Friday, September 13, 2013

Closing Time: Blitz

When I lived in Omaha I got a dog.

That was January of 1968.

Since I was going to get out of the Air Force in December and return to Oregon, and returning to Oregon meant returning to bird hunting, I wanted to have my own hunting dog.

There was a classified ad in the Omaha paper for a litter of German Shorthaired Pointers. I called and made an appointment to see them, and I went to see if my dog was among the litter of puppies.

It was a large litter of Beautiful little dogs, about eight weeks old. They ranged in color from almost solid brown and liver to an almost white one. Then there was my dog. He was the classic tri-color mix of brown, liver and white.

I was sitting on the floor looking at all the little squirming beings when my dog emerged from the litter and came over and sat on my lap.

It turned out his name was Blitz and he lived with me for the next thirteen years.

When Blitz was about four months old my friend Jack got back from Vietnam.

I had escaped a few months before him.

On his way to his new duty assignment he came and stayed in Omaha with me for several weeks.

I had heard of “voco” leave which was leave that one’s superior officer could grant at his discretion and which didn’t count as official leave. I asked and it was granted. I think my boss was relieved to have one less person sitting around without enough to do while waiting for security clearance preparatory to being briefed into the mission.

So Jack and I had two weeks to initiate Blitz into the Noel and Jack show.

We decided to take him out and show him a pheasant.

It was early March so we couldn’t actually go hunting, but we could go look for birds, and perhaps even “salute” them (fire our guns into the air) as they flushed. This seemed like a great way to introduce Blitz to his purpose in life. We decided to cross the border into South Dakota where there were supposed to be more pheasants than people.

When we got into likely looking country, it was a typical north-mid-western spring day. The sky was a sort of blue grey mix of clouds and patches of sunlight. The wind was both a sound and a feel. It was cold but not unpleasant. We had stopped at a large reservoir and were looking over the lake from a rise on the Nebraska side. The terrain was rocky with quantities of scrub and runty cactus. Blitz had seemed to enjoy the two hour ride that preceded our arrival. He seemed to especially like the song “The Mighty Quinn”. There was something about the chorus that had caused him to jump up from the floor where he lay next to my feet every time the chorus of that song came on the radio. And the song was apparently very high on the charts, because it seemed to come on every fifteen minutes.

So we started walking.

Blitz was ready.

He was already manifesting the trait of acting like a tightly coiled spring which is a trademark of a German Shorthaired-Pointer.

But his enthusiasm couldn’t hide the fact that he didn’t have a clue about what we were doing or what he was expected to do.

That’s the most exciting time in one’s relationship with a young hunting dog.

It’s also the most fragile.

If anything goes wrong, such as a gun being fired at the wrong time or in the wrong way the dog can be finished as a hunter early and permanently.

Apparently that same spirit that had been present the first time a flock of chukkars slid down the wind behind and past me making me, in one fel swoop, into a hunter was present on this day also.

Almost immediately Blitz’s tail started wagging frantically.

With an experienced dog that was always a sure sign that they had gotten the scent of a bird.

With a novice, I had no idea for sure what it meant.

I had never hunted with anybody but Blaze, Jack’s father’s dog. And Blaze was experienced. But I had a deep well of hope for Blitz, and he was looking like he was figuring out rapidly what it was that he was supposed to do for a living.

He looked back at us to see if we were behind him and kept casting about in increasingly large circles.

Then he slammed to a halt.

We were right behind him and almost stumbled over him he had stopped so abruptly and stayed so solidly.

We were about to find out, and rather early in the exercise, whether he knew what he was talking about. Because “talk” is exactly the only description that is possible to assign to what a good bird dog does when tracking a bird or a covey. The wagging tail means “hey guys, they’ve been here recently.” The casting circles mean “I’m on them; it won’t be long now.” As the dog gets more experience with a variety of birds and the hunter gets more experienced with the language of the dog some fairly specific statements get added to the vocabulary.

Depending upon the terrain, the dog’s actions can tell the hunter what kind of bird he’s tracking.

If it’s in cheat grass and the dog is doing the wagging and casting in an uncontrolled nearly irrational manner it means he’s tracking Hungarian Partridges.

If it’s along a riverbank with basalt ridges and occasional talus slopes and the dog is running in a fairly straight line across the hillside it means he’s on chukkars.

If it’s in a fairly flat area with a lot of junipers and the dog has his nose in the air as he casts it means that he’s tracking quail. Quail like to sit in junipers.

If it’s near the corner of a wheat field and the dog has been crouching and moving rapidly forward with his nose to the ground for an extended time period it means he’s tracking a rooster pheasant.

