White Geese, Deep ditches, and Powdermilk biscuits
December 05 2017
It was late December, 1992 and I was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Alabama. I was home for the Christmas break and had enjoyed being at home with family and friends and was relaxing with Christmas Day just 24 hours behind me. I will never forget Dad coming out of the bedroom and announcing that we were headed to Almyra, Arkansas for a 4-day goose hunt before I had to be back on campus. Of course, being the self-proclaimed, all-in waterfowl hunter that I believed myself to be, I was as excited as a young man of my age could get (about socially acceptable and parental-approved ventures, anyway).
It only took me about an hour to get all my gear together, call the Arkansas Game and Fish Dept. to get our license numbers, and get everyone’s gear piled into the motorhome. That’s right, the motorhome. Dad’s favorite way to travel with friends to far-flung destinations of import. This due to the fact that the seating was comfortable, the group could lounge and play cards as we traveled, and there was no need for pit stops. I might also mention that the motor home was semi-custom in that the interior was upholstered and carpeted with remnant pieces left over from my father’s renovation of offices in downtown Huntsville. Also, the thing had not been started in a few months and the generator did not work. After a couple of hours scavenging working batteries from other vehicles, we got the thing started. It would only idle with a judicial application of throttle. Not enough to override the failing brakes – just enough to keep it from going dead as the engine cycled through the 5 functioning cylinders in the old V8 engine.
Our party consisted of a judge of the federal variety, a commercial real-estate mogul of substance, me, dad, a long-time friend of mine and an uncle from my mother’s side of the family. All names will be withheld to protect the innocent and the guilty and to deter and obviate any litigious advances on issues that have not yet reached their statute of limitations.
The trip began without further difficulty, and just a few miles into the trip, I had grasped the nuances of driving a motorhome that did not want to be driven. My co-pilot and navigator was my friend, and all of the more seasoned passengers held court in the back over an old deck of cards and stories of past exploits. We crossed out of Alabama and into Mississippi without much fanfare or too much trouble other than trying to keep our untrusty ride running at every stop. I might also mention at this point that acceleration was not the best, taking approximately a minute and a half to reach 55 mph from a dead stop and over a full minute more to get anywhere near highway speeds.
As we approached Memphis, which was our designated Mississippi River crossing, the engine began struggling even more and was almost impossible to keep running. I called dad up to the front and explained the situation. We quickly devised a plan whereby we dropped our more illustrious guests off at a local casino on the river and we went off in search of some first aid for our ailing vehicle.
I won’t bore with the details, but suffice to say that mice had eaten the insulation off of no less than 4 of the spark plug wires. After finding a local mechanic, convincing him to open the shop behind his house, and getting the plug wires replaced, we picked up our inebriated and now insolvent hunting guests at the casino and proceeded across the river into West Memphis, Arkansas. Another two and a half hours of traveling found us close to our destination, but without very clear directions on how to make our final approach. As the last 15 miles of our journey was on mostly unmarked dirt roads used by local farmers, it was an adventure to reach our final destination. However, after only 8 hours of total travel time, we did finally arrive.
As we unpacked, sorted gear, and moved into our rooms in the rundown, old farmhouse that would be our home for the next three nights, we were regaled by stories and tales of utter goose destruction told by the party that was getting ready to leave. We heard of 50 goose mornings and 100 goose afternoons with dozens of mallard and pintail ducks mixed in to kill the monotony of constantly shooting giant snow and blue geese from pristine wheat and rice fields. Needless to say, no one slept much that night, as all were anticipating the impending slaughter.
Morning arrived and our wake-up call came at 3:00 AM. Breakfast was a quick shot of badly scrambled eggs, underdone bacon, and famous Powdermilk biscuits. Now, let me expand on the cook and his breakfasts just a moment. We will call the cook William, because that was his name. One of the individuals in our hunting party, but not our traveling party was lactose intolerant. We will call him Dan, because that was his name. Dan had specifically stated that he had an extreme intolerance to lactose and anything dairy. The cook assured him that he used no milk in his cooking and would refrain from the use of butter, cheese and other dairy products in Dan’s food. Dan specifically asked about the biscuits and William told him they were Powdermilk biscuits, but that he only uses water and lard in his biscuits, so no worries there. William was a self-professed gourmet cook that was very proud of his ability to cook eggs in an infinite variety of ways.
