Monday, August 12, 2013

The Duck Hunting Trip

This is an excerpt from Screen Saver

Since I wrote that book as if it were a strip of film – a movie – it is impossible to extract from it without having a loose end beginning and a loose end closing and a couple of loose end allusions to things that aren’t in the extraction that is being presented..

I think in this case the story is worth the loose ends.


It was somewhere in the time immediately after Don and Marty had left that I had my second life altering personal revelation. It was similar in nature and format to the revelation on the railroad tracks outside Quincy Washington the summer before I went to college. It occurred on the cusp of a major life change – in this case leaving the military and becoming a civilian. The previous change had been leaving childhood and making the transition to adulthood. Like the other time, this second revelation questioned a major assumption underpinning the imminent transition. The assumption underpinning that first transition had been that I was going to go to Portland University on the partial scholarship that I had been awarded. As the second major transition - my separation date from the Air Force - approached the assumption suddenly under scrutiny was that I was going to go immediately to law school. I had taken the LSAT and had applied to and been accepted by Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. The revelation this time arrived in a manner similar to the time on the railroad tracks. A kind of voice was saying something. This time it was saying, “you have always believed that you were not cut out for a career in business. Remember the Cooter Preference test. But you have just survived - at times prospered even – for four years in one of the biggest corporation-like organizations in the world. Maybe you should test that assumption rather than basing everything you do on the veracity of that belief.” In later years I was never able to reconcile the fact that I had thought that the voice was saying anything resembling rationality or fact – “at times prospered even” – but at the time the concept was compelling, no matter how flimsy its relation to reality. So I contacted Portland State where I had graduated and got a list of all the businesses that were recruiting in Portland.

In later life I was amazed at the method I used for contacting those businesses, and the number of responses for interviews I got. At a much later time a resume had become a multi media based, links to pertinent personal web based material heavy, presentation, probably delivered to the human resources department of a potential employer via the World Wide Web. A simple high quality printed document had disappeared into the mists of legend. What had I sent out wasn’t even a quality printed document. It was a one page summary of my not very extensive work experience, life- to-date, which had originally been a typed document, but which had been reproduced for distribution on a Bruning machine. This device was what the Air Force used as a copier. It used rolled paper, which was cut after what was being reproduced was reproduced. The paper was rather shiny, and rather slimy, and became rather brown – hence I assumed the name Bruning – with the characters of the words being rather blurry. But it was apparently state of the art for the time, because my “resume” got responses. I even got a response from IBM. I had almost not sent a resume to IBM because, although I didn’t know much about computers, I knew I basically disapproved of whatever it was that one did with them. In all there were three companies that I had wanted to consider: AT&T Long Lines – because I had seen a recruiting add in the Air Force Times that sounded good; Aetna Insurance – because I had always heard you could make good money in Insurance; and IBM – because, since I was testing the veracity of deeply held certainties, I felt I should give computers a chance. I didn’t think much would come of the IBM thing because I had taken some kind of Data Processing test at Lowry and they had assured me that I lacked the aptitude.

Long Lines acted first. A representative from the local office contacted me and invited me to lunch downtown. We had an interview and a follow on lunch that was really an extension of the interview and the interviewer took me back to their office where they had me take a test. The Long Lines person bought lunch. The test was rather like a SAT for idiots. It was multiple choice and dealt with a wide variety of subjects. But the knowledge level required was such that I doubted if I missed any of the questions. When I was finished they sent me on my way with the assurance that they would get back to me.

Next was Aetna. They invited me to their office downtown, interviewed me, bought me lunch and took me back to the office for a test. When I was finished with the test they sent me on my way with the assurance that they would get back to me.

IBM did it differently. A guy named Dave called me from Portland and talked to me for a little while and then told me to contact a guy named Vern at the IBM office in Omaha. Dave gave me Vern’s phone number. I had expected Vern to invite me down town to the IBM office for an interview, lunch and a test, but instead he asked me to meet him for lunch at the Officers’ Club on base. It turned out that IBM did a lot of business with the Strategic Air Command.

