I wear wedge-soled boots. Yes, I know they are not necessarily attractive. If I tried really hard I could probably find the money for custom ostrich or elephant boots, but I wear plain leather, wedge-soled work boots. I have to buy a pair every two years or so, and I hate them when they are new, but not because the new ones are less comfortable. In fact, wedge-soled boots are the most comfortable the day you buy them, or a week or two later at most. The reason I hate the new ones is because they don’t look like his. I swell with pride from an oil stain or barbed wire gash. I wear blood spots like a military decoration of valor.
You see, he wore wedge-soled boots. Not to church, but nearly every other day. He left them by our back door when he came in. there they would be when I got off the bus, when he had come to get me. On rainy days they were caked with thick, red mud, in the Mississippi summer heat they would fill with dust and be streaked with sweat. He’d slip them on, grab my jacket, and off we would go.
I’m not sure if he knew I needed him. As a boy I longed to know how to clean out a fuel line or fix a bailer. I am not sure if he knew that what I was after, what I knew he could teach me, was far more important than the individual tasks to be done. It was how to be “like” the other boys in our small, rural town. I am not even positive if he liked my company, though I think he did, or maybe he was just that charitable, but I learned.
In the same way my father taught me to dig through reports until you had answers, or study till you could not be shaken from the truth you had proven to yourself, he taught me to work – hard, long, physical work. It is because of him that I rarely have to call a plumber or electrician. It is because of him that I feel at home in a parts house or hardware store. I ask for tools naturally, by their proper name, or by the nickname they are just called for one reason or another. I sing old country songs and role down the windows on “hay cutting weather” days, even though I have a working air conditioner and may never need to cut hay again. I’m not afraid to sweat, and I know how long I can run a chainsaw before I need to take a break. I know these things because he took the time to teach me.
He was the strongest man I ever knew. My own personal Clark Kent in a blue step-side Chevy, and my Hero wore wedge-soled boots. I never once pondered having a life without him. I knew my other loved ones would eventually succumb to one ailment or another, but it never occurred to me that he could be taken away.
I saw him there in the hospital bed the day the truck rolled over on him, and I half expected him to stand up, groan, and stretch like he just got up from his lunch and say, “Let’s get back to it.” I thought he would be there to help me when I started a family of my own. I thought he would always be there to guide both me and them.
Now, they just told me I am having a son, and there are so many things I thought he would help me teach the boy. I don’t know if I can remember what size socket takes off a spark plug if the spark plug socket is missing, or that trick to splitting the last two fence boards evenly so you don’t end up with a slender piece that will warp, or a million other things.
Oh well, I’ll just have to think real hard and try to remember some of all he taught me. What I really want to remember is the way he taught me. I want to be able to teach my son that way, and I know for sure where to start: by going to the back door and sliding on my wedge-soled boots.
Today was finally the day I have dreaded for some twelve years. Of course, we all know how this is going to end. We pick up that little ball of fluff, give him a name, and let him chew our noses those first few nights away from his litter, and we know that this is all going to end poorly. We know the reality. That we usually outlive these wonderful four legged family members. So, today I got the call that my hunting buddy, my counselor through the hardest time in my life, and my best friend is going to die of cancer. It is true that I knew all those years ago how this was going to end, but it is even harder than I expected. I try to make it my habit to not let a kind word to a friend be left unsaid until it is too late. I do not ever want to loose someone before they know my love for them. It took a large group of people to make the best duck dog I ever knew, and today I will remember.
Mom and Dad, your passion for the outdoors, especially duck hunting, started a fire in me that I pray will never go out. You will always be my favorite hunting buddies. Thank you for being a great cheering section for Mossy during all these years. I will remember the family hunts.
To the late Fred Riley, who forgot more about making a great dog than I could ever hope to learn. Thank you for always being there with advice and guidance when my knowledge ran out. I think of you every time I hear a raspy duck call, and I still yell BACK the way you taught me as a kid. It reminds me of you every time I hear myself do it. I will remember the education you gave.
George Tomlinson, you and our friend Jeb led me to find Candlewood Kennels, and I will always be grateful. I will remember the first morning I saw Big Jeb work. He powered through the decoys like nothing I had ever seen. I will remember Jeb was the dog that started it all.
Mary Howley, you are a legend and an inspiration to all of us who love these animals. Thank you for taking my phone call, and thank you for the best friend I ever had. I will remember the gift.
Charlie Moody, you are a cherished friend first, but your talents with dog training are awesome to watch. Thank you for not only training Mossy, but also training me to be his handler. I will remember the training.
To all my hunt test, field trial and training buddies. Thanks for reminding me to put my whistle in my mouth BEFORE I go to the line. I will remember the wonderful days afield.
