We had to smash a channel from decoy to decoy… Jim’s teeth were chattering and I was cold beyond all shivering.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 5, 1938.

“I’m open,” said Jimmie Frise, “this week-end for a final go at the ducks.”

“Take some of your thicker-skinned friends,” I replied.

“I can’t get over your indifference to duck shooting,” said Jim. “It is, in the opinion of the greatest sportsmen in the world, the cream of all outdoor sports.”

“Duck shooting,” I informed him, “is sheer bravado. Only men who get a kick out of showing how tough they are go duck shooting.”

“Isn’t it funny,” mused Jim, “how a man can outfit himself with opinions in defence of his own ignorance?”

“Duck shooting,” I went on, “is the last survival of the hair shirt instinct in humanity. In past ages men wore hair shirts to show what they thought was their piety. It was only the desire to show how tough they were. Duck shooting is the same. You love to suffer, in order to demonstrate the vigor of your character.”

“Can’t you grasp,” pleaded Jim, “the delight there is in doing something entirely different from your normal life? Can’t you imagine any joy in entering a world as strange and different from the everyday world as it is possible to enter?”

“I don’t like being cold,” I stated. “I don’t like being wet or sleety. I don’t like to have to sit like a frozen dummy for hours on end in an icy bog, with a wind whistling amongst rushes.”

“The first delight of duck shooting,” interrupted Jimmie, “is the getting up at 4.30 a.m. You think of it with horror. As a matter of fact, it is the strangest and most delightful sensation imaginable. Your whole being is astonished. Your body, your mind, your secret spirit, tingles with a queer, a fascinating, joy, just to be up in this mysterious and unearthly hour.”

“Maybe my nervous system,” I suggested, “is too close to the surface of me.”

“Then,” went on Jim, “the going out, after good hot breakfast, into the stormy night, the chill, the stars, the wind. The walking and the rowing out to the duck blinds. The setting out of the decoys, in the darkness and the little waves, seems to wake in your deep heart some age old cunning, and it gives you the same lovely tingle as hearing, softly, the tune your mother used to sing to you when you were in her arms, a child.”

“What a queer comparison to make,” I protested.

“It’s true enough,” declared Jim. “Most of the deepest feelings in us are queer. And rightly so, because all our deepest feelings are the ones that have survived from time immemorial in us, handed down to us from our fathers, generation after generation across uncounted ages. Yet in the past few hundred years we have been trying to squelch these ancient things in us in order to be, as they say, civilized. So what we say and do and think, as civilized beings, seems plain and open. But whenever the deep, ancient things in us stir we find them strange.”

“We’ll be a better race,” I stated, “when we have succeeded in squelching those ancient things entirely. The day will come when nobody will go duck shooting, partly because it is idle to kill wild ducks when it is so easy to kill tame ducks. And partly because it is silly to go out and expose yourself to cold and discomfort and possible danger of pneumonia.”

Two Philosophies of Life

“I see,” retorted Jim. “So you’re one of the new pacifists. It is not because war Is evil that you would put an end to war. But because it is silly and expensive and uncomfortable.”

“Precisely,” I cried.

“Then in time to come,” suggested Jim, “there will be no more fishing, eh? Or golf or any amusements except the indoor amusements?”

“Even the indoor amusements,” I informed him, “will have to be pretty intelligent to get by. Playing bridge will prove to be silly, sitting up stiff in an uncomfortable chair, having to keep your mind alert…it won’t go. Mankind is moving definitely towards the understanding, of life that they arrived at centuries ago in India and China. And that is, that life, at its perfection, is simply sitting perfectly still, doing nothing, feeling nothing.”

“How about the Germans?” demanded Jim. “They don’t believe in any such perfection. All the trouble the Germans have been to the rest of the world in the last 50 years is because they believe so utterly in action, in discipline, in suffering, in exposing themselves to hardship, in living and dying dangerously.”

“Sparta,” I replied, “believed that, too. But what is Sparta? Just a word. A printed word. Nothing else of it remains. No statuary or vases, no literature, no philosophy or laws. Sparta terrified the whole Greek world in its time. But it was the rest of Greece, the terrified part, that handed down to us anything that we value of Greek civilization.”

“Puh,” said Jim, “this is all recent stuff, this Greek and Roman business. Just the other day. What I am talking about is the stuff that is in human nature for the past fifty million years. Because the Greeks or the Romans had certain experiences are we to be guided by them? Because they succeeded or failed. just within the past couple of thousand years, are we going to base our whole system of life on their experience?”

