Owning a great bird dog is the joy of a lifetime...unless your first is your best.
It is impossible to work closely and intimately with dogs without a corresponding growth in ones heart. I grew up with hunting dogs and, although they theoretically belonged to my father, I was attached to every one of them just as surely as if I was the one on the leash. I knew from experience that money could buy you a pretty good dog, but it won't buy the wag of his tail or the "I'm-so-happy-to-see-you spin dance". I always wanted a hunting dog of my own, but I knew that I would have to carve a prominent space out of my fully packed young adult life before I took the step of choosing my first four-legged life partner.
Having lived through the ecstasy and agony of the birth-to-death life cycle of our family dogs, I knew a lot about the commitment, rewards and grief associated with our third most deeply felt relationship in life. Fortunately for all concerned, I got the first two under control. My wife and son were on the ground and running before I started the quest for my first hunting dog.
My wife, on the other hand, provided a somewhat different "perspective" when I suggested it was time for a dog. "I don't need another lazy, messy, smelly, destructive child to look after. Beside I have an infant to care for," she concluded, crossing her arms across her chest in that wifely symbol of defiant victory. Her attitude was harder to swallow than a cat hair omelet. With my brain working slower than a nursing home sack race I said "I'm not all that smelly, am I?"
With a look that said, "If they can send one man to the moon, why can't they send them all," she turned to leave the room while sniping over her shoulder, "I will give you the benefit of the doubt and consider that a rhetorical question."
"Wait," I called after her, suddenly unwilling to let my desire for a dog be defeated so easily. "Dogs are good for kids. Our son needs a dog too"
"No doubt he will," she agreed, "but I don't want him to learn the things a dog teaches." Clueless as to where she was going and feeling I had a horse to ride, I challenged her, "Like what? What possible evil can a dog teach a kid?"
"Dogs are just men in little fur coats," she said, pouncing like a duck on a June bug. "They lie around all day, sprawled on the most comfortable piece of furniture in the house. They constantly beg and they leave their toys all over the house. They do disgusting things with their mouths and then try to give you a kiss. From a dog our son will learn to have irrational fears about vacuum cleaning, to mark his territory and to fart shamelessly, not to mention being suspicious of the postman and believing that if he stares at something long enough, eventually he will get what he wants. Finally, I for one, do not want to worry about what the dog is thinking every time he sees us peeing in his water bowl." "My point exactly," I agreed with her. "There just isn't any downside to owning a dog as far as I can see either."
The next Saturday found me, as happy as a gopher in soft dirt, digging a foundation for an outdoor dog kennel. Over the next three years I was able to staff the two kennels with excellent bird dogs. One was a gift of a friend and the other a gift from friend of a friend, Matt and Ike turned out to be fine hunters that, over time, taught me far more than I ever taught them. By the end of the third year, I had worked out a pretty happy year-round training and conditioning program in which both dogs prospered. The three of us, accompanied by various hunting buddies, roamed the mesquite flats of North West Texas and jelled into a quail hunting team I referred to as the "vacuum cleaner squad." So it was with some trepidation that I accepted a temporary job transfer to Jackson, Tennessee. On the bright side, a short distance to the southwest of Jackson was Moscow, Tennessee the home of the annual world series of quail hunting field trails.
Arriving in Jackson, we moved into a rent house with a fenced back yard on the outskirts of town. I began looking for some place to run and exercise the dogs. Directly across the street from my rent house sat a little brick country church building. The church property included about 50 acres of undeveloped land behind it that was grown up in fields. One Saturday evening I saw a car in the church parking lot and decided to find out who could grant me permission to use church property to run my dogs.
I poked my head in the building and looked around for someone to talk to. From the number of pews I guessed that the little country church could seat about 250 - 300 people when full. I was impressed by the band equipment that covered the elevated stage in the front of the building just behind the pulpit. There were drums and guitars along with a piano, keyboard and brass instruments. Huge amplifiers flanked either side of the stage. It was either ready for Sunday morning services or a rock concert, but otherwise it was as empty as a January nudist camp.
