and kind of jealous of Frank. He had an old man who hung around taverns, got into fights and bragged about them afterwards, a tough guy who didn't take crap from anybody. My dad, on the other hand, took a lot of crap as chairman of the Methodist church building committee.
Not that Dad was a milquetoast. Far from it. In college, he had played the line on both sides of the ball in the days of leather helmets. And he spent most of the '30s as an engineer on a Great Lakes ore boat.
No, Dad was no softy, but he wasn't exactly a man of action, either. There was an Irish temper behind his smile and his ever-present pipe, but few people ever saw it. Words, patience and humor were his tools, and if they didn't work the first time, he'd try them again. "Patience is a virtue, find it if you can, seldom in a woman, never in a man," he used to say.
I put all that out of my mind as the bus pulled up at Wilson. I had bigger worries that September of 1956, starting with a C in geometry that would probably get worse before it got better. And in any case, my jerrybuilt idea of manhood was about to be knocked flat at Horicon Marsh.
In the spring and fall, immense flocks of Canada geese gathered at Horicon, and Dad loved Canadas the way most people love sunsets. Back in the mid-fifties, the big gray voyagers were not as common as they are now, and even when we were in the thick of a grouse cover, he would whoa the dog and look up when chanting flocks of Canadas passed overhead. He'd stand there, listening, until they were out of sight.
That fall, Dad decided to try some goose hunting at Horicon. In those days the Horicon season didn't open until well into November, but Dad was a thorough sort of man and got an early start.
In August, he bought three books about goose hunting and read them front to back at the kitchen table, smoking his pipe and taking notes. On September evenings, while I struggled with hypotenuses, Dad was down in the basement, jig-sawing sheets of Masonite into the outlines of geese. Later, turpentine vapor filled the house as he turned each outline into a simplified oil painting of a Canada with a moveable head and neck. When 30 of these profile decoys were complete, Dad bought a couple of Navy surplus sea bags to carry them in, and got out the goose calls.
The calls had been purchased mail order from Herter's, with an instruction book and a 78-rpm record of expert calling. During October, we spent a half-hour most nights playing the record on the Magnavox and calling along with it. These rehearsals were loud and repetitive; they sent our two house-beagles into ecstasy and Mom into the kitchen.
Then Dad brought home two goose guns in plain brown wrappers, a well used but sturdy Model 21 side by side for him and a Model 12 pump for me. In early November, we practiced at the local skeet range, stepping back thirty and forty yards from the targets. Over and over, I tried the long crossing shots from stations three, four and five. "Lead 'em the length of your gun," Dad told me.
Most goose hunting stories start when the hunters struggle out of bed in the cold, dark hours of the morning, but if you hunted at Horicon in those days you had to get going the night before. The federal government had built goose blinds around the edges of the northern part of the refuge, and they were assigned to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis before dawn each morning. To get a good blind, you had to get your car into line on a country road near the marsh by about midnight, and that meant leaving Manitowoc no later than 9:30.
And so, on a Friday night in late November, we hit the road to Horicon in our Studebaker station wagon crammed with decoys, guns, ammunition and bags of lunch.
Nothing much was going on in Valders as we passed through, and other than a couple of kids buzzing the gut, Chilton was pretty quiet. Nothing was stirring in Brothertown, Calumetville or Pipe, and by the time we got there, Fond du Lac was dark. Then I fell asleep until Dad pulled into the waiting line of cars on the refuge.
He hopped out and counted the cars ahead of us.
"Eight, nine, ten – we're eleventh in line, I guess that's pretty good for a Saturday morning," Dad said. "Get some more sleep if you can."
But I couldn't. Up and down the line, drivers were idling their engines to warm up their cars. Men and dogs, their breath smoking in the cold, ran errands into the cornfields along the road. One guy had set up an Army cot on the shoulder. He was sound asleep with a big Chesapeake Bay retriever curled up under the cot.
At 4 a.m., the line began to move. We drew up to a sort of roadside stand where the blinds were assigned.
"We want blind 56 if it isn't taken," Dad said. A friend of his had gotten a goose from blind 56 on Thursday morning.
"Fifty-six it is," the warden said. He checked our licenses and duck stamps, wrote down our names and gave us a hand-drawn map. And off we went again into the darkness, the Studie bottoming out on the rutted clay.
After a mile or two of back roads, our headlights jabbed into a small, muddy parking lot that served blinds 55, 56 and 57. Following the map, Dad and I lugged our goose gear down a steep hill into the blackness.
Blind 56 was a six-by-six-foot structure of snow fence and corn stalks about a quarter-mile from the parking lot. Dad walked around with a flashlight to get the lay of the land.
