Are Ducks In Heaven?

Illustration by Everett D. Wilson

by Don E. Webster
4-19-2017
Website

Author’s Note: Inevitably, this time of year causes me to reminisce about the many great experiences I've had in the outdoors, many of which were spent in the marshes with friends. I'd like to share a chapter from my book, "Bury Me In My Waders" - An Old Duck Hunter Recalls His Fowl Past.] The first time I ran into Dudley Kilgore, I was 12 and he was 13. It was a Saturday afternoon in the summer, and my mother dropped me off at the Johnson ranch. The Johnsons had a daughter my age, and a swimming pool. They were hosting a swim party in honor of their daughter’s birthday.

There were a few kids there who’d been driven out from town by their parents. Dudley was one of the kids. He got under my skin almost immediately by flirting with Jenny Talbot, a girl I had a crush on. The first chance I got, I shoved him in the pool, and then I jumped in and tried to sink him.

I discovered quickly that Dudley had quite a temper. By the time some of the adults leaped in and pulled him off me, I’d taken in enough water to float a canoe.

They hauled me out of the pool, and somebody worked my arms while somebody else pumped my gut, and eventually I coughed and puked and survived. I don’t believe mouth to mouth resuscitation had been invented yet. 

 It would be a year before I saw Dudley Kilgore again. We hunted rabbits with a mutual friend, shot some barn pigeons once in awhile, and got to know each other a little. During our high school years we ran in different crowds. I was a star athlete, and a B.M.O.C. – Big Man On Campus. In retrospect, a more accurate translation would have been Brainless Meathead or Clod. I can’t remember opening a book the entire time I was in high school. I played ball, hung out with the other jocks, chased girls, and looked cool driving my ’57 Chevy.

Dudley didn’t belong to any particular group. Back then in our small town, if you weren’t part of an elite group of students, you were looked upon as weird, or odd, and “not with it.” During the past, several years, I’ve heard young folks using labels like dork, or nerd or geek. I suspect that not much has really changed over the years.

Dudley and I ended up in the same class together in junior college, a study of Shakespeare. Wait a minute. What was I doing in a Shakespeare class? Well, the metamorphosis had been gradual, but evidently I’d been suppressing the dork and nerd in me and for whatever reason, it decided to come out. The jockstrap grub turned into a literary butterfly.

Half-way through the semester at junior college, Dudley stopped me in the hall one day. “You know, Webster, we need to go hunting together again sometime.”

It was a fairly long hallway that led outside to a vine-covered trellis that led to the building where we both had our next class. By the time we arrived, we’d made plans to hunt together soon. This Kilgore fellow wasn’t turning out to be such a bad guy after all.

Dudley and I enjoyed a friendship that spanned over 40 years. We hunted and fished together from Mexico to Canada. Waterfowling was our obsession, although steelhead fishing and chasing the fairer sex during our younger days ran close seconds.

During the off season, we spent most of our time talking about the previous year’s adventures and planning the coming season. We helped each other through tough times. Dudley and his father had a tempestuous relationship that remained troubled for decades. At times, Dudley was so frustrated and angry he contemplated homicide. Fortunately, he shared his pain with me and we were able to get him through those rough periods.

When I came home from Vietnam, Dudley knew I was having trouble coming back to the civilized world. He called it “battle fatigue,” which was a World War II.. term. They were just getting around to renaming it PTSD, but it hadn’t become a household thing yet.

Dudley spent a good deal of time listening to me, encouraging me to talk about the war, and to get it off my chest. He was the only person I could talk with. My father was a man of few words, and although he was a decorated veteran, we never shared our experiences. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe as father and son it was just too painful for both of us.

Fast forward to 2002... as Dudley approached his 60th birthday, I noticed a change in him. He seemed to have a cold all the time. I asked him several times if he’d been to see a doctor, and he said that he had. I got the idea he hadn’t. He’d been a smoker most of his life, and that worried me.

One morning a few months later, I received a phone call. Dudley had fallen at home, and he was partially paralyzed. He went to the hospital, and after a few days of testing he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The cancer had already spread to other areas of his body, and it was affecting his motor skills.

Dudley never went home again. I visited him almost daily while he was in the hospital. It never ceased to amaze me that the first thing he would ask me would be to wheel him outside so he could smoke a cigarette.

The other thing that astonished me was that he was constantly flirting with the nurses and other female personnel. It occurred to me that he was either a very brave soul, or certain biological urges were remaining with him even in the face of death. I think it was both.

I was impressed with the way the women at the hospital handled Dudley’s behavior.

They made little or no effort to curb his flirtations, which at times contained some rather explicit comments and suggestions. I admired and respected those women for their kindness, understanding, and professionalism.

Dudley was eventually moved to a care home, where the local hospice took over. I continued to visit him as often as I could. Some of our mutual friends stopped by periodically to visit. Toward the end, Paul Peterson, a friend who lived three hours away by car, visited Dudley at least twice a week. Paul sat by the hour and read to Dudley.