"You there! Welcome the house of the Lord!" a booming voice rang out. Trying to manage my fight-flight reflex, I slid into the back of the church, suddenly feeling as vulnerable as an Ethiopian chicken.
All but running down the isle toward me, was a short fat man in a three piece suite sweating like a Sumo wrestler on a treadmill. His greased back black hair was migrating articward and his eyes where like chocolate-dipped cherry bombs with their fuses lit. Raising his arms above his head, he slowed and shouted, "All sinners are welcome in the house of the Lord! Hallelujah, Praise the Lord!"
I had seen the type on TV but never in person. To him I was obviously freshly tenderized heathen meat on its way to his salvation banquet. In what can only be described as divine choreography, he stopped abruptly, grabbed his suit lapels with both hands and went into a don't-screw-with-God's-anointed Yankee Doodle Strut. I could see in him an appetite for bold gestures and burned bridges. My heart suddenly felt like an old rusting iron piano with barbwire strings and scorpions for keys. As he neared, I could see the drops of sweat running down his pallid jowly face like sow bugs rushing to a rotten wood festival. Before I could move, he was on me like a hobo on a ham sandwich.
"Welcome to the arms of the Lord," he proclaimed as he bear hugged me. "Give-me-your-testimony- this-the-day-of-your-salvation-and-praise-the-Jehovah-God-who-has-retrieved-you-from-damnation-and-called-you-to-repentance-and-delivered-you-by-His-merciful-hands-from-your-evil-ways Billy Joe," he proclaimed in machine gun rhythm as he grabbed me by both shoulders. His brain had become a rodeo champion and his tongue a bucking bronco. "Billy Joe? Who the hell is Billy Joe?" I was able to stammer.
In a voice as steeped in religiousity as a crispy cream is steeped in grease and in a tone that could worm a kitten, he hissed, "Blasphemy is forbidden in the house of the Lord and is not an attractive feature in a young man, whoever you are. What have you done with Billy Joe? He was due here now."
"I just moved to this community and I don't know anybody by the name of Billy Joe," I explained. "What's his last name?" The Reverend blinked his eyes and looked at me as if I were a Swahili. "J-o-e," he said spelling out the letters with a demeanor suddenly as flat as a training bra. "I'm sorry if a live one got away on you today, Reverend, but I just dropped in to see if I could get permission to run my dogs in that field out in back of your church." Dejected as a chad-whipped candidate, he sighed and said, "See Ernie Moore," pointing to an office door across the building. His dad owns the Church's land. He's our youth minister." Fish gone, hook empty, head drooping and shoulders sagging, he trudged slowly back whence he had come.
Ernie answered my knock with an "enter," as if everyone knocking at his door needed his youthful approval to enter his office. It must have come from his place at the bottom of the food chain in which only gawky, complexion and esteem challenged teens might knock before entering. He jumped to attention when I walked in. Ranking him by only 5 or 6 years, I was never-the-less, an outsider and a non-teen, thus deserving of his best PFC imitation. Avoiding the knee-jerk reaction to call out "At Ease," I reached out and firmly shook his timidly offered handshake, introduced myself and took a seat.
At the mention of the word "quail" Ernie was on point with a style even the best of my pointers would have appreciated. I explained that I had a couple of experienced Texas quail dogs and needed to make sure they stayed in shape and were ready when the season in Tennessee started. I told him of the Reverend's recommendation and put the question to him squarely. "Can I use the fields behind the church to run my dogs?" Exactly three nanoseconds later Ernie said, "Sure."
Mission accomplished. With my religious sensitivities still on tilt but with my spiritual options still open, I headed across the street to get Ike and Matt for their first good run in a week.
Minutes after I unleashed the dogs and they had completed their first wide ranging, exuberant, cooped-up-too-long run, Ernie walked out from the church to watch. Whistle in mouth, I began to give the dogs direction. They in turn began to move with a purpose, trusting in my commands to shorten their path to our common feathery quarry. Ernie stood transfixed.
