A Flightless Day

 

 

   W

e broke the ice away from the landing with the stocks of our shotguns, careful not to submerge them, as we knew they’d be against our shoulders soon, and we had no desire to moisten our camouflage overalls with pond water at five o’clock in the morning on Christmas day. 

           

Yep, Christmas day.

           

It defies reason.  Christmas day is a celebration day, a day to cozy up to the fire and drink hot chocolate, surrounded by dozens of new toys.  Not to skim across a semi-frozen lake on an airboat clutching projectile weapons with icy fingers.

           

Yet here we were, my brother and I, clunking the wooden butts of our guns through the skin of ice around the concrete boat landing.  My father was backing the boat down toward the water as the sound of the ancient Chevrolet towing the trailer broke the silence of pre-dawn with its incessant, glass-packs-compounded rumble-roar.

           

I stood up on my side of the ramp convinced that enough ice had been broken away for the tires of the trailer to slip into the water and set the boat easily onto the surface of the lake.  I looked at Dirty—the extremely affectionate nickname my brother’s peers had conferred upon him—and said, just to make conversation, “Think we’ll see anything?”

           

“Oh, yeah,” he blurted, standing from his side as well, bits of shattered lake floating away at the heels of his insulated boots.  “Ducks always fly when it’s cold.”  I suspected that this was total bullshit, but it was as good an answer as any, especially given the temperature.  The upper teens are about as cold as one can hope for in late December in Florida, and we had been waking up to them every day for at least a week.  So, it was the best we could hope for that ducks flew in the cold—that or we could at least cross our fingers and anticipate that they’ll at least be traveling to visit feathered family members on this, the most holy day in Western Civilization. 

           

Dirty stepped back and motioned to our dad to back the truck down into the water.  The truck eased back, pushing away the remnants of the lake’s icy skin as it slid the monstrous boat into the water.

           

My dad had built this boat with a friend of his who had bought the parts.  The upside of this was that the friend, who owned the boat since he owned the parts, was responsible for storage and maintenance of the beastly vehicle while my father was allowed unlimited usage for fishing, exploring, or ending the lives of our fine-feathered friends.

           

The boat itself was a monstrous mechanism, an icon of brown steel and fiberglass.  There were two seats high up in the boat and a step that could bear a third passenger if necessary.  The propeller at the rear of the craft was nearly eight feet long and was driven by, of all things, a 492 Cadillac engine recovered from what had once most certainly been the pride and joy of some rich person’s life but was now merely a shell in a junkyard somewhere, with the machinery that once served as its soul mounted on a one-ton watercraft capable of skidding across the surface of a lake at over 50 miles per hour.  By coincidence—or fate—the caddy motor was also equipped with glass packs, which made it grind the eardrums of whoever was close by into quivering submission.

           

My father finished backing the trailer into the water, and the boat slid off into the water, making the water splash and ripple as we held onto its rope and towed it back into shore.  Despite the cold, we went through the old routine: load everything into the boat, position the craft near the landing, and climb in to wait for my father, who was always the pilot.  He climbed in as light began to break across the lake, letting us see a bit of where we were going.  He fired up the deafening engines and set us on our course.

           

Because of the cold and the speed we knew we would reach as we approached our chosen hunting spot, we had packed a few extras on this day—namely, blankets.  The three of us were wrapped in two or three blankets each in addition to our heavy coats and clothes, but the cold somehow still managed to cut to the bone.  I shivered frantically, gripping my weapon and repeating to myself over and over again: “This will be worth it.  Just wait.  It will be worth it.”

           

We arrived at our “perfect spot” and waited for the sun to come up and the birds to start moving.  The noise the boat produced meant that we always had to come out far earlier than others would to avoid driving all the animals away before we could see them flying.  Not that we would’ve destroyed anyone’s hunting but our own today; apparently they knew some thing we didn’t—that or they preferred that Christmas at home by the fire that I could only wish for as I tightened my grip on my gun and waited for sunrise, hoping that somehow I could milk some warmth from the chilly steel.

           

We waited and my mind wandered, as it always did.  We waited and I thought of shows I had done . . . shows I would like to do . . . girls I had known, people I would meet, who might be the next president . . .

           

We waited.

           

And we waited.

           

Nothing.

           

At last we saw one bird, one so far away that we would’ve been hard pressed to hit it with a rifle and scope at that distance, even if it had not been flying at 25 miles per hour.  I fired anyway, listening to the harsh blast in the freezing air followed by the Rice Krispies sound of the spent pellets speckling the water.

           

This was enough for my father.  We were now wasting ammunition, so it was time to head home.

 

            The roar of the caddy engine tore open the silent morning once again as we headed back to the house.  We had no ducks, but it had not been a completely wasted day.  I had planned the next four years of my life while adrift on the freezing water waiting for nothing.  I could only hope that they would yield more fruit than a hunting trip on the coldest Christmas Day I can remember.