From the 2015 Jan./Feb. issue of Sporting Classics.
Hard . . . the condition . . . but I’ve reached a grave milestone in the price of living.
One not unanticipated, I suppose, as I have ventured into the deepening autumn of my life. Just all so soon, it seems.
For after all the dogs, and all the years, it has come upon me almost suddenly.
I feel now, where I couldn’t before, the mountain-high and valley-low mix of emotions that many other dog men across the ages must have felt, who have stood on this bittersweet plateau before me. Who have looked across the vast steppes of the horizon, have searched the long edges, and abruptly sensed that soon there can no longer be—in the matter of being—the great dogs to carry them.
At least, no longer for my eyes to behold.
You see, I’ve a new pair of setter pups.
“A happy thing,” you observe. Yes, as always. Some days, even euphoric. The hopes and eras of my years have been christened and buoyed by a renewal of puppies. Thing is, this time, they arrive also with a heavy bill of sadness.
For they will be my last.
“But you’re a young man yet,” I’m told. Again, some days, I am. On others, well, my heart and aging bones know better. If you wonder, I’m 72. No, not ancient. But there’s moss on the tree, and not just on the north.
When it comes to dogs–and God help us . . . little puppies–I’ve listened far more often to my heart than to arguments of warranty and logic. It’s led me down a largely happy road, and even though it has borne the too many occasions of infinite pain that were the cost, it’s difficult to do less now. Except that to all things comes an end.
These pups must be my last.
Let me tell you about them. They’re English and their names are Jube and Rafe. Their daddy’s famous and their mama’s good-lookin’, and their blood—up and down the line—is a whole lot fancier than mine. They’re seven months now, tall and lanky, grow about two inches a day. Strapping young fellows full of piss, rambunction, and vinegar. A pretty striking pair, should I say so. Lightly ticked, masked, and tri-colored as I have always deemed my last brace would be.
I’ve started them earlier than I ever did the 28 we kept before them. I suppose, again, that’s after I glanced at the clock on the wall. I’ve wanted to enjoy them, every moment and minute of them, knowing I’ll come this way no more. Already, the two little puppies we brought home are grown and gone—terribly too soon—and are now well into adolescence, so that the puppy breath and chubby little back-up-and-spin toys so adored we can never have back again.
I’ve had them on the “whoa-and-styling” bench and barrel since they were eight weeks old, and they’re standing pretty tall and proud now, less birds. Which we’ve done separately, about two times a week without a miss. I’ve kept the two regimens apart, haven’t pasted them together, haven’t used the whoa word yet around birds. Nor put a hand or check cord on them. Though it’s wonderfully amazing how naturally they’ve put things together on their own.
They’re reasonably staunch now, pointing and backing each other reliably—like, bang!—and their poise and confidence around birds is becoming more breathtaking with every stand. God, do I love to see young dogs rising to their own.
They’re full of honest hunt, beginning to stretch, hitting a high, merry lick a-goin’. Hang on Horace. “Here us goes ag’in. Heigh-ho!”
They haven’t told me yet how we’ll go, horseback or shank’s mare, but I’m listenin’ and we’ll see how it runs. I can still fork a horse tolerably—and Lord knows, there was a time. But really, I’m trying to persuade them—at least most days—gently toward the class gun dog profession. It may not be full of glamour and glory, but it’s the oldest and proudest one in the registry.
As you may gather I’ve done things a little differently this time, and I’ve learned things from these pups I hadn’t in my previous 60 years with pointing dogs. I don’t know what that says, other than I was slow. Or maybe from this sudden hill, I’ve been able to see beyond the valley. If there’s any magic in the mix, it’s the creative use of the remote release trap. Launching a youngster, I’ll take it over a check cord, a pinch collar, or God-forbid, an e-collar any day of the week.
Twixt all this, Loretta and I have spent many happy and completing hours of lap time, nurturing the esoteric bonds of companionship and rapport that mend it all together. Without which it can never be whole.
To say I’m savoring these two pups would be the ranking understatement of our times. All-in-all, I’d say that so far—and pray Lord down the road— the Kennelmaster Upstairs has tendered uncommon mercy on me, in plotting the last chapter of the book.
They say “Never say never.” Maybe I’ll be like Ben in my book Jenny Willow, unable to dodge the temptation of one last pup at 83. It makes a good story. Then, maybe again, there wouldn’t be a Clyde Wood around to so conscientiously pick up the pieces, and that, my faithful readers, concerns me profoundly.
Then, there’s the notion of the birds. Wild birds . . . or to be more explicit about it . . . the paucity and accessibility of same. I live in Carolina and I guess I’m a little too old to move to Montana—could I get Loretta to go—and even there, things aren’t altogether as they used to be.
With each new generation over the years I’ve found it progressively more difficult to be able to give what makes a good pup great. Only wild birds and a goodly number of them will do that. So once again looms the writing on the wall. If I am to get these pups into birds within a happy frequency, not be snow-bound half the year, our venue will have to include released birds. More than anytime before.
Released birds are fine as facsimile, and arguably better than not going. In that sense, thank God for them. But moving puppies onto them from a pristine training regimen is the next thing to unregimented Hell. Right now, these pups stop first scent, are standing way off their birds, high and proud. Move them onto wild birds where it’s wiggle-and-they’re-gone, and they stay that way. Put them on even the best of released birds, and there are still enough squatters, skulkers, hoppers, and sputterers to make Lucy Goosey. Keep the Super Glue handy.
Life’s a trade-off, any way you come at it, and I guess there never was an altogether good trade. But be-damned if the marketplace hasn’t narrowed in the 21st century.
So there’re the birds. But most of all, there’s me.
If fortune grants the compassion for me to have the pleasure of these last pups for the hopefully 14 to 15 years of their natural lives, I’ll be 86 or 87. I’ll not be impractical and ask for 14 more.
Time has inverted the hourglass. Ever before it has run against the dogs. The unfathomable injustice of the years that has taken beloved field companions when I have with all my being wished for them to abide for my lifetime. Now it runs against me, and for the first and last time of my life, I will consider it a conscionable act of benevolence should they go first.
I do not want to leave and cast these two dogs on the vagaries of fate, to place them upon the laps of strangers—however kind; I cannot bear the pain of their bewilderment as to why I’m not there.
I do not want to be as Corey Ford, forced to look from a hospital window at his last two setters—Cider and Tober if I remember correctly—to have at least that—but die knowing I was unable to give them the one thing they loved most, and I loved most. More than any or all else. To go afield. Together.
I will give these pups my all. In the latter years we shall grow old together.
Though I ask now and with all my heart that I outlive them, and the other dogs I love, old now but who were once pups too. Who are still with me. That I be there for them, to the end. See them to a ripe old age . . . walk with them through the fall of dusk and the dimming path ahead. Be with them, care for them, help them away.
Be there to gather the joy from every moment of their lives between.
Most of them I saw into this world. I want to see the last of them—as I have all before them—to the next. There, should there indeed be a last gesture of kindness to this life, to wait for me. Until we are reunited again.
Give me that, and only one day more. +++