Most of all, to Mossy, you are the toughest dog I know. I named you Candlewoods Mossy Sunup after my favorite time in my favorite place. You have made them both so much better than I could have known. I hope I have never failed you. Thank you for overlooking my shortcomings, and always turning back to take my guidance when the whistle blew. I will see your sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters for years to come, but I wager that nothing will ever compare to the memories we shared together. Every time one of them hands me a bird I will remember you.
I will remember your first hunt in the hellhole, Stockett and Dinkins laughing as you picked up my Merganser even though it didn’t feel just right. The greatest dog I ever knew, and his first real retrieve was a Merganser. Sorry buddy, it was dark and I thought it was a woody. That first year you picked up over three hundred ducks, but you knew it was just the beginning. I remember thinking what a great season, and it was. How was I to know that you would top that number for the next eleven years in a row? I will remember the beginning.
I will remember all those times we walked to the competition line together, my heart beating out of my chest and you bouncing on lead like you were on springs. I have rarely had prouder moments then when you and I were in sink, and it all just clicked. Like the time old Perk tried to mess us up on a master test with two remote sit blinds with poison birds. You lined them both, no whistle needed. Walking off the line, Perk whispered, “I’ll hunt over that dog in the Hotel Blind any time.” That very next season he did, and you put on a clinic. I will remember your competitive spirit.
I will remember the Mallard hunt at Darrel’s brake. That was the moment that I knew you were more than special. I shouldn’t recall how many birds you delivered to hand in less than an hour that morning, but I will never forget the pride I had in you for the way you had become unflappable. Guns firing all around you, ducks landing inches from your face, you never came off the next mark as I stacked Green Head after Green Head on that old log. I will remember your focus in the heat of the hunt.
I will remember hunting with Fred in the bean field pit. The day we knocked down that goose that soared nearly out of sight. I wasn’t sure when I sent you, but you seemed to have the mark, of course you did. After that hunt, I never had to doubt you again. Watching you return with that fully alive bird. Its wing was covering your face. I will always laugh when I think of having to blow the whistle all the way in because you could not see through the feathers and you just ran toward the sound of my whistle. As you got closer, Fred said, “That damn bird is wearing him out.” You didn’t whimper as that goose pecked you on the top of the head over and over so hard it sounded like someone banging a cowbell. When you delivered that bird to my hand I knew you were tough as a pine knot and you are showing me that more than ever these final days. I will remember your toughness.
I will remember the season we moved to the camp and hunted almost every day. Having the “Perfect Season” with you may have been the only thing that kept me moving forward through those dark days. I remember the last afternoon in Charlie Scott’s bean field pit. Chris was back from war and Charlie and I celebrated with you picking up your 507th duck of the year. Watching you pick up ducks for one more morning was the only thing that got me out of bed those months, and your love for me was palpable. Some people may not understand this, but you and I went through that loss together, and I will remember your love for me.
I will remember the next year you got heartworms. I thought my own heart would break, but you just took the treatment and shook it off like the man you are. You only missed one meal through the entire thing, and I had to make you slow down while your body recovered. I will remember your strength.
Boy did you ever recover. I will remember the morning you took that beautiful line in the Hotel Hole. Down the ramp, off the log, through the water, over a log, through more water, over another log, split the trees, past the dead fall, dive, MISSED, through the duckweed, past the stump, dive again, RETRIEVE! Then you returned the exact way you went. It was well over 100 yards through rough terrain. I will remember Dad saying, “That is the finest retrieve I have ever seen”. We named that stump for you that morning and I will remember that retrieve every time I pass it.
I will remember the week Brent and I decided to stay and hunt Monday before heading back home. You and old Slick taking turns down the dog ramp to make retrieve after retrieve. A lot of dogs will honor in a training situation, but you sat on a log and watched as another dog pick up ducks your dad shot in your blind. Not a lot of dogs would do that. I will remember that you are a gentleman.
I will remember Halloween, and the first date that turned out to be our last. You embraced new love and even a new brother, Lawson. We may not have picked him for our pack, but it was you that gave me that look which said, “Dad, He doesn’t know any better”, every time I wanted to kill him. After five years I wouldn’t trade him for anything. I will remember those first nights at Kim’s house.
I will remember you and “Fish”. Kim was sick for months during the pregnancy, and you never left the doorway. How do you know the thing that is needed and just do it? I will remember your loving care of our soon to be family. I will remember your care.
I will remember you and Wren. She pulled and poked you and you never so much as raised an eye. I have dreamed my entire life of my kids climbing on my duck dogs. I am so blessed that you are the one that made that dream come true. I will remember your tenderness.
I could go on and on, I didn’t deserve you, and I certainly held you back. Who knows what you could have done in the hands of a more experienced handler? I am blessed and so proud to have been your master. You are my friend and family. Home will be less without you in it. I will remember you, old friend, and I know that someday we will spend eternity where it is always opening day, the skies are always bluebird, the sun is always in their eyes, and the wind is always on our back. Until that day, I will remember.