I could see in his quiet, polite, intent young southern eyes that "I'd kiss Satan and curse Saul" need to be part of the man-dog ritual playing out in front of him. I knew that need in my bones. He was going to take to bird dogs like a worm takes to tequila.
I remember as a youngster collecting my Dad's empty shotgun shells during the hunts on which he allowed me to tag along. I kept those treasured empties wrapped tightly in my little hunting vest buried securely in the deep recesses of my closet where I knew they would steep into a powerful aromatic intoxicant. On those sad occasions when my Dad chose to hunt without me, I would retreat to my inner sanctum, close the door, sit on the floor and bury my nostrils into my hunting vest. Inhaling deeply, I was transported by the fumes of those sacred paper hulls to a secret thrilling place just as surely as if I was inhaling pure heroin.
I could also see in Ernie's eyes that all too familiar compulsion. At twelve, I too was compelled like Kublai for conquest and Columbus for Cathay to those magic, life changing, fall fields of my youth. It was there that the first unambiguous transition in my life happened. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. What started as a kid happily extending his stride to walk, eyes down, in his Father's footsteps, morphed ever so naturally to a young man, gun in hand, walking at his Father's side. This ninety degree shift signified my arrival in a new world. It was the unspoken, self-evident moment when my relationship with my Dad expanded from Fatherhood to fellowship.
That day Ernie and I struck an iron-clad non-verbal deal. He would faithfully attend my dog work out sessions and I would sporadically let him know what I and the dogs were doing. The ephemeral clues to the cause-and-effect at play between trainer and dog gained substance and form for Ernie with each lesson. After three months, Ernie made an application to the Tennessee branch of the vacuum cleaner squad.
"To apply and be accepted, all you have to do is to convince me that you are not like the Reverend," a man I had successfully avoided since our first encounter. "I'm not like him at all," Ernie responded too defensively. "But what do you have against Reverend Waller?" "Aside from him scaring me half to death? He does not appear to be given to self analysis. He is selling a product that is prime time, TV-designed that's all heat but no mind. Invented on Madison Avenue, it's delivered with finely staged, straight from Broadway, hubris-hiding histrionics. A hair ball coughed up on the Persian carpet of creation."
Concentrating, Ernie said, "It's may be unwise to take religion too seriously, but it may be equally unwise not to cherish it. Beyond affection, humor, and grace, all that remains is noise and sociology.”
"Ernie, you're in. Show up for the kickoff to the season on November 1st and bring your gun." I announced in admiration and without a clue as to what he was talking about.
As the hunting season drew neigh, I went to the quail farm near town to purchase some quail to use in my training release traps. These traps were spring loaded little tripods that, when triggered, catapulted the quail into the air. I attached about 50 feet of light cord to the trap trigger and deployed it downwind of the planted bird. When the dog got wind of the bird and began the upwind approach, I could pick up the trigger cord and make sure that the dog stopped without encroaching on the zone that would have flushed a wild bird. If the dog got too close before he "locked down" on point, I would pull the cord and shoot the planted bird in the air demonstrating to the dog the frustration of approaching too close to a bird in the field.
Over a peach pop and moon pie at the only store in Denmark, Tennessee Ernie confided in me that he felt he was ready and really wanted a dog of his own. To his disappointment, "I'll see what I can do," is the only commitment I would make to him.
However, I remembered that Bill Meeker, owner of the quail farm, had a pointer tied up to a dog house located way out behind his house. I decided to investigate the possibilities. The old man had recently been injured in a car wreck and hobbled around with the aid of a cane. Bill's doctors told him that he would never be able to walk normally again and that he was lucky to be walking at all. The next time I went out there to purchase some live quail, I raised the question of the pointer tied up out in back of the house. "Glide is the best damned hunting dog God ever built," he claimed. "I've turned down $10,000 for that dog. He's that good."
