Duck Heart?

“I grabbed one around the breast with one hand, and straightened my other hand into a Kung Fu blade of tense fingers…”

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Growing up in Patterson was really a special gift. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how special it was… you’d see and hear all these fancy goings-on in the other parts of the world on TV and the radio, and wished you could be a part of all that. But with a longer view, we had something that a lot of people in those other places didn’t.

The town was bordered on one side by the river, which we called the Bayou Teche, though technically it was the Lower Atchafalaya River. Then, across the levee to the north a couple of miles, was the Atchafalaya Spillway (the swamp). And just south of the railroad tracks and a mile or so of cane fields, is where the marsh sorta began—at one time. A levee system had been built that basically made the marsh begin on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway… but you get the picture:  If you were into fishing, hunting, water skiing, crawfishing, crabbing, coon hunting, or any number of outdoor activities, it was as the license plates once proclaimed, “Sportsman’s Paradise”!

sportsmans-paradise

Most families had at least one boat, sometimes several! And if you didn’t, you knew several friends with access to one, and they got used pretty often—sometimes when they shouldn’t have, but that’s several other stories.

You didn’t need a license to use a boat, and the age limit was more or less, “can you swim?”  Everybody had a shotgun and knew how to use it, and when it was hunting season, we did so as often as the opportunity presented itself. This story is about one of those opportune moments.

So it was one of those lazy Saturday afternoons in the winter when a gathering of several of us were sitting around discussing what to do that evening. As I remember it, we were at my cousin’s house in Calumet, across from the airport at the time. Someone brought up the idea of going duck hunting. It took a while to get everybody on board as it was kinda late in the day to begin that kind of operation, but after several rounds of how, where and when, we decided to throw a couple of bateaus in the back of the trucks and drive across the levee to throw ’em in the spillway at the catwalk—a raised board walkway from a shell-paved access road to several shallow wells just north of the levee. Now that the planning was done, the fire drill began! Everybody rushed off in several different directions to get the bare minimum needed to make an evening hunt before the sun went down…

bateau
A bateaux with a two cylinder, eight horsepower Lockwood-Ashe engine. Note the large amount of sheer at the bow. The use of coaming is typical of boats in the Atchafalaya Swamp. Photograph: Malcolm Comeaux

So we finally got out there just as the sun was beginning to set. Because we knew the area, and all of us didn’t have guns anyway (me), it didn’t take long to get the boats in the water and spread people out to wait for the unsuspecting waterfowl to arrive. I was deposited on a small island not far from the bank with another lonely soul who loved to go hunting even if he didn’t have a gun. After a while, and several shots fired, the anticipation began: Who had shot? and, how many were effective? The excitement began to build.

Soon the sun was gone and everyone began to gather on the small island where I had begun building a fire. Stories were told about the hits and misses—a couple of unlucky ducks had met their demise in the maelstrom of shot sent up. Soon discussion turned to what to do next. Eventually, we decided to clean and cook them there, as we had a fire going by then. But there was one problem with that, as we realized to our great consternation—no one had thought to grab a knife during the great rush to get hunting before dark! A little back-story is required here before we move on:

A few years before, when my family was visiting some friends who knew how much I liked to read, I was given a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. I became enthralled with the story; how he could stalk and kill wild animals, and eat raw meat with great gusto! It was really a good story and was well written; very popular in the early years of the twentieth century. That said, lets return to our story.

So after the duh! moment of realization that we had no knives, I said, “I’ll gut and clean them…” and squatted down with the ducks. Everyone began to gather around to see how that was gonna happen, so I said, “shine some light on the duck so I can see…” and they came closer and several lights soon illuminated me and the ducks.

I grabbed one around the breast with one hand, and straightened my other hand into a Kung Fu blade of tense fingers, then jabbed it into the area just below the ducks rib-cage. Then I began pulling out innards… so far, so good; we were all hunters and fisherman that had cleaned our fair share of game.

Being as how the ducks had been killed recently and it was a pretty cool night, steam was rising up through the light as I proceeded in the cleaning. Then I pulled out the heart. As I held it in my hand in the light, steam rising up off it, I said, “I like rabbit heart—I wonder what this tastes like?” and before anyone could respond, I popped it into my mouth and began chewing! You’d a thought a bomb went off in the center of that light as everyone yelled, cussed, and convulsed in varying levels of dry heaves or worse!

Nobody got to see me spit out the heart. I was left sitting in the dark trying not to laugh at anyone for fear they would throw me in the cold-ass water. And, for some reason, nobody was interested in cooking or eating the ducks after I had finished cleaning them.

(By the way, it didn’t taste nearly as good as rabbit heart.)

To be continued; same life, different story…