So, with a rather disappointing breakfast behind us, we loaded up the motorhome with all hunters, guides, and dogs and headed to the field we would be hunting. Another guide followed us with a trailer full of rag-and-stick decoys that we would spend the next 2 hours putting out. We asked the guide what the prospects were and he was very straightforward in his response. It had warmed up over the last two days, which was bad. The wind had died down last night and not picked back up, which was bad, and the geese had been hunted pretty hard in this field, which was bad. I might also add that this field was about 6 inches of very wet mud topped with about 1 inch of very wet goose poop, which means that at least they had been here recently. I also need to add that our judge and our real estate mogul were flagging a bit from having to put out thousands of decoys, them not being used to physical exertion of that magnitude.
Once everything was properly placed and the guide had given his approval to the decoy spread, we settled into the stinking goo to await the first flights of geese. The guide promptly went to sleep and began snoring. I was situated next to Dan and noticed that he was awful fidgety. As the predawn light invaded the darkness that surrounded us, the geese began flying; and it was a spectacle to behold. Thousand, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of geese were airborne in all four directions as close as a half mile away. This was it! We were about to kill geese. I was shaking with excitement, and the anticipation was palpable. Now they are overhead but too high to shoot. We are waiting for a group to make a mistake and come close enough to opening shots. Off to my right, I see a group of about 30 break formation and lose altitude. They are headed straight for the decoys. Our guide is still asleep. I whisper-yell for everyone to get ready that we have a group at our 2 o’clock and they are dropping fast. I no sooner get this out of my mouth than Dan jumps up like he’s shot, screams a couple of obscenities, and sprints off towards the road, undressing as he goes. We catch a few words as he runs away and determines that religion has taken hold of him and this is the reason he is invoking God and Jesus with such frequency. We do not see Dan for the rest of the morning. Of course, Dan’s untimely sprint from the goose field flares the group of birds we had working and no others make a mistake that morning. It is a beautiful morning, though. Warm, calm, and slightly overcast. Just exactly the opposite of what you want for good goose hunting. Our guide wakes up and determines that we should go into town for lunch. We leave the decoys as we will be hunting here again this afternoon. We find Dan leaning against a tire of the motorhome asleep, sockless, and shirtless. We wake him up and tell him it’s time for lunch and ask him about his lack of clothing. He mumbles something about an upset stomach or virus and loads up for the ride to town. Lunch is a quick bologna sandwich at the general store in town. Dan buys more socks, a new shirt, and is very diligent about what he eats for lunch. Back to the field.
As the sun sets, we are skunked. Not a shot fired all day. As we case our guns and scrape off as much of the mud/goose poop mixture as we can from our waders and coats, our guide wakes up and tells us to start rolling up the decoys and getting them ready to put on the trailer. We are exhausted, muddy, stinking, and hungry, but the promise of NOT having to hunt here tomorrow spurs us to action.
Back at the farmhouse/hunting cabin, we eat a supper of cornbread and pinto beans. The best I have ever eaten. The cornbread is filled with huge chunks of ham, green pepper, onion, jalapenos, and cheese. Dan has his own pan, sans cheese. The pintos were simmered all day with a smoked ham hock, fatback, and bacon. It was delicious. It was also a mistake, but none recognized it at the time. After a hot shower, the long day took its toll and put us to bed early. Some of the guys took a nightcap, and some just wanted the blessing of sleep.
By 8 PM, everyone was in their bunk asleep. By 10PM a few of us were roused by the thunderous posterior emanations of those that had seconds at supper. At first, we had a quiet giggle about it and made note of the offenders so that we could have some fun at their expense at the breakfast table the next day. However, our mirth was soon abated by the olfactory affront that so often accompanies. Like The Sound and the Fury, we knew the sound and were experiencing the fury. The guide and Dan slept through it all.
Day two: Breakfast – Poached eggs, underdone bacon, Powdermilk biscuits made without milk or butter. We arrive at a different field, spend two hours placing two thousand rag-and-stick decoys and await the geese. I might mention that there were definite rebellious grumblings from the judge of the federal variety at having to endure such labor in an endeavor for which he was paying good money. It’s warm, humid, calm, slightly overcast, and solemn, but the mud / poop is not as deep here. As the geese rise from their roosts, so does the anticipation. The weariness is brushed away and excitement at what may come replaces it.
