CHAPTER Twenty-nine: DUCKS AND DINNERS

   Monday morning, Chuck drove up to the office just as Greg was coming out his door. They shook hands as they went into the office, together.

   “So, how was your first weekend in town?” asked Greg.

    “Pretty good, actually. The rental is comfortable, and I enjoyed not having to drive to town Sunday for our family day. Alice is already liking being able to walk to stores, and visit with people. Mandy is looking forward to not having to ride in the school bus next Monday.”

   They set about getting ready for the work day.

   “Vic seemed to have a good time out here,” Chuck offered.

   “I certainly enjoyed having her here. We baited the duck traps Friday evening, had our usual Saturday chat on the porch steps, then later went out to check the traps. Nothing in them, but all looked okay. We stayed to watch the sunset, saw a couple of coyotes, and the biggest covey of Huns that I’ve seen on the refuge. She fell asleep pretty early Friday night, but we watched a little TV Saturday. We saw ‘Gunsmoke,’ which she says in your favorite.”

   “Yeah, I like that show a lot. All re-runs right now, but they’re still good.”

   “I’m not much of a television person, even when I have ready access to one, but I had seen ‘Gunsmoke’ a few times. Quite a change from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy-type westerns.”

   “That’s for sure – a lot more realism.”

   “We started to watch that comedy about the man who marries a witch, but I slept through most of it. There was some musical variety show after, but it was late by then.”

   “’Bewitched’ and… I can’t say the name of that other one. They were both new last fall – re-runs now, of course. ‘Bewitched’ is kind of funny. Like you, I’m usually ready for bed when it’s over.

   “Vic says you made her an extra special breakfast?”

   “Yeah, I went all out to make a Mexican omelet. She seemed to like it. I was surprised to learn that she’d never had an avocado, before.”

   “They don’t grow a lot of them in North Dakota or Idaho.”

   “No, I suppose not.”

   That seemed to exhaust the talk about the weekend. “So, what’s on your schedule for today?” Chuck asked.

   “I thought I’d grab Tim, and have him give me a hand with the hundreds of ducks in the traps. Then, if we have time, we have one stretch of fence wire that needs to be replaced.”

   “I predict you won’t have hundreds of ducks to band.”

   “I predict your prediction will be correct. Whatever we do, the weatherman says we’ll likely have dry days with mild temperatures. Can’t beat that for late summer.”

***

   Tim was ready for both the banding and the fencing, and they were soon on their way to the traps. The first was empty; the second had five ducks, all mallards. Tim hauled out the banding supplies, including a folding TV tray, that gave them a good writing surface and a place on which to set their pliers. He handed Greg the dip net.

   “Go get us a duck.”

   Greg opened the top of the trap, and observed the ducks scurrying around beneath him. It didn’t seem like they had that much space to move around in, but he found he had to make several tries before he actually got a duck in his net. He almost lost it as he brought the net out in the open.

   “You may not be aware that I have actually never banded a bird,” said Greg.

   Tim gave him a pained look. “Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me. Did they teach you any useable skills in college?”

   “No, it was mostly book learning and theorizing. However, I’m sure I know many more Latin names for birds than you do.”

   “Yeah, I think you mentioned that once before. You want me to tell you how to get the bird out of the net?”

   “Yes, please.”

   Following Tim’s directions, Greg set the net on the ground, reached in with both hands, and placed them firmly against the duck’s body, holding the wings compressed against its sides. He held it out to Tim at eye level.

  “Immature male Anas Platyrhynchos.”

  “Great. I assume you are telling me that is the Latin name of a mallard. If you ever run into someone who speaks only Latin, and he wants to know what to call the duck, you can tell him.”

   “I think you are being sarcastic.”

   Tim gave him a look. “Now that you’ve identified it, do you want to band it? Yes? Okay, keeping the wings tight against its body, turn it around and tuck it between your arm and your side. Now, with the feet sticking forward, and the bird immobilized, you can fit a band on the leg, and crimp it evenly with the pliers. Once you’re sure you have all the data recorded, you can let Mr. Anus Plenty-whatever go.”

