A Backward Look
September 23, 2010
"Come into my shed," the old man said to his grandson. "I'll show you pictures of my dogs." The shed was his grandfather's get-away, an outbuilding piled with worn sporting gear, its walls papered with photographs of old-fashioned looking men with dogs and birds, and many with dogs alone. The boy listened to his grandfather speak of past times locked in grainy black and white and memorialized in an old man's memory.
The boy become man held the enlarged photograph carefully. He had looked at it often over the years, but beyond the obvious glimpse into his own history he still didn't know precisely what he sought in its balanced composition. He knew the photo intimately, yet each time he studied it he found another detail, like a well-crafted poem that yields itself a piece at a time.
The photo contained an image of a man, two springer spaniels and a long stringer of ducks and upland birds hung on a buckboard full of gear. A note on the cardboard backing told him that the man was his grandfather, the dogs were Ring and Rose and the year was 1911. The picture could have been taken anywhere; his grandfather had cut a wide swath.
He moved his eyes slowly across the photo. His grandfather was wearing denim pants tucked into high boots and a faded canvas jacket that gleamed against the dark of the buckboard. A slouch hat, creased in the center, was tilted forward on his grandfather's head, shading a young face with the same solemn expression that he remembered on an old and weathered face many years later. His grandfather held a long-barreled Winchester Model 1897 pumpgun.
He saved the dogs till last. Both springers looked large, around 50 pounds, though the male, Ring, seemed heftier. As his grandfather noted on the photo's backing, Ring was standing, looking at the camera, while Rose was sitting, head tilted up and to the side.
The note also said that Ring and Rose were five-year-old littermates bred from a friend's British stock. That his grandfather owned dogs from a line of imported English springers was singular for those days, doubly so given that he rarely had more than a couple of silver dollars in his pocket at any time.
The dogs were almost identical in appearance with broad heads, wide chests and thick coats that were mostly dark, either black or rich liver. Both had white chests, thin blazes and smatterings of white on their rumps. The pair looked like hunting dogs.
"Back in the dark ages," the old man said with a hint of a smile, "when I was young and hunted all the time, my partners and I couldn't carry a bunch of dogs. Whatever we took on a trip we had to tote on packhorses or a buckboard, so we didn't have frills. Our dogs hunted hard with nothing more than plenty of food and a day off now and then. On long trips, I favored a brace of springers over other dogs. If you've got a couple of good spaniels trained the right way, there's nothing you can't hunt with them. In fact, here is a piece of advice for when you get around to owning your own dogs. All a reasonable man needs to hunt birds in this country, and I've hunted most of 'em at one time or another, are two springer spaniels and two pointers."
Each time the man studied Ring and Rose, he compared them with his own springers. His dogs looked contemporary, leaner and less substantial; leggier but with less bone; heads were narrower with eyes and ears closer set. White was their primary color with liver almost an afterthought. It wasn't that his grandfather's springers were better looking; they weren't, by modern standards. But Ring and Rose impressed him as endurance runners, while his dogs looked like sprinters.
He held the photograph loosely, returning to his grandfather's face, still probing for hints of the man inside the image staring out at him from the flat dimension of paper. But connections to the past were gone. Except for the intriguing but dead history of photographs backed by rumor and childhood recollections, he could only extrapolate his links to a grandfather gone by -- and to the old man's bird hunts and dogs.
Most of what he learned about this unusual man was hearsay, though he was at the peak of his power less than a century ago. He was a legend, a man who had passionately followed gun dogs -- often to the detriment of his family -- for the bulk of his 80-odd years.
Indeed, the last words the boy remembered his grandfather speaking were, "Next time you're here, I'll tell you about my pointers and how we hunted partridge and woodcock. Those were some of my favorite trips."