“What other experience is recorded?” I demanded indignantly.

“Recorded?” cried Jim. “You mean on paper? My dear boy, that counts out all the most valuable experience of all, because writing is only a recent invention. How about the records of human experience written in our very souls? In our minds and hearts and instincts. That’s where you want to look for records.”

“You,” I exclaimed, “are striking at the roots of civilization. Our entire world depends upon the written experience of humanity.”

“Therefore,” triumphed Jim, “if, in the past couple of thousand years, everything mankind has done has been in error, your whole world is founded on error.”

“But error couldn’t survive for two thousand years,” I protested.

“Oh, couldn’t it?” inquired Jim, sweetly. “Then how long do you say error can survive? Take a look around you at the world, before you answer.”

“Look,” I said, irritated, “what has this got to do with duck shooting?”

“Everything,” said Jim. “Because you can choose between two philosophies of life. You can either sit at home this week-end, doing nothing, feeling nothing, sagged in a chair like Buddha himself, believing in your numbed and all but lifeless mind that you are at that moment achieving the perfection of life. Or else you can come duck shooting with me, and feel cold and wind, and be aware of your skin and your eyes and your ears; filled with mystery of time and space, of stars and shadows and, as dawn begins to break, of swift flying little squads of wild ducks, swishing past, while you sit, controlling even your cold shudders, motionless as a stump, and the squad of ducks, seeing your decoys dim in the reeds, bank and turn and wheel and come, wings set and rigid, coasting down into range of your gun.”

Swell Day for Ducks

“You make a very unfair comparison,” I declared. “If I stay home, there are a hundred little things I can do. I can paste all this past summer’s fishing snapshots in my album. I can rearrange my book shelves, and index the latest acquisitions to my collection of early Canadian and American angling literature.”

“Very worthy, very worthy,” agreed Jim. “Pottering about with a paste pot, sighing over yesterday, thumbing through old withered pages of books written by men who were men of action, who, a hundred years ago, fished all our noblest waters when they were wild, and shot ducks and passenger pigeons and wild turkeys…. You think you are civilized. You are only debilitated, like our lakes and woods.”

“I like comfort,” I stated. “And so did cave men. I’m the natural man, not you.”

“You’re just getting a little feeble,” retorted Jim.

“Do you mean to insinuate,” I demanded, that I couldn’t sit out in a bog as easy as you? Do you suggest that you are more fit to stand a little wind and weather…”

Well, you know how it goes? Somebody is always trapping us by the old personality method. At any rate, with a gun borrowed from my brother, and in hip rubber boots borrowed from the garage man, and in woollen shirts and leather vests and canvas hunting coats and great clumsy slicker borrowed from my son, I waited in the cold rain for Jim to hack into my side drive to pick up my dunnage bags and valises full of spare woollens, and shell boxes and all the equipment a normal man can think of taking with him at this time of year on a most unnatural undertaking. Including a hot water bottle.

“A swell day for ducks,” gloated Jim, shoving open the car door heartily.

“And for the flu,” I agreed. “It smells as if it were going to snow.”

Thus, for a period of three hours, along deserted highways amid a forsaken world, we drove, the rain flooding and volleying eternally, and the short afternoon waning to an unpleasant and mischievous darkness, out of which raced glaring lights of unhappy vehicles, and the dim, unfriendly lights of towns and villages wrapped in November gloom.

Jim professed to love it all, the feeling of strong and virile isolation from a timid and withdrawn world. He talked about the arts of wing shooting, of leading a duck so many feet per yard of distance per angle of flight. He raved about the flavor of wild duck, believing that a split teal, broiled in a wire broiler over charcoal, cooked merely to a perfection that still permitted the juices to run, and served with boiled wild rice, boiled celery served only with butter, and hot dry toast, to be the supremest wild flavor the human palate could appreciate.

We came at length, at what seemed midnight but was merely 8 p.m., to a village at which we turned east and took a rain-sodden country road. This we followed with caution for six miles to a farmhouse where everybody had gone to bed but a jovial elderly man, our host, who fed us rather sketchily on some overdone cold meat of some description, a lot of big loose bread, butter so salty it stung and hard stewed crab-apples in pink sweet water.

Jim and Jake talked loudly of the morrow, and the wind increased and the rain quit, and when we stepped out before going up to bed, the air had got so cold it pinched our cheeks.

