Of Vanishing Birds, Dogs and Neckties
When I was a small boy I learned to love hunting. I suspect, however, that my affinity with it came even before. I fantasized about it and lived in its omnipresence. As I grew older I had a recurring dream. I harbored the fear that one day I would go afield to hunt and I would search and search to try to find the birds that were no longer there.
A while ago, I ultimately gave in to my German Shorthair’s incessantly nudging muzzle and pleading eyes and took him for a run. It was against my better judgment, for he was far too old. His back quarters were painfully gripped by arthritis and his vision weak, but the heartaches he gave me to take him hunting were far less bearable than my having to nurse his aching joints and sore muscles afterwards.
For several days I had endured his pleas, waiting for inclement weather to subside. As soon as it did I grabbed his belled collar, and he, in his heart at least, was an ecstatic pup again.
Seeing him that way reminded me of his habit of gathering toys as some dogs will, but the most unique idiosyncrasy was with that belled collar. I’d trained him with it and put it on him only when he hunted. It was used so that I would know where he was in heavy brush, but mostly, I confess, it was for me. Whenever I would hear their dancing jingle stop, my heart would quicken in anticipation of a point.
Whenever I was home during the cooler seasons he would take it off its hook and there sit, ears perked and amber eyes fixed on my every move with that collar draped from his jowls. An accidental bump of those bells in any season was my misfortune, and I’d pay dearly for it.
Due to his age I was reluctant to put him in rough terrain.
Remembering a spot not so distant from my West Islip home, I decided to give it a try. Passing by there once I noted that developers had done some clearing, but I did not know to what extent. I had seen some bulldozers and dump trucks stalking there like raptors as if to do their evil, but I gave those machines only a desultory thought. It appeared there still remained acreage enough for birds to survive and for a dog to run.
My heart sank as we arrived. I knew immediately my estimation of the extent or land clearing was wrong. Although some birds could remain in those isolated patches of cover still standing, we’d be hard pressed to hunt. Ghastly gray cement foundations loomed in acreage that was once a sylvan scene.
It was at one time fields of wispy grasses and milkweed interspersed with tangles of honeysuckle, patches of blackberry and Queen Anne’s lace, colored by dashes of bittersweet and splashes of goldenrod. Then, bobwhite and pheasant reigned, not workmen. Now, contractors ruled and those unfortunate birds the exception, trying to survive on meager fringes where slight bands of cover refuge those stalwart few.
How difficult it was to see this place. Once quail were counted by the covey. Pheasant would flush in bevies and the number of points the dog made in a day was too numerous to recall. But that was too many years ago. Now, where the whir of wings and the raucous squawk of the cock pheasant once unsettled the composure, the drone of engines shatters one’s nerves. The din of man had had arrived. I should have gone. I would have gone, but his whimpering got to me and I let him run.
As I watched the old dog try feebly to find those familiar scents, I reminisced. I thought of years beyond his youth; my mind wondered to years when I was a youth. Those memories, though fond and treasured, are rarely explored. They make me sad to know those memories are of things, times and places my sons and their sons will never know.
* * * *
I daydreamed of a huntsman – a gentleman huntsman in a necktie. He was my father and he kindled in me the hunting fever I thought would never subside. He was the very essence of the sport I love so much and so much loved to share with my dog.
I grew up in a rural area of Long Island where deer, small game and birds abounded. Becoming of age to go afield myself only cast in stone what my dad had molded. As I explore the imagery of my recollect, I can see that old, stained, corduroy, hunting jacket he wore. I’ve never seen a corduroy hunting-coat before, but I’ll never forget it. Nor can I ever forget the tie. He wore a necktie to go hunting. He was a magnificent huntsman in a necktie, and he, I thought, was in vogue, a gentleman huntsman dressed in deference to his sport.
The respect he held for the hunt was manifest in his youth when it supplied the table of an immigrant family and was, at times, its total subsistence. Naturally, in my mother’s house the hunter need not sustain the family; my dad the Long Island railroad engineer did that. Nonetheless, reality seldom distorted my childhood perceptions and I supposed him to be the hunting provider, the grandest huntsman whose table never was unfilled.
Intrigued, I yearned to go along on the hunt. Being too young, I was kept at home. Nothing, however, could keep my imagination at home, and so it flew. Whenever he was off hunting, I, too, was afield. I was at times the heroic Indian brave returned to a hungry camp with my trappings. I was the successful pilgrim welcomed to the village with needed game. I suppose, philosophically, every hunter feels there is something atavistic in his wont, an innate drive spawned by his predatory ancestors. As it was with me, I imagined it no other way.
He is gone now. Those days and times are gone now. Gone too is that old, brown, brush-worn corduroy coat; and I never see a huntsman in a necktie any more. Oh, how I wish I could look once more at those sepia photos of him and his unsmiling friends, the birds, and the neckties. Carelessness has lost those photos, and so even they are gone.
* * * *
Somewhere within my daydreaming and the watching of that aged, German dog, my melancholy gave way to lightheartedness. I became glad for my dog and content to know he had lived the life he had during that particular time. What times they were! Then he had done what he most loved to do — hunt. His every thought during his wakeful time was dedicated to it, and, I suspect, that even his dreams were occupied therein. Together we were out at every chance. I remember his first whimpering efforts to tag along. I recall clearly that first awkward point, and can vividly see its contrast to the classic ones he later made, perhaps his last, I feared.
As I watched that unstinting Shorthair labor along, my thoughts drifted back to those years we teamed up to hunt those game-filled fields. It was during that time that the pastoral scene began to change so drastically from the bucolic landscape that once was a haven glorious for him and me.
Years ago it began in the Hamptons. As if a giant land rush was on, soybean, corn and rye fields vanished. Builder’s stakes were everywhere. The foreboding, yellow flagged, excavation markers ominously portended the condominium cities to come.
As I looked for the dog I realized those times and places were lost forever. And so as I strained against the extraneous noises of civilization to hear if the waltz of the bells had stopped, I made a decision I never dreamed I’d make, but necessary to preserve those perceptions we all must keep. I knew I did not want to hunt any more, at least not for birds and certainly not without that great dog. I just knew I did not want to walk another field without him.
From beneath my necktie, within my thickened throat, that tear-barring lump that arises on such occasions came a shaky call: “Atta boy Spark, go get ‘em old guy. Go get ‘em.”
I knew my urging would only serve to make him try harder. The last thing he needed was to exert more effort on those staggering casts. But he was having fun and had I not tended him as I always had, he may have thought I was disappointed in his work. I could not stand that, so I’d make the tremulous call again, and again he’d course and check the wind to try to find the birds that were no longer there.