Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Old Reb...

Bird dogs and wing shooting were always major elements in my youth. Quail provided the opportunity to pursue a pair of fine, matched dogs across pastures knee deep in dry, crackling grass layered in shimmering, delicate frost. In golden early morning sunlight, the dogs would work back and forth, in and out. One would suddenly freeze, muscles quivering on a point. The other would notice, and swap ends in a parody to imitate and honor the discovery of its companion. The dogs would leave an erratic wake in the frosted grass. On point, their heaving lungs sent roiling clouds of steamy vapor into the stillness of the brittle winter air.

Easing up to dogs on point was a nerve-wracking experience. I was fascinated by the delicate tendrils of wispy vapor rising from heat generated by their bodies. It formed a soft halo around them, like a ghostly shroud. Sights like these would always distract me slightly as the exploding sound of rapidly beating wings would scare a year's life out of me.

Dad always admonished me not to shoot at the entire covey at once. That was a natural reaction that guaranteed frustration and failure. The reliable tactic was to pick out a single bird and give it your full attention. The dogs would bound after and retrieve any downed birds, then begin to work the singles and doubles from the now scattered covey. Dad would never allow an entire covey to be shot out. Six to eight birds had to be left for seed stock. A bag limit was highly prized, but there was the future to think about. That included the next crop of hunters, dogs and birds.

Hunting doves and quail always took some adjustment, as the two were very different types of wing shooting. Doves would generally be longer shots. They had a tendency to bob, weave and dodge as they flew along.

The best form of concentration I ever found for dove shooting was to lock in on a mental image of trying to hit them with a water hose. Every child who has played in the yard with a hose can relate to this analogy. When a butterfly floats by and you want to give it a shower, you know that, over distance, the water travels in an arc and you must lead the flight pattern and account for the distance to intercept what you want to hit. A shotgun performs in much the same way. It is just a matter of remembering distance, arc and lead to be a fair shot when going after doves.

Quail are different. With dogs, you will often find yourself in the middle of a covey. The birds break so close and fast that the arc of your shot is not generally a factor. If a bird is rising, you usually want to shoot slightly over him. If it is dropping, shoot a bit below the bird. Put the pattern of your shot where the bird will be in the next instant, not where it is at present.

No more tips on wing shooting. Everyone has his or her own ideas anyway. Mine are probably no better, and maybe worse, than other advice one might hear, although they have worked pretty well for me over the course of my lifetime--that is, when I remember them in the heat and excitement of shooting!

I'm going to tell you about my "great uncle" L.V. 'Whitey' Wilkinson and 'Old Reb.'

Whitey was the best bird dog man I have ever seen. Hands down. He raised and trained some of the finest dogs in the country. Anyone who had him train and work their dogs, or bought one of them, praised his ability to the skies. He started with Jill, a German Shorthair. She was his first, and he loved her dearly. She had a wonderful nose and was one of the most intelligent dogs I have ever seen. She was almost human.

There were other great ones as well. Jack, the hard headed pointer. Freckles, a really talented English Setter. Pancho, an unbelievably gifted dog, with the foulest temper I have ever witnessed in a bird dog. Then, there were Doc and Sam, two outstanding Brittanys. These were the dogs with which Whitey booked hunts and formed the nucleus of his business.

My favorite, though, was a Dropper or crossbred dog named Reb. He was half-Pointer and half-Walker hound.

Reb looked, for the most part, like a Pointer. His forehead was not quite as boxy or square as a true Pointer, but otherwise he looked the part of an honest-to-goodness bird dog. He was, too. A dog has never had a finer nose than Reb's. Sometimes, it seemed he could smell where quail were going, rather than where they were or where they had been. He was an equally fine retriever. He had a gentle mouth and was only too glad to bring in a downed bird. His biggest shortcoming, in my eyes, was his reluctance to work singles or doubles. When called on he would do it, but he much preferred to pursue the larger body of the covey.

My uncle could tolerate this shortcoming. However, the two things that really drove Whitey crazy seemed of little or no consequence to me.

Reb pointed with his tail curled down between his legs. Whitey worked tirelessly, attempting to get him to hold it high, curled over his back. When released, the tail would immediately curl under to hug his stomach once again.

I admit that it was a little odd to watch Reb on point or in the process of honoring one, as his was surely not the conventional style. However, he was never false on point, and he held beautifully.

