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My special favorite in that slowly molting clutch of stuffed creatures was by all odds the least attractive of the lot, the black brant: "Branta n�gricans (LAWRENCE).... 1846...(Egg Harbor, N.J.)." Dark and dusty, he looked an unfortunate cross between an overgrown scaup and a poorly conceived Canada goose. Apparently the rest of my family considered him to be especially dismal, for he was pushed down to the very end of the shelf, where he sometimes fell off, suffering over the years a rather odd bend of the neck and the loss of one glass eye. Nevertheless, I liked him, and my sister knew it, for she would sneak by to fill the empty eye socket with some wretched female thing like a rhinestone button or one of those red, heart-shaped cinnamon candies.
Two things kept me loyal to this homeliest of the birds. One was the fact that, as the game-bird book noted, the brant's first officially recorded sighting had been in Egg Harbor, N.J.—which was none other than the arm of Barnegat Bay that swung in not 400 yards behind our cottage. And half the places the author mentioned as great brant-shooting country were in plain sight of our attic window. Second, the author seemed to write of the brant in terms that struck me as both thrilling and reassuring: "Fifteen thousand birds or more stop off in Great Bay near Tuckerton, New Jersey...." "Flocks that darkened the sun...." "I belonged to a duck club that had its clubhouse on an island in the middle of Barnegat Bay...." And finally, "Brant come easily to the decoys and due to their peculiar habit of balling up [in flight] sometimes present a target that is difficult to miss. I have known eight to ten brant to be killed with one shot as they suddenly bunched up over the decoys."
Now there was my kind of bird—native to my own heath, rich in numbers and spectacularly stupid. The latter point was critically important, for then as now I was a dreadful shot; and, being also rather thin and long-legged, I took poorly to the marathon sitting that most waterfowlers regularly endure upon the hard boards of their duck blinds. Thus any creature that came easily to decoys and balled up in flight so as to be hard to miss must indeed have been put on this earth for me. Just as clearly, the author of the book was my kind of man, and I set out to learn more about him.
Closer study of the title page and foreword of the game-bird book revealed that Colonel Roosevelt was not really the author of the book but only of the foreword. In that foreword Roosevelt warmly praised the true author, Van Campen Heilner, as being not only a superb writer but a "thorough-going sportsman" and a "thorough-going naturalist." Roosevelt also mentioned that the book had been first conceived as they sat together in a duck blind. I could feel a new hero coming on.
The final establishment of Heilner in that role occurred almost immediately thereafter, when I went to put back the book in its proper place in the cottage library. In the slot next to the one for Our American Game Birds was Salt Water Fishing, also by Van Campen Heilner. (Houses whose ruling adults have spent their lives in law research tend to have meticulously well-ordered bookshelves.) The preface of the new book was simply awesome, for it ended this way: "Van Campen Heilner is a fine sportsman and a beautiful duck-shot as well as an old-timer in fishing. He has much to teach and he is always learning. I do not know anything better to say...." It was signed Ernest Hemingway .
I read every word of the book, and I found a particular passage, related to a painting by W. Goadby Lawrence, that stayed with me ever since, because it captured so much of what I have always felt. The color plate showed a man standing in a sneak box exactly like mine, holding a slim rod like the ones in the corner of the hall, his other hand swinging a long-handled net toward a splash in the water. It was sunset, and he was weakfishing in a tidal marsh that must have been a part of Mordecai Island at the southerly corner of Little Egg Harbor. Overhead, two birds that I thought to be brant were climbing toward a colored cloud. The title of the painting was September in the Marshes, and near it were these words: "Already the marshes are full of ducks, and you can hear the whisper of wings passing overhead. You have had your supper, and you take your sneak box and row up one of the tiny thoroughfares that meander in serpentine fashion through the marshes.... There is a northwester blowing up. The stars gleam like diamonds in the clean autumn air. Way off in the direction of the inlet you can hear the melancholy bong of the bell buoy. The wind sighs and rustles through the marsh grass...."
When I was finished with the book I went out to borrow or buy anything else of Heilner's I could find, and I discovered a rich lode that included Beneath the Southern Cross, Adventures in Angling, The Call of the Surf and A Book of Duck Shooting. I devoured all, sharing each adventure, relishing each photograph—of stunting sailfish, sharks with enormous teeth, strings of fat birds and a slim, teen-aged Heilner walking the beaches of Long Key in the company of that master pioneer of saltwater sportsmen, Zane Grey himself.
As I absorbed all this, it gradually came to me that if, like Heilner, you could have shot geese in the wild channels of Tierra del Fuego and hunted the marshes of the Carolinas or the tundra along James Bay, or if you could have fished for marlin or broadbill or striper or weakfish wherever they might be and then written about it both elegantly and profitably, there would be nothing much more worth doing.
Twenty-five years later I still tended to think so. In fact, I was earnestly trying to do so, having retained a sufficient passion for hunting, fishing and faraway places to have become outdoor editor for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. AS one consequence of this position, I had substantially reduced the distance in life between myself and my outdoor hero. At least superficially the distance had been reduced, thanks to correspondence between Heilner and me on outdoor matters and by the exchange of several manuscripts. Twice I had even spoken with him on the phone, attempting through the familiar "Hello, Van" that I understood his friends always used to appear very much at ease in my tradings with him—though, truth to tell, the small boy in me felt no more at ease saying "Hello, Van" than it had saying "Hello, Champ" to Archie Moore or "Hi, Bus" to the superb yachtsman, Bus Mosbacher, while on other assignments.
Then one late September day the office phone rang. I was very busy and gave that mannerless "Yeah?" that New York people save for bad mornings when their secretaries are sick. The voice at the other end, steady and decidedly cultured, was Heilner's. Beneath his St. Grottlesex modulations was the twang that permanently afflicts anyone who has spent long periods of time around the boat docks of South Jersey. Van was going brant shooting on an island near Tuckerton, N.J., and what would I think about coming along?