We had a nice lunch and Vern made me pay for my own. I thought that was odd after the way the other two interviews had gone. And he didn’t really ask me much about myself, or what I thought my achievements life to date had been, or any of the things I had by that time begun to expect as part of an employment interview. Instead he droned on about a variety of things that I assumed had something to do with IBM products and services, but about which I knew nothing. Nonetheless I tried to contribute to the conversation where I could. Some time previous to this encounter I had been sent to a one-day “class” presented by Control Data Corporation, which was another big computer company. The only thing I had picked up from that day was that CDC felt that they were the obvious computer company for the Air Force to do business with because their machines were designed for scientific and numerically intensive applications. “IBM makes great business machines,” they had said, “but they can’t do science and numbers”. At the time I had no knowledge of the intense competition that existed in the computer business. If I had had any feeling for it I probably wouldn’t have cared much, however. All I had wanted at that particular slice of time – my lunch with Vern - was to not look like a complete idiot about the subject at hand. So I offered the “IBM makes great business machines, but I have heard that they can’t do science or numbers” comment as if it were my own original idea. The reaction I got was unique to that point in my life. In fact it wouldn’t be until a lifetime later when I was talking to an Anglican priest in Westminster Abbey and told him how much I admired his Church’s stand on women in the priesthood that I saw a similar reaction. If on either occasion I had still had the scorpion in my wallet and had gotten it out for discussion I suspect I would have elicited a similar reaction.

But we got through lunch, and, on balance apparently Vern decided he liked what he saw. He asked me to call his secretary and schedule a time when I could take the DPAT. I had no idea what the DPAT was, but I knew better than to ask. One monstrous violation of all that was good and holy per encounter was all that I allowed myself in job interviews. So, several afternoons later I showed up at the local IBM office. The first thing I noticed was that it was a lot nicer than either the Long Lines or the Aetna offices had been. But I didn’t have much time to contemplate that. Vern’s secretary showed me into a plush conference-room, handed me a booklet and wound up a timer. She said that she would be back when the timer rang, and good luck on the DPAT. Just before she left the room I had a moment to look at the cover of the booklet. It said Data Processing Aptitude Test. I couldn’t remember what the test I had taken at Lowery had been called, or what it had looked like, but I was sure it was kindred to this one. Since I had been told on the basis of the Lowery encounter to abandon any illusions I might harbor about a career in Data Processing - whatever Data Processing might be - I assumed that the DPAT would document a similar conclusion. Aetna and Long Lines were looking better all the time. But where tests were concerned I had always been a fatalist. “Just treat it like a game and do the best possible and get it over with.” So I took the DPAT.

“You did very well on the DPAT,” said Vern. “You’re shitting me,” thought I. “In fact, if you can’t put something together in Portland, I would like to hire you,” said Vern. I had the presence of mind not to explain to him that my greatest ambition in life was to escape Omaha as soon as possible.

The next thing I knew Vern’s secretary was making airline reservations for me and requesting a $300 travel advance for me. “Not so fast” was my first internal, unexpressed reaction. “Just because I did all right on the DPAT doesn’t suddenly make me willing to approve of computers.” But there were other factors affecting my thoughts on the subject of an interview in Portland: the time when this had occurred was an era distinctly different from the one which would emerge early in the next century. It would be possible to defend that statement with an almost unlimited number of examples such as cell phones, ATM’s, the World Wide Web and the International Space Station. But the difference that affected my life in any way important was the fact that in 1968 you could take almost anything you wanted on an airplane. As long as you could make it fit under your seat or in the overhead compartment, you could take it. That fact had a major effect on my attitude toward an interview with IBM in Portland in October of 1968.

