A Profile in Courage

The author recalls a special hunt with a young man whose fervent wish was to become a duck hunter
By Jim Kennedy

No one should ever ask me—or any other crazy duck hunter—to write or speak about our most memorable duck hunt. Because, as I get older, the most memorable hunt is likely the one I've just been on. I can recall every detail, and keep replaying it in my mind until the next adventure in a duck blind.

When I take time to really reflect, I remember certain special moments. My children's first duck hunts have to rank at the top of the list, followed by other youngsters and their first hunts. It's hard to forget the excitement in those young faces as my Lab retrieved their first ducks. 

But I suppose one young man's first duck hunt stands above all others in my memory bank. His name is Martin Blaisdell, and his story is one of rugged determination and unbelievable courage.

I met Martin, who was 14 at the time, through his mom, who works down the hall from me and said one day that her son wanted to become a duck hunter. Sandy told me that Martin, after watching me appear on a Ducks Unlimited television show, wondered if he might be strong enough to ever go duck hunting.

You see, Martin had been battling cancer for half of his young life and he didn't know what the future had in store for him. That was all it took for me to make the commitment to take Martin hunting during the upcoming season. I hoped it would give him the incentive to continue his battle so that he would be strong enough to handle a gun safely.

The first order of business was to sign him up as a Ducks Unlimited Greenwing so he could get all the material, read the magazine, and think about his upcoming hunt. When Martin and his family took a tour of DU headquarters after a trip to St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis for treatment, Martin fell in love with DU and all the duck hunting memorabilia in the main lobby. 

At work, I often talked with his mom about the upcoming duck season and Martin's commitment to being strong enough to go. Though Martin's treatment for cancer was long and tough, and would have probably humbled a professional athlete, Martin faced it with unbelievable resolve. 

As it always does, the close of the duck season came way before I was ready. But that year I had something extra-special to look forward to. Martin and his dad, Alan, would be joining me the first weekend of February 2005 for the South Carolina Youth Waterfowl Hunt. 

They arrived Friday evening at my family's farm in the Lowcountry, near Beaufort. That night we went through the usual prehunt ritual of making sure waders fit and all the equipment was ready to go for an early morning start.

Martin was going to be shooting a 20-gauge Remington 1100 Youth Model shotgun that had helped my wife and all three of our children kill their first ducks. Martin proudly showed me his Ducks Unlimited waterfowl identification guide and told me he was going to try to pick out the ducks we saw the next day. 

After a big dinner, we sat around the fire and talked about duck hunting until I told Martin he probably ought to get to bed and get a good night's rest before the morning's hunt. He said he'd try, but worried that he was too excited to sleep much. I, too, lay awake that night and said a selfish prayer that Martin would be able to have a good hunt the following day.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cold with a good breeze out of the west—a good day for duck hunting. Skim-ice bordered the pond that we were going to hunt as we loaded Martin into a decoy-filled pirogue and headed to the blind. 

I pulled the boat through waist-deep water while Alan and my Lab, Winston, followed behind. After I explained to Martin what kind of decoys we'd be using (cork ones that I had made myself that vaguely resembled mallards and black ducks), Alan got his son situated in the blind and I put out the decoys. Once that was done, Martin, Alan, Winston, and I began to watch and listen.

We were treated to what I call a duck blind symphony. The show was better than any IMAX theater. These ducks hadn't been hunted in a week, so they had dropped their wariness a bit and flew with great enthusiasm. Ringnecks, just over the top of the blind, sounded like jets, while green-winged teal splashed in the decoys just outside our small blind. Wood ducks squealed overhead. Hen mallards raised a ruckus throughout the pond. I could tell Martin was mesmerized.

When my watch showed that it was legal shooting time, I warned Martin to get ready. He looked nervous, but Alan placed his hand on his son's shoulder and told him everything would be fine. I began calling and several ducks offered an opportunity, but we weren't quite fast enough.

Finally, a beautiful drake wigeon landed in the decoys. Martin stood and raised his gun and the duck jumped. Understandably, his first shot missed, but at the urging of his father and me, he shot a second time, then a third. At the last shot, the wigeon paused in midair and then fell back into the decoys. Martin had his first duck. The smile on his face was almost as big as his father's and mine as we watched Winston retrieve that beautiful duck.

Martin kept admiring his wigeon until I reminded him that he could still shoot a few more ducks. The next one that fell to the little 1100 was a drake woodie. Then, after a few misses, a drake hooded merganser. By then, Martin was cold and his energy had been tapped.

After picking up the decoys, I might as well have been towing the King of the World as I headed to shore with Martin, that little 1100, and three beautiful ducks. If it had been dark, Martin's smile would have lit up the way home. Three ducks didn't make a limit, but I'd never felt more fulfilled than I did after that hunt. We had all done everything we had hoped for and Martin was a duck hunter.

The next day Martin's gas tank was a little low. But, despite the cold weather, he managed to bag a drake ringneck and a drake wood duck. The statement that "numbers don't measure a good duck hunt" could never have been more true. Martin was thrilled with his two beautiful birds. The hunting weekend was a success, and Martin the Duck Hunter slept contentedly as he and his father drove home to Atlanta.

On Monday, I called a taxidermist friend, Dana Stanford, and asked how quickly he could mount a duck for me. I explained the need for speed. Dana didn't disappoint, and within two weeks Martin had a mounted drake wigeon on the wall of his bedroom along with a framed photo collage from our hunt. 

Martin isn't able to duck hunt anymore, but if his heaven is like I hope mine will be, I'll bet he's listening to whistling wings and ducks talking on cold fall mornings.

When I told Martin's mother that I was writing this, she said that Alan carries Martin's Ducks Unlimited Greenwing pin with him every day in his wallet to remember his son. I remember Martin too, for his courage. And I give thanks that I was able to show that wonderful boy the world of ducks and duck hunting.

James Martin Fichtner Blaisdell was born May 11, 1990, and left us much too soon, on May 29, 2008. Throughout his ten-year battle with cancer, Martin overcame unspeakable challenges with grace and character to become a Boy Scout, baseball player, karate kid, fisherman, wood craftsman, pen maker, remote-control wizard, pool ace, cat lover, Lego builder, and duck hunter. He loved to tell a joke, and his smile was both infectious and inspirational. Martin was a junior at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia, and a proud ROTC cadet. He is missed by all those who were blessed to know him.

For 15 years, Jim Kennedy simultaneously was president of Wetlands America Trust and a member of the Ducks Unlimited board of directors. "A Profile in Courage" was excerpted from the new book Legends, Leaders and Characters of Ducks Unlimited, a collection of 36 essays about some of the most memorable people in DU's 75-year history. For more information on how to order this exciting new book, please visit the DU website at www.ducks.org/75book or call 800-45-DUCKS.