Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
America had been attacked with a murderous sucker punch. That day of infamy stirring the deep soul of a patriotic nation. Lines of young men eager to join the fight for their country wrapped around city blocks and through town squares. Women rolled up their sleeves learning to fire a rivet gun or dress a wound. Victory gardens were neatly tended while bundled children pulled wagons collecting scrap metal to turn plowshares into sword and shield. The industrial might of Detroit flexed its iron muscle building tanks and airplanes. Factories that had manufactured typewriters and pianos now made rifles and bomb sights. Flickering newsreels told tales of a supreme struggle from steamy jungle to frozen forest. Without hesitation, stars of the silver screen and sporting field put their fame behind them risking all. Bells clanged in steepled churches from coast to coast filling pews with bowed heads and hushed tones of a nation praying to the Almighty to lay His blanket of safety over these brave warriors marching into the furnace of battle. The hornet’s nest that is American patriotism had been kicked and the nation came together like never before to punch back and punch back hard. The world was at war and a proud country rallied to that cry. This would be America’s greatest generation.
Tan, lean, broad-shouldered and handsome, Marine basic training had chiseled my only boy into a man. Luke’s smile flashing as he proudly showed me his medals for marksmanship pinned carefully on his crisp uniform. Bonding with his American brothers from far and wide, there was “Bronco” from Wyoming, “Wisecrack” from the Bronx, “Johnny Reb” from Alabama and a slew of other nicknames. His voice was filled with excitement about the coming grand adventure. He told me with a broad grin, “Dad they call me “Shooter.” I couldn’t help but be proud. It seemed like just last week that he was hefting a .22, bigger than he was, to shoot tin cans and knock squirrels out of oaks that dared to show a spot of fur. Together we honed his sharp eye for the magic world and ways of the field, woods and marshes. Luke had always had a natural knack for putting his shots where they counted and was top shot in the battalion.
I listened with apt attention finding it hard not to get caught up in his natural enthusiasm; a smile on my face keeping secret the gray cloud of a father’s fears of the deadly seriousness of war. “You just be careful, can’t take down the whole Japanese Empire by yourself.”
Frost flowers crept across the windows and the wind howled a mournful song. Under the warm shadows of firelight the Philco crackled, “Looks like time to bundle up friends, Old Man winter is on the way…and is coming down from the north with a vengeance…batten down the hatches and put another log on the fire…and now back to Glenn Miller.” Elly and Luke had gone to bed and Ranger lay curled at my feet snoring softly. Ranger had not let Luke out of his sight, laying his head on his knee nuzzling his hands --sensing something.
I needed time by myself for reflection and quiet prayer. The train that would take my only son to the west coast to board a ship bound for a vicious war that many young men had not come back from would leave in the morning.
My sleepless night had finally drifted into thin slumber, my dreams spinning. “Dad…Dad…” I jerked awake, the fog of sleep lifting slowly. It was Luke kneeling next to my bed speaking in a sharp whisper, “Dad there is a heck of a storm out there…listen…coming straight out of the North West… It’s perfect.” If I take the train tomorrow night I can ride it straight through and still make muster in San Diego, I can see the Grand Canyon on the way back. Let’s go…let’s go to Blizzard Bay.”
Given time to think with a clear mind I would have surely said no. I had always been practical that way, a planner to Luke’s adventurer. I think back on it. How close I had come to losing the most precious moments in my life. But something came over me, a softening, a whisper from God, the glow of enthusiasm on Luke’s face. I heard the thump of Ranger’s tail against Luke’s leg, his wet nose and whine in my face knowing we only got up in the middle of the night for one thing. Elly tussled, “Oh you boys go, we’ll have a some nice warm stew before Luke leaves. Never could understand why grown men would want to go out in such a dreadful weather.”
It had been an Indian summer during Luke’s leave and my prayers for nasty duck weather went unanswered. We had found and named Blizzard Bay two years back by the grace of God in a day that was both blessed and cursed in the gnashing teeth of a killer storm. The day had started clear and bright, quickly turning wicked when an icy fist pummeled us from the North. The evil storm screamed with glee when we lost our anchor, blowing us wildly across the bay into the open water. It was Armistice Day 1940 and little did we know then this savage storm would cut a path of death across the Midwest killing scores of duck hunters.