Now, I have listened to a lot of hype when it comes time for the seller to describe the virtues of his bird dog. 99% of that is filed under B.S. in my mental filing system. Taking a different tack, I said to Bill, "If Glide is a good as you say, then he deserves a chance to hunt on a regular basis." I knew it was a brutal statement of the realities now re-defining Bill's life, but one that deserved consideration. "You are one confrontational son of a bitch," Bill offered without enthusiasm. "It's about the dog, not about you Bill."
"I know of a young man that will give Glide the care and bird work he needs and deserves," I confided. "How deep are this guy's pockets?" Bill asked. "The kid is a youth minister at a rural church. Financially, he doesn't have a pot to piss in. He couldn't rub two dollar bills together if he needed to start a fire to keep his family alive," I told him, trusting that the hyperbole was not stretched too far. I could see that Bill was rummaging around for one more frayed piece of the solid gray jigsaw puzzle of his destiny. After lapidating a while in the old cerebral gem tumbler, Bill finally said "Have him come talk to me."
Thus it was that Glide joined the team. Ernie had agreed to pay Bill $25 dollars a month for the next 12 months as a token of his appreciation for the gift of what was claimed to be the "world's greatest pointer." Now, $25 dollars a month does not sound like too much to anyone except that strange and mysterious species called the "wife." "You mean we are paying some old man $25 dollars a month for the privilege of feeding and paying vet bills for this so called canine star athlete?" was Carla's opening take on the deal.
"What the hell were you thinking? That Texan, with all his big talkin, big spending ways has taken you way past ruin. You've gone all the way to runt, Ernie," Carla offered by way of wifely encouragement. Relying on his mastery of the hillbilly idiom, Ernie replied, "Aint rurnt. Just fix'en to provide a few much needed vittles for the family." "Walmart's for vittles and a damned sight cheaper'n any huntin dog I ever saw. My Pappy was afflicted with the same damned dog-crazy disease. With him it was Blue Ticks, Black and Tans, Treeing Walkers and Redbones. I grew up listening to Momma cry herself to sleep at night wailing about how hunting dogs were a waste of the little money they had and the source of all her misery. I'm telling you that Texas buddy of your'n has rurnt this family by committing you to care and pay for a dog that can't legally be used but for three month out of the year. Rurnt, I'm telling you, Rurnt."
As we prepared to let the dogs out on their first run with Glide on the team and the final tune up before opening day, I asked Ernie how things were coming on the home front. "Oh, Carla's just takes a while to get used to new things." I could see the signs of understatement in his body language. "Days? Weeks?" I asked. "Months, Years, Decades," Ernie replied.
We could see immediately that Glide was a different kind of dog. Even though he showed the normal signs of early fatigue that comes with being tied to a kennel for months on end, he had a natural grace about him that was eye grabbing. There was not a single wasted movement. He floated head-up, tail-out covering acres at a time like he was on ice skates. "I can sure see where he got his name," Ernie said in admiration.
Quail hunting in that part of Tennessee is all about hunting soybean fields. Those fields have been farmed year after year for generations and the beans had been harvested a week or two before the quail season began. The birds lived in the dense hedgerows that existed between the bean fields. These hedgerows varied in width from 40 to 80 yards and many of them had deeply eroded gullies that ran down the middle of them.
Because Ernie couldn't wait to see how Glide would perform on wild quail, I left Ike in the dog box for the afternoon hunt and released Glide and Matt for the opening morning kickoff. We headed up the first hedgerow with Ernie on one side, me on the other and dogs coursing back and forth through the places were quail were likely to lurk. Fifteen minutes after we had put the dogs down, Glide made a wide swing out into my side of the barren soybean stubble and circled around behind me. He entered a wide section of the hedgerow about 50 yards behind me. I waited to see him come out the other side or move back toward us inside the hedgerow; neither happened.
