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February 07, 2006


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A few weeks ago…

A few weeks ago, on a warm winter evening along the North Platte River, I met a small, gentle man by the name of Gilford Rauch. His day job is a mid-level executive for one of the big insurance companies in Omaha. I don’t know exactly what that means, but by the looks of Gilford I figured he might be an actuary, or at least, someone who spends most of his days in a windowless room with long columns of numbers as his main stimulation. He is a bandy-legged man of perhaps sixty years but with a nearly perpetual contented grin under his substantial bifocals. As we shook hands, I felt a delicate but wiry hand take hold with a strength and solidness that surprised me.

At first it seemed incongruous that Gilford Rauch was there on the North Platte River to hunt waterfowl. Leprechauns came to mind as I watched this near-stranger explain to my friend and me about the morning he had just experienced. “Glorious,” he said. “The sun swelling over there behind that ridge, the sound of green heads winging just out of sight out in the twilight. Canadians honking in all directions.” The quick little hands pointed the directions out to us as if we had no idea what he was talking about. “Glorious. There were muskrats purring up and down the river. Flickers and robins in the Russian olives. Oh, my goodness. Glorious.”

Circumstance had brought us together in a tiny modular home moved onto the banks of the North Platte by mutual friends – waterfowl hunters from far off cities. My friend and I were there to consider the possibilities of including a chapter on the North Platte in a book we plan to write. We were there as observers of the grand ecosystem of the North Platte. We had been offered a place to sleep. But Gilford Rauch, for a few days at least, was a humble and thankful participant. Twice as we familiarized ourselves with the cabin and enjoyed an adult beverage, Gilford excused himself and stepped out onto the deck to gaze across darkening fields to the river. We pulled our sleeping bags in from the truck and checked out the facility and decor. It was “Interior Design by Ducks Unlimited”. If you have ever wondered where all those auctioned wildlife prints end up, check out the hunting camps along the North Platte River. There were prints of ducks of course, but also raccoons, songbirds, bears, mountain lions, deer, elk, and lots of wading birds. There were goose highball glasses, bass coasters, a great blue heron wine rack, black lab throw rugs, decoy lamps, blue-bill wallpaper, and lots of pictures of puppies chewing on boots. We were having a good laugh about interior decorations when Gilford came in from outside and without thinking I rudely asked him what he was doing on the porch. He ginned his disarming grin, then threw cold water on our conversation when he said. “I’m a spiritual man. This is a wonderful time of day. I go outside to give thanks.”

Now I was stuck. I couldn’t let his earnest statement silence us for the night. “You pray?” I asked.

“In my way,” Gilford said. “I’m a Connectionist.”

“A what?” I didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did.

“A Connectionist.” His eyes had slipped to the floor but he still smiled. He seemed to change the subject. “Would you like me to cook dinner? I’d like to.”

I was looking for a change of subject. I didn’t know what a Connectionist was or what sort of whacko I might be talking to, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want a theological lecture. “That’d be great. Could I help?”

“No, no. Just have another drink and keep me company.”

It turns out that Gilford had shot three small ducks that morning and that he was quite a cook. As he cooked and drank, he chattered away about a pair of otters he had once seen swimming among his decoys, a moose that had browsed within fifty yards of him as he fished on a Wyoming stream. He talked about one evening when he had been giving thanks to the “Magic powers” (That is what he said. It made us uncomfortable.). He was looking up into the autumn sky when he noticed a few birds flying very high. He found his binoculars and dialed them in to find thousands – no, tens of thousands of small birds too high to identify. “They were headed south,” he said. “Imagine.” The memory of that autumn evening silenced him and my friend and I looked at each other and shrugged. But by then the ducks were roasting and the kitchen had filled with as rich a smell as I could remember. And searching for a memory that could match that odor I came across a day when I too had seen those tens of thousands of tiny birds winging south. I thought they might be warblers and they stretched from the northern horizon out of sight in the ten power binoculars to the south. How had I allowed myself to forget that sight?

We had another whisky in the goose highball glasses and pulled up chairs to try Gilford’s duck. “Come and share the only sacrament that Connectionists observe,” he said. “Come join in the circle of life.” I was again embarrassed but beginning to get it. Gilford was neither a wacko nor your garden-variety insurance executive. And he was a damn good cooker of ducks. At least a damned good cooker of ducks that he had harvested that morning, alone on the banks of Platte River, in the center of all that he held dear.

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