As a boy growing up in the country, life certainly had its moments. Some warm and comfortable and well, some just downright crazy.
I come from a long line of hunters and fishers. My father and grandfather were avid fans, so it kind of stood to reason I would want to share in the experiences.
And I often did.
Especially when I got old enough and sensible enough to understand how to handle my very first 22 caliber rifle, and then received my own 410 shotgun on my twelfth birthday.
The rifle was for plinking rabbits, and squirrels (which we skinned and ate), and the shotgun was for the game on the wing, (which again we skinned and consumed). Although I lived in a hunting family, we had some pretty specific rules about the whole thing.
First and foremost, we never, and I mean never, went hunting for a trophy. We went hunting for food.
In those days, a preacher’s salary was, for the most part, well below the current minimum wage. Interestingly enough, both my granddad and father were in the soul-saving business and preaching in churches so small that some of them doubled as a school and town hall.
The congregation numbers of their churches often hovered in double digits, not the hundreds or thousands of those in the city.
So, of course, passing around the collection plate on any given Sunday held special meaning to my entire family. But the nickels, dimes and quarters and sometimes dollar bills from the local Daddy Warbucks sometimes honoring our tiny community with their presence never stretched far enough most weeks.
And so we cultivated gardens for vegetables; we shucked corn and snapped beans; we canned tomatoes and made jam from berries, and we hunted.
And we had at the minimum at least one good hunting dog. I remember when my dad brought our hunting dog home. A little puppy with black fur on his head and splotches of black fur peppering his coat of short white hair.
I named him Dog.
Okay, originality was certainly not my strong suit back then. At the time I read where the name Spot had already been taken.
Dog had a natural instinct about him, and my father recognized it; often taking Dog with us went we went hunting. As a puppy, we knew Dog wouldn’t be beneficial, but my Dad reasoned we needed to get Dog acclimated to the sounds of gunfire.
And he quickly did. Every time we went bird hunting, Dog learned to patiently sit beside my father while me, my grandfather and dad pumped off a series of shots at coveys of quail and dove.
After the rumble of gunfire died down, my dad would whistle, and off Dog would go, sometimes returning with two or three in his mouth.
Then he’d lay them at my father’s feet and off he’d go again, rounding up more.
Dog turned out to be one of the best-hunting dogs we’d ever come across.
Until the day he wasn’t.
November of any year was always an excellent time for my family and me. Turkey hunting for Thanksgiving, and ducks, wonderful delectable ducks. One thing great about my dad and granddad being pastors was that all the folk in the community were more than happy to share their favorite hunting spots with them.
During duck season, we would head out to Jack’s place and set up on the bank of a large tank. Some folks called it a pond. We all knew Jack’s “pond” as that large stock tank where the ducks were at.
This particular November duck hunting day was just a bit cold. The reasonably dense fog from the early morning had barely lifted when we all settled in laying on our backs on the north side of the bank.
We’d done this routine many times. The ducks would fly in just over the edge of the stock tank with the intent of landing on the water, and with any luck, we would take out two or three on the first wave.
After that, it became a war of patience. The ducks became less and less eager to hit the water, and we grew colder and damp as a fine mist accumulated and fell.
On this particular day, and as predicted, the first wave flew over the edge, and my grandfather and dad both managed to fell some relatively large ducks.
My dad whistled, and Dog stood up and started for the water. One paw in, he turned around, walked up to me, and sat down.
My dad whistled again.
Dog looked at him but continued to sit beside me.
Both my grandfather and dad then tried to drag Dog to the edge of the water, but Dog would have none of that. He managed to escape the clutches of my father and darted up the bed of the stock tank and disappeared.
Okay, so evidently, Dog discovered the water to be just a bit too cold to his liking. But we still had a pair of ducks floating on the water that needed retrieving.
That’s when I was informed I’d just become my dad’s brand new retriever.
Yeap, it was just us boys, right? Nobody would even notice when I stripped down to my birthday suit and fetched a pair of dead birds floating in the middle of the stock tank.
I thought it was kind of exciting, skinny dipping in a pond right there in front of God and everybody.
Until I stepped into the water. I suppose to that point I’d experienced several various stages of cold, but d*mn, never like that.
I was pretty confident my testicles had retreated into my body. I never thought it possible my entire body could shiver uncontrollably and of its own accord as I flailed the water trying to swim toward the two ducks.
All I remember thinking was that I had one mission, retrieve the ducks.
Halfway to the center of the stock tank, I realized I actually had two. Retrieve the ducks and find a way not to freeze and drown before I made it back to safety.
I remember using the ducks to scoop the chilled water past me as I tried to propel myself to the shore.
It’s a good thing they were already dead because me constantly slamming them against the surface of the water, and then pulling them under would have guaranteed a quick demise.
On a positive note, by the time I made it to shore and handed the ducks to my father, I’d managed to beat most of the two bird’s feathers off.
A little time-saving feature compliments of one very naked and wet, shivering uncontrollably as he dressed, human retriever.
After that episode and after receiving adamant protestations from me that I was not about to do that again, we packed up and started back to the truck.
In the bed of my grandfather’s pickup truck, his head nestled between his front legs, lay Dog, eyeing us as we neared. I stopped at the edge of the pickup still shivering, my hair plastered to my head, still dripping water, and we traded gazes.
Dog gave me a soulful look almost as if he understood what I’d just been through and was really apologetic. That day I couldn’t say as I blamed him much.
Being a retriever isn’t always as glorious a job as some folks might try to make it out to be.
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