What was happening elsewhere mattered little as we were being hammered in our own icy hell at the mercy of a merciless force. Luke’s bailing and my frantic attempts with the oars were just enough to keep us from swamping in the slushy waves and a sure death. I was terrified knowing we were in serious trouble while Luke grinned with the invincibility of youth. I had never seen him worried for a moment in his life.
Some other worldly force, a guiding hand seemingly pulled us into a strange current where the wind seemed to mysteriously turn back on itself. Through the curtain of driven snow, I could see we were drifting into a bay of sorts. These calmer waters were carpeted with masses of ducks of all kinds tucked tight and stacked thick. They skittered across the water landing again and again just a stone’s throw away. As we fought our way to shore we couldn’t help but be in awe of the strange swirling paradise we had been cast into.
The blizzard was furious and we wouldn’t be going anyplace soon. Luckily my “prepare for the worst” duffel bag stuffed with extra gear that we had been tripping over for years was in the bottom of the boat. That bag would save our lives. Once lashed tight to the tangle of driftwood trees we lit the coal can and warmed our hands. We would be safe here. Soon forgetting our grapple with death only a hunter would really understand what we did next. We loaded the guns. There were as many ducks as snowflakes and a hunter might live a hundred lifetimes and not see this again. We had risked our lives for it, we might as well hunt. Hunters think like that.
But that was two years ago and much had happened since. We had gone back a dozen times and never fired a shot unless there was hellish weather dead out of the Northwest. It was only then the magic happened and a rare magic it was.
We soon found ourselves lugging our gear through the dark blizzard to the Jon-boat at the waters icy edge. Hugging the hissing bank of cattails in less troubled water we crawled through the dark stroke by stroke. In the blackness you could hear the low roar of the big water of the lake. It was here in the sheltered leeward edge of the bay where it seemed the water was looking to rest and surrender that we would wait. We had brought a dozen battered and wired together rag-tag cork and wooden blocks and heaved them as far as we could into the dark.
A gray smear of sullen light stained the eastern horizon. Soon it would be light enough to shoot. The dekes bobbed and spun wildly in the choppy waves. We were huddled down in the boat layered in thick wool sweaters and oil skin slickers sipping coffee and waiting for dawn. Ranger’s eyes searched the gray shroud that lay over us, his senses keener than ours. His low whine of eagerness mixed with the sound of the storm, the slice of wild wings and duck chatter. How many mornings had we three shared the coming dawn and wondered what the day would bring -- the anticipation of a hunter’s heart.
It was magic. Pure magic. The blizzard had done its part filling the air with Mallards, Redheads and Blue Bills, but the kings were the Canvasbacks. The Cans ripped low, squadron after squadron, like waves of strafing fighters just above the ice-tipped waves through the mist of the storm.
Luke was as natural as a wing shot as Ted Williams was with a Louisville slugger or Sugar Ray with a left hook. It was a gift, a God given talent. If Beethoven had been a wing shooter he would have handled a shotgun like Luke.
Frozen sleet had crusted on our jackets, flaking off when we lifted our guns to shoot. The dekes tilted and spun top heavy with icy glaze, some sideways, some upside down, none looking much like a duck. Most decoying birds have been betrayed before and search for any clue that new found buddies are liars. I think we could have been standing in the middle of a brass band and the birds would have piled in.
Ranger was half Lab and half Chessie giving him a gentle heart, fiery drive and the stubborn will to battle those brutal conditions. His bloodlines traced back to the legendary fowling waters of Labrador and Chesapeake Bay. Ice scabbed on his thick rust-colored coat his amber and copper flecked eyes scanned the shifting skies. Whining with joy and trembling with anticipation, crashing time after time into the freezing water in relentless desire. He was born for a day like this and a pure joy to watch. He would have made his ancestors proud.
I couldn’t help but think God had given us this priceless gift. Mid- morning, when there was a small break in the action, we took a moment to say the Lord’s Prayer before our bites of frozen sandwiches, apples and cold coffee. It was the best meal I ever had.
