James Johnson spent years duck hunting with his father. Sitting in a cold blind for hours was no picnic, but Johnson believes the experience helped him become the man he is today—a man willing to face discomfort and accept burdens for those he loves.
The gasoline business led our family to Southwest Louisiana in the 1950s; the ducks kept us there. Rice country, flat and wet—duck haven. Our duck blind was a metal box, about five feet deep, buried flush in a rice field levee, smelly and usually a bit wet. I learned many lessons in this metal pit, hunting often with my father; the blind was our sanctuary. It was here that we were comfortable and where I learned. Dad was a big man, scary, a man of action. He was the boss. But we sat, patiently waiting, talking softly.
Hunting was simple for us—waders, army surplus coats, Duxbax hats, and Winchester pumps. No water, thermoses of coffee, or food. We went hunting, not picnicking. Waking at four o’clock in the morning, we’d drive the forty minutes to the edge of the marsh. No heater, no coat. Dad said we had to get ready for the cold. Gloves were not part of our clothing. “Who can shoot with gloves?” he said. Discomfort was expected.
Hunting ducks seemed to consume Dad, but shooting ducks wasn’t the only goal. Calling the ducks and working them over the decoys was his specialty. I remember countless times looking up at him as he worked a bunch of ducks. His green eyes were a little wild; his powerful neck was strained and enlarged with the effort. It might be cold and raining, but he frequently forgot to zip his coat. To Dad, the weather was peripheral. His warmth came from within.
Ducks were only to be shot in the air—no poaching, no dogs. We were a team.
The hunt I’ll never forget was after I’d moved away. Dad was almost seventy, and I was home for a few days. I had a cast on my leg and couldn’t get it wet. Dad carried me—all 195 pounds, plus cast, guns, and plenty of shells—all the way to the blind. “You’re not too heavy, Jim,” he said.
I believe that I am the man I am today because of that relationship. I learned to do things simply, to stay with the things that work, to be patient, to appreciate silence. I learned that discomfort is transient. I learned that I was a welcome burden to my dad, that life without burden is a life without weight, a shallow life. I believe we need the encumbrance of challenge. As Dad plodded along through the water and over the levee, he occasionally stumbled, but never fell.
I learned to love my children in this same way. I have created my own refuge with each. Their weight is never too heavy. It is welcome. Sometimes I stumble, make mistakes, but I never fall.
My dad hunted regularly into his seventies. He never overslept; he never lost the joy of the hunt. He often hunted alone. In my mind, he’s there now—sitting peacefully, watching, waiting, ready. A cold wind blows from the north. The mallards are flying.
James Johnson grew up in South Louisiana. For the past thirty-five years he has been a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is an avid outdoorsman, but he does not hunt anymore.
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