Paul knew all of Dudley’s favorite books and stories, such as the works of Corey Ford, Nash Buckingham, Robert Ruark, Patrick McManus, and assorted, old magazine articles by writers like Ted Trueblood, Jack O’Connor, and Ed Zern.

One evening, the family phoned me and told me I’d better get over to the care home right away. They weren’t sure how much longer Dudley was going to last. Although he could no longer speak, he’d communicated a desire to see me. I jumped in the car and drove straight to the care home.

I walked into the room, and Dudley’s parents were there. They were both in their mid to late 80’s, and I knew this had to be very difficult for them. Dudley’s sister was also there. They must have sensed that Dudley and I needed some time alone because they walked out of the room. I walked to his bed and took his hand. “Hey, buddy,” I said.

We looked at each other for what seemed like a long time. Dudley released his grip and made a twirling motion with his hand, turning his head slightly toward a night table nearby. He indicated something with his eyes.

The only thing I could see on the table was a pad of paper and a pen. I picked them up. “This?”

Dudley reached for the items and I handed them to him. He was unsteady, but he managed to scratch something on the pad, and handed it back to me.

I took the pad and pen from him and looked at the print he’d scrawled:

are…ducks…in...heaven?

I stared at the piece of paper. My first instinct was to bolt from the room.

I looked up from the pad and faced Dudley. He looked like a cat who’d just caught a mouse, and the cat was saying to the mouse, “…Well. This is a rather precarious situation you’re in. Any plans for escape?”

Dudley had been like that all of his life. He loved to put people on the hot seat. He asked the hard questions at the most difficult of times. It wasn’t that he enjoyed inflicting emotional anguish on people. He simply wasn’t afraid to shatter taboos. He believed that during those moments he stood the best chance of discovering truth. And what made this moment all the more remarkable was that he was doing this with the awareness that he probably wasn’t going to live to see morning. But that was Dudley, and one of the many reasons I loved him. 
 I knew that when I answered his question, my answer had better be good. Real good. And it had to come right now.

I leveled my gaze at him and said with as much nonchalance as I could bring to bear, “Well, according to Pop Grossman, there’s millions of ducks in heaven.”

Dudley’s eyes lit up. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. I knew what he wanted. He wanted to know the details of my conversation with Pop.

Just as he had for me, Pop Grossman had taught Dudley how to hunt. More importantly, he taught us the meaning of ethics, and sportsmanship. We both admired, respected, and loved him.

“…Quite a while after he passed away, Pop came to me in a dream one night when I was hunting at Gray Lodge. I was sacked out in the back of the pickup. It was more like a vision. I was standing in line at the old check station, and I looked over, and there was Pop. He was standing all by himself, wearing his same old hunting duds. Hey Pop, I said, and he said, hello, young man. I told him to get in line with me and we’d hunt together. He turned and pointed behind him and what I saw, words can’t describe. It was this warm, golden sky filled with ducks and geese, all swirling around in it. Pop told me he was hunting in a different spot. He turned and headed toward the ambler glow, and I wanted to go with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I saw that he didn’t have his old gun, and I asked him where it was. Do you know what he said, Dudley?”

Dudley tried to speak again, and tears had formed in his eyes, but nothing came out. I felt tears beginning to well in my eyes, but I knew I couldn’t allow myself to break down at this point. I had to finish with composure for Dudley. “…Pop said that he didn’t need a gun.

Then he gave me a little wave, and he turned and walked out into the middle of all those ducks and geese, and he just disappeared into them.”

Dudley smiled through his tears and nodded.

“…Dudley, listen to me. I saw what it was like in heaven if you’re a duck hunter. Do you hear me? It was real. I don’t know how, I just know it was real. Pop’s in heaven. He was telling us he’s all right. He’s doing just fine. He’s in heaven, Dudley...”

Dudley continued to smile. He reached out and took my hand, and patted it as he closed his eyes, and then he was asleep.

I bent over and kissed him on the forehead. My words came as a whisper. “…And that’s where you’re going to be too...”

They phoned me the next day and told me Dudley died during the night. I went outside and walked around in circles in the yard. I hoped I’d been able to help my old pal through his last, tough time. I hadn’t stuttered. I looked to the heavens, and prayed that I hadn’t lied. I glanced around to make sure nobody could see me as I stepped behind the hedge. And then I cried.

Don E. Webster has been an avid outdoorsman for over 60 years. In addition to being a columnist for MyOutdoorBuddy.com, Don has published three books: "Bury Me In My Waders" An Old Duck Hunter Recalls His Fowl Past, "Double-Ought Buck" a novel, and "Bears, Beer, Trout Tacos, Etc." Short Outdoor Tales & Other Quasi-Kindred Illuminations. Webster's books can be purchased on Amazon, Kindle, and Barnes & Noble Bookstores.

Webster's MyOutdoorBuddy column entitled "Canine Comics" won the Phil Ford Humor Award from the Outdoor Writers Association of California in 2013.

He continues to love fox squirrels and hate eucalyptus trees.