The summer duck circled. It was a canvasback. Silhouetted against a cloudless July sky, it was gliding, rocking confidently from side to side, coming down toward the surface of the water.
It met the surface of the warm Texas lake in a shower of silver droplets, then came to rest. The duck was more than 1,000 miles from where it should have been. A little like myself, I thought—far off course. I was caught up in a middle-years crisis, an unpleasant mixture of family and career problemsF. Things that can send a man out to the edge of a lake to sit quietly and sort them out.
Before the arrival of the duck, I had been silently occupied with the subject of happiness. Now the duck had pushed me back in time. The blind was always a cold and silent place in the dawn. I recalled how it felt to be crouched down on the frozen ground, with the cold stinging my fingers and feet. But somehow it came back as a happy recollection.
I let my mind wander on through the past, collecting other memories that seemed to fit into the category of happiness. And then, suddenly, my mind served itself a question. "What was the happiest day of them all?" Ask yourself sometime. You might be surprised at the answer. I was. It took a few minutes to locate and bring back the happiest day. Actually, I wondered if I had ever dwelled on it before. I couldn't recall.
It had its prelude near an old wooden footbridge that crossed Granite Creek, between the practice field and the high school gym in Prescott, Ariz., 1946. We had moved there a year earlier. Prescott was a pleasant community to grow up in, but at the time I didn't think so. I didn't care much for myself, either, and that was the real problem.
I was entering my sophomore year in high school. I stood two inches over six feet—and weighed 119 pounds. I was pale, lonely and frightfully skinny. But nothing would stop me from going out for the football team. I had always wanted to play football.
However, in my first season of football at Prescott High I never got into a game. I was the only member of the team who never played a single minute. Faithfully, I attended practice every weekday afternoon. Nobody paid any attention to me. The head coach was always across the field where the first and second teams were butting heads. For that season I held an embarrassing distinction: I was the one player on the team who never had his game jersey washed even once.
There was another thing that bothered me. My dad came out for every home game. But he never asked me why I wasn't playing, and I appreciated that. At the end of the school year—and it had been a lonely and miserable one—he announced that he had found me a summer job. I was to work as an axman on a crew that would be surveying for a new highway.
Axman. I had a rough idea of what the job was. My dad explained it to me. But he didn't tell me what it was going to feel like. In the beginning, it was torture. Pure, unadulterated purple agony.
The job of my cutting crew was to move ahead of the surveyors, clearing a six-foot path on each side of a set of preliminary stakes. We cut pine, juniper and heavy oak brush. Each day left me painfully and desperately exhausted. My hands were a mass of raw and ugly blisters. For the first few weeks, I truly thought I was going to die.