Sometimes, when we are pawing around old boxes, we find something that triggers a memory. That happened to me the other day. I’ve been buried under a huge book project and I was trying to complete the sample chapters, proposal and a detailed narrative outline—all at the same time. Everything in the book happened thirty years ago and although I’ve kept all the notes and documentation I’ve let everything become disorganized so I was not surprised to find a set of photographs that are almost as old—pictures of a dog. Not just any dog but my first “real” hunting dog. Her name was Gretel, Colorado Crestone Gretel to be exact. She was a registered Springer spaniel. She was my hunting dog and constant companion. At that time I still ran every morning and she ran with me. I didn’t need to put her on a leash because she stayed close although she ran through the irrigation ditch bordering the road.
Gretel had personality. When my wife (then) Gail, and I would go someplace we often took Gretel and her dog, Hans, and they rode in the back of the pickup. We never worried about either one jumping out and when we returned home Gretel would wait for me to lower the tailgate before she exploded from the truck to make her “Hi, neighbor, how’s everything going, I’m home now,” run. After her greeting lap she ran to the backdoor and she would wait for me to open the door.
Gretel started life as a flushing-retriever but on a visit to Gail’s grandmother’s Oklahoma farm Gretel retrieved a very colorful and valuable chicken and the grandmother took after Gretel with a broom. From that day on Gretel never retrieved a bird. She would find a downed bird, put her foot on it then bark “here it is.” That was the extent of her retrieving. She never failed to find birds for me and together I killed a lot of pheasant, quail and shorebirds that she flushed. She loved to hunt Wilson’s snipe and some of the last pictures taken of us hunting were on a snipe hunt.
I’d taken Gretel to the groomer for a midsummer grooming and on the way home we stopped at my mother’s. Dora Geer loved Gretel and Gretel loved her back. Every morning for six years I brought Gretel to my mother’s house and while Dora and I drank coffee and solved world and family problems Gretel parked herself beside my mother’s chair, waiting patiently for Dora to scratch her ears, which she obediently did every few minutes. Before I left that day my mother took the last picture of Gretel and me.
A few days later Gretel pushed me out of my morning sleep by climbing into bed and parking herself near my head and whining. There were dove in the yard and she wanted to either go to the park and chase her training dummy and do her laps around the park or for me to take her on a run. I got out of bed and decided to take her to the park and that morning, rather than walking her to the park, I put her in my pickup and drove to the park.
From the center of the park I didn’t see the squirrel across the road, nor did I know a car was on the road and I certainly could not see the drunk driving it. Gretel bounded after the squirrel. I heard Gretel’s single yelp of pain and ran toward her. A passerby helped me load her in my pickup and I heard him tell the babbling drunk that he was fortunate my dog was still alive and my attention was on her or I’d probably beat the hell out of him. I rushed Gretel home. Gail helped me load my dog in her car and she drove madly toward our vet’s office in Cañon City. I sat in the backseat and held Gretel. Half way to the vet’s office I felt my dog’s life slip away. We went on to the vet’s in the hope that she was only unconscious. He confirmed she was dead.
I took Gretel home but I couldn’t bring myself to bury her right away. I wrapped her in my hunting coat and put her on our bed. Friends and family came over and our neighbors, who for years had seen her run her “I’m home” circle, came over. Finally I called my friend Al and asked if I could bury Gretel under the piñon tree in his yard because she had claimed that tree as hers when I would go to visit him.
Gretel had a funeral. When I loaded her in the car I didn’t notice the number of friends in my home, nor did I realize they were following me to Al’s house in Penrose. When the procession pulled into his circular drive he came outside to meet us. Together we dug Gretel’s grave and when it was finished I arranged my hunting coat in the bottom of the grave and placed some unfired and empty shotgun shells in the grave, plus a couple of pheasant tail feathers and a training dummy with quail wings taped to it. Finally I dropped a few bits of her dry food in the grave then laid my dog in the grave and pulled the sides of the hunting jacket up so I could cover her with it.
I looked around and there were so many friends that I realized not only had I lost my dog but my neighbors and friends had lost a dog that they loved. I told them how much I loved Gretel and why. It wasn’t because she was a great hunting dog because by some standards she wasn’t because she wouldn’t retrieve a bird but because she made every moment a joy. Gretel was mourned because she had shared her life with so many people.
I couldn’t fill in her grave and while I spoke with the friends, Al filled in her grave. Later he made a metal marker with her name and we wired her bell to it. Eventually two more pets were buried in the shade of that piñon. Hans died a few years later and then a couple of years after his death my cat, Lucas, died of old age. Alone, I buried Lucas between Hans and Gretel and after filling in his grave I patted the dirt and said goodbye to the loyal old cat that was the last of the pet trio—Gretel, Hans and Lucas the Cat. As I kneeled there my mind played one of those tricks where what we want to see our mind lets us see—for only an instant. The three of them were sitting together, as they often had sat in life, Gretel and Hans on either side of Lucas. They turned and walked away—together. The image disappeared and I was looking across the broad, gentle valley toward the distant Wet Mountains.
I put the pictures away and walked to my desk. I had to step over Cookie, around Buster then push Rosie out of my chair. Today I share my office with three dogs and my bedroom with Ophelia—my cat. Buster is a Basset hound that I rescued from the pound and Rosie is a Jack Russell Terrorist (Terrier).
Cookie has found that “mind and heart space” that is reserved for hunting dogs—those special dogs that sleep under your chair in the off season and on days when you should be hunting waits by the door, under the coat hanger where your hunting coat is draped or in front of the gun safe.
When a hunting dog is gone, you never really turn loose of it. Hunting dogs are fixed in the memory of cold mornings, long fields, fast flushes, great shots and humbling misses. Photos of Gretel, my first hunting dog, Jenny, my second hunting dog, and now Cookie, adorn my walls and shelves. That’s the way it should be. Don’t you think? glg
10 months ago