Like the day before, there is plenty to see and hear. Snow geese by the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands with their raucous squeals and squeaks. They wheel overhead and all around us. There are simply too many for a few to not make the mistake of coming too close. Unobserved a group of 8 had approached the decoy spread and had snuck almost into range when I noticed them. Almost too late to call the shot, I clicked my safety off and was preparing to shoot when they inexplicably flared and turned away. At almost the same instance, Religious Dan went flying by me toward the road. The guide slept through it all. We were beginning to think that perhaps it was possession rather than religion that was affecting Dan and that some priestly intervention might be warranted. About noon, the guide woke up and pronounced it was time for lunch. This time, however, we would take our decoys with us and hunt a more promising field in the afternoon. Pick up two thousand decoys, bologna sandwich and chips, new socks and shirt for Dan, back to the goose field, two hours of putting out decoys, two hours of uneventful hunting, two hours of picking up decoys, and back to the farmhouse. Dinner was great cornbread. The beans went untouched by unanimous consent.
Day three: Nobody wants to get out of bed. All are tired, sore, disheartened, dispirited, and overwhelmingly depressed. Breakfast is fried eggs, overdone bacon (someone complained), and Powdermilk biscuits made with no milk or butter. The motions of placing decoys are almost mechanical and done with an utter lack of enthusiasm. It is warm, humid, calm, slightly overcast, and even more solemn than day two, but there is almost no mud or poop here. Dan has brought a roll of toilet paper with him from the house. The guide is asleep by the time all decoys are placed and the hunters are set-up.
Once again, thousands of geese in all directions and straight overhead. None work for the first half hour, then, bingo, a group of about 50 is winging its way toward certain destruction. I hear Dan exclaim from the end of the row, “Please, not now!” Of course, the geese flare as Possessed Dan runs screaming from the field, undressing as he goes. Unlike the first two mornings, Dan returns to the field after about an hour. Presumably, because he still has socks and a shirt. However, whatever is ailing him has turned him from a normal human being to a quivering, cowering, flatulent blob of Jell-O. The sounds emanating from Dan border on otherworldly. The barrage is incessant. It’s like you have replaced a bellows bag with a whoopee cushion and attached an air compressor hose. Fortunately, it appears as though Dan has regained his religion as he is now almost constantly invoking the Lord God, Jesus and occasionally other deities that our group is unfamiliar with. This goes on for a solid hour before Dan succumbs to exhaustion and joins our guide in blissful repose. We leave them asleep in the field as we break for lunch. Afterward, we take a nap in the motorhome instead of returning to the field. An angry guide and a sickly-looking Dan wake us up about 4 PM and demand we head in early as they have not eaten anything and don’t feel like staying and hunting anymore today. We all agree that the day is a bust and head toward the farmhouse. As we saw geese this morning and almost had some work, we leave the decoys and determine that we will hunt here again tomorrow morning – mostly so we would not have to pick-up or put-out decoys again.
Supper is delicious cornbread and goose stew, apparently served to prove to us that there have, indeed, been geese killed here. Dan is looking pale and thin and we are beginning to question his overall health. By 8 PM, all are sound asleep and looking forward to two extra hours of sleep since we won’t have to place decoys in the morning.
Final day: Breakfast is boiled eggs, overcooked bacon, and Powdermilk biscuits made without milk or butter. Our group of hunters resembles the walking dead as we stumble towards the motorhome. As we approach the field where we are hunting, it is mentioned that farmers will be working adjacent fields today, so I diligently pull just off the center of the road onto the shoulder next to a levy ditch, so any passing tractors will have plenty of room. As we approach the decoy spread, we notice that a few of the decoys have fallen over and we set about standing them back up. It’s a short job, but with temps near 70 degrees, I remove my hunting coat and roll it up into a ball so that the keys in my pocket will not fall out. I place my coat on the decoy trailer and get back to work.