The fact was it was duck hunting season. Jack’s father, Ed, had moved several years before from a recently overrun suburban Portland location to a new place much farther from City life. And he had built a duck lake. This was a private hunting preserve for his exclusive use and that of his friends. By virtue of the fact that I was one of his son’s friends, I was one of his friends, and could hunt there, with appropriate invitation. All I needed was my shotgun. With a free airplane ticket I had a way to get my gun and me to that duck lake early in the 1968 duck-hunting season. Duck hunting was worth an IBM interview.

Later in life it was difficult to believe that it had once been possible to get on a commercial airplane with a gun case, go to your seat and put the gun case in the overhead. But I did it in October of 1968.

The job interview turned out to be a series of interviews. At the time, those interviews were like talking to the various denizens of Wonder Land. I was an unlikely Alice. The first one was with a guy named Jim. He seemed like a decent enough sort. I had the impression, perhaps due to his young face and significant quantity of baby fat that he was somewhat younger than I. He had dark brown eyes that seemed sincere to the point of being cocker spaniel-like. He said that he was responsible for marketing to the large accounts. I knew or had a concept of what each of those words meant, but as a composite statement, I had no idea what he was talking about. The next interviewer was named Dirk. He looked rather like what I would have supposed someone named Dirk would have looked like if I had ever heard of anyone being called Dirk, which I hadn’t. But that was his name. He was an arch-typical well groomed business type, except for his face which seemed more like that of a haggard veteran of some ancient series of wars or semi-successful knife fights. I never could remember what it might have been that we talked about. I was too fascinated with trying to figure out what ancient century he might have been from. Then there was Dave. He was the one who had responded to my resume and who was therefore my sponsor for this interview trip. It turned out that he was responsible for dealing with all prospective new employees. He had bristly red hair and a crew cut. He had a New Jersey accent. He looked a little bit like Porky Pig. He told me that if things seemed a little bit disorganized that was because the “branch was having its fall kickoff meeting.” I nodded knowingly and said, “I understand. Fall kickoff meetings can be pretty disorienting.” He told me that the “branch” had a pretty good chance of “making the club”, and that they were “eighty five percent of NSR and seventy two percent of NIR”. With any luck, and some “expected relief” they would probably finish the year at “one hundred two percent of BPQ”. I nodded appreciatively. He asked me how much money I would need to go to work for IBM, and I told him what I was making at that time in the Air Force and said something like “in the best of worlds I would need to duplicate that amount.” He laughed. He asked me if I had any questions and I said that I couldn’t think of any. Then he asked me if I needed any help filling out my “green sheet” and I asked him what a “green sheet” was. At that point I think he realized that I was from a different language tree. He said “your expense account. Did you have any expenses related to the trip other than airfare?” I said that I had bought a drink on the plane. He said, “you can’t expense that.” The one thing I took away from the several hours I spent at IBM that morning was that it was obviously a culture unique to itself and one with which I had nothing, including language, in common. But the whole point to the trip had really been to go duck hunting.

The following morning was Saturday, and long before dawn I was having a cup of coffee with Ed and a friend of his over Ed’s breakfast table. One of the advantages of possessing a duck lake just down the hill from your house was that the usual rigors of hunting were unnecessary. One could have a leisurely cup of coffee in a warm kitchen and then walk a few hundred feet to the duck blind a few minutes before the appointed start of shooting time. That was what we did on that Saturday morning.

Ed’s friend was named Bill. He seemed like a decent sort, and like Ed was old enough to be my father. In fact, if my grandfather had been a young grandfather Bill was actually old enough to be my grandfather.