If the same terrain and crouching forward progress comes to a quick point it means it’s a hen or immature pheasant.

In all cases a kind of half hearted point usually accompanied by some backward glances at the hunter means, “here’s a snake.”

In all cases a slam stop to a point means, “Here it is.”

And Blitz the rookie had just slam stopped to a point. He crouched lower and lower to the ground. His tail increased to hummingbird wing speed, becoming a near blur. He was progressing slower and slower until he suddenly did a prehensile whip turn to his left, bending his body completely 180 degrees back toward us.

We could see his eyes focused on something in some other dimension looking in the direction of the scent that he and his ancestors had been bred to seek as their life’s work.

The protocol at this point is supposed to be: the dog holds the bird in place by some magic power and the hunter moves slowly up on the indicated location from behind the dog with the intention of breaking the hold and causing the bird to flush; then there is supposed to be a successful shot downing the bird.

We had left the guns in the car because, since it was out of hunting season, we felt it would be difficult to explain to law enforcement that we were only saluting the game. We felt reasonably sure that anyone seeing that activity would suppose merely that we were scofflaws and bad marksmen to boot.

So the protocol needed to go forward to the flush but without an actual gunshot. We had decided previously if we got to that stage of Blitz’s introduction to birds that we would shout “bang” as loudly as possible as a simulation.

I was too nervous to be the flusher-hunter. I had too much emotional capital tied up in Blitz becoming a good hunting dog. I needed Jack to take the hunter role. Since Blitz had whipped around putting the bird between him and us (a highly desirable trait that can’t be taught) the flush would occur, not ahead of the dog, but between the dog and the hunter.

In the military they called it a pincer movement.

All of this was exciting to the point of being electrical.

But it was Blitz’s eyes that were the whole show.

Blitz had yellow eyes that looked like an eagle’s eyes. This was not the normal color of German Shorthair eyes, but it was common enough to have a name: bird of prey eyes.

His eyes were physically about the same size as human eyes. As I watched Jack moving slowly toward him, and as Blitz continued to stare into some other dimension his eyes became so large and so yellow that they looked like two glittering yellow lamps.

He was frozen still except for a slight trembling down the lateral plane of his body.

Jack moved slowly forward.

Blitz was frozen in place.

Time went into that slow motion movie mode that came into my life at moments of extreme stress.

Then time slowed even more, almost to a stop.

Then it reversed.

The whole scene erupted into frantic sound and motion.

From between Jack and Blitz a rooster pheasant exploded into the air with a characteristic cackle as he burst over Blitz’s head. Jack yelled at the top of his voice “Bang, you beautiful son of a bitch, bang.”

Blitz started as if awakened from a trance. His eyes immediately became normal size, although still bright yellow. One lone feather drifted to the ground and Blitz jammed his nose into it with a yelp of joy.

Apparently, we shouted to each other, we had ourselves a hunting dog.

In the years that followed, the permutations and variations of the day Blitz found his purpose in life were always exciting.

There were so many other days.

Frequently those other days were magical.

There was the first pheasant that I ever shot.

Blitz found it, pointed it, held it, and I flushed it.

Then I shot it.

That was later in the year after the South Dakota expedition. It was in Nebraska in a snow-bound field from a snow-bound thicket close to sundown.

The horizon was deep salmon with blue black above as Blitz and I walked back to the car congratulating each other over our first successful hunt.

There were the times that Jack and I had had to watch from midway up the slopes of Hell’s Canyon as Blitz worked his way methodically through massive flocks of chukkars. He never was able understand that humans weren’t able to lope from one side of a canyon to the other in five or six minute time segments. So he hunted and we watched. It was beautiful. Strictly speaking it was also a violation of how dogs and hunters are supposed to work – the dog is not supposed to range so far from the hunter that proper point/hold/flush/shoot etiquette is impossible – but we felt that it would have been wrong to penalize Blitz for the fact that we had chosen terrain that was unhuntable for humans.

There was the early frosty morning in Southeastern Idaho when Jack and his law school friend Ted and I stood on a little lava outcropping above a small field of grass.

We had been hunting for a couple of hours and there hadn’t been a tail wag from Blitz or Brown. (Brown had joined our team one early spring evening on a boat ramp in Portland and had been with Jack ever since. On the boat ramp he was a three or four month old puppy that someone had lost or someone had abandoned. He was all brown and he was all German shorthair. That had meant that he was all hunter.)

The grass had turned from what had probably been a bright green to a blades-down-on- the-ground-dead-looking-blue-black.

The field was flat.

