Growing up, we never had a dog. We had a calico cat for a very long time and I had a quail for a couple of years. Not dogs. It seems an odd omission to me now for such a traditional family as were we.
In adulthood, though, I had dreams of owning a great quail dog. A lot of that vision came from reading Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy.” His dogs were Frank and Sandy. They were heroic. Always, I listened to Uncle Reg (my “old Man”) tell of his childhood pointers in Eufaula, Alabama, back when quail was a winter staple on the dinner table. He had a famed pointer named Dixie just prior to my entry into the world, when quail were still prolific in what is now Loch Lomond and Wessex Place and The Lakes on Fayetteville’s west side.
My first bird dog experiences were behind Reggie’s less-accomplished pointer named Lady during the time that Reggie was introducing me to the woods. My best memory of her was when Granddaddy put her in the trunk of his Oldsmobile 88 and took us to some farm in Raeford. Granddaddy stuck the car in the heavy end of the bean field while following Lady and me around the tree line. He grumbled when the farmer showed up to yank him out, accompanied by a hired hand. He said that meant he had to pay both of them. It made not much of a dog and quail story, but the memory is indelible.
Upon my return to North Carolina in 1985, I wasted no time in filling that canine void. My first dog was a black and white bouncing pointer puppy named Sawyer. Had I ever sent in the registration form, he was going to be formally named “Sawyer Potential.” There was a George Dickel advertisement in those days of a cowboy taking a bath in a cast iron tub, bourbon drink in hand, dog on the floor. Neighbor Tom Prewitt busted me living the illustration in real life one evening, only Sawyer was in the tub with me. I did a poor job of the early sit-and-stay commands though. Sawyer died on Cypress Lakes Road one morning before work as he rooted a sparrow out of the roadside thicket and failed to heed my “WHOA!”
Dr. Fred Stowe and I ended up sitting next to each other one evening when I was a guest at Cedar Creek’s famed Twin Pines Club. Our conversation turned to quail. Upon hearing of my dream of a good dog, Dr. Stowe said he had a broke dog he would give me. I am unsure if he took my acceptance seriously until a few days later when I drove up his driveway intent on claiming my gift. I left with my very own Dixie, a brown and white English setter in middle age. She will never be found in the annals of famed Quaildom, but she did inspire one of my favorite original poems from a time when we walked home together on the last day of the season. We loved the journey and we loved each other, despite the all-too-prevalent empty bird vest.
Abby was next. She was a wild beast with uncontainable energy. The pinnacle of her career occurred on an afternoon in Parkton with Jim MacRae and Alex Sutherland. We put out on a Joe Parnell cutover next to harvested soybeans. The birds were there – at least until Abby ran through them at 35 miles per hour. Jimbo suggested re-naming her “Flush.” It stuck, and so she was for the rest of her life.
My next dog, Kay, was adopted by David Stewart and me from Wintergreen Quail Preserve. She was a sweet and gentle thing. Mr. Bill Storms trained her. When retrieving a bird, she would gently teethe it by the head and carry it back to a waiting hand. Some dude had abandoned her at season’s end the prior year. David paid the kennel tab and I took her out of foster care in Bladenboro, setting her up as a permanent resident in Eastover. She was happy for five or so years, hunting for David and me. Every dog has some flaws though, and hers was a tendency to disappear as the shadows lengthened on a day afield. She earned the nickname of Runaway Kay.
The closest that I will perhaps come to fulfillment of my dream, though, rests this afternoon in the big kennel in the backyard under a dog house made of stacked hay bales with a hollowed-out cavern in the middle. Bob Caviness had given me a book by Mike Gaddis called “Jenny Willow.” The heroine was a black and white setter. I wanted one.
She was born at A. C. Caldwell’s kennel near Rockfish in the July heat in 2006. I named her Summer. After gleaning the best of puppy love, I sent her to Quail College in Bunnlevel to study under Professor Terry Herndon. Those were wonderful days, getting progress reports on the phone and before Sunday School and dropping in for Parent’s Weekend and watching Summer respond to Terry’s hand signals and watching her profile in style behind some unseen quail that was surely out there in front somewhere.
Her graduation from Bunnlevel University was followed by graduate training in Junction City, Kansas, in December 2009. In the wind and snow with below-zero night temperatures, Summer pointed midwestern quail alongside seven other setters and two other hunters. We have since been to western Oklahoma for bobwhites. We have been many times to the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia with Norman Thorp chasing ruffed grouse. We have enjoyed the intermittent woodcocks in swampy spots. We have found wild quail in Cumberland, Bladen, Pender and Granville counties. She has enjoyed the gluttony of the quail preserves, pointing to hundreds of the pen-raised variety grown there.
When quail fields prove barren, she subscribes to the “any port in a storm” theory too. Once, at the edge of the Bladen Game Lands in White Lake, she pointed a tom turkey squatting under a deadfall. She treed a possum in Kansas; wrestled an armadillo in Oklahoma; ran a giant buck out of a midwestern plum thicket. She loves to brim fish at Franklin Johnson’s pond, standing knee-deep in the mud and lunging for the bluegill as I lift them out of the water. We have also pointed honeybees in the clover in the big dog pen. She has developed a hatred for the squirrels that eat the pears from the primary shade tree in the pen. Summer has a particular bark that is unique to squirrels and she fails to understand why I shoot fleeing quail while I give a pass to thieving squirrels. She has also developed a taste for the pears themselves when they fall to the ground. There is something very funny about walking up to her pen to find her chomping a ripe pear held between her paws.
It used to be that she would sprint back and forth waiting for me when the truck breached the driveway. At her gate, she would leap straight into the air, over and over, hoping I would come inside the pen to lie down in the grass with her. She perceived my every movement, even 250 feet from the back door of the house. She heard every utterance and waited at the gate for my recognition.
Now, a hundred boxes of shells later, she can barely hear me at all, even when I speak directly to her. The clouds in her eyes have stolen any clarity. She is thin and odoriferous.
We have done together far more than we will yet do. She is an old woman, but with a young girl’s heart.
One Sunday a couple of years back, when she could not rise, and I thought the end was at hand, I asked my veterinarian with whom I worship if he would look at her after church. He agreed.
She was motionless on the back seat when I arrived at his office. Carrying her in my arms, I felt sure this would end with a shovel, and I lost it before Doc swabbed the first q-tip or filled the first syringe. But he found nothing wrong. He predicted that she had injured her neck somehow and told me just to let her stay as still as she would. Two weeks later, she was climbing the hills of Virginia on the opening day of grouse season.
Often, I measure my past by the dog that I had. “That was when I had Kay” or “That was about the time Fred Stowe gave me Dixie.” Some day sooner than later, I will mark the years as the ones when Summer was my girl – the dog days of Summer.
For now, I have a real good idea of where there is a covey of birds in Granville County living on the edge of a pine cutover lined with sawtooth oaks and lespedeza. Summer sees them too, despite the clouded vision.