Duck hunter Jeff Thomson and his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Zinfandel. Thomson, who died Oct. 10, seemed happiest at the duck club, bringing friends along to join in on the fun.

My enduring memory of Jeff Thomson, who died Oct. 10, was being with him in a duck blind. As he scanned the horizon, he had never seemed more at peace and never happier.

Jeff didn’t have a good reason to invite me to the El Cinco duck club located outside of Wasco two winters ago. I couldn’t shoot, didn’t even own a shotgun, but he thought I should experience the “blood sport” and our families — farming families — went way back. When the Thomsons were based in and around Arvin, Dad farmed in Wheeler Ridge.

The duck club was one of those man places. There may have been a once-a-season-bring-your-wife evening, but no woman in her right mind would have spent an inordinate amount of time in the “rustic” accommodations.

Jeff loved it there and was especially proud of his trailer that he had dragged in from somewhere and in which he and guests bunked down.

Each of the duck club members took a turn cooking and although the clubhouse and out buildings may have been simple and unfussy, the bar for the dinners was high. Jeff appreciated good food, wine and the company of his fellow hunters.

After dinner, there was a drawing for the duck blinds. Jeff took special pleasure in this ritual, and when the assignments were made, with Jeff wearing his duck hat, he would recount how many ducks he’d pulled out from one blind or another and how little success some of his fellow duck hunters had had in the same blinds.

He liked nicknames and once he gave you one, you owned it. He called attorney and fellow duck hunter John Hall, “Pledge Hall,” because John had joined after Jeff and Jeff still considered him to be in his probationary period.

John may have been a member for 20 years but he was still Pledge Hall. I saw John at Jeff’s service Friday at First Presbyterian and he said, “I’d give about anything to hear him call me Pledge Hall again.”

Jeff wasn’t all rascal and raconteur. When a friend and fellow duck club member died way too soon, Jeff made it a point to take the friend's son to the club. He made sure there was a father figure in his life, or at least one who knew how important the duck club was to the boy’s father.

After my dad died, Jeff sent a note that included memories of a football game that the fathers — Ken Wegis, Archie Frick, Herb Benham Jr., Jack Thomson and Helmut Cords — had played on the beach at Padaro Lane in the '50s.

“One of the Dads was making an end run along the wet sand, close to the waves, ready to score a big touchdown when Herb Jr. ran from his middle linebacker position, tagged him and kept on going into the waves with a big splash in 2-4 feet of water,” Jeff wrote.

I was lucky to sit next to Jeff in a duck blind. Nothing could wipe the grin off his face. Not the darkness, not the teeth-chattering cold and not an absence of ducks.

Jeff sat patiently searching the horizon. All of life was there and sometimes there were ducks. Jeff was at peace. “Onward and Upward.”

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at or (661) 395-7279.

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