"Let's set up the decoys in that picked cornfield just up the hill," he said, shouldering the first bag. He laid the folded decoys on the ground, spaced a few feet apart in a curving, upwind V shape, and heeled their wooden stakes into the soil. My job was to follow along behind him and attach the decoys to the stakes with carriage bolts and wing nuts.
Setting up profile decoys is hard work, and it turns into desperate work when dawn sneaks in from the east and threatens to expose you. I had the feeling that thousands of beady black Canada goose eyes were watching me as I spun the last few wing nuts and ducked into the blind.
"OK," Dad said, "I've paced it off, and that big willow over there is about 40 yards away. So is the fence and the edge of the decoy spread. We'll cripple birds any farther away than that, so don't shoot at anything that is beyond the decoys, the tree or the fence."
"The best part is that we've got the place to ourselves," Dad said. Sure enough, blind 55, about 200 yards north of us, was empty, and so was 57, the same distance to the south.
We took our guns from their cases and loaded them, poured cups of coffee into the steel caps of our Thermos bottles, and unwrapped a couple of Mom's bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. "Might as well have some breakfast now," Dad said, "because they're going to start moving any minute."
And as though they had been waiting for his cue, ten thousand Canadas lifted themselves from the marsh with a wild fanfare and began to wheel chaotically on the western horizon. As we watched, the whirling galaxy of geese broke into flocks and sub-flocks spinning off to all points of the compass.
"Here comes a string of about 20 right at us," Dad whispered. "They're climbing to get over the hill, so we've gotta call them down into our decoys. I won't shoot this first time. Let's start calling and I'll tell you when to stand up. Remember, nothing over 40 yards!"
Hunkered down in the blind and watching the geese through holes in the corn stalks, we began the "Hink, honk, hink-honk, honk, hink-honk" duet that Herter's had assured us would sound like dozens of geese.
Apparently it did. The birds were headed straight for our decoy spread, slowing, gliding, dropping lower. Then they were so close that I couldn't see them through the stalks and slats of the blind. "Stop calling!" Dad said, and in the sudden silence I could hear the hiss of wind in the pinions of the geese overhead.
"Now!" Dad said.
I stood up and spun around toward the decoys Dad's Masonite flock and our five-dollar calls. All of the geese in the string had been fooled. They were dropping in for a landing, talking to each other, their great webbed feet extended.
Then they saw me. Twenty geese accelerated wildly in all directions. I picked a goose headed to my right and swung the Winchester through him. On the skeet field, it would have been a station three high-house shot, and I could hit those. I led the goose a gun-length and yanked the shotgun's trigger.
The gun barked and bucked and I pumped the action so hard that the ejected shell flew completely out of the blind. But I didn't need a second shot. The goose folded, fell end-over-end to the ground and bounced, stone dead.
I stood open-mouthed. My ears roared. The goose lay there, crumpled among the decoys. Dad was saying something. I couldn't hear him.
"What?" I shouted.
"Put your safety back on," Dad said, "and go pick up your bird."
All was well in blind 56. Dad congratulated me on my shooting. I congratulated him on the high quality of his decoys. We polished off some more coffee and bologna sandwiches.
And then trouble arrived, in the form of two guys who walked down the hill to blind 55. They wore ordinary work clothes and carried uncased shotguns, several boxes of shells and what looked like a bottle in a paper bag. No calls. No decoys.
Dad hadn't killed his goose yet, and small groups of Canadas were still trading back and forth on the borders of the marsh. But whenever some geese headed our way the men in 55 would scare them off by firing shot after shot at impossible distances.
An hour passed. Three times we called geese almost close enough, and three times we were thwarted by the skybusters in blind 55. Their supply of ammunition seemed inexhaustible. Finally, after firing at about a dozen geese apiece, they scratched down two. The Horicon goose limit in those days was one goose per hunter per season; that meant the men in 55 were through for the year, but they showed no signs of leaving. "Well," Dad said, "I'm sick of running a guide service for those bastards. Let's give it another hour and then pack up."
I was half asleep when Dad poked me. "Here comes a little string from the south," he said, "real low. Don't call. I'll try to get one before those guys see them."
When the geese were as close as they were going to get, Dad stood up and shot a big one going away at 40 yards. It locked its wings in a glide and then died in the air, falling about halfway between us and blind 55.
"At last," Dad said. "Now, do your old father a favor and go get that goose."
I squeezed out of the blind and walked toward Dad's bird. Then I saw one of the men from blind 55 heading for it too, at a dead run. I sped up, got to the goose first, and picked it up by the legs.