It was a bitterly cold morning. As the sun began to rise there were no ducks in the air. There were no sounds of ducks anywhere near enough to be heard. There were no ducks. As a result we turned to conversation: the imminent election, the state of the world, the state of the war in Vietnam, what Jack and I were likely to do with our lives once we escaped the military. Since I had either strong opinions about all of these subjects, or had direct knowledge of them I was able to be a significant contributor to the discussion. That was good. Talking in an animated manner always kept me from being aware of the fact that I was freezing to death. After some time, some conversation and all of the pre-dawn darkness had passed it had become obvious that the ducks were going to continue to be in the land of the missing. It turned out that Bill was not only a hunter, he was also a gatherer. We had just discussed for the third or fourth time the likely reasons for the absence of our prey, and what we ought to do in their absence when Bill said, “I’m going to go see about a cabbage.” Ed leased the land adjacent to his lake to one of the local farmers who grew broccoli and cabbage on it. That gave the entire area on this late fall morning a kind of vegetable scented stink to it. Since the ducks seemed to be unlikely to be joining us, I said “I’d like to go with you”. Ed said he would “stay and guard the fort in case the enemy attacked”. Bill and I left our guns because carrying cabbages wouldn’t mix with carrying guns.

We had just gotten into cabbage and broccoli country, which was up and over a small hill behind the long axis of the lake; Bill was waxing poetic about the joys of gathering vegetables directly from the farm when the air was filled with a whistling noise. We both immediately realized that “the enemy was attacking” – a flock of pintails had just swooped in from the west and were checking out the lake as a potential resting place for the day. We squatted down, spilling cabbage and broccoli liberally around us, hoping that if we got down the ducks might not see us and form an adverse opinion of the lake. Lacking guns we were out of the fight.

The ducks dropped over the hill, flashed down the length of the lake (Ed told us later – we couldn’t see this activity from our side of the hill) wheeled at its far end and headed back in the direction they had come. At that point they had obviously abandoned any intention of dropping onto the water, or circling it a second time. Either of those actions by the ducks would have given Ed a classical shot; instead they were heading back to the west. Bill and I stood back up to watch them depart. Just at that moment a shot rang out from Ed down in the blind. One of the pintails shuddered and then kept going and then crumpled and fell to the ground not more than a hundred feet from us. “You got one,” we shouted. “Pick it up,” Ed responded. “We’re on our way,” I yelled.

Downed quarry in bird hunting could be anywhere in condition from flat dead to spry as a spring chicken, with an infinite range of conditions in between. The exact condition in each case is a result of the skill, or luck of the shooter, the distance of the quarry, the type of shot load and the mood of the god of bird hunting at the moment of the shot. The bird Ed had just shot was well into the spry category. It also seemed to have a high level of intelligence since it was able to make two grown humans look like goons for about ten minutes. The deciding factor turned out to be endurance and numbers. There were two of us and one of it, and we were designed for running where the duck had been designed for flying. The one thing the shot had accomplished was to deny the duck the option of using its primary mode of mobility. Ultimately running around on the ground with two humans after it allowed the humans to corner it.

Bill scooped it up and held it in the crook of his arm. The duck looked at Bill. Bill looked at the duck. The duck made a kind of hopeless sound and tried to flap its wings. Bill made a kind of consoling sound and tried to smooth its feathers. I could see that the chances of this duck being anyone’s dinner were fast receding. By the time we got the duck, our cabbage and the broccoli back to the blind Bill had named the duck “Duke”. “What took so long?” said Ed. “We had to catch the duck,” said I. “Yeah, I was afraid I had just winged it. It was going away fast and low, and I wasn’t sure I even had a shot,” said Ed. “Well we got it,” said I. “And some vegetables,” said Ed with a slight touch of irony. At this point Bill broke in. “Do you know any vets that are good with ducks?” said Bill. “Isn’t it dead?” said Ed. “No, like you said, you just barely winged him,” said Bill. “Well let’s ring its neck and get back in the blind and see if any more come by,” said Ed. “You can’t kill Duke,” said Bill. “Who’s Duke?” said Ed. “My duck,” said Bill. “Your duck?” said Ed. “My duck,” said Bill.

