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The Mudhen King



id-Eighties. I’m writing screenplays. They invite me down to Hollywood, and things look promising, but they want the horse in my story to be green. By that, I mean they actually want a green horse. Green in color. Don’t laugh. People in the movie business can be a little strange. After a heated argument during which I notice that my fly is open, they offend my delicate, artistic sensibilities, and we part company. I guess I don’t want to be rich and famous that badly.

Anyway, as I continue to write movie scripts, I happen to notice an ad in the local newspaper that talks about a movie being filmed in my hometown, and they’re looking for local people to fill some positions. I figure this might be a good way to learn the movie business from the inside out, so I apply for a job.

The guy doing the hiring tells me they don’t need any more people. I say that’s fine, but I’d like to fill out an application anyway. He tries to give me the “brush off”, but I don’t leave, and when he realizes I mean business, he hands me a piece of paper. I fill it out and give it back to him, and as he’s saying don't call us, we'll call you, and

he's about to toss my stuff in the waste basket, something on the resume catches his eye.

He gives me a look and says, “Wait a minute.”

He leaves the room and returns shortly with another guy. The other guy says, “Your application indicates that you have fish and game experience. Is that true?”

“It’s the only thing on that application that istrue,” I say. I smile as I say it.

“Do you know anything about birds?” he asks.

“Birds,” I say, “I practically invented birds.” I'm still smiling.

They look at each other, and they walk off and huddle in a corner, whispering back and forth. They come back, and the second guy says, “Do you think you can round up two thousand chickens for two days for free?”

Naturally, I’m thinking, how in the world does this relate to “fish and game” experience? (I told you these people can be strange). “…Do you want them dead or alive?” I ask with the best poker face I can muster.

“Alive,” the guy says.

“I can do that.” Of course, I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to do it. And I’m coming to the conclusion that these people are more nuts than I thought.

The guy smiles. The two of them look at each other like they've just shared a private joke. “If you can do that, we’ll hire you, and you can have a job.”

The next thing I know, I’m driving around all over the countryside, looking for somebody to loan me 2,000 chickens for two days for free. I remember that some people I know have a chicken farm. It turns out they have a contract with Foster Farms, and the chickens belong to Foster Farms, and the people can’t loan out Foster Farms chickens.

I should stop at this point and answer the question that’s probably running around inside your head: what about the mudhens? Bear with me. I’ll get to the mudhens. This chicken story is just too good to pass up.

Anyway, I somehow manage to locate a family that raises free-range chickens for sale at a Farmer’s Market. I somehow convince them to let me borrow 2,000 of their chickens for two days, but there’s a catch. The movie company has to agree to pay them ten dollars for every chicken that dies during the two days. Worst case scenario: the chicken farmers collect a neat 20 grand if I wipe out all their chickens. I’m mildly shocked when the movie company agrees to this. I will find out later that movie companies are notorious for agreeing to things that they don’t necessarily plan on actually honoring.

I rent two, large U-Haul vans and move 2,000 chickens six miles across town, where I tend to them around the clock for two days in an old barn, watering and feeding them by hand day and night. The chickens are required as background material for a scene involving an argument between two, young lovers. I lose a total of six chickens, and the movie company owes the family $60 dollars, which I doubt they ever paid. (The scene ends up lasting about 17 seconds in the finished movie).

Word gets around, and I’m something of a hero. Obviously, they didn’t think anybody could get 2,000 chickens for two days for free.

Attractive, young women working on the production are giving me alluring smiles.

I feel like Cool Hand Luke after he ate the 50 hard-boiled eggs.

Exhausted, but glorified.

The next thing I know, they’re asking me if I can catch a couple dozen mudhens.

I’m cocky now. “Don’t insult me. Why would you even bother to ask?” I say.

They’re impressed. They give me a raise, a pickup to drive, a gas card, and an expense account.

I make a quick phone call to the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area and ask the boys how they catch a few waterfowl. A funnel trap, they say. A wire enclosure shaped like a funnel. You bait it with corn. The birds follow the corn inside it, but most of them can’t figure how to get back out through the narrow opening.

After getting a special permit from the fish and game department, me and another guy set up the trap in one of the town’s wastewater ponds. We drive out the next morning and the trap is a carnival of quacking, flapping ducks and mudhens.

Judging by the look in their eyes, the two guys that hired me are now thinking I might be able to walk on water. I’ve also developed a following of groupies. I'm pretty sure

that song on the radio has been written for me. It’s Dire Straits playing “Money For Nothing, And Your Chicks For Free”.

Alas, all glory is fleeting. When the film production ends, the two guys who hired me disappear like thieves in the night, and it dawns on me that in all the excitement, I neglected to pitch my screenplays.

I come back to the real world and eventually find work slopping offal in a slaughterhouse.

Post Script: The scene involving the mudhens was never used, and Everett Wilson, the guy who helped me catch them, turned out to be a lifelong friend. He’s a very talented guy with an M.A. and an M.F.A. in art, and he’s illustrating my book about duck hunting. I think it might be correct, what they say: truth is stranger than fiction.

Don E. Webster is, at heart, a writer. In his heart of hearts, he’s an outdoor writer. Aside from working several years for the California Department of Fish and Game as a young man, he worked primarily in automotive sales and management prior to retiring. He would have written much more, except that he’s spent entirely too much time hunting and fishing. Excerpts from Don’s forthcoming book on waterfowling, “Bury Me In My Waders – An Old Duck Hunter Recalls His Fowl Past” will soon be previewed on MyOutdoorBuddy.Com.

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