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The General

This golden retriever earned his rank

      I have reached the age where people more often want to tell me what to do than not. One of those topics was about a new dog. I was instructed to get a dog on the small side to up the likelihood that folks would volunteer to watch him in the event I wanted to be away for a while. My preference has always been toward a dog hefty enough to wrestle. Now, however, we are in new territory with a seriously high-spirited Welsh terrier.
      But the story I want to tell is about one of his predecessors, also a hunter. It goes this way. 
      I work for myself and have a habit of taking my dog to work. Always have, and clients I see outside of my office generally always ask after him and not me. Early on, my companion was a magnificent rusty golden retriever whose paper name was General ­Morgan. He ran with me, swam with me, fished with us and pretty much bore all manner of abuse and activity without complaint. And he did his chores retrieving, shepherding, guarding and as therapy hound in the office.
      There came a time when one of my clients did side work as a professional guide. He hunted in winter, fished in summer, made some of his own gear and worked with his beagles. Doing so, in truth, was his passion. And, from time to time during our association, he would extend an invitation to participate in a hunt or a fishing trip. Polite, maybe; but also sincere: There was always a buck in it somewhere. And so it came to pass that one day while sitting down with Morgan it occurred to me that he deserved to do what he had in his blood.
     I had read the articles and the stories, had taken in the art of many outdoorsmen, and I could sense the pride and joy they felt working with their dogs. I had also read about the cold and bleakness of a winter morning in a duck blind out on the water. I signed on anyway. Time for the real thing.
     Not so fast. My host was less than enthusiastic: city dog, never under guns, no experience, not conditioned for the weather and of unknown discipline or reliability. Common sense and no doubt good advice said to leave the dog home. However, it was not likely any of those attributes would ever be achieved, so I insisted, and the dog came.
     I rounded up a license, pulled an ancient inherited Ithaca off the wall over the fireplace, oiled it up and dug out my backpacking cold weather outdoor gear. So it was on one sharp crisp winter night, just like those deep dark nights of the paintings, the General and I made our appearance on the shoreline of Eastern Bay. I have to say, he knew something special was afoot. 
     We loaded up the punt and paddled out to the blind; three of us, a small grill and piles of decoys. We, or more likely, my host — given how my memory is these days — put out about 150 decoys, climbed into the blind and sat down to wait, thus to slowly get properly cold. Then they came. The sky was hardly a dim glimmer of wishful thinking.
      At the alert, we were all up and ready, shotguns nosed out of the slots, the blind like some kind of disguised destroyer awaiting incoming fighters. They came in low, right on the line between the water and the sky. What that means is that I didn’t see anything. My companions were properly skilled, and they were blazing away before I managed to get into the fray. My contribution remains dubious, but I do remember the price effected by the old Ithaca on my shoulder. By the way, using the Ithaca was a matter of pride, as once upon a time I resided up Gunshop Hill from where they were made, but that’s another story. 
       Noise, smoke, smell … then silence. Time to fish out the results.
       No dog.
       Umm, the flush of engagement began to submit to the flush of embarrassment and I-told-you-so.
      We found him below the blind, already in the punt, on high alert, staring at me intently; waiting for his command to go. When he got it, he hit the water, and he went out hard.
      This dog simply had the right stuff. He was never fooled, and unerringly he kept going until we had our bounty of downed ducks. It was like watching your kid hammer a double with two outs and the sacks loaded. Nothing like it. The magazines and tall tales were right. Still brings a tear to my eye by the telling.
     Was it all denouement afterwards? Hardly. We did some grilling, got ever colder, if that was possible, and hunkered down for a couple more rounds. Morgan worked and worked and never missed. I could hardly believe it. One happy dog. And one proud and awed papa. 
     In the middle of the last fusillade in the growing dawn, I started to hear a clattering I could not identify. The General had hauled himself up into the blind. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have guessed; but yes, his teeth were chattering. Never seen that, haven’t seen it since, but it was clear to me that he was done for the morning. So we sat him down in a matter of speaking. And he objected, his eyes beseeching. It was like asking for the ball with the pitch count way too high when your pitcher was mowing ’em down …
      You have to feel it, you have to see it, and you have to experience it. As I held Morgan in check, I knew he would have kept going so long as I asked him, without question. There was unqualified admiration from the doubters. He was the real deal.
     So that’s my story; that’s my dog. All in, all the time. Nothing like it.