“Will they ever be flying in the morning?” cried Jim mightily.

“Will they ever,” agreed Jake, heartily.

And he led us up a creaky stairs to a gloomy slope-ceilinged room with two unmatched beds between barren walls. So damply, strangely, uneasily into bed and the lamp blown.

But almost immediately, the lamp was relit, and there, shadowed monstrously on the walls, was Jake, whispering us that he had the kettle on, and we dressed. In damp wool, in scrapy, frigid canvas, we dressed, and, rubber boots clumping and flapping, we went down to a breakfast of coffee-colored tea, thick, dry-fried bacon, two eggs fried stiff and turned over, thoroughly saturated with bacon grease. Then, wiping mouths hastily, off into the night, at 18 minutes to 5.

Jake showed us the boat and shoved us off from shore, with a husky but hearty good-by, good luck. We had to tramp away a thin shell of ice that held the boat to the frozen mud shore.

“She’s freezing,” I shivered.

“The wind will get up before daylight,” shuddered Jim.

With frequent peerings and bendings low, Jim steered a zig-zag course across the sullen water, and we came at last to a sort of promontory of swamp and bulrushes jutting out.

“Drop out the decoys,” muttered Jim.

I fumbled amidst the potato sacks full of damp decoys, unwound the stiff cord, and dropped them overboard at Jim’s direction. Twenty. “Bluebills, all,” said Jim. “But whistlers will come into them.”

Then with a powerful drive of oars, Jim thrust the punt into the point of bulrushes, ice crunching sharply and startlingly under the bow.

Waiting for the Sunrise

“Lovely,” I murmured. “Do we sit on the ice?”

“We sit in the boat,” said Jim, and with the oar, he cracked the thin ice ahead and handed the punt inward with grips of the tall bulrushes. When we had battled our way six feet in, Jim began cutting bulrushes and sticking them upright along the gunwales of the punt.

“Now,” said Jim, “for daylight. We’re at exactly the right time.”

Dawn is praised by poets. But poets are seldom out in November. Through the spaces in the rushes, we gazed out at blackness. The wind had fallen completely. But it was bitter cold.

“Don’t stamp your feet,” hissed Jim. “Squeeze them with your hand.”

And a little later:

“Don’t cough.”

And, just as a faint and sickly pallor became visible on the sky, he said: “Now you have to sit really still.”

I could barely see the decoys, immobile in the glassy water, a few yards out from the rushes. Far off, a gun barked, again and again. Quite close, two guns banged the sun and frigid air. We strained our eyes out into the sky above our decoys. But nothing passed.

It seemed hours for the dawn to break through. The sky was leaden. The air was icy. Not a breath moved the driest rush tip.

“She sure is cold,” whispered Jim.

“Ssssshhh,” I warned fiercely, massaging my feet through the rubber boots.

Seven o’clock came and went. Daylight, ghostly and wan, came. Our decoys lay inert and motionless on the queerly still water, but now we had to keep low, for fear of being seen.

“On a day like this,” whispered Jim, “they may fly a little late….”

“Whisht,” I warned, both hands inside my innermost garment.

Eight o’clock, like an invalid in a chair, rolled slowly in. Passed, and at 8.30, Jim stirred noisily.

“Well,” he said in a profane voice amid the silence, “I guess there’s no use sitting here any longer. We’ll pray for wind tonight, for the evening shoot.”

We stood up in the punt, and she did not wobble.

“Ho, ho,” said Jim, rocking the boat. But she did not rock.

“Frozen in,” I suggested,

So with the oars, we cracked the thin shell of ice around the punt, and, with Jim in the bow like George Washington, we broke a narrow passage out of the rushes. For 20 feet out, a lovely thin sheet of ice had frozen in the three hours of dawn.

Our decoys were fast in it. We had to smash a channel from decoy to decoy, Jim making the passage. I picking up the wooden beasts and winding the stiffening cord around them, after chipping off the fringe of ice.

Jim’s teeth were chattering and I had reached the stage of cold that is beyond all shivering.

“I think,” I said, carefully, “that my circulation has stopped.”

“We’ll be back in by the fire in 15 minutes,” clicked Jimmie.

So like two Buddhas, we sat by the fire until 4 p.m., and then, no wind having risen and the sheet ice being 40 feet out from the muddy shore, we packed up roughly, and in the dark, drove home slowly, on a slippery pavement.

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977).