(Columnist's note: I wrote this short story several years ago and it was published in the Pine River Review. I wanted to share this condensed version with you for the holidays. Merry Christmas.)
Snow drifting through thick air is beautiful, especially when watched from the shadows of a duck blind.
Wet flakes of frozen moisture form in billions of different designs, filling the air like feathers from a torn pillow. I once read no two snowflakes are ever the same.
I really never noticed things like snowflakes until I returned from the war. I didn’t notice a lot of things.
But, I guess that doesn’t matter now.
My brother, Bill, and I had just returned from fighting Hitler’s finest. We joined the Air Force and immediately became assigned to waist gunner positions on B-17 bombers stationed in England.
The officer who assigned us claimed we would shoot down 200 fighters each because of our past hunting experience. But, shooting at German ME 109s and the newer, faster, long-nosed FW 190s, both single-seat fighters with a nasty bite of machine guns and cannons, is slightly different than leading a mallard.
Adolph’s fly-boys shot back and flew about 300 miles per hour faster.
That officer had never served in combat, but he was right, to a point.
We knew how to lead and follow through with a shotgun. We grew up in duck blinds. Dad taught us how to blow a duck call when most kids were playing with rattles in their crib.
He took us to the river every day to hunt tough river mallards. We looked forward to ending each school day in the fall and winter for our cherished duck hunts with the blind excitement of small children on Christmas morning.
We packed a lunch on weekends and stayed all day.
During high school in the late 1930s, we found jobs guiding hunts on the Missouri River for businessmen at a nearby duck hunting club. Most were overweight and terrible shots, while some were very capable with a shotgun. A few could even blow a duck call.
My brother and I occasionally shot a duck or two for those we liked who had spent a frustrated day missing the fast fowl. We figured they could enjoy a duck dinner at home.
But, mostly we let our clients hit or miss.
Besides, a local game warden named Jack McGrue kept an eye on us. He wanted to make sure we kept our operation on the up and up. Occasionally, he gently reminded us that it was not legal to fill others' tags and we knew he was right.
McGrue seemed different. Something about him did not fit.
We could definitely have done without him, but we loved those hunts and actually got paid for our services during a time when money was tight and a dollar was still worth a dollar.
I thought about those duck hunts during missions over Germany and wondered if I would ever see the river again.
We returned home after flying 60 missions that scattered bombs across Europe and key points in Germany. Bill, a year younger, came back a month later.
The family home seemed cold and empty without the folks who died in a car wreck the year before we were shipped overseas.
Our cousin, Paul, took care of the place while we were gone. We returned to find the old house like we left it — sturdy and needing a couple layers of paint.
We both sat in the living room, rocking in Mom and Dad’s genuine spring-loaded Sears and Roebuck chairs. The weather was surprisingly warm for December in Missouri, so we did not build a fire in our old pot-bellied stove.
We just sat in the living room, content to see each other again. Very little was said.
Our planes had survived German anti-aircraft cannons and those pesky fighters. Most of our two groups had been lost. I considered it a miracle to have survived.
The final irony occurred during Bill’s final mission, when his plane crash-landed and exploded into a bright fireball on the runway. Somehow, Bill was thrown clear of the carnage and walked away with scratches, the lone survivor.
I guess we were both meant to survive the war. Before leaving for war, we both planned to go duck hunting on our return.
The war ended and our hunt arrived.
We felt excited, but few words were spoken. I only knew we had to make that duck hunt.
Bill seemed to have a pleasant look on his face the morning we stepped out the door with shotguns slung over our shoulders into a beautiful snowfall. We both wore our bomber jackets with a couple of Dad’s old hunting hats, but I was surprised at how comfortable the air temperature felt.
We had found the old hunting club’s decoys the day before. I was amazed to find each deke in stacked bags spread across the corner of a small shed where they had laid since the club closed six months before we left for war.
Rodents had done some damage, but nothing major. The decoys were there for us to take. The owner had moved on and his wealthy daughter could have cared less about a bunch of old hunters or decoys.