   Greg set the banded duck on the ground, and it waddled into the pond. “Neat.”

   “Yeah. As you saw, you could do the job by yourself, but it’s always good to have a helper. Go get Number Two.”

   Banding the next three went quickly, with Greg handling one all by himself, to make sure he could do it alone. All three were young birds, two males and a female. The fifth bird, an adult male, turned out to already be banded. They recorded the band number, then turned it loose with the others.

   “There’s a page on your clipboard for re-traps,” said Tim. “Copy down the information there. When you get back to the office, you can quickly check our records to see if we banded it here in a previous year. If not, then you can send a report to the Bird Banding Lab in Maryland, and they’ll tell you what they know about its history.”

   They made sure the trap was ready for the next day, then headed for the fence project.

   “Do I need anything but gloves and eye protection?” Greg asked.

   “No. This is only going to take a few minutes, once we get there. I have new wire and a wire puller – a ‘come along.’ One of us can string the wire, while the other one ratchets it tight.”

   Tim was correct. They had the job completed in less than a half-hour, and were back at the office before lunch time. Paperwork and telephone calls took up the rest of the afternoon for both Chuck and Greg.

   As they were leaving the office, Greg said that he planned to check the traps before dark, just to make sure no ducks were left in them overnight.

   “Want some company?” asked Chuck.

   “Sure. That would be great. See you after dinner?”

   “About that. Alice. Sent a bunch of food out with me. Why don’t you come over and help me eat some of it?”

   “Sure. I’ll clean up a bit, then come over.”

   Later, Alice’s lasagna received praise from both of them. They chatted for a while, then went out to the traps. The first was empty, again; the second had five mallards, but two were ones Greg and Tim had banded the day before.

   “Birds can be funny about traps,” said Chuck. “Sometimes, a bird caught once will steer clear of all similar traps for a long time. On the other hand – and I think maybe especially with ducks – you find some who are caught repeatedly. They don’t seem to mind a little manhandling, if there’s a free meal in the bargain. You may find a few of these locals think the trap has a revolving door.”

   They banded the remaining three (two immature males and an adult female), drove around a couple of the water areas (no sign of new migrants), then headed back to headquarters. Chuck seemed pensive. Finally, he said what he had been thinking about.

   “I wanted to say something about you and Vic. I’ve been worried that you both seemed to be banking a lot on what is an uncertain, transitory period for both of you. I didn’t want Vic to get hurt.” He paused. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking about you – just my little girl.”

   “Seems natural.”

   “Yeah, I guess. Anyway, I’ve watched you two together, and I see how happy and confident Vic is. You’re both mature, level-headed kids – well, not kids, exactly. Anyway, Alice accepted the situation some time ago, and now Papa Bear is ready to loosen the reins.”

   “Alice told me once that father-daughter bonds are special, and especially tight.”

   “They are. It can be a hard world for anybody, but I think it’s especially tough for young women. You want to protect them as much and as long as you can.”

   “Well, I appreciate your confidence in me, and us. We won’t let you down, and we won’t let each other down.”

   “Good enough.”

***

   Tuesday morning, Tim went with Greg to check the traps. The first was empty, again. Greg wondered if it was a bad spot.

   “I don’t think so,” offered Tim. “We use this site every year. I think it’s because we’re just getting local ducks, so far, and all the ducks we’re catching to this point have all been reared fairly close to the other trap. When the migrants come in, they won’t be attached to any one location. They’ll

just be looking for food. I think you’ll find this one gets plenty of use.”

   The second trap held ten mallards, but four were recaptures – two of them for the third time. Banding the other six was quick work, and they headed back to headquarters. Greg went into the office to talk to Chuck.

   “If you don’t have anything in particular you want me to do today, I’d like to take a couple hours annual leave to do some personal business in town.”

