Grandpa was an avid duck hunter. He experienced duck hunting in its heyday, at least in this part of Minnesota. Back in the 1940s and 1950s Minnesota’s countless potholes supported millions of ducks, much to the delight of duck hunters. I remember looking at pictures of a garage floor full of ducks with Grandpa and Grandma posing behind them on one knee.
But as time went on government-sponsored “conservation” programs and the development of bigger and faster farm equipment resulted in the draining and plowing of thousands of wetland acres in northwest Minnesota and elsewhere. When I rode along with him when he was checking on his crop insurance customers Grandpa would look at the latest drainage and tiling projects and shake his head.
By the time I was old enough to hold a shotgun, duck hunting had become as much about finding a place to hunt as it was finding the ducks. Fortunately, Grandpa and Grandma’s neighbors and good friends the Gandruds had huntable wetlands on their farm. Gandrud’s Slough (actually a small lake) was a favorite spot for Grandpa to set up his duck blind. This was the place where I first experienced duck hunting.
Grandpa had his blind set up on the north side of Gandrud’s Slough with decoys arrayed in front of us on the water. Grandpa’s wooden duck boat was behind us in the reeds. We had the radio on, listening to the Twins play the Orioles for the American League pennant. I seem to remember not liking the Orioles much, probably because they’d beat us the year before, so that would make it 1970 when I was 9. It was a fairly warm and dry day, by duck hunting standards. My role was to sit quietly and watch for ducks. I was learning about patience.
Suddenly we heard some shots; Uncle Harold was in another blind a few hundred yards away. Out of nowhere, two ducks came zooming across our field of vision, about four feet off the water. Grandpa took a couple of passing shots and knocked them both out of the air. But one of the ducks was only wounded and was thrashing about a few yards out on the water. Grandpa loaded a 20-gauge, single-shot shotgun, handed it to me and told me to dispatch the wounded duck. I was excited, because I was no longer just along for the ride, but actually hunting! I pulled the gun up, took aim and squeezed the trigger. The next thing I knew I was lying in the duck boat with a bloody nose. Apparently, I had put the gun’s butt under my arm instead of on my shoulder and the recoil caught me square between the eyes.
Grandpa helped me up, laughing and saying something about going “ass over teakettle” while he checked me over. I don’t remember crying, but I probably did. As was his way, Grandpa continued to chuckle about this for the remainder of the hunt.
I wasn’t really embarrassed by this – after all, I was brave enough to squeeze the trigger. I remember rejoining the others in our hunting party back at Grandpa and Grandma’s for coffee. Grandpa let me tell the story. By then I thought it was funny, too. After swapping stories with the other hunters I felt like I belonged. I was a hunter.