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Outdoor tales: You eat lettuce?

January 25, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

It was a dark and stormy night … Honest, it really was.

Heavy black clouds, laden with water blocked any moonlight from filtering through. The bitter, cold wind blew fierce, gusting to 30 mph at times. Light rainfall, propelled by the wind, came down horizontally, stinging my exposed skin into numbness. My feet, wet and muddy, felt frozen and tingly from hiking to the duck cannon, which was inaccessible by vehicle.

The rain had made the muddy field roads impassable. Both ears were ringing, my head hurt and I couldn't hear anything. I had been hunkered down on a border next to the cannon. While trying to adjust the mechanism, the damn thing had gone off.

If the mechanism worked properly the cannon would roar like a howitzer every few minutes, scaring off the ducks, but often it didn't function. It was a real Rube Goldberg contraption but it was the best we had in our attack against the American wigeon, that terrible duck that came by night to devour everything in its path. On this stormy night I was trying to keep 30 of these cannons going to protect 700 acres of alfalfa from being eaten or stomped into the wet, muddy ground by the clouds of hungry ducks. I wasn't having fun!

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Two miles away, the assistant refuge manager wasn't having any fun, either. The sandy soil around the refuge allowed him to drive his pickup and he had come to shut off the irrigation water. He told me his tale of woe a few days later.

As he drove around the perimeter of the refuge, he came upon Jackson. A hay loader by trade, Jackson was one of a dying breed who made his living loading hay trucks one bale at a time, using a folding boom and a winch built onto the back of his old Ford pickup. It was hard work and like all hayloaders, he was on call 24 hours a day as trucks arrived around the clock from the Los Angeles dairies.

In the winter, when business was slow, Jackson worked odd jobs. He was known around Westmorland and most steered clear of him. Tall, skinny and fierce-looking, his Masai warrior heritage showed in the way he carried his tall, sinewy frame. He was not someone you would want to meet on a dark and stormy night.

But the assistant refuge manager found him parked and blocking the muddy road. Jackson stood next to his pickup, feeding a fire with used tires. More tires were stacked around the framework of his hay-loading boom. The oily orange flames reached 20 feet into the sky while wind gusts licked away the greasy black smoke. Jackson was not going to move.

The assistant refuge manager got out of his pickup. Jackson stood on the other side of the hot, blazing inferno. Sweat and rain streaked his dark features and two gold teeth gleamed in the firelight. A dilapidated old pump shotgun rested in the hollow of his arm.

"Good evening." said the assistant refuge manager, "What in the world are you doing out here on a night like this?"

Jackson didn't answer as he looked through the greasy black smoke and sized up the assistant refuge manager in his tan uniform complete with shiny badge,. "I say," …

"I heard you the first time," replied Jackson as he moved his other arm out from behind the black shadows. His hand contained a fifth of cheap whiskey. It was three quarters empty.

"Boss man said shoot anything that eats lettuce," he continued, blasting into the sky as a flight of wigeon flew over.

The assistant manager couldn't believe what was unfolding before his eyes and he tried another tact.

"You can't shoot ducks at night, and you can't burn tires. That's against the law."

"Don't know nuthin' bout no law. Boss man said shoot anything that eats lettuce," replied Jackson, taking a swig from his bottle and staring at the assistant refuge manager through bleary, bloodshot eyes.

"This is insane," said the assistant. "I'm going to have to see your hunting license and write you a ticket."

As Jackson tried to focus on the assistant refuge manager's face, the barrel of his shotgun slowly swung in his direction as Jackson ejected the empty shot shell casing and pumped the action to load another round into the chamber.

"Don't know nuthin' bout no license. Boss man said shoot anything that eats lettuce. … You eat lettuce, mister?"

As the assistant refuge manager backpeddled to his pickup, he told Jackson he never had in the past, and never would in the future, have any plans to eat lettuce. He said he wasn't even sure what color lettuce was. He said he would just back right on down the road from where he came and wished Jackson well.

As he told me his story a few days later, he said they didn't pay him enough to be out on dark stormy nights shutting off water.

Outdoor Tales columnist Al Kalin may be reached by e-mail at akalin@quix.net

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