The relief above the flattened blades couldn’t have been even a half-inch.

We could see the entire field. It was obvious that there was nothing there. We could see that there could be nothing bigger than a frozen cricket lurking in that field.

But the dogs started frantically wagging their tails and galloped down off the lava rise to the frozen grass below.

Almost immediately they both were on point both on the same bird.

Or at least that was what they were saying.

We didn’t believe it.

We decided that they had lost all sense of perspective and reality because of the two hours of futility that they had just experienced and that that they had been driven to theatrics.

But we owed it to them to humor them.

The three of us came up behind the dogs just as if we believed that there was a bird that were so small that it was able to hide in the blackened grass.

The dogs were acting as if the bird they had invented was a hen pheasant; they hadn’t had to run after it, and their points were staunch from the outset.

As we got to where there would have been a bird if the possibility of such a thing hadn’t been impossible several hen pheasants rose into the air. We couldn’t shoot because the season was roosters only. But we were amazed. The dogs had somehow caused birds the size of a chicken to appear in cover that wouldn’t have hidden a mouse.

And the dogs immediately started saying that there were more.

And there were more.

And enough of them were roosters that even with the shoddy shooting that the three of us brought to the field we called it a day a couple of hours later with three limits.

That was nine birds.

And that hadn’t counted the numerous roosters who had escaped with merely a salute.

There had been twenty or thirty birds that we actually had brought to point and flushed, and it must have been possible that that many more had slid out ahead of us.

The dogs had had all they could handle with the ones that stayed behind.

And I had begun to learn that Blitz had a lot to tell me if I could only learn how to listen.

There were the charges Blitz and I made through sage and juniper patches tracking small sub coveys of quail that had split off from a large covey that had been flushed from the branches of a juniper. There were the charges up to the corner of a hillside wheat field where the peasants always and inevitably froze under Blitz’s point. It took a long time for me to learn what Blitz was trying to teach me and for me to trust him implicitly: if he took off from the sagebrush at a tail wagging crouching gallop toward a wheat field on a hill he was always going to go on point at the downhill place where the field came to an acute angle with itself.

It took years for me to learn all he had to teach me.

It all ended in Atlanta.

Blitz was thirteen and hadn’t hunted since the fall of his tenth year. His tenth year was the fall before the spring that we moved to Atlanta. I hadn’t thought that it was likely that I would be hunting in Atlanta, so we had worked hard that last fall.

By that year Jack didn’t have time to hunt much anymore. He was actively engaged in the work schedule and politics of becoming a successful lawyer in Lewiston. He and his partner Ted had all kinds of things going, including being the impetus behind getting a new community bank - Seaport Citizens - started. Neither Jack nor Ted had much time for anything else. I myself had not hunted much for several years either.

As Blitz’s tenth year hunting season loomed I hadn’t gotten the promotion to Atlanta yet, but in my mind I was already gone. All I was going to have to do was to get the cogs in the IBM wheel to recognize the fact that I needed to be gone.

So the fall of 1978 became a major hunting fall for Blitz and me.

Bill who was one of my fraternity brothers accompanied me on those last fall hunting trips.

When I pledged the fraternity Bill had been our pledge master. Pledges in our fraternity were assigned de jura the status of semi-person or a nearly non-person. They were told to look up to the initiated members and to aspire to be like them. If some day a pledge had the good fortune to be initiated he would rise to the status of a full person. Until that day a sort of keeper was required for the fraternity's supply of pledges. That keeper was the pledge master. In the case of the group of pledges of which I was a part, Bill had been that person.

Bill was a rather quiet, rather intense sort of person. He was medium height, had curly brown hair and black eyes that seemed to spark when he exercised his authority as pledge master. Although he exercised that authority, and played the role of the whip cracking pledge master, it was obvious almost immediately to us pledges that he was really a good guy.

Bill had a physical characteristic that set him apart from the rest of us. His hands were extremely misshapen with totally irregular and abbreviated fingers. It was not the sort of thing one would notice, certainly not in an initial encounter. But Bill was socially sensitive. When meeting new people he had an extremely firm handshake, made all the more noticeable by the fact that he had irregular and significantly abbreviated fingers.

Bill and I had stayed at some level of social contact after college and continued it when I returned to Portland from the Air Force and had gone to work for IBM. The common factor between us had been another fraternity brother, Tom. Tom had been in my pledge class and we had been initiated together. Bill had been our mutual pledge master.

