A Heritage of Obsession
Civil war is not something that most people think about, and even fewer have experienced it first hand. It's often a time of significant change, of upheaval. These wars can bring about times when basic human rights are removed overnight, when lands are seized, and when firearms ordered to be given up under the threat of imprisonment. A revolution of this scale is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My grandfather survived multiple revolutions-on two different continents. With each government that was overthrown, he lost his weapons, his freedom to enjoy the outdoors-but not his desire. My grandfather was a man who wanted nothing more than to experience something that was ingrained in his DNA, that hunting heritage he inherited in his youth. War couldn't steal that from him.
The story went something like this…
"After almost a decade of deprivation of any venture into the outdoors, where we were forcefully and unconstitutionally directed to give up our guns, and as such the curtailing of any outdoor adventures as a result of war, the veil had been lifted and the opportunity was once again before me. I had no idea what it would be like. Twenty-five years of civil war had ravaged the countryside, landmines had been placed in the ground hundreds of thousands of times over, people were living on the edge of poverty and malnourishment with the only available food being those animals that they could catch and feed their families with. What would it be like heading back out? Even if it was a semblance of what it once was, would it be worth it? Through some very persuasive conversations that required some greasy handshakes, I was instructed to meet at a large storage building. The building itself was dilapidated and rusted. The front of the building had a large stark white roll-up door standing about 10m tall almost in contrast to the building. The lock on the door, shining silver, almost out of place of how new it was. As the chain was pulled, the roller door lifted. What I was greeted with was a sight that I will never forget. A sight that jarred me to the core. As I glanced around and took it all in, my soul broke in two for on one side the value lost, heritage forgotten, and on the other the joy of the opportunity before me to do what was truly seated in my blood. My eyes followed from floor to ceiling looking at the hap-hazard stacking of gun upon gun upon gun. Some rusted shut, other lovingly wrapped in burlap sacks, for that expectation that someone may get their weapons back one day. They would not, and these weapons would be destined to die a slow rusted death locked away in this building. As they said, it's who you know in this world, and I was lucky enough to know the right people, and spoke the right language, both linguistically and economically. I was allowed to pick only one gun. I searched and searched, focusing on those that had been lovingly put up. After unwrapping a particularly well wrapped package, I found what I was looking for. An action that broke and functioned. Very small pot mark impressions of rust along the barrels. The rib in perfect condition, the inner tubes free of fouling. I nodded at the corporal, wrapped the gun back in its burlap sack, placed it under the backseat of the landrover, and disappeared."
The choosing of a shotgun has significance. Even more than just the love of the outdoors, something else steered his decision. Before my grandfather was a big game hunter, he was a bird hunter. Not just a bird hunter, a waterfowl hunter. That's what started it all. At ten years old in the Russian Far East, he and a friend built a single barrel, black powdered shotgun from a discarded piece of pipe. This shotgun, loaded with black powder and chopped nails was used only once, fired once at some local ducks on a pond, and to their amazement, one duck remained after the smoke had cleared: an obsession born. Himself a self-professed crazy duck hunter, preferring to shoot ducks over elephants, he cherished his shotguns throughout his life and travelled the world hunting, shooting ducks from Northern China to the Kalanga Swamps of Mozambique.
What's your story? Think back to the person who took you for your first hunt or to the reason why you picked up a pair of waders. Who was the influencer that got you out of that warm bed and into the numbing cold water? What was the reason you went that dark morning to go sit on the side of a pond, river, or frozen puddle to experience your first flight? Do you remember the indescribable sense that first time you watched a duck lock down and slowly, gracefully, almost swiveling multiple degrees at a time, come down towards you? Those experiences are what ignited something within you. That's what my grandfather desired most: to experience one more time that experience that drives all of us to those early morning stand sits. I can imagine him waiting for the approaching sunrise, his anticipation for that first pass of ducks on the wind, as their wings whistled through the air. What I would have given to be with him in that moment. Those moments are what continues our heritage. Those moments are what continues our waterfowling traditions.
The outcome the story is told through the eyes of his hunting partner that morning: "We got out of the landrover that morning, having memorized the route to the pond from years past. We had no expectations of how many ducks would be there, nor whether there would be any at all. It didn't matter, we were back at doing what we loved, what we had been talking about ever since it was taken away from us. Slipping through the reeds in the dark, we wanted to await the magical moment that transcended place or destination for a waterfowl hunter. I watched the old man. He was patient in his walk. This same walk down this same path 20 years ago was a lot more spritely, but today his gait is slow, methodical. I carried the shotgun so that he didn't lose his balance. We pushed our way deeper into the reed beds. Sloppy mud sucking at our hunting boots, pant legs, socks, and feet, soaking wet after the first couple of feet. We got near to the waters edge and I setup two rusted old metal foldbacks. The old man sat down as I bent a couple of reeds over our positions creating a make-shift blind. I took my place and patiently waited. This moment decades in the making. I passed him the shotgun. He lovingly caressed it and broke the breech, He pulled from his overcoat pocket two red shells, smuggled across the border only months before, rolled the two cartridges between his fingers, before inserting them and closing the breech with a soul satisfying click.
This story would be have been recorded in the annals of waterfowling folklore if the story ended where they limited out in minutes, with doubles, and triples, and the ducks continued to fly well into the morning. Unfortunately, no such ending occurred. There were no ducks that morning. None were even heard. The hunters sat and waited, smoking a shared cigarette between the two of them. The only thing they heard was the incessant ringing of the millions of mosquitoes happily acquiring a blood meal from these two afflicted souls. So thick were the multitude of mosquitoes, it was described that one struggled to the see the water at dawn. At 89 years old, my grandfather has rekindled his passion for waterfowl hunting. He also was, at the time, was the oldest man to survive malaria, as a result of that duck hunt. That alone should tell you the kind of guy Leo Kröger was.
But that day, the obsession that was embedded in him at such an early age was reawakened. The same passion is within me, and it is within you, the reader. It so happens, in my case, that it's also in my two young boys. It would be a travesty if we didn't ignite that essence in them now that we know it is there. I owe it to my grandfather and the legacy he left, and when you think back on your own story, you likely need to do the same. But this story is greater than just me, it pertains to all of us. Look back at the generations before you and ask who they were. That heritage is within you, and you owe it to yourself to ask the question: why was it so a part of their DNA and not mine? Learn more about it, teach it to your children, tell it to your friends. Maybe those stories could be the opportunity to invest in you, invest in others, and invest in the next generation. All of these things will be needed to continue the hunting tradition, legacy, and heritage that are all a part of where we came from.
Your story may not be the story told here, but it's a story nonetheless.
Everyone has a story, this one just so happens to be mine.