   “No, go ahead, but you don’t need to use your leave. You’ve earned some comp time.”

   “Comp time?”

   “Yeah. We career employees can’t get paid overtime for hours beyond our usual ones, but we can take compensatory time off. You’ve been checking the duck traps after hours, on your own time. You can legitimately take off a similar number of hours without using your official leave. So, go and do what you need to do.”

   “Thanks, boss.”

   In town, Greg did some shopping at the market, then went to the camera store to pick up his developed film. He looked at the photos in the shop (they were pretty good, he thought), then selected some negatives to leave for extra prints and a few enlargements.

   His final stop was at the jeweler’s, where he had bought Vic’s birthday necklace. “I want to buy a ring for my girl. We’re not officially engaged, and won’t be, for a while. She’s leaving for college, and I want us to have – well, something like a ‘promise ring’ – Is there any such a thing?”

   The sales person – a woman about his age -  thought a moment. “What some people do is buy wedding bands – sometimes, the ones you’ll actually use later, and sometimes less expensive, interim ones. Here are some nice ones, the man’s a little narrower than the woman’s.” She showed him the plain bands.

   “I like those. Could they have some engraving on the inside?”

   “Certainly. Do you know what size ring your lady would take?”

   “No, but may I borrow your hand for a moment?”

   “My hand?”

   “You’re very much like my girl. I think a ring that fit you would probably be very close to what she’d wear.”

   She smiled and held out her hand, and he placed his beside it. “Yep, I think it would be very close. Nice hand, by the way.” He smiled at her, then they both blushed a little, and laughed.

   “She can have it re-sized later, if necessary,” said the saleswoman, still grinning. “What did you want engraved?”

   “Just ‘Vic and Greg.’ Could that be done?”

   “Sure.” She stopped. “Vic? As in Victoria?”

  “Right.”

  “As in Vic Anderson?”

  “I take it you know her?”

  “I do. I know you, too – Greg, from the wildlife refuge.”

  He felt a little bewildered. “How…?”

  “Small community,” she said. “Congratulations. It’s news, but I’m not surprised. She has mentioned your name a few hundred times.”

  “Thanks. Can you keep it to yourself for a couple weeks? I want to surprise her just before she leaves for school.”

   “Sure.”  She wrote some figures on a paper, then calculated. “With the engraving, that would be about $25.00. Would that work?”

   “Yes. Could I have them next week some time?”

   “Give us until Wednesday, maybe?”

   Greg gave her the money, took his receipt, and headed for the door. “Thanks again for the use of the hand,” he said, as he left the store. He felt like he’d done some good business that day.

 

   Back at the office, he took care of miscellaneous paperwork until quitting time. He went home, whipped up a salad, and brought it back to the Anderson’s. Alice’s contribution for dinner was a beefy-noodley affair, that Chuck called a stroganoff. It was quite good.

   “Your bachelorhood is certainly improving my dinner fare,” observed Greg, as they sat afterward, and drank coffee. “Thanks, and thanks especially to Alice.”

   “Noted. Say, I was remembering that you said you would likely go see your folks some time this winter. They’re still in California, right?”

   “Yeah, in the Bay Area; same place I was born and raised. My dad is a machinist, but kind of a jack of all trades mechanic, as well. He grew up as a farm boy in southern California. I never really thought about how he got his machinist skills. I suppose it was during the War. He was in the  Merchant Marine. I guess they had some pretty wild transport adventures, with German U-boats and such, although he never talked about it.

   “Tim and Rusty no doubt wish I had paid more attention to my dad’s work while I was growing up. He could have taught me a lot. My older brother took advantage of Dad’s skills. I was the bookworm, who didn’t have much interest in that kind of work.”

   “It often turns out that we could have made better – at least, different – choices along the way.”

   “Yeah, I think of one simple one. In high school, I started learning both Spanish and French. I was pretty good in both, but I liked the French teacher a lot more than I liked the Spanish teacher. I opted to continue French, and ended up spending much of my life where Spanish would have been a lot more useful.”