The nature of that post-college relationship with Bill had been that of occasionally having drinks together. Those drinks had usually occurred at a party at Tom’s house. Tom had lots of parties. He and his wife Betsy loved giving parties. And the vestiges of the fraternity that were still in and around Portland loved going to them. It was from the conversations I had with Bill at these occasions that I had learned that he liked to hunt, and that, in fact, he hunted a lot.

He was so familiar with the area that I usually hunted that in one of our conversations about hunting at one of Tom and Betsy’s parties he mentioned the town of Dufur. Dufur was a little town out in the wheat fields above the Columbia. Bill said that he was around Dufur so much that he had decided to run for mayor of Dufur. He asked my opinion of the tag line he had decided for his campaign. “Ask not what Dufur can do fer you; ask instead what you can do fer Dufur.”

Based on that story, I had found it compellingly necessary to ask him if he wanted to go with Blitz and me on our first trip of the 1978 season. That trip was going to be the opening of pheasant season in eastern Oregon.

That season turned out to be a special one beyond the fact that it was the last one. Blitz was the best he had ever been. I was as well-trained by him as I was ever going to get. And Bill was a deadly shot. Knowing that I had someone with me who could actually hit things made me a calmer, slower, better shot as well. What had started as an opening day experiment to see if Bill would fit in with Blitz and me immediately became a rest of the bird season set of weekends in the field. And we always got birds.

I had known that Bill really didn’t have anything anyone would describe as fingers, so I was constantly amazed how he could draw down on a bird and pull the trigger with the smooth flowing, consistent deadly accuracy that he did. But he did. And he smoked a pipe. Keeping a pipe properly filled and tamped and lit is an everlasting exercise in manual dexterity. And he tied trout flies. Winding thread and feathers around a small hook and adding snippets of duck quill as wings and adding sprigs of tendril from hackles as a tail takes all the manual skill a person with two full fingered hands possesses. Bill did it and did it beautifully with almost no fingers. I came to the realization that he purposely acquired skills requiring significant manual dexterity.

That was his way of not letting what some would bemoan as a handicap not be handicap. Bill turned his fingers into a goad to excellence. And it worked.

Our routine was to be in the field at sunrise and hunt until we might have been pushing our legal obligation to quit at sunset.

That involved a lot of walking.

Some of the walking was at fairly high speed if one wanted to be with the dog when he came to point.

It wasn’t until the first night the three of us spent in a motel in Wasco that I discovered that Bill was missing the better part of one of his feet. The same process that had left him with hands that should have been useless, but weren’t, had left him with one equally vestigial proxy for a foot. I never would have known it from the walking we did.

There was nothing that he wanted to do that he couldn’t do.

And there was no discussion of it.

He just did whatever it was.

And all of this gave him an expanded view of human possibilities.

He had spent the first few years of his life in some kind of hospital-like special environment with other children who had severe physical challenges. He told me one evening as we were eating dinner in a little roadside place in Grass Valley that his first best friend had been a kid who didn’t have any arms or legs. He never thought much about his friend’s lack of limbs.

He was just his friend.

The fall of 1978 was special because Blitz had been at his best and because I had found the most special of things: a friend of the closest sort. He was a friend I had known for a long time but hadn’t ever known until that fall.

Blitz and I never hunted again after that. He lived in semi retirement in a development called Cameron Crest Farms whose mailing address was Alpharetta Georgia. There were some quail around our place, but we never hunted for them. Once in a while he would sense their presence and get his tail going, but the intensity and magic were gone.

In the fall of 1981 I took Blitz to the veterinarian because he was having trouble getting around. He was thirteen. The vet examined him and told me that he had cancer. He said that, although we could go through the exercise of surgery and treatment, the facts were Blitz was an old dog – thirteen was about as old as working dogs were likely to get – and he wasn’t going to recover. The only reasonable thing to do, he said, was to put Blitz to sleep.

I had never been in the presence of death - as it actually occurred - to a person. And to me Blitz was a person; and I was afraid to be with him as he died. So I waited in the outer office while the veterinarian administered the lethal dose.

I was never able to understand the emotional incapacity – the emotional paralysis - that had caused me to stay in that outer office as a friend and companion of thirteen years faded from existence.

But I did it.

And I didn’t even feel any grief.

I felt numbness but not grief.

It was as if the wrenching sobs in the car with my mother when Annie died had taken something from me that I didn’t have any more of.

I departed the veterinarian’s office after he came out and told me it was over. It had been quick.

I left what remained of my friend to be disposed of by the veterinarian as he saw fit.

I could have taken him home and buried him in the woods with a decent ceremony. We had five acres in the midst of a veritable sea of vacant five-acre lots in the Georgia woods.

I could have done at least that right thing.

But I didn’t.

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