Not knowing what to expect, I walked back to the last place I saw him while Ernie and Matt continue moving in the opposite direction. I entered the dense hedgerow and walked a few yards into the undergrowth trying to get a glimpse of Glide. To my horror, I saw him from 30 yards away lying on the ground, as dead as Disco. He had obviously collapsed in his tracks. His body just stretched out on the ground with his hind legs tucked under him and his front legs spayed out in front cushioning his now lifeless head. After the shock began to wear off, I realized that it was probably a heart attack brought on by all the excitement and activity on a body that was not in condition to handle it. I figured we could take that body back and have the Vet check him out. It might have been heart worms, in which case I would not feel so guilty, and at least Ernie would have an explanation for the sudden loss of such a beautiful animal.
I began to think about Ernie. How could I possibly cushion the crushing impact of this kind of loss? This would be a real heart breaker for him. Putting myself in his place, I wasn't even sure how I could have handled something like this at his young age and high expectations. Perhaps I should just leave the body were it lay and pretend that Glide had run off or had been stolen. The more I though about it the more convinced I became that loosing a dog to theft might be the lesser of the two evils. It certainly beat having to deal with a corpse and the death of all his hopes and dreams. I had just started to back out of the hedgerow the way I had entered when Matt came running past. Matt must have spotted Glide's corpse, because he did what he was taught to do, he went on point "honoring" what he thought was a point by Glide.
To my bitter disappointment Ernie saw Matt on point and marched up to investigate. "What's wrong with Glide?" Ernie called out as he came within sight of his fallen dog. Not knowing what to say, I equivocated. "Ernie, I don't know. I'll go in and take a look. You wait there in the field," I called back to him trying desperately to buy some time to come up with a plan to soften the blow. Playing out my part in this little charade, I slowly walked toward Glide's body as if I didn't have clue as to what was "wrong" with Glide. As I approached my fallen hunting comrade I almost didn't notice his eyes. As I got closer I could see his big glossy brown eyes moving left and right almost like he was trying to communicate something to me. Maybe it's a stroke I surmised and he is partially paralyzed. His body didn't even twitch. He probably can't even feel his body, but at least he is not dead. On the other hand, what the hell is he doing with his eyes? Blink, left, right, blink, left, right. It just didn't make any sense. What was Glide trying to say? My next step explained everything.
From every direction within a three hundred sixty degree circle around us quail erupted in a din of whirring wings. Of course quail were the last things on my mind and I didn't even lift a gun. After the birds were gone, Glide regained his feet, shook himself to rid the leaves and twigs that he had acquired from his time on the ground, and headed off to find the next covey.
"What just happened?" the now wide-eyed Ernie asked as I made my back out of the hedgerow. "Well, as best I can figure it out, Glide must have run right into a covey of quail and instead of breaking them he just collapsed on the ground. It's a truly inspired way to point a covey of quail from inside the covey. I have never seen it happen before and there is not one dog in a million that could pull it off." "Is that why you look so pale?" Ernie asked. "Yeah, you might say that Glide took my breath away on that stunt he just pull off " I lied.
That was just Glide's first lesson for us that day. As we watched him we realized he only ran on the down wind side of a hedgerow. When he pointed birds it was always from out on the edge of the bean field. His head was always up facing into the breeze, his tail always a perfect arch up over his back, but he never lifted his front leg as many pointers do. We soon realized that was because as the birds moved Glide would "cat walk" with them. He would hold his upper body perfectly still and move his feet in a soft gentle rhythm that made his body seem to float forward as the birds themselves moved. Glide never broke a covey and he could pin a covey five hundred yards in front of us and they would still be there when we arrived.
Unlike many pointers, Glide would retrieve dead and wounded birds. He would honor Matt's points. Without seeming to, Glide would pay attention to what we humans were doing in a way that always resulted in him being exactly in the right position for the direction we wanted to hunt. Glide was the real deal. He was everything that anyone could ever want in a pointer and more. It was a humbling experience to realize that I, the experienced dog trainer, was being given a lesson from a dog with far more skills and talent than I would ever have. I only wished that I had trusted him more.
As the morning hunt was coming to an end with the early season temperature now pushing 80 degrees, the dogs and the hunters were tired and in need of some rest. We headed back to the truck. Matt and Glide strolled on in front of us just out of sight.
