Earlier this year, I lost a home and all my possessions in a house fire.
Among all the things reduced to ash and twisted metal were 14 rifles and shotguns, dozens of bird and fish mounts, all my framed photos of family, dogs and perfect days afield, and a 15x24-inch charcoal drawing of a pond I once leased for goose hunting in the scabrock country south of town.
A photo of that drawing accompanied a story I had written for a hunting magazine, and when I saw it, I had to have the original. The beautiful gray, black and white image captured the essence of my secluded, scabrock slough far more effectively than even the best photo.
I had never owned an original painting before. The blind I wrote about in the article sat just to the left of four geese flying down the center of the picture. The small, flat-topped butte directly across the pond was where 14-year-old Max Tschabold was hiding the day he got all discombobulated, jumped the gun and flared the biggest flock of lesser Canada geese I have ever seen– an event his father, Eddie, teased him about for years.
The Pond was only a mediocre goose spot. Some years, it didn’t even have water, and it often froze up before the northern birds got down.
Sometimes a chinook wind moved in and it thawed in time for a season-ending hunt, but it was a lot more than just a place to shoot waterfowl. Friends and I put in a lot of time on that acreage even when we weren’t hunting – building blinds and moving rock.
My Lab, Sadie, was bitten by a rattlesnake on one of those forays. She survived, creating another great story.
There had been a lot of laughter and tears in that old blind on the west shore. It bore witness to tales of successes and failures, romances and births, divorces and deaths. Sadly, it is not mine to lease anymore. Gobbled up by a group with more money, it is surrounded now by ominous warnings about trespassing.
The number of friends who once hunted with me at The Pond began to dwindle shortly after I purchased the picture. Eddie had a stroke; then he had another. I tried to visit him at least once a week at the nursing home, but he was only a small shell of his former robust self – no one at home most days.
It was hard to believe he was the same laughing man who used to delight in making me spill my coffee in the blind by hissing “GET DOWN!” just as I started to pour from my thermos. He was also the one who would put a decoy on his head during a lull and waddle around in front of the blind yelling, “Here duck, here duck!”
Eddie and I were the same age – not young, but not ancient, either. When I was sitting across from him there in the nursing home, watching him vacantly tug at the straps holding him in his wheelchair, I wondered if there was still a kid buried inside. I wondered if he took glorious hunting trips in his mind.
Once, I walked into his room, sat down, and said, “I went to The Pond this morning, Ed.” He jerked his head up and actually seemed to focus on me. “Were they flyin’?” he asked excitedly. Just for a moment, there was a smile, an animation I had not seen for a long time.
Then, his neck became rubbery again, he looked past me to the television set above my head and began automatically clicking the remote in his lap as fast as he could push the buttons.
I think the charcoal picture of The Pond was the first time in my life I bought something I couldn’t afford and didn’t really need. And though the image is gone, the memories it evoked remain.
I had always intended to give it to my son. I figured that when I was gone, he would have the same pleasure of ownership.
“See that weedy bay to the left of the rock point?” he would have said. “I shot my first duck there. It’s only a few inches deep except in one spot where the rancher dug out an 8-foot pocket trying to find some summer water for his cattle. Dad found that pocket on his way back with my duck – one of the world’s all-time great pratfalls.”
Yes, I spent some of the most memorable days of my life out there on that muddy pond, but the home fire was unforgiving – the Great Cleanser, the Ultimate Downsizer.
With the picture gone, I can only hope the memories won’t also disappear.
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