On Bird Dogs, Hunting, and Jim Harrison

When I was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, we had a pair of golden retrievers named Beethoven and Maestro. My mother, a pianist with the Memphis Symphony, had named the dogs, possibly as a joke on my father, who pretended they were gifts to her; in reality, of course, they were his future hunting partners. Beethoven came first, a "Christmas present" my father bought out of the local paper for $50. He didn't come with any champion bloodlines, but he was the very definition of a "good dog"--smart, charismatic, and always ready to hunt. Maestro came a few years later, when we bred Beethoven with a dimwitted golden named Amber down the street. That's when things got interesting.

Everywhere he went, Maestro left destruction in his path. On his first visit to our duck camp near Carlisle, Arkansas, he ran through the screen door of our cabin, so my father banished him to the back of the station wagon. In protest, or perhaps just out of hunger or plain boredom, Maestro proceeded to eat the foam-rubber backseat until he was standing on springs. Later that season, my grandfather had just spent two hours replacing the screen door and was looking at it proudly when Maestro came barreling through from the other side, an offense for which my grandfather never for-gave him--or us. Back home in Memphis, Maestro continued to wreak havoc. He ate the walls of his doghouse until the only parts remaining were four posts (wrapped in tin) and a roof. I can still remember the sound of chewing going on late into the night, as if he had a divine purpose.

I hadn't thought about Beethoven and Maestro for a long time, when a new piece by Jim Harrison recently showed up in my e-mail box. "Dog Years" (page 78) is about all the bird dogs, good and bad, that Harrison has hunted with over 40 years in the field, and he tells their stories with such detail you can almost feel their hot breath coming off the page. Like my father, Harrison had a favorite dog (though with a less auspicious name) that took his hunting experiences to a whole new level. He also had some goofballs, and while they may not have been stars in the duck blind or in the grouse woods, they left an indelible mark. Even when they're not running through screen doors, dogs have a way of doing that.