I looked at my watch -- it was almost time to go. Luke tilted his head. “Did you hear that?”...listen. Then I heard it. Err yonk…Err yonk... Yonk er yonk... yonk yonk - clean sharp notes over the score of the storm and cymbal crash of waves. The Czars of Russia has never heard a sweeter symphony. Canadian honkers were strangers in these parts and a rare prize. I could count on one hand the geese I had bagged in my life. This would be Luke’s first chance.
The gang of honkers bore down on us feet dangling; wings locked, dropping fast and tilting hard from side to side in the choppy wind. “Closer…closer…Take em!!!!” Luke was up lightning quick shouldering his pump-gun. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his first shot and heard the crack-slap of shot against feather crumpling that bird cleanly. Rattled, I swung my double; flock shot and missed. Ranger hit the water. Clawing the air, their wings gripping wind, the birds flared hard and were gaining distance fast. Luke’s second shot rang out and another bird crashed to the waves. My last barrel hard-smacked lead against feather and flesh on the biggest bird in the bunch yet he kept beating hard at the air fighting to stay aloft. The wind was quickly taking him away. I could hear the sharp-quick clack-clack- BOOM of Luke’s pump gun and the big bird folded tumbling into the short walls of water. It was pure magic and I had almost missed it.
The gravel in the driveway crackled and popped like it had that day the Government sedan had arrived. It was years ago now but felt like yesterday. Out stepped a one-armed Marine Lieutenant and a Chaplin, starched, pressed and sullen faced.
But this was almost 1950 and the war long over. We didn’t have many visitors these days and when we did I told myself I needed to change the gravel but just never seemed to get around to it. I don’t get around to things like I use to.
The pickup in the driveway bore Wyoming plates. The lone young man turned off the truck and sat quietly for a few moments, hands on the steering wheel looking straight ahead. Stepping out slowly he pulled his jacket tight against the cold pausing to tame a cowlick on a fresh haircut.
I opened the door stepping out onto the porch.
“Can I help you?”
“Ahhh, yes sir. My name’s Lester Johnson”; pausing, “I’m from Wyoming”.
“Well Lester, Glen Larsons my name, a pleasure to meet you, please come in”.
His handshake was firm and callused, “ I drove all night to get here, I knew I should have sent a letter, hope I’m not intruding, just decided yesterday to come, I didn’t want to wait another winter, I guess.”
“Well Lester now you’ve driven all the way from Wyoming, what can I do for you?”
Lester paused, “I knew your son, something I been needing to tell you.” There was a moment of silence and the world paused. “Luke might have mentioned me, being we both are hunters and such, they called me “Bronco” in the platoon since my family has a ranch near Medicine Bow,…ahhh that’s in Wyoming.” Lester was carrying a white bundle of butcher paper tied with cotton string. “I brought some elk steaks, if you like. I wrapped ‘em good, this year’s spike bull still froze solid.”
The searing pain had eventually become a dull ache but I could feel those painful embers starting to sear again.
“Yes, Lester, I do remember Luke talking about you and the elk hunt you two had planned.” Back from basic training Luke had excitedly detailed a trip deep into the Wyoming wilderness the two had planned with a string of trail ponies to hunt elk and mule deer. It was going to be their grand adventure when they were done with the Japanese.
Elly stood in the kitchen and when seeing a young man at dinner-time her face lit up. She tidied up a hank of fallen hair wiping crumbs from the front of her apron. Nothing Elly loved more than feeding hungry men and boys and the aroma of fried chicken and fresh bread filled the room. “You must be hungry, please sit down, I just put coffee on.”
“Well to be honest mam, I am a little hungry and coffee always tastes good to me I guess. Luke never stopped talkin about what a good cook you are, sure smells good.”
I said grace. Out of the corner of my eye. I could see Lester’s lips pulled tight, a small tear welled up, and his lips moving in a whisper, “and in Jesus name Amen.”
