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The Duck Commandments

12/3/2008

Pages: 1 | 2

Sleep ends at 4:30 a.m., two hours before sunrise, with the January air flirting with freezing.

Clad in waders, jackets and hats, four Robertsons — father Phil and sons Jase, Willie and Jep — and their friend John Godwin pile into trucks to drive to the nearby marsh, charging through sloppy mudhole tire-canyons the last few hundred yards.

They load a skiff and motor the short distance to the floating duck blind, like a military bunker hidden in reeds.

In the gloaming, John arranges decoys, Jase takes lookout, Jep runs the camera.

Along for the ride is Peggy, Robertson's 3-year-old black Lab. Robertson has never had a great dog, in his assessment, but he has had very good dogs, including Peggy, who will obediently fetch dead ducks as long as he continues to tell her there's another in the reeds. She will also, on occasion, mount the pile of ducks to have her way with them.

"Boy, there's a meaning in there somewhere," Robertson says. "But I'm not quite sure I know what it is. She's saying, 'You're dead, and I'm the one who got you.'"

Peggy takes a sentinel position on the submerged step outside the blind; the men settle into the bunker like a ballteam in a dugout. There, they ride.

Robertson explains that ridin' (and he explicitly forbids the use of the final G) is the practice of sitting on the bench in the blind. He repeats his description of life as ridin', lookin', talkin', eatin', sleepin' and duck huntin'.

His sons, out of his earshot, add fightin', drinkin' and matin' to the list.

The sky pinks up. Not much stirs.

"It's slim pickins around here," Robertson says. "The only thing that's changed is, it's a very clear day."

The cold afflicts the hunters like a hatred. Jase fills a squatty stovepipe with charcoal, dumps in too much lighter fluid, apologizes in advance for any smoke, and starts a small fire. At one point he spots a group of 50 or 60 ducks, he figures.

"There's four more," he says. "They're going down."

The men come to the ready, unsheathing their shotguns from the plastic "boots" Robertson has screwed in a row along the front of the stand. They're designed to keep guns from falling over or dogs from knocking them over; Robertson got the idea (and the patent) after encountering several hunters missing the lower halves of their legs, victims of accidental gunfire.

Still, no ducks.

A thunderous boom peals from the direction of the gas pipe project, followed by the beep-beep of heavy equipment. Massive construction does little to draw ducks.

But patience, the Duckmen say, is what separates them from other nature slaughtographers.

At its longest, in places like Idaho and Washington, duck season lasts 120 days. The Duckmen are out filming and shooting ducks on about a hundred of them. A good day of filming may net a single minute of video.

"We're not just killers," Jase says. "Sometimes we say, 'That's too pretty,' and let them go. We're going to get ours."

The images that emerge when they distill those 60 or 70 raw hours of footage down to an hour's worth of highlights are sometimes astonishing: ducks raining out of the air, and, several times, dead ducks' heads bitten off.

In one memorable sequence (viewable at the Duck Commander's copiously befriended MySpace page) Robertson spots a deer in the bog. He fires a shot that sends the deer running.

"Missed," he mutters.

A second shot ka-booms, sending the deer hurtling tail-over-head, spinning 180 stiff-legged degrees before splashing back-down into the drink.

With the shot still echoing, Robertson takes a sip from a cup. One of the boys (sounds like Willie) asks, "Got any more of that coffee?"

Stories to tell

The boys notice an odd bird, like a fist-sized robin, bouncing and jabbing at the reeds just outside the blind. Jep, recognizing a slow morning when he sees it, turns the camera on the curious bird.

"We will kill ducks," Robertson announces, in part to keep morale up. "Boys, we're down to the final week of a long ordeal." Then, more quietly: "Feels like it just started."

In all, the lookin' isn't much. This is when storytelling begins.

Out of nowhere, Robertson describes the intense pain of passing a kidney stone; he had been teaching Sunday school, and though he was reduced to lying on the floor while he lectured, he nearly made it to the end of the class before the pain stole his voice altogether. He never could fathom how something so small could cause a man such anguish.

Terry Bradshaw is mentioned.

"Look at the line of work he's in," Robertson says. "People pay large, violent men to run him down and stomp him into the ground. I figured sitting in a duck blind is a lot less stressful.

"Look at him now — we're both near 60. He looks rough. It's stress. We don't have to run. But I guarantee that if we are running, somethin's chasin' us."

In Bradshaw's autobiography "It's Only a Game," he describes playing behind Robertson:

"He'd come to practice directly from the woods, squirrel tails hanging out of his pockets, duck feathers in his clothes. Clearly he was a fine shot, so no one complained too much."

Robertson was an excellent quarterback in his day, but as in just about every organized institution he has ever joined, something about football was just not to his liking.

He recalls a pivotal, drizzly night practice with coaches yelling, players running drills — and the sight of the first snow geese of the year migrating through the rain, illuminated like apparitions in the glow of the stadium lights.

"In a trance," he says, he removed his helmet and watched the geese glide past.

The coaches didn't take kindly to their quarterback spacing out during practice.

"I knew then that I wasn't no ballplayer," he says. "They didn't want me watchin' 'em."

In college, he was not the religious man that he eventually became.

Since he was a boy, his mother used to say, he had a gift for telling stories, for gathering a crowd, for leading. He and his wife, Kay, were high school sweethearts — "I was a quarterback, she was a cheerleader, one of those deals," he says — but she watched him turn into a hellraiser in college, running with the proverbial wrong crowd.

