At 8:30 a.m., with our day over already, we headed back to Vonnie's for a second breakfast. The Hunter's Breakfast is a rite of the Chestertown goose hunting subculture. Every other house, it seems, has a sign proclaiming that such a meal is available inside.
Hunter's Breakfasts are all pretty much the same. First, the dining room must be unbearably hot, especially if the customer is wearing polypropylene underwear and an insulated suit. Next, the food has to be heaping and totally saturated with animal fats, creating the kind of havoc with physical well-being just short of what could be achieved by a toxic chemical attack on the U.S. The New England Journal of Medicine, indeed, might find it fascinating to commission a study of the incidence of savagely acute heartburn in Eastern Shore goose pits.
The Hunter's Breakfast is but one of the Chestertonian goose-season rituals. Those houses that do not offer breakfast may well have a different, crudely lettered sign that reads GEESE PICKED. Goose-picking is a Dickensian occupation but a necessary accompaniment to the hunt. And now, to avoid the messy chore of preparing our bag for the oven, Brayton and I dutifully headed to one of the more professional of these establishments, a small red-painted hut on Route 213, right next to Smiley's Market. The structure is known locally as the Hellhole because, though outside the windchill factor might be in the minus triple-digits, inside the hut the heat and humidity, not to mention the reek, resembles that of a summer afternoon in Singapore.
In the swelter, we handed our bag to Sonny Stafford, 17, who figures he labors from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. each of the 70 days of the goose season, processing more than 5,000 birds. He said, "The hunters have to tag 'em and register 'em, then I grab 'em, chop the wings off, take 'em to the automatic picker, then to the hot tub, pull out the leftover feathers, dress 'em out, rinse 'em, pat 'em out, dry 'em, pack 'em, stack 'em ready to go, freeze the ones that want freezing. It's tough when there's a crowd of sports in, jostling and pushing for their birds."
Patti Capel, who also works at the Magnolia Nursing Home, runs the Hellhole. "We charge $2.50 a bird but we get no real profit from that," she says. "Our money comes from the down. A company in Delaware processes it for comforters and pillows." In two days' time, she said, she would herself migrate to Cancún, for a couple of weeks.
We promised to pick up our birds before 5 p.m.
Later, as we grew wiser, Brayton and I began to realize that there was no reason in the world to start out goose hunting at the crack of dawn. On a clear day, especially when there had been a full moon, you didn't bother to go out at all. If it was wild and stormy, the birds would be flying all day, which meant you could start at 10 a.m., break for lunch and hunt again around dusk if you wanted to. And there was no rush on an average cloudy day either.
You don't mention this to the out-of-town hunters. It horrifies them. It's wimpy, unmacho. They need heartburn at dawn and, a fast limit. Then, limited out but with thousands of calories raging through their systems unburned, they rush off to try for a few pheasants at Peter Sheaffer's Hunting Preserve, or maybe the Sporting Clays.
Not Brayton and myself, however. After stocking up on more cholesterol, we went into the Bear's Den to stock up on Styrofoam wings and a tutorial videotape of goose calls. There, Mr. David Hoops, Prop., brought us to our senses. "Going to dig yourselves out a sanctuary pond as well, boys?" he asked. Then he quietly lectured us on the fact that Price's land was as close to goose heaven as could be found on earth, in many ways. He reminded us that it had been made that way through a great deal of planning and preparation and at no small cost. Shamefaced, we settled for a box of ammo.
Besides, we still had a major problem to remedy. Young Jay hadn't got his first goose yet. His father had—wisely I thought—held back from taking him out on a wham-bang commercial hunt. On the other hand, though, the home farm seemed to offer him slim pickings.