We carried the bags across a frozen field to our spot, a deep loop in the river where our sturdy blind had survived nature’s fury.
Ducks loved this spot because they could rest out of the main river current. We set out eight dozen of the club’s best in sort of a fishhook pattern Dad had taught us.
The snow picked up intensity and became a blizzard. Bill and I watched through the thick snowflakes for incoming mallards. Heavy snow would push some of them out to fields, but others would be looking for a nice place to rest.
Bill and I talked little. I almost felt like forcing a conversation, but decided against it. I glanced over at him, and he was smiling now, as his blue eyes looked skyward.
I followed his stare to find a beautiful sight.
A large flock of mallards had spotted our decoys. We added some sweet duck music and were answered back by the lead hen.
The mouthy old girl seemed interested in joining us and her group followed. A tear, or maybe it was melted snow, dripped down Bill’s cheek as he sent a highballing invitation skyward to the circling mallards. I stopped calling to watch.
He had never called better.
The large flock disappeared into the swirling snow each time they circled. They reappeared downwind and flew back over our set, each time maneuvering lower and lower.
Then, finally, they drifted over our set. We jumped to shoot when the lowest mallard’s feet touched water and mass confusion broke out over the ancient Missouri River.
Ducks scrambled every direction to escape our trap.
I picked out a greenhead and squeezed the trigger of my shotgun, pitching the duck into our decoys. I heard Bill shoot as another passed across my sights. I caught up with the duck’s flight and for some reason decided not to shoot.
We proudly laid two big drakes under our wooden bench. He grinned at me and quickly looked skyward as another big flock passed close by. The heavy snow was driving them lower for sanctuary.
The snow seemed to be falling heavier so we wadded into the river and started splashing water on each decoy to clean off accumulating snow. Our wet decoys looked bright in the dirty river water. Apparently, another flock of mallards thought so, too.
We both started highballing on our calls, but it was not necessary. We were where the ducks wanted to be, an important rule of waterfowl hunting.
About 70 mallards splashed down in our decoys.
We both raised our shotguns, but did not shoot. I guess we were both thinking the same way because no words were spoken. We had enough ducks for a meal.
Let them have their resting spot.
We worked new flocks over the next hour and filled the pocket with live quacking ducks and a couple of Canada geese. I never wanted that hunt to end, but something told me our time was running out.
We decided to start for home. The sky was darkening and we did not want to get caught in a heavy blizzard at night.
Visibility was nonexistent as we carried our ducks and shotguns across that white field, but the air temperature still seemed remarkably warm.
I started wondering if we had waited too long, the snow was thick, the thickest I had ever seen and darkness was settling in.
But, soon a warm light filtered out of the darkness as we approached our house. I wondered if we had left a light on or maybe cousin Paul had stopped by.
Then, the smell of apple cobbler baking in Dad’s old wood burning cook stove overwhelmed our senses. I hadn’t smelled anything that good since Mom was alive and someone had decorated a Christmas tree in our living room.
We stepped through the door and stopped dead in our tracks. Mom was standing at the stove and Dad was sitting at the table, carving on a ham. Both turned to smile at us.
"I thought you were dead," I stammered. "No, wait a minute, we went to your funeral. I helped shovel dirt over your coffins. What happened?"
Suddenly, McGrue appeared from a back room.
He was different. He had replaced his game warden suit with a white suit and his face had a soft, peaceful glow.
"Merry Christmas, boys, your folks are not dead, they have gone on to eternal life, and now so shall you. You did not survive the war. But, you did pass your last test on earth.
"You might not be with us now if you had continued to shoot. But, you used good judgment to shoot only enough ducks needed for food while leaving the rest to survive. Others might have shot until their gun barrels turned red, but you showed an eternal wisdom, the wisdom of only taking what you needed and leaving the rest for future generations.
"Now hug your folks, boys. I think they missed you. We have a long trip ahead."
-Kenneth L. Kieser is a local outdoor enthusiast.