Sunup is the coldest time of the day.” Those words, first spoken to me by my father as a late October Sunday broke behind our duck blind on the Hendricks slough, come to mind whenever I recall hunting as a small boy.
My most vivid memory is of me sitting wide-eyed and shivering in the darkness, anticipating first light over Minnesota’s swampy environs. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the northern flight. I mistake the rustle of rushes for the flutter of wings and the splash of a muskrat for a raft of mallards. My hands are fisted up in their gloves, and my feet curled inside two pairs of socks. Because of what I was told by my father, I’ve come to expect the dawn’s chilly arrival — to prepare for it and try to defeat it. The young boy, not yet old enough to shoot, must imagine the game he is pursuing. I go after cold, vowing not to let it get the better of me.
My father is on a knee beside me. The man’s breath smells like coffee and a little of last night’s whisky. I am paying close attention to him, waiting for more wise words, trying to guess when he will deem it light enough to shoot, wondering how he fends off the morning cold. He holds his shotgun upright, like a scepter, and wears a regal camouflage crown, earflaps down. To me, he rules the pond. Leaning my way, he whispers, “Those damn ducks like to sneak up behind you. You should always be checking your back.”
Eventually, I was old enough to carry my own 12-gauge. When it came time to shoot, I remembered everything he had taught me. I positioned myself according to the wind direction, recalling that ducks land into a stiff breeze. I sat still, and perfectly quiet, in my blind. I watched my rear. And, of course, readied myself for the coldest time of the day.
The older I got, the less time I had to hunt. My weekends were occupied by friends, girls, and high-school football. After graduation, I went away to college. I didn’t hunt again until my junior year. I was having a particularly difficult semester — the death of an old dormitory buddy, the end of a three-year relationship, a C minus in philosophy. I felt an urge to reconnect the parts of me that had become disjoined over the years. I called up my father and made plans to dust off the shotguns and hip boots.
Driving out to the slough, it was 1977 all over again. Dad puffed a Raleigh regular between sips of mom’s eggshell coffee, which I served from the old Stanley thermos. Willie Nelson and farm markets on the radio. When we turned off the gravel, our headlights arced briefly over the water before the engine was killed and we rolled to rest at swamp’s edge. Once outside, we made our way to the familiar blind, which required some makeshift reconstruction. It was still dark while we built up our cover with cattails.
As a faint glow grew in the eastern sky, I turned an eye toward my father. In the half-light I watched him secure the top button on his coat and bury his hands deep in his pockets. He had hardly aged at all. I realized that no matter how many ducks my dad and I had downed through the years, we had bagged a much bigger trophy in just being together all those frosty mornings hidden among the bulrushes. It wasn’t really birds that we had been after. It was our relationship — a man and his only son in pursuit of each other. It was a hunt from which we never failed to bring home our limit.
Once we could see to notice our steamy breath, he said, “It’s always coldest right about now.”
“Is that so?” I acknowledged. I was the grateful subject of a wise ruler who wants to be certain that his people are prepared — the good king of first light and swamp grass, offering sound advice, fair warning, and just a hint of day-old Kentucky bourbon.