His unforgivable sin, though, lay in the fact that when birds flushed, Reb would invariably respond to the hound genes coursing through his blood. He would break into the most beautiful baritone baying you ever heard. I can still hear my uncle screaming "No!" and jumping up and down on the hat he had thrown to the ground in frustration as Reb's melodious "aarouuu, aaroouuu" echoed in the air. Reb was a wonderful dog.

Although I never was told directly what became of him, one day he just disappeared. When I asked Whitey, he averted his eyes, cleared his throat and stared into the distance with a pained look on his face.

Instinctively, I knew Reb's fate but could never push the issue, knowing it hurt my uncle. Sometimes, life demands form or style over substance. Whitey had felt compelled to make a choice. His was a business. In my bed that evening, wiping tears from my eyes, I came to realize that life is not always fair. For a boy, that is a hard concept to accept. We feel that life should be fair, and expend a good deal of effort in the living of it to make it so. When we succeed and see right triumph, we make the world we live in a better place.

Reb had been special, but with dogs and people, sometimes... that is just not enough.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Learning To Drive

When I was a boy in my early teens, Dad decided that the time had come for me to learn to drive. Early one morning, he took me with him to the pasture that bordered our large, shallow lagoon on the east side of the farm. The lake had been created by one of the hurricanes that chose to descend on the south coast of Texas in the early sixties. The rains had come down so hard and fast that surrounding tanks and ponds had "gone 'round," or overflowed, taking large numbers of bass, perch and catfish in the turbulent flood waters that formed the lake, stocking it with fish at the same time.

Now, hundreds of ducks chattered and beat their wings in protest as we pulled up near the shore. The banks of an earthen dam rose from the depths, forming an island some 200 yards out in the water. My friends and I had enjoyed numerous campouts on that small knot of land. We gigged frogs, caught fish and basked under the moonlight and glimmering night sky dusted with countless stars. The smell of frying fish and frog legs swimming in butter in cast iron skillets would fill the air. After gorging ourselves, we would lie on our backs and gaze into that infinite sparkling sky, counting shooting stars and dreaming our dreams as only boys can do.

This morning, Dad eased the battered old blue Ford pickup to a stop. He showed me first, second, third gears and reverse. I had observed him driving and had some notion of how things should work with the gears. He removed the keys and tossed them into my lap as he stepped out into the lush coastal Bermuda pasture that sparkled with fresh morning dew. Wishing me luck, he slammed the door and moved away toward home, leaving a wake of green footsteps in the dazzling blanket of golden sunlight reflecting off that field of dew.

Sliding over under the wheel, I heard him rumble, "Boy your age oughta know how to drive."

"When do I need to be home?" I asked.

"When you know how to drive!" he shouted over his receding shoulder.

"Yessir!" I called out in response.

I slid over under the steering wheel and gripped it with suddenly sweaty palms. What was that sequence of gears he had shown me a minute ago? I watched Dad gain some more distance before deciding it was time to get things rolling. Shoving the key into the ignition, I gave it a twist.

The engine coughed, the truck lurched forward and my head bounced soundly off the window behind the seat. I had forgotten about the clutch! I tried to fill my mind with the things I needed to remember about driving. Realizing the truck had been left in first gear, I slid into neutral and tried again. The motor coughed to life and settled into a kind of clattering hum. Blue-grey smoke shrouded the cab in the early morning stillness. I revved the engine a time or two, eased the truck into gear, let out the clutch and held on tight as it lurched and died a second time. Feeling a bit more anxious, I bit my lip and steeled myself for the third attempt. The third time was the charm!

First gear was wonderful! I used it with a kind of desperate abandon for several minutes. I really hated the thought of leaving it for second. I knew first. I had a feel for it. Second was a great unknown. However, I finally skewered up my nerve, pounded down on the clutch and ground my way into second. The truck lurched again but didn't die like it had before.

Second was even better than first! I flew over the grass and felt the wheels slide slightly as I put her into a tight turn. Second was really fine! In fact, it seemed about all you could ask for in this pasture of some 60 odd acres. I did figure 8'S, donuts and a host of other equally destructive maneuvers, wreaking varying degrees of havoc on the quality of Dad's pasture.