Jack had more than once regaled me in the course of long evenings in various “Officers’ Clubs” in Vietnam with a variety of Ed and Bill hunting tales. They had always been amazingly entertaining. The remnants of what I had remembered after the brain cell damaging endeavors during which they were told had always seemed to me to be obviously fiction. Or if not fiction, I had always deemed them to be facts so entertainingly interpreted that they might as well be fiction. The spinal cord of the stories was the interplay of the two characters, as presented by Jack. Ed, his father was a stalwart brave, laconic type – a latter day Nattie Bumpo. Bill, a long time friend and hunting companion of Ed’s was some sort of cross between Friar Tuck and John Lennon. The hilarity of the stories was based on superimposing the rather one-dimensional nature of hunting on top of these two totally different multi dimensional personalities. I had always assumed the stories to be little more than entertaining banter. That was the nature of much of Jack’s conversation. The world as it actually existed bored him, so he spun a more interesting one.

So, when I not only had gotten the opportunity to go duck hunting at Ed’s lake, but also with Bill, I had been interested to see how far from the legend these two would actually deviate.

At the point of the question about the availability of a duck veterinarian I began to realize that Jack might not have been making much up. My first clue had been that Bill would rather gather cabbages than sit in a duck blind waiting for a shot. But by the time we got to “you can’t kill Duke,” I was sure that I was dealing with a different sort of hunter. The question quickly became how would Ed play out this drama?

“Let me wring its neck and put it out of its misery,” said Ed. “You’re not hurting Duke,” said Bill. I felt I should say something, but all that came to mind was something about Solomon, which was odd since I didn’t know anything about the bible, and what I knew about the Solomon story wouldn’t have been much to Duke’s liking. At that point the air became filled with hurtling objects from the west side of the hill where the cabbages and broccoli grew.

It was a flight of about a dozen mallards. Ed jumped into the blind where our guns were all lying neatly on the bench at the back of the structure. He shouldered his gun and drew down on one of the ducks. “You’re gonna scare Duke,” said Bill. Ed muttered something about doing more than that and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened in the flock except they flared and turned back west like bats out of hell. The blast had a greater effect on Duke. He jumped out of Bill’s grasp and flap waddled to the edge of the lake and then into the water. Bill made a leap toward the lake’s edge and went face down in the water. Duke squirted out to the middle of the lake. Ed started laughing, and Bill, righting himself from his sprawl said “to the boat”. I stood by amazed at having witnessed a tale that was at least as good as any of the Ed and Bill stories Jack had ever told me. “You rehearsed this, right? I mean this scene must have a script,” said I. And then Bill started laughing, adding to the jollity already wafting across through the air. But he kept heading toward the small boat that was used for placing and retrieving decoys. “Come on, Ed. Help me get Duke,” said Bill through his laughter.

The next hour was like a scene from Abbott and Costello meet Field and Stream. There were two men in a small boat chasing after a wounded duck which would continually, at the point of almost being captured dive below the surface, and re-appear several feet from the boat. For reasons I was never able to ascertain, the air was intermittently filled with incoming ducks, many of which actually landed at the end of the lake opposite the boat chasing duck drama. As more groups joined them and they all swam in unison opposite from the boat the air became filled with various breeds of ducks’ conversations intermingled with human curses and cries of “there he is, get him.” Ed finally called time out on the endeavor and went up to the garage and got his salmon net. In short order Duke was back in our company and we were all four in the warm kitchen having had all the fun any of us could handle for one day. The humans were having coffee with a side of scotch. Duke was given warm milk. Bill had heard that sick ducks liked warm milk. Whether the warm milk helped or not, in the next few weeks Bill nursed Duke back to health, and when he was able to fly around the enclosure where he was kept Bill released him at the duck pond at Laurelhurst Park in Portland. By that time I was back in Omaha and had accepted a job with IBM in Portland starting after I left the Air Force.

All I ever remembered about the flight back to Omaha was telling the tale of my duck hunting experience to my seat mate, and then having to repeat it to the flight attendant, and then to several other people. They all thought that I was making it up but were uproariously entertained.

Many airline flights have faded into obscurity, but others have stayed with me until the end.

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