The man from blind 55 came puffing up and took the goose by the neck. "Give me that goose, kid," he yelled. "I shot it!"
I froze, my heart hammering. I didn't let go of my end of the goose. "The hell you did," I said. "My Dad shot it."
"Gimme the goose, you little puke, or I'll knock you on your ass," said the man from blind 55.
"Why don't you pick on somebody your own size," said Dad from behind me. I hadn't heard him come up. There was an unfamiliar edge to his voice. "Davy, step aside," Dad said.
I dropped the goose's legs and scuttled sideways, glad to be out from between 500 pounds of angry men. I took a good look at the guy from blind 55.
He was a man of action, all right, the first I had ever seen up close. He was a little bigger than Dad and 20 years younger, with a stubble of beard and a smell of brandy on him that would cut varnish. He dropped the goose, cursed and swung a wild right hook at Dad's head. Dad's left hand shot out and stopped the punch in mid-air. His right fist, which measured six inches from side to side, was poised a foot from the man's face.
It was the moment I had been waiting for. This was the kind of violence you seldom saw in Methodists. Boy, would I have a story to tell on the school bus!
But Dad never threw his punch. Instead, he maintained his grip on the man's right fist and pushed him away. The man stumbled and fell heavily, backside first on the frozen ground.
"Take the damn goose and get back in your blind," Dad said. The man obeyed. We turned and walked away.
What was this? It was Dad's goose! Why did he let the man take it? Had we won or lost? My emotions wound themselves into a pretzel. Back at our blind, Dad grabbed the decoy bags. "You pull 'em up and I'll bag 'em," he said. I didn't argue. Within 45 minutes we were in the parking lot with all our gear. When it was stowed away, we sat on the Studie's tailgate to finish our lukewarm coffee.
As soon as Dad's pipe was drawing well, I figured it was OK to ask a question.
"Jeez, Dad, why didn't you hit that guy?" I asked.
"He was drunk, and he was afraid," Dad said. "And this is supposed to be hunting, not kids in a sandbox."
"Why did you let him have the goose?"
"Because it put him over the limit, that's why," Dad said.
Some geese were moving again, and as we watched from the hilltop, the men in 55 fired salvoes at a passing flock.
"You hear that?" Dad said. "One of those guys fired five shots in a row, and the other one at least four. They've been doing that all morning and it's against the law."
Then as now, hunting regulations required waterfowl hunters to put wooden "plugs" in the magazines of pump and autoloading shotguns, limiting the guns to three shots at a time. I had watched Dad put a plug in the magazine of my Model 12 pump the night before. Obviously the men in 55 hadn't bothered with plugs. That made two more violations. They were getting away with murder; it wasn't fair, and I said as much.
"Don't worry about it," Dad said. "That bird was kind of shopworn, and I've still got my goose tag. If you can stand another day of this, we'll come back next Saturday and you can help me call one in."
"Now let's go and find a federal game warden."
Dad fired up the Studie and we headed out of the parking lot. I was dead tired and wildly excited at the same time. What a day! I had killed my first goose. And Dad had ended a fight with nothing more than a stare and a shove. I was confused. I no longer had a juicy story for the school bus, but somewhere in the back of my fourteen-year-old brain, a new notion of manhood was peeking over the horizon.
We hadn't gone more than a hundred yards when we saw a brown Chevrolet pickup bouncing down the road in our direction. Dad waved and the truck stopped alongside us. We recognized the federal warden who had assigned us our blind that morning.
"It's a good thing you came along when you did," Dad said. "I think you should check blind 55. There are two men in there with three geese, and I don't believe either gun is plugged."
"We'll see about that," the warden said. He examined my goose, made sure it was tagged and then drove on to the parking lot we had just left. Soon we saw him walking down the path to blind 55. Dad got out our Navy surplus binoculars and we passed them back and forth to watch the little drama unfolding on the hillside below us.
The warden unloaded both men's guns and pulled the magazine caps. There were no plugs. He looked at one goose in the blind and found two others that had been hidden in a clump of cattails a few yards away. Then he started writing citations.
Dad lit his pipe and shook out the match. "And what did you learn from this wonderful day?" he asked.
"Patience is a virtue?" I said.
"No. The lesson for today is that revenge is sweet, especially when somebody else does it for you. And it looks like Uncle Sam has just landed a swift kick to the wallet."
Dad laughed and let in the clutch and we headed for home.
Dave Crehore hunts and fishes as often as possible. He lives in Green Bay and retired from the Department of Natural Resources last year after nearly 27 years as a journalist and information officer.