WITH THE BOYS: FIELD NOTES ON BEING A GUY
Author: Jake MacDonald
Publisher: PUBLISHERS GROUP WEST, Jun 2005
Whether he's duck-hunting as a kid, eking out a living as an outdoor guide, tracking bonefish in the Bahamas, doing a little urban fishing with a close pal, or meeting up boyhood friends for their annual hunting trip, MacDonald shines a light on what happens when men get together in groups of 2, 3, or 20. 6x9 inches, 176 pgs.
Whether he's duck-hunting as a kid with his father, eking out a living as an outdoor guide, tracking bonefish in the Bahamas with various eccentric companions, doing a little urban fishing with a close pal, eating fresh-cooked caribou, or meeting up with guys he's known since boyhood for their annual hunting trip, Jake MacDonald shines a light on what happens when men get together in groups of two, three, or 20. Love and loss figure in these true stories, as do other pains of being mortal, but there's also much joy in MacDonald's recounting of his 50-plus years of male pursuits. The congeniality and color of MacDonald's prose brings these adventures vividly to life, whether he's trying to survive a dicey helicopter ride to the barren lands, a bleary-eye crack-of-dawn breakfast of bacon and eggs, or a day trip to an ocean full of circling sharks.
In the television series Batman there was a character known as Commissioner Gordon. I never understood exactly what Commissioner Gordon did for a living, but whatever he did, my father did the same thing. My father was the Commissioner of Metropolitan Winnipeg, and when my friends asked me about his occupation, I said "hes like Commissioner Gordon on Batman", and that seemed to satisfy them.
Unlike the silvery-haired buffoon on the TV show, my father was a stand-up guy, an unpretentious and no-nonsense fellow who, to my mothers consternation, often wore his beat-up parka to the office and received friendly waves from janitors, street cops, firemen and his other employees at City Hall. His common-man style was deliberate. Educated in Economics at the University of Toronto, he was what social commentators used to call a "Roosevelt liberal", a believer in good government and a champion of the underdog.
My father loved the world of nature, and he loved birds most of all. At his summer cottage he put home-made birdhouses in each tree. And on summer days, blackbirds, warblers, jays, swallows, flycatchers, and countless other birds darted through the foliage and filled the air with a wild partying chatter. His favorite birds were ducks and geese. He had paintings of exotic ducks on the walls of the cottage and the book shelf was filled with massive textbooks and coffee table books about waterfowl.
He also loved hunting. Every fall, "Mac" (as my mother called him) went duck hunting for four or five weekends with his friends in the marshes of western Manitoba. I know that some people might find it hard to understand how a man who loved birds could also take pleasure in hunting them. Those were the days before political correctness, before ones automobile, hobbies, and even dietary habits were considered "statements", and I dont think it ever crossed my dads mind that what he did in his spare time was anyones damn business. My mother is the sort of person who will go to some lengths to capture a bumble bee in a jar rather than swat it with a newspaper, so I dont know what she thought of the bird hunting issue. But she seemed to accept it, as part of his gruff outdoorsy style. And my four sisters, although passionate animal lovers, never challenged him about it. My dad never explained why he hunted, or why he wanted me, his oldest son, to accompany him, but I think he had some kind of silent conviction that the rituals of the hunt would teach me something.
So every Thursday afternoon in October wed load the familys big white 1959 Buick with wonderfully masculine stuff sleeping bags, chest waders, boots, duck decoys, whisky, coolers stuffed with steaks, garlic sausage, stinky cheeses, Black Label beer, guns, ammunition, and of course my dads huge World War II canvas navy bag stuffed to bursting with heavy duty clothes. We didnt take our golden retriever Daisy because she disapproved of firearms, and would prance around the car with her tail wagging until she saw the long sheepskin cases containing the shotguns, then she would drop her head and fold her tail between her legs and slink towards the house, opting to spend a weekend on the couch instead of coming out with the boys.
With the trunk and the back seat loaded, wed head out into the countryside, which is never so beautiful as in autumn. By nightfall, wed be bouncing along the mud road towards Marsh Manor, our hunting lodge, which was a decrepit, mouse-infested old City of Winnipeg trolley bus that my dad and his buddies had mounted, on blocks, next to a prairie marsh that the government map called Lake 15.
That night, while coyotes howled in the nearby woods and a huge harvest moon rose over the hill, wed barbecue gigantic t-bone steaks slathered with onions. After dinner theyd play a few rounds of poker and drink a whiskey or two before bed. They all owned hunting dogs, but the dogs had proven themselves so citified that none were worth bringing on an actual hunting trip. I was therefore the honorary dog, and I would sit in the corner like a young Lab, wagging my tail when spoken to. There was a naughty calendar on the wall, or at least what passed for a naughty picture in those days I think it involved a leggy redhead in gumboots and a pair of long johns and they liked teasing me about it. "Son, you stick to the redheads and the canvasbacks, and well take care of the redheads and the blondes."
My dad had given me a heavy, flannel-lined arctic sleeping bag for my birthday, and I loved sleeping in it, pulling it over my head so the mice wouldnt run across my face. Id climb into bed and fall asleep while the men were still playing cards, and then suddenly the alarm clock would be hammering. It would be five in the morning, and Id be jumping out of bed because it was time to go hunting. The men, who took these trips not so much for the hunting as for the food, would of course begin the day by preparing another vast meal, this time bacon and eggs, with thick slabs of fresh bakery bread propped up on a wire toasting rack above the flaming hole in the old cast iron wood stove. When the toast was browned my dad would slather on a layer of butter and strawberry jam, and stack the slabs in a tall column atop the stove, ready to be deployed when the tin plates were warmed and the bacon and eggs were ready. After breakfast, we dressed in several layers of heavy clothes, and launched our canoes into the marsh.
As we dipped our paddles, skim ice bonked against the canvas hull of the canoe. There were millions of stars all around us. It was like canoeing through the sky, like being Winkin' Blinkin' and Nod, who paddled on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew. As we paddled, invisible wings whistling past in the darkness. When we got to the grassy point where we would hunt, my dad would maneuver the canoe and I would drop the decoys in the water, making sure the anchor lines were untangled and the birds floated upright. Then wed retire into the high cane grass along the shore, pull the canoe out of the water, and make ourselves a hiding place with a clear view of the decoys. Even on a cold morning, with skim ice along the shore, it was cozy once you got tucked into the reeds, made yourself a padded seat with a burlap sack, and unscrewed the lid of the thermos with the steaming hot chocolate that my dad had prepared on the cast iron wood stove while the bacon was frying.
By now, the eastern sky would be streaked with pink, just enough to stir the air and set the cane grass swaying. Morning was coming, and so was the exciting prospect of the appearance of the ducks. If an early mallard streaked through the sunrise, clawing overhead, my dad would stand up and point his gun. Bang! The gun would shoot flame, and even if he missed (Damn!), ducks being difficult to hit, I couldnt have been happier to watch the duck streak away and smell the delicious gunpowder on the morning air. Good morning class. Right now all my friends, poor saps, would be trudging to school. This wasnt a drill; this was life.
During my first couple of years, I wasnt allowed to shoot. My job was to run around in the bulrushes and look for downed birds. But finally, I got my chance. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day, so lazy and warm that the duckies werent flying. At eleven oclock in the morning, my dad decided wed give it out another fifteen minutes, then head in. "Can I hold the gun?" I asked him. "And take a shot if a duck comes?"