I had an editor tell me “Times have changed”. Maybe so. With what we each perceive as different from what came before, and with the benefit of 61 years on the planet, I believe there are two things that have not changed: Guns are still guns and dogs are still dogs. In that I take great comfort.
Guns have not changed. A gun is a machine that propels a projectile over a distance. Muzzleloader or artillery piece, single-shot or automatic, guns are still guns. The technology and uses do not matter, nor does it matter what color it is painted or how many do-dads you hang on it. It is still just a gun.
I was blessed to be raised in the Appalachian Mountain region and of the many wonderful things that entails, the best of all was that we were, and still are, dog people. When I was a kid I was raised so that I had a gun and a hunting dog and never really wanted anything else. In that same 61 years I have never had a dog disappoint me in his devotion or his willingness to please. This is not to say that all of those dogs were perfect; of course some were better suited to some tasks than others, much like some guns are better for this or that, but the basic premise is solid and when I visit my memory cabin there are little things I rediscover there that remind me why today, with all the things that supposedly have changed, I’m still a gun, and dog, man. Let me give you a glimpse.
On the wall of the hunting room in that memory cabin hang a Remington shotgun and a rusty old choke chain. This same shotgun was in my hands on my first dog deer hunt, on timber company land in Cumberland County, Virginia on a fine December day long ago. The Truxillo Hunt Club turned loose for us and I stand in a broad expanse of 8-year-old loblolly pine, alone, following the chase with my ears as it comes down the low ridge in front of me and up out of the impenetrable creek bottom, and suddenly there is a big doe with the afterburners lit streaking through the head-high pine, the bead in front of her throat and at the shot she executes a beautiful, graceful full somersault and crashes into the broomsage, briars and pines.
Hambone showed hot on her trail, still bawling, the fatherless, shameless, filthy and stinking no-pedigree wanna-be hound, vomits in the truck and pisses on every rim; the fleabag, beaten, neglected and disdained, unsung and unloved, alone on the deer while the “good” dogs cold-trailed elsewhere, the only one that was true, what every dog aspires to be. He was the living example of an animal perfectly designed and dedicated to the task at hand, expected to do what his kind have done for man for ten thousand years, and like millions of others of his kind only remembered in stories passed down from hunter to hunter. I owe Hambone for my love of deer hunting over dogs, and thereby my initial understanding of what dogs really have meant to the human race; I never saw him again after that day and I pray that I will never forget how he looked at me when I walked up to him, standing over our dead deer. I hope it is enough.
After re-reading that last memory and thinking about it all night I decided to go back to the cabin this morning; I wanted to finally write about Zack. I had written the life story, short version, in the first book, the beginning and end of it in my heartbreak soon after his death, the abridged version for the magazine, but I had always wanted to write the meat of him but at that point I simply could not; it is hard to admit that you never stop grieving for a good dog ever and I always held my memories of him locked away, still afraid of losing them, all these years later. Besides, when you write a thing it is never as good as living it and I was very afraid of not doing him justice, but I finally decided we needed to get it down on paper so he would again live for me and anyone reading it down the road.
This time when I went into the cabin I let myself see him there, sitting in front of me, quietly, politely, holding his choke collar in his mouth (I always switched his nylon house collar for the choke collar before we worked or hunted) and thumping the rug with his otter tail, and looking up and around the room and at me like “Just putting it out there, I’m ready any time”. He was ready, alright. Like in the pitch black dark when I was getting the decoy bag, the lunch, the gun and shells together in the back of the truck beside the woods road to the blind, and he was scouting the huckleberries and low brush across the ditch looking for the right place to shit and he always found it, and I would always step right in it on the dark walk to the pond. I never worried about him disappearing in the dark because he wanted to be close to the gun, because that was where the real fun would be, so he stayed close and I could usually see the ghost of the white star on his chest if there was any moon or starlight at all.
The cold rain was coming down hard mixed with sleet and fat, wet snowflakes and Zack and I had the pond all to ourselves. Here at the end of the season the blind was shot; the canvas was torn and hanging and the floor collapsed so I ripped out a big square of the canvas and made a place for the two of us to sit near the edge of the pond and tented up another square to cover the dog. His steam came out from under it and he pushed himself closer up against my shoulder, always watching the sky and quickly alerting to the birds passing over us in the dark. I had only carried in 6 decoys and they rocked indignantly on the wind-choppy pond 20 feet in front of us, and he occasionally checked them with a critical eye to make sure that they were still plastic and had not magically come to life. He never did trust them.
Suddenly he alerted toward the sky over the river and I see the two greenheads following the Suzie, and she sees the decoys and starts to cup up and rock back and forth down out of the weather to us, the drakes in tow. I raised the shotgun and folded the first drake then caught the second one on his ballistic reversal and the first hit the water in the decoys, the second smacking the mud right at my feet. Zack in one leap pounced out from under the canvas on the second bird, picked him up and backed up right back on the canvas, holding the dead bird in his mouth. I took it and he launched into the pond, swam five strokes and picked up the first bird, bringing with him a decoy slung across his chest and half the pond water in his thick fur. When I took the bird he gave me a frozen snot-slobber kiss right across the glasses, me still sitting and not having stood to shoot.
It was crowded in the front seat of the little truck with my sons and Zack but we made do, on many mornings, headed to the blinds. On Wade’s first goose hunt during the early season we had a quiet morning until about 10 o’clock when a single gander came straight at us from across the pond, above the tree line, and I saw the bird falter when Wade shot and Zack saw it too. The bird disappeared over the treetops behind us and in an instant Zack was racing up the steep ridge behind the blind, out of sight and hearing in a matter of seconds. We sat and waited and the longer we waited the more concerned I became; finally after 30 minutes I told Wade to pack up, we would have to go find the dog if we could. We got about 40 yards from the blind back in the woods when Wade pointed and said “Here he comes!” and sure enough, hustling up the hollow came Zack with a live but wounded goose in his mouth. I cannot express in words what I felt about that dog at that moment; and yes, part of it was shame for not trusting Zack to do what he did best. I should have known that he would have never let Wade lose a bird.
All of us grown-ups know that dogs do not live forever and I did not try to prepare the boys for the inevitable until it was upon them; I wanted them to love Zack unconditionally and I wanted them to be able to one day accept the gifts he gave them, not only the joy of his life with them, but also the immensity of the sadness and loss we must all accept at some point as part of the human experience. There could not have been a better teacher for this first lesson in humanity than this fat, old retriever and I thank God for allowing us Zack as Wade and Jesse’s first dog.
That was what I loved about him, that he was not a machine but just a real dog, and yes, I let him be a dog, to hell with field trials and whistles and high-bred pretenders, both man and canine. He may have been trained in a subdivision back yard with a two-dollar rope toy but he never lost a bird, not a single one, ever. He would just as soon eat a half-rotten muskrat as a prime T-bone and when he was on the job there was nothing that could keep him from making the retrieve, not distance nor obstacles or storm-blown tidal river flow, or even his own death, if that was what it would have to take, and this was not because he was “trained” or “disciplined” but because he had heart. He was tender with my wife and children, hell on unprotected garbage, fierce with other hunters’ dogs and he lived for the sound of the shot, the smell of the marsh and the taste of the feathers stuck to his lips. He shared with me what I could never have shared with another human being. His triumph was in teaching my sons to love dogs and in the end the tragedy was not his death, it was the realization that while he lived I could not tell him in a way he could understand how I loved him.
That is why a Remington automatic and a rusty old choke chain hang in a place of honor, on the wall of the hunting room in my memory cabin.
Because some things should never, ever change.