He was popular. He was a jock. He was, at times, a mess.

At 28, it unraveled. He had been leasing a bar just across the Arkansas-Louisiana border, and in a spat with the owners of the place, he beat them both badly enough to land them in the hospital.

Warrants were issued. Robertson fled. Kay took their three young boys and soldiered on for a couple of months, until her husband turned up hiding in a log out in the wilderness, running a hundred-and-something-degree fever.

The charges against him were dropped, but he didn't clean up until he hit bottom. He cast his wife and kids out of the house, accusing her of infidelity. She shuttled the brood to stay with her family.

When he arrived at her office one day, she assumed he had shown up drunk and armed. Instead, she found him weeping in his front seat.

He begged her to come back. He couldn't eat. Couldn't sleep. She relented. He was baptized, turned his life over to religion and has been "a different man" since, his wife says.

"He's always told me that being on the river, in the woods, makes you closer to God," she says now. "He says, 'It's untouched. It's me and God.'"

Today, three days before the end of duck huntin' season, with the long spring and summer looming, the crew has seen few ducks and fired at none. The boys decide at 11 a.m. that it is time to head home.

Their father protests: "Let's give 'em 25 more minutes ..."

"No, no," Willie replies. "They're too crowded. Give 'em space. There are calls to be made, money to be made."

They gathered maybe five or six seconds of usable footage on the day, all of that fat little bird pecking at twigs.

God-given rights

Eight days later, the talkin' begins in earnest. The first stop on Robertson's annual speaking circuit is Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock (he had been invited the following night to address an event for Louisiana's then-gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal).

About 600 sons and daughters of the Natural State have gathered at long tables with plastic tablecloths, between centerpieces built of pine twigs in soda cans, to enjoy a supper of crawfish-stuffed chicken and deer chili.

Shaggy, camouflaged Robertson sits near the front, a sore thumb in a room full of men, overwhelmingly, sporting collared shirts and haircuts as sensible as dental floss.

(This contrast is par. A pastor at a Baptist church in North Carolina recalls that at a "Manly Event" Robertson addressed last year, a boy saw the Duck Commander and told his dad how neat it was that the church allowed the homeless to attend.)

He does say he never did buy a suit, doesn't own a watch, doesn't own a cell phone, never turned on a computer.

It becomes clear in a hurry, however, that Robertson is of a mind with the audience. He leads with his line about Bradshaw and stress, and how a life hunting ducks is not a bad plan.

"I wouldn't do anything, gentlemen, unless it was cleared with the Almighty," he says.

From a stack of papers, Robertson begins reading quotes by founding fathers, who believed in the congregation of church and state. It starts to sound like a political seminar.

Then Robertson busts out with this: "Thomas Jefferson said I had a God-given right to pursue happiness. What makes me happy is to take a mallard's head smooth off at about 20 feet."

Suddenly this has turned from civics class, or even church. Some chuckles sprout up around the room.

"God blessed Noah and his family when they stepped off of the big boat," Robertson bellows into the microphone. "There's not but eight left. God said, 'Be fruitful and multiply. The fear and dread of you will fall upon aaaall the beasts of the earth.'

"Beasts of the earth, ladies and gentlemen," he continues. "Four-footers. White-tailed deer? That'd be a beast of the earth. Moose? Beast of the earth. Bear? Beast of the earth. Rabbit? Beast of the earth. 'Coon? Beast of the earth.

"The fear and dread will fall upon aaaaall the birds of the air. Birds of the air. Now we're talking ducks! And geese! And doves! And turkeys! All the creatures that move along the ground, God told Noah. … And aaaall the fish of the sea.

"I have given them unto your hands, everything that lives and moves will be food for you … Sounds like to me that you can pretty well whack and stack anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims, and eat 'em. Right?" ("Right!" the audience hollers back.) "Well, let's do it!"

Salvation for Robertson comes at the end of a duck call, for when he is in nature, waiting patiently for the moment that he might smooth away a mallards' head at 20 feet, he is cashing Jefferson's promise and acting on the orders the Almighty gave in Genesis.

It is not a battle he has always won: "I've been commode-hugging drunk so many times, smoked dope, fallen down, thrown up, fought ... — and I shot waaaay too many ducks," he tells the crowd. "I was a rank heathen."

But following the Ten Commandments and embracing the word of the Creator, he says, will cure plagues both personal and international.

He waves the good book at them. "I'm saying we better go back to the old ways," he says, "before it's too late."

The hour-long lecture concludes, and the congregants give Robertson a standing ovation before they fill the spacious foyer to buy signed posters and take pictures with the bellowing, bearded giant and to blow inexpertly into duck calls.

"Powerful," someone says.

"Hard to argue with that," says another.

Kay Robertson chides herself for not remembering to bring more of the T-shirts that condense Acts 10:13 with the slogan, "Arise, Kill, Eat." She has to remind herself that those sell huge at these things.

"So many kids," she says, "have him as their hero."

After a spell, the Duckmen —and women — pack their wares to return to their woodland abode. Duck hunting season is over. Now, having eaten, looked and talked, it is time for Robertson to ride, that he may sleep.

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For more information, visit the Duck Commander Web site, www.duckcommander.com.