I had a friend ask me to re post this story in its entirety. Its a true story and I had to write it in three segments taking a a break in between because to be honest, I cried my eyes out.
The year was 1977 and, at times, it feels like a lifetime ago. This was the year that my best friend and I were introduced to the art of upland bird hunting. My friends name was Sam and she was as fine a pointer as one could ever wish for. Before you can truly understand my relationship with Sam you have to let me digress to a couple years before. It was I believe 1975 and my father had begun dropping hints that he knew a man who had some pointer puppies for sale. I assumed that the rolling of my mother’s eyes was a rather casual way of saying no. So, rather than risk a debate with my mother about the logic of having a bird dog, he simply bought the dog and gave it to me. After all what mother could not see the humor in that? We named her Sam and she became the vehicle through which I was to learn about responsibility. Over her short life she taught me more about life than I would ever learn from a human mentor. I fed and watered her daily, we became buddies. At some point in her very early days with us she became deathly sick. Somehow, between me feeding her children’s aspirin and the numerous trips to our veterinarian, she did pull through and all was good in the world once again. To this very moment I can still remember the looks of worry, and even fear, on my father’s face every day when he came home. It was a scary time for a young kid. Well, old Sam turned out to be a wonderful pointer and developed a unique personality somewhere along the way. Dogs have a funny way of developing a personality early on in their lives. We hunted pheasants on the Friday’s farm and partridge in, what seemed like at that age, some pretty faraway places. She would work a bird like a dog that was possessed, give a rock solid point and on the rare occasion my father would miss she had a look that said “good job you goober”. Sadly enough she was only destined to impact our lives for three full hunting seasons. In late November of her last season came the two hunts that even today I can recall every detail of.
The first hunt we went up north, everyone in Michigan went “up north” at least once during hunting season, hunting partridge or “pat”. It was our normal crew of Don Me High, his son Todd and their dog “Mike”. We walked and walked for what seemed like an eternity. Finally Don bagged a couple partridge, which was not much for a 13 hour day of driving and bird hunting. Since we all rode in Dons truck which had a camper on the back, Todd and I were to stay back there with the dogs and make sure they didn’t destroy the place. (Yea I know it’s illegal to do that but it was the 1970s) Well Todd and I, being boys, decided to get in the bunk above the cab and wave at every single car that passed us for the entire ride back. While we were busy with waving at these people and causing our fathers to wonder why everyone was waving at them, the dogs were also having fun… They played tug of war with the birds and there were pieces of bird and feathers everywhere. I really thought I was going to die when we got home but, all I got was a stern look and a lecture. I am pretty sure I narrowly avoided the butt whipping of my life that evening.
The second hunt was a very late season pheasant hunt at the Friday’s farm. The dogs, Sam and Mike, were pointed in a small depression, and Don carried his shotgun down to the birds. Both dogs were pointed and rigid, as if they were frozen in the cold autumn air. I remember thinking it looked like they were having a contest to see who could be the best statue. Although I was but a child I had a distinct feeling of pride as I watched my Sam hold that point. What I did not know was that the scene playing out before my eyes was worthy of a Courier and Ives print. The frost lay so heavy and thick it appeared that the dogs were pointed in a snow covered bowl. It was late November and so cold that you see the dog’s breath in the morning air. It appeared that the whole scenario was being played out in slow motion right before my eyes. As Don neared the dogs, not one but two, roosters flushed. I saw the first bird crumble, and for some odd reason I was so captivated that I had stopped breathing, then watched in awe as he continued swinging his gun through and dropped the second bird. The scene had played out just far enough away that I watched the smoke come from his barrel and saw the bird’s fall just a split second before I heard the reports of his gun. Why that memory has stayed with me now for over thirty years I don’t know, maybe it was because Even though I was there it felt like I was witnessing something sacred. Perhaps it was because that was my friend Sam’s last point.
Shortly after that last hunt Sam became ill again. This time it was stomach cancer and things were not looking good. I found out about it because, in Michigan, houses have basements. While my father was talking to my mother about how he was terribly afraid she was going to die, I was listening to them talk through the heating vent in my bedroom. He knew the devastation would be great and was not going to be easy. He didn’t know that I heard him through the heating vents that night, in fact he never knew, until we both relived Sam’s last point the day before he passed away himself nearly 25-years later. So I did what any red blooded boy would do, I sucked it up and decided to be a trooper and not let him know how bad it hurt. Well at first the Vet, who was my father’s friend, advised us to put her to sleep but in my family that was not an option. Then they decided to try surgery to remove part of her stomach. The surgery was going to be expensive and the outlook not very good but he agreed to let my father assist him and reduced the price to a reasonable amount. In times like that a bird hunting vet is a gift straight from the heavens above. The surgery went well and Sam came home so we could observe and take care of her. She was moved from her home outside into my father’s Den. After a week Neither Sam or my father could take it anymore. The vet gave us the long face and walked away with tears in his eyes.
What we did next is very hard for non-hunters and dog owners to understand. You see Sam loved nothing more than the report of a gun. She pointed her first bird out at the Friday’s farm and heard the report of my father’s Ithaca model 37 featherweight or my topper shotgun many times on that farm. So we loaded Sam in a sheet, for she was unable to walk and had lost nearly all her weight, and headed to the farm. I will never forget as we pulled through the gate Sam raised her head and tried to wag her tail. It was as if she knew that even though she lost her battle with cancer that it was ending on her terms. In view of the cornfields she has pointed pheasants in all her short life, master by her side, and the young boy who loved her tagging along. We drove back into the woods to the very tree I was setting under the day I killed my first squirrel. Together, my father and I dug a grave. He laid Sam in the grave and told me to walk down to the creek and find a suitable rock for a headstone, as I got to the creek I heard the report of my father’s .22 rifle. By the time I ran back to the grave the old man had her covered up and was just setting there, in what I believe to this day was a combination of shock and remorse. I was absolutely crushed and cried for nearly four hours. There were no words spoken during that time and all I can remember was the weight of the old man’s hand on my shoulder and the fact he cried. We went and got a headstone from the creek and finished the grave. That was the last memory I have of bird hunting but it was the first in a string of life’s lessons learned behind a gun or in a river. That gravesite would become something that probably saved my life twenty some odd years later but I can get ahead of myself here.