Elation approached arrogance as I began to steer with one hand, resting the other with supreme confidence atop the back of the pickup seat. Minutes flew by as my sense of power and control approached godlike dimensions. The convulsive fear I had known moments earlier had faded into a distant memory.

"What about third?" I hadn't tried third!

The clutch slid to the floor. I slammed on the brake and slid the truck to a complete stop. My palms were no longer sweating. I was in control. Gunning the engine, I snapped into first gear. Gaining speed, I slid into second. Nothing to it! The motor howled as I punched third home and released the clutch. The speedometer rolled to 40,45,50 miles an hour. "Who said man wasn't meant to fly?"

It was about this time, somewhere just over 50 miles an hour that I hit the chug hole...

My head tried to force its way through the top of the truck's cab as I bounced from the seat. My vision blurred and the world tilted crazily as I swerved to narrowly miss one of the few large mesquite trees in the pasture.

Noting a new and distinct taste in my mouth, I realized that I had bitten through my tongue. Humility had returned. The heat indicator, a throbbing head and the taste in my mouth combined to turn my thoughts toward home. Presbyterians don't generally like to dwell on predestination, but fate was not yet through with me. My destiny was to center on the cedar corner post at the gap leading out of the pasture.

I had been considerably humbled. Extreme caution now dominated my actions once again.

Dad had invested heavily in an irrigation system for the farm. Our land was in an arid region near the coast of South Texas. That irrigation system meant a constant and reliable source of moisture for the farm's cattle and crops.

I faced a hard right-hand turn getting through the gap leaving the pasture. Panic set in! Through a culvert under the road ran the six-inch mainline for dad's irrigation system. From my perspective I had two choices, as the turn seemed too sharp and the road too narrow. I could either veer to the left and run over and crush the mainline or straddle the huge cedar corner post on the right... I chose the post! It bent over and snapped loudly under the onslaught of the speeding truck and my momentum almost let me clear it.

The truck died. I started it again and tried to pull forward off the shattered post. Didn't work. Resting my chin on my knuckles atop the steering wheel, I had a thought. I hadn't tried reverse today! I pushed in the clutch, feathered into reverse and popped that clutch, gunning the engine hard. The lurch backward wedged the broken post firmly in place and partially lifted the rear end of the pick up off the ground. One of the rear wheels now spun freely some four inches above the soil.

The palms of my hands were sweating again. What the hell was I going to do now? Dad would not take this well. I crept across the pasture to the tool shed situated behind the house and slipped out with a large double-bladed ax and slipped back away to the truck. Knowing I was probably done for, I crawled beneath the bed of the truck and began to chop fiercely at the post. Dad was going to kill me for sure, but I had to at least try.

My head was pounding, sweat ran into my eyes and my tongue was a source of pure agony. Sand slipped down my collar and chafed my back and shoulders as I swung that ax with all the will of my determination to live through the day. Things just could not get any worse.

A red ant had worked its way over my boot top and settled on the back of my thigh before deciding to give me a thorough going over. I scrambled to shuck my jeans, doing my level best to crush him in the process. Any of you who wear boots and jeans know just how hard it is to get out of your jeans without taking your boots off first. However, time was a significant factor here, and I was highly motivated!

Fear formed a hard knot in my throat as I heard my father's flat voice asking me what the problem was. As his face appeared beneath the running board of the truck, there must have been something in the expression on my face that softened the anger in his. I crawled from beneath the pickup and rushed through relating the series of events leading up to my decision to save the joint of his mainline pipe over the corner post.

Through my exaggerated gestures, I noticed that Dad was laughing. Tears streamed down his face. I was not going to die! With his arm on my shoulder we walked back to the house together and with the help of the Massey Ferguson tractor, soon had the truck free. Shortly afterward, the corner post had been replaced as well.

In spite of the pain and embarrassment I suffered that morning, or perhaps because of it, I learned the true meaning of redemption that fine day. In the living of his life, my Dad never forgot that he, too, had once been a boy.

I lost him on July 17th, almost three months ago, a little over an hour before daylight. The fabric of his life is so firmly woven into my world; he remains a living, viable, part of all that I see, hear and feel. He lived his life with great joy and simplicity. He was loyal, generous, trusting and giving to his friends and family. He believed in the basic goodness of people. He worked harder than any other man I've ever known. He loved without reservation. He was the kind of man that, as boys, we all knew we'd grow up to be... but didn't, quite.