   “Good example. So, your mother was the homemaker, you had an older brother, and what – a sister, right?”

   “Yeah, I was the youngest, but just by a year.”

   “So, bookworm city kid, without mechanical skills. Why wildlife management?”

   “Birds.”

   “Birds?”

   “Yeah, I loved birds, and wanted to do something with my life that involved birds. I never had any career counseling, didn’t know what was available. One of our neighbors worked for Fish and Game, and he suggested the college. I still don’t know if I’m in the right job, since my outdoor interests run to backpacking, camping, and bird watching, rather than hunting and fishing. I like it here, but…?”

   “Interesting. Well, to change the subject completely, do you play checkers?”

   “Checkers? I haven’t in years but, yeah, I like to play.”

   “Alice and I have played all our life, together. I think her parents first suggested it, thinking perhaps it would make us keep our hands to ourselves, rather than on each other. That was only a partial success, but we took to the game. I’ve played it with the girls all their lives, too, although Vic prefers chess. That’s a little too much work for me.”

   “Chess? I didn’t know that. Is she good?”

   “I don’t know if she’s tournament-good, but she’s certainly competent.”

   “Hmm. I may have to risk a bruised ego, and invite her to play, some time.” He noticed that the sun was getting pretty low in the sky. “I want to check the traps before dark. Do you want to come?”

   “I’m expecting Alice to call in a bit, so I better stay. You can handle it all right by yourself?”

   “Yeah. I doubt there’ll be much action, but I hate to leave anything in the traps overnight.” He got up. “Thanks for the dinner and company. See you in the morning.”

   “Sure. Maybe we can play some checkers to while away the long evening hours this winter.”

   Greg was a little surprised to find two ducks – mallards – in the first trap. He banded them without incident, and moved on to the other. It held five mallards, but three were repeats. He banded the two new ones.

   On his way back home, he stopped for a while on the little rise where he and Vic had parked the previous week. The sun had gone down, and there weren’t enough clouds to give too much afterglow, but it was a quiet, calm evening. A few ducks could be seen on the surface of the pond, but most had apparently moved closer to shore for the night. A coyote walked down the road past him, apparently oblivious to him and the truck. Pretty nice.

   Chuck’s previous feelings toward him had been a real worry. It wasn’t just because of the awkwardness it created for him and Vic, but because he wondered how he and Chuck could possibly survive together through the long, upcoming winter. This week had changed all of that for the better, and he was feeling quite optimistic. Things might be okay, after all. He roused himself from his reverie, and drove home in the dark.

***

   The second half of the week went much like the first half. Greg checked the traps twice a day. Both were catching birds now, but never more than five or ten at a time, and still mostly local mallards. He did band a few gadwall and wigeon on Friday morning. Wednesday, he made a full survey of the refuge, but saw mainly local ducks. He and Chuck had dinner together each night, once with pork chops Greg had bought on his trip to town, and once with steaks that Chuck provided.

   Friday morning, he heard a little news on the radio that caught his attention. The President had signed an executive order, making married men without children eligible for the draft. (They had been exempted, or at least deferred.) The ruling didn’t change anything for him personally, but it was clear that L.B.J. thought the war was going on for a while. It also suggested that voluntary enlistments might be going down, and more use might be made of the lottery. That could affect him. Oh well, nothing he could do.

   Nothing had been said about Vic coming out for the weekend. He assumed from Chuck’s comments early in the week that she would be expecting him Friday evening. Still, he thought he’d better ask. Chuck said yes.

   “There’s one other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Would it be all right with you and Alice if I drove Vic to college. It would be our last time together for a while, and I could get her settled in, and still come home that evening.”

   Chuck only thought for a moment or two. “I don’t see why now. I’ll talk to Alice, but we’ve seen the school and know what her situation will be. You figure it out with Vic.”


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