A day like Wednesday of this week would have had me prepping for hunting season a few years ago.
It was damp, dreary and cool, all the elements I equated to the opening of duck season. Early years of my hunting experience had me popping caps at squirrels and rabbits, and eventually quail. Then, when Beverly and I were first married, I became acquainted with Sam Wheeler.
My hunting life changed.
Sam was one of a kind, a storyteller next to few. He had lost a leg — rumor was from a gunshot wound at a late-night crap game south of Iola; he never mentioned the cause to me — but that didn’t slow him a bit. He skipped along on crutches and shot a Model 12 20 gauge off one leg better than most men could firmly supported by two good pins.
We lived across the street in Humboldt from Sam and wife Ruby. After hearing he was a hunter, I gravitated over one day when Sam was outdoors.
As good a hunter as he was, Sam was better at spinning tales about his exploits on the trail of ducks, quail and even trapping muskrats — recalling once one chewed vigorously at his crutches before he could dispatch it with a stiff stick.
Model 12s, the Winchester that breaks down at the flip of the magazine, was his favorite. In addition to his 20 gauge, he had a 12 gauge, with three-inch chamber and full choke 32-inch barrel. I pined for that shotgun. One day out of the blue, Sam called. For $100, he said, the gun is yours.
Being newly married in the mid-1960s, I didn’t have $10 to blow on a gun, much less $100 and wasn’t sure where I could get it.
Eventually, with Beverly’s blessings, I came up with the money and the “duck gun” — always mentioned with reverence — became a member of the family. Still is, in son Bob’s gun cabinet.
That led to many weekend duck hunts — Sam and I, he talking and me listening.
They started before daylight and went on until dark. I’d pick up Sam and we’d make a big circle, through Allen and southern Anderson counties. Later Tony Leavitt joined in.
All the while Sam would have a tale or two, sometimes more, about each pond we passed.
Every now and then we’d find a few ducks, but not in any numbers until late in the season when the big flights of mallards showed up. I remember seeing a thousand in the air at one time, in a dozen or more formations.
A testimony to Sam’s skill: Once we happened on a couple of lesser ducks on a small pond, probably baldpates. “Kick ’em up and I’ll shoot the first, you get the second,” he promised. I rose above the dam, the two ducks burst from the water and in rapid succession Sam laid out both. “I didn’t think you were going to shoot,” he said, with a sly smile.
Sam died when his car was hit by a truck as he was pulling onto the airport road south of Iola. To borrow a line from “Casablanca,” with that a “beautiful friendship” came to an end.
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