Walking side by side with our guns unloaded, we rounded a bend in the dirt road and saw Matt and Glide sitting on their haunches getting a little well earned rest. They were side by side sitting next to the dirt road that ran around the edge of the bean field. As we neared them we could see that they were perched on the edge of a giant gully that was more than 20 feet deep. They were intently looking at a big stand of bamboo that occupied the entire area of a small island left when the deep gully ran on either side of it. The bamboo island was a good 50 yards from where the dogs sat.
"What are they looking at," Ernie asked, expecting that his hunting partner and dog guru would have accurate answers to all things relating to the dogs. "Ernie, to the novice it looks just like those two are looking at that bamboo patch, but when you have the dog training experience I have you will see this for what it really is. The dogs are just tired. They think if they ignore us we will leave them alone and let them rest."
"Wow, I am a novice," Ernie admitted. "I would have sworn that those two dogs smelled something out there in the bamboo. I thought they were just sitting here trying to figure out what it is. I'm glad you are here, because climbing down and up that gully would have been a major task that I'm glad we can avoid." "Don't take it too hard Ernie, when you have been at this as long as I have you learn to pick up on the subtle little signs that tell you what is really going on with the dogs." The dogs remained as they were with unbroken focus on the bamboo patch.
"Come on Matt. Let's go Glide. It's time to get back to the truck," I called out to the dogs. I then gave them the three short blasts on my whistle that issued the "come" command. As we watched, both dogs got up at the sound of the whistle and went on a well executed but very relaxed point toward the bamboo patch.
"Now what's going on?" Ernie asked looking over to me for an explanation. "Like I told you, the dogs are tired and this little bogus pointing thing of theirs is just a delaying tactic. They probably know their hunt is over for the day and just are not ready to call it quits. This is definitely not what it looks like. Why those dogs couldn't even smell skunks from that far away, much less quail. It's time to call their bluff," I said to Ernie. "Watch this." I started walking toward the truck and reissued my "come" command fully expecting them to call off their little masquerade.
Looking back over my shoulder I saw that neither dog moved an inch. I knew that Matt was obedient to a fault, and so I said to Ernie, "I'm sorry to tell you this boy but Glide is having a bad influence on Matt. Matt has never ignored my commands before he teamed up with Glide." "That's hard to believe," Ernie countered. "Glide has been letter perfect on every aspect of his game today. You said so yourself. So why are you doubting Glide now?"
"Ernie, Ernie, you have to keep one thing in mind my boy. As good as Glide is, he is still a dog. On the other hand, I am an experienced dog trainer and bird hunter. This is not my first rodeo. When it comes to trusting human experience or dog experience, it is no contest. Fact is Glide has a little problem we have discovered here at the end of the hunt. With proper field work we can iron it right out. There is nothing wrong with Glide that I can't fix." I could tell Ernie was not totally buying into the wisdom that I was dispensing.
We both stood there for a while just looking at the two dogs and wondering what to do next. I was looking toward the truck when I heard Ernie close the action of his double barrel. I turned around just in time to see him put the gun on his hip and fired a shot at the distant bamboo island. Quail flew everywhere. After the sound of the shot and the blast of a hundred departing wings had drifted from the hot morning air, I said "Biggest covey I ever saw," to nobody in particular.
We walked in silence back to the truck. There wasn't much to talk about. My credibility with Ernie, not to mention Matt and Glide was shot. As we climbed into the truck for the trip back to town for lunch, I decided to try out one more bid of undisputable wisdom.
"Ernie, I have some bad news for you boy. You might not believe it or understand it, but it's the truest thing I am ever going to tell you. For as long as you live you will never again have as good a dog as Glide. You were given the best dog you will ever own for your very first bird dog. After Glide passes on, you will spend the rest of your life trying in vain to find one half as good. Fact is boy, when it comes to bird dogs, you've been rurnt."
After a long silence, Ernie sighed and said, "Yeah, I've heard that a lot lately."