As we wait patiently for the impending dawn, we can already hear geese cackling and honking at each other in the distance. While it is still warm, humid, and slightly overcast, our anticipation once again climbs. There is no way that we can come to the Arkansas rice fields four days in a row and not get a shot at something. This must be the day. Plus, a looming front should be passing through soon, bringing with it ideal goose hunting conditions. As the geese begin to stir, so does Dan. The daily routine is underway. Recalcitrant geese by the thousands, Dan squirming in agony and frustration, sleeping guide, and very incensed hunters. The morning passes without incident. Dan is aware of the timing of his issue and retreats to the ditch in a more orderly fashion than the previous three days. In an hour, he comes staggering back complaining of cramps, rawness, and swelling. His religious bent seems to have stabilized and he seems almost normal at this point, with the exception of the uncontrollable flatulence that plagues him after his morning intestinal bout. However, we know from experience that this will last no more than an hour and then he can get some much-needed rest curled up next to the guide.
We have decided to only hunt half a day today so that we can get home at a reasonable hour. With empty skies above us and empty horizons about us, we begin the tedious task of picking up decoys for the last time. Our guide awakens and tells us to leave them as his afternoon group will be hunting here. This is the best news we have had all week. All we have to do is head back to the farmhouse, load up our gear and head home. As I approach the decoy trailer to retrieve my coat, my heart sinks a little. My coat is not in the trailer. I mention this to the guide and he says that it must have fallen off when he moved the trailer back to the road (about ¾ of a mile from where we were hunting). We trace the path back toward the decoys and find my coat laying on the ground about halfway between the decoys and the road. Thank goodness. I was about to panic. I picked up my coat and reached into an empty pocket. Take it from me, you do not want to be the guy that loses the car keys at the end of a trip like the one we have had. But, there I stand, with every single person staring at me with looks that would turn sand to glass. There was nothing to do but look for the keys.
And look we did. For a couple of hours at least. Finally, after much canvassing and crossing each other’s trails, we stumbled upon the keys laying in the field. Had it been one of the fields from days one or two, they would have been lost forever. We made it back to the motorhome and it was at this point that I realized that I may have pulled slightly too far off the road in my attempt to keep it clear for the tractors. The driver’s side tires were all firmly on the road, but the passenger tires were all on the slope of the ditch. The consensus is that it would be fine and we would just gently drive out – no problem. I hopped into the driver’s seat and despite the more than substantial lean, gave it a little gas and tried to urge it back onto the road. Nope, not going to happen, not today. As I applied the throttle the unthinkable happened and the motorhome slid further into the ditch. It slid into the point that we all had to exit through the driver’s side windows.
After hailing a passing tractor to extract us, we were finally on our way to the farmhouse to pack up and head home. I was dejected, the rest of the party thought I was at best incompetent and made sure I was aware of it through their barrage of jabs and jibes directed at my parking and ability to keep up with keys. Dan never said a word.
As part of our party pressure washed the Arkansas rice field mud from the motorhome, the rest of us packed up our clothing and gear for the trip home. Dan was also leaving this afternoon, so we said our goodbyes to him as well as the staff at the lodge. With the motorhome almost packed and everyone getting situated for the ride home, I had one more person to speak to. I was not leaving Arkansas without that cornbread recipe. I asked William if he would mind giving it to me. He didn’t know it by heart but had all his recipes written on index cards on top of the fridge. I pulled the box down and began to sort through it, looking for what I wanted. Dan was sitting at the table in plain clothes enjoying a soda. His group was also getting ready to leave. I placed several of the recipes that were not of interest on the table as I continued my search. Dan idly picked up one of the recipe cards and began to read. With an oath and a battle cry that would have made a Mongol horde proud, Dan sprang from the table and leaped at William. William sprinted out the back door with Dan on his heels screaming obscenities, threats, and generally questioning William’s heritage and his parents’ relationship to each other. I picked up the recipe card that had created the feud and noticed that the third item in the breakfast biscuit recipe was a half cup of powdered milk. Lactose-intolerant Dan had been eating powdered-milk biscuits for 4 days, not Powdermilk biscuits.
As promised, the cold front arrived just as we left, the skies cleared up, the temperature dropped 30 degrees in an hour, the wind was blowing a brisk 20 miles per hour as we pulled out. As we passed the field we had hunted in, we were met with an almost constant barrage of gunfire and the sight of huge groups of geese trying to land in the decoys as the hunters laid into them with everything they had. Looked like it was going to be one of those hundred goose afternoons. They were in good hands. Their guide was well-rested.