We made small talk of Lester’s trip and his home and life in the Rockies. Lester told us he had married a girl from a ranch near Laramie and they had a two year old boy and another baby on the way. I felt myself wince. Elly and I were supposed to be fawning over grandkids of our own. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Lester said nothing about why he had felt driven to come halfway across the country to tell us in person what he could have written in a letter. What he needed to tell us he would have to tell us in his own time.
Dinner finished, squaring his shoulders, Lester dropped two cubes of sugar in his coffee stirring slowly taking a deep breath. These were not easy words for him.
“Luke saved me - you know, saved my life. He saved us all; we’d all be dead, for sure dead.”
Lester slowly bit his lip and looking off into that far away place that only those who have been there can see. Both Elly and I sat quietly, I felt her take my hand under the table. I was afraid he was going to tell us something that was going to be too hard for Elly to hear. Lester spoke slowly, simply needing to tell it his way, in his time, while we listened quietly.
“I was afraid, yes sir, we was all afraid, didn’t know I could be that scared, but I’m not ashamed to say it, we was all scared cept Luke. They overran us, it was nighttime. We’d thought they had all the fight whipped out of em, they surprised us.”
Lester continued his words carrying a strong grace, not speaking of terror and death; but bravery and brotherhood in a steamy jungle night so far from home - young men hardly more than boys.
I had been haunted imagining my son’s last hours. We had always shared those great struggles together. We always found a way to overcome and I couldn’t help him when he needed me most.
Lester said “I don’t remember all of it, you know that night, guess maybe trying to forget, but I do remember one thing sure as if God was sitting right here. I would tell you the same thing; Luke saved my life…all seven of us. We lost Tommy a month later but six of us made it back home cause of Luke. I guess I just needed to tell you - to make sure you knew, you know really knew, that he saved us, he sure did. Our families are thankful.”
”Lester we wouldn’t dream of you getting a motel, you’ll stay with us as long as you like but we understand you having to get back home. You can stay in Luke’s room. Radio says were going to have a small spit of snow in the morning. Leave right after lunch when it burns off the roads would be best I think.”
I hadn’t opened the gear shed since Luke had gone. I stood alone in the shadows hesitating, almost ready to lose my courage. I heard the click of Ranger’s toenails and his wet nose nudged my hand. It was the whisper I needed. I unlatched the door and a flood of memories washed over me in the dark. The smell of gun oil, aged walnut, burnt powder, cork, wet dog and duck feathers of days past.
The muffled snarl of the blizzard had woke me deep into the night. I knew from the edge of its voice and heavy scowls it was born in the vast Canadian prairie gritting its teeth as it came over the Great Lakes. The weathermen never did get it quite right and this time it was a blessing. The wind was coming hard just out the Northwest right over the silo. God sometimes whispers and I had learned to listen.
I rapped lightly on the door to Luke’s room. I heard Lester’s voice. “Yes sir, come in, I ain’t sleepin just laying here thinkin.” I sat on the edge of the bed and we spoke in low comfortable tones. Lester finished saying, “Yes sir, I would like that a lot, I sure would, and then fairs fair, you promise to let me take you elk hunting next fall.”
The beams of our flashlights probed the driven snow creating strange pillars of pulsating light. We poled the loaded boat breaking sheet ice pushing out into the open water. Soon our paddles found a slow strong rhythm slicing through the black water. Arriving in the bay we lashed tight to the bleached bone branch of a driftwood tree that still bore the rope scars of years past.
In the cold wind and driven sleet I was feeling things in new light and more alive than I had in years. God has a plan for all of us and maybe it was Luke’s purpose all along. Maybe the time Luke and I spent in fields, woods and marshes honing skills of stealth, decisive action and sharp marksmanship were all part of His greater plan. I remembered God whispering in the middle of the night before Luke left and I could hear that whisper now.
Lester was a good man that was clear to see and the ideals of America worth fighting for. I thought of his American brothers who had come home to lead lives of their own, their families and the children they would father. Luke had made the ultimate sacrifice yet in it given the most precious gift.
Lester and I fixed our gear as the storm raged and Ranger trembled with anticipation. Soon a heavenly radiance traced silver across the eastern horizon and before long it would be light enough to see. In the surrendering darkness I was feeling a new dawn coming and with it a blessed light.