We often don’t appreciate the small things in life until they’re gone. A cold autumn day, an early morning on a silvery pond-they hide in the recesses of our minds until a certain smell, sound, or sight brings them back again.
I was in my early teens when I brought a little black beagle home from a tractor show down the road from our farm. The pup had been with its littermates in a box marked FREE. I reached into the squirming mass of fuzz and picked one up. Her puppy eyes said Take me home. So Iwrapped her in my jacket and away we went. Rabbit dog, I was thinking.
“Look what I have!” I said when I stepped into the house.
My mother nearly choked. “Not another dog!” But my parents talked and eventually allowed me to keep the pup as long as I cared for her myself. She was a bundle of energy and had a unique bark that sounded as if she were baying the word coal.
In the field, Coal learned to trail but never barked at the rabbits, so I attached a little bell to her collar to keep track of her. My father was not overly excited about my new dog. He called her “the silent trailer” and almost never took her out to hunt.
Coal, along with most of the fishing and hunting I did, took a backseat when I went away to college a few years later. But one cold day I decided to take a trip home for the weekend. I arrived in the late afternoon just in time to see my dad gearing up in his old coveralls and orange knit cap.
“You know,” he said, “little Coal has become quite the hunter. She even barks at rabbits!” Dad grinned. “Want to go?”
I was tired, but I agreed and in no time, the excitement began to build. I opened the gun safe and pulled out my Savage Fox 20-gauge side-by-side. The nearly 60-year-old gun had put many rabbits and a few pheasants on the table. Its fore-end was cracked, and the case coloring and bluing had worn off long ago. The beautiful walnut was old and well used, but aside from the crack, the piece had been taken care of. And the gun always brought back memories of past hunts and of those who had carried it before me.
My dad and I went outside and released Coal and Buttons, one of our other beagles. Together they were the miracle pair. They streaked for the upper end of our property while Dad and I ascended the hill behind them. The weather was bitter cold, and a slow, steady snowfall added to the layers already on the ground. As we trudged into a thicket halfway up the hill, the dogs began to bark, picking up a fresh trail. Buttons usually picked up the scent first, and then Coal would take the lead in hot pursuit. At times Coal’s hind legs seemed to run faster than the front ones, and she would skid sideways, stop, and straighten out again. She often ran right past a point where the rabbit had turned, and Buttons would have to find the trail again.
As the sun began to set behind the ridgeline, I saw our quarry hopping through the brush. Our house was down the hill and in the line of fire, so instead of shooting I simply watched as the rabbit paused for a second, then hurried off.
Night fell along with the snow, and we unloaded our shotguns. I wrapped my rabbit-fur hat tighter around my face and looked over at my dad, standing proud and strong as I have always known him. The wind blew the snow in white swirls under the moonlight, and the sounds of the dogs echoed through the night. In the valley below a warm glow came from a window, and smoke rose from the chimney of our house.
“Let them run,” Dad said, and we began walking home. Inside we shed our cold, wet clothing, sat by the fireplace, and enjoyed some hot chocolate as we cleaned our guns.
As I write this I am not at home doing the things I love. I’m manning the .50-caliber machine gun atop a six-wheel-drive tactical truck, working on combat radios, and hauling 5,000-gallon fuel tankers across the dangerous roads of Iraq. Many others have also given up freedoms and learned the hard way not to take the small things for granted: the chance to walk mountain trails, to smell the fresh air, to pick up a bow or fly rod and head outside. Many of us will experience these everyday things again. But some never will. For their sake, don’t forget the small things.