Uncle Charlie Tales

................stories about upland game birds, bird dogs, and shotguns but mostly about the man who loves all three

The Old Man

Uncle Charlie called me this week and asked me if I’d do him a personal favor. Since he’s done so much for me, how could I refuse? My wife didn’t smile when I told her that last part.

Anyway the favor sounded innocent enough. Would I come down on November 19, and hunt with Mr. Jennings?

“Who’s Mr. Jennings?” I asked.

He promptly filled me in on all he thought I needed to know. “Mr. Jennings is a friend of Widow Smith’s late husband. He’s from Savannah, I think,” he said it as though I should already know it, “I hunted with him one time last year and that’s the day he’s set on going. I told him I couldn’t go and asked if you could stand in for me and he agreed. I think it’ll be good for you.”

“Oh yea, there’s one thing you should know about him. He’s kinda eccentric but safe.” He muttered as he hung up the phone.

“Well, what the heck, I can do it," I thought. "No problem.”

The appointed hour finally arrived and I was there early waiting at the designated farm.

I thought I was in for a long day when he got out of his car, an old 1950 Ford coupe, black of course. A skinny old pointer was sitting in the passenger seat and never even moved a muscle when his door was opened. The man’s pants looked like they were about to fall apart and his old hunting coat was so tattered I fully expected to see shells start squirting out at any second. And for goodness sake's he was wearing a tie!

Then he reached back into the back seat and pulled out a wooden box. The worn wood literally glowed. He laid it up on the hood and opened its triple-hinged lid. The felt inside the box was worn so smooth it looked like silk. In the midst of that out of place gun case rested the most beautiful shotgun I had ever seen.

He picked up the barrels like you’d pick up a baby and smiled as he flicked a speck of lint off the sight. The walnut stock showed only a few signs of hunting and he lovingly fingered some of the scratches before he snapped the pieces together.

When he spoke, I jumped. “I’m ready,” he said and then spoke quietly to the old pointer, “Bob, you can get out now.” The rangy veteran slipped out of the car and heeled up close behind his master’s raggedness as they began to move across the field toward the edge of the big swamp.

I hurriedly grabbed my gun and opened the door of the dog box in my truck. Sixty five pounds of ears, teeth and hair nearly knocked me down as it sailed over my head and went barking into the field. Before I could get my gun loaded I heard his double pop twice. When I arrived on the scene I saw the old pointer trotting toward his master with not one but two birds in his mouth.

The white streak closing in on him at warp speed was my dumb young setter. I barely had time to think, “Why did I bring that idiot?” when the old dog simply stopped and dropped the birds and turned to meet the intruder. Flashing teeth amid much growling sent my setter on a ‘tail between the legs’ run for the safety of the truck bed. I swear the old pointer grinned as he spit out a few dog hairs and turned and picked up the two birds and continued his retrieve.

The old man patted his dog on the head and gently took the two birds and smoothed their feathers and slid them easily into his hunting coat. “I don’t believe your dog saw Bob on point before he ran into the birds,” he quietly explained, “I believe we’ll find the singles just beyond that little stand of pines.”

Blushing profusely I mumbled an apology for my dog, and turned to look for him. He was finally beginning to stick his head out from under the truck to watch our progress across the field. I secretly hoped he would stay put and not bring further shame on our family’s honor. But he took my look as an “it’s all right boy, come and get ‘em” command and he quickly assumed his predestined role in our midst as the “fool with four feet.”

Mr. Jennings was polite. We covered the farm and went from covey to covey, single to single in a silent parade. Mr. Jennings didn’t walk, he glided. I’ve never seen a more graceful man in the field. When his old Parker spoke, there was rarely a time when Bob didn’t have business to tend to. He was gracious and allowed me to shoot over his dog whenever the young setter would behave, which was seldom. And before noon his patient and methodical hunting had steadied both of us youngsters down.

When we stopped for lunch, he told me this.

“Son, I’ve known your Uncle for about two years. From what I’ve observed and heard from Mrs. Smith, he’s a good man. He knows the value of a good gun and he knows the worth of a good dog. He told me he wanted me to teach you what I know about bird hunting so here it is plain and simple.”

“It’s not about you and it’s not about your shooting. It’s all about the dogs and the birds. The birds come first because without them there’s no reason to do what we do. So respect them and protect them. You do that by never shooting a covey down to less than eight birds. Give them time in the morning to get up and eat breakfast before you interrupt their day, and always give them time in the evening to get back together before dark.”

“When you clean them save all the parts, even the gizzard. These are princely birds. They deserve to be eaten in their entirety with gusto. After all they sacrificed their lives for your enjoyment. So eat the breasts. Eat the legs. Eat the gizzard. Suck the bones.”

I felt like I was in church with the pastor describing communion. Then he continued the lesson.

“The dogs come next. I cannot tell you how much pleasure great dogs add to a man’s existence. It is simply something you have to experience to appreciate. Always get the best pup you can’t afford. Money spent at the beginning is money saved in the end. A bird dog lives on the average about nine years. Out of those nine; five, the middle five, will be the best years.”

“Take old Bob there. He’s eleven and beginning to show his age. He’s not as fast as he used to be and he’s not as strong as he once was but where his health is beginning to fail, his breeding and his blood are carrying him through to the end and even now at eleven he’s better than the majority of young dogs in this state.”

“How do you train them? Recognize that they are individuals. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Let them go everywhere you go. Let them know you’re interested in everything they do. Never lie to them. Become their best friend in season and out of season. You don’t have to teach them to hunt birds. That’s already in them. All you have to do is help focus their predisposition and encourage them in what they desire to do more than anything else in the world.”

“Remember this. Birds train dogs and dogs train men. It’s really that simple.”

Lunch was over. We hunted two more coveys and filled out our limits and slowly made our way back to the vehicles. He repeated the beginning ritual only this time in reverse and with an added step. He opened the door, pulled out the wooden box, laid it on the hood of the car and opened it. Then he took a rag from the box, unfolded it and wiped down the barrels of the gun, took it apart and carefully laid it in its resting place in the box. A final wipe of the rag, a quick fold and then the box was closed and put away behind the seat. He then shrugged out of his old hunting coat, laid it carefully behind the seat. Only then did Bob who had been sitting patiently at his side move into his place in the front seat. Mr. Jennings closed the door and turned to me.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure,” he smiled, “I wish you well up in the city.”

“Mr. Jennings,” I began, “I don’t know how to thank you for your time today. It’s been a learning experience. By the way could I ask you what you did for a living before you retired?”

“Sure son,” He smiled, “I could tell Charlie hadn’t told you and I wasn’t going to unless you asked. I was the first pastor of the church you now serve in Atlanta.”

“Dr. Jennings, Sir,” I stammered, “I had no idea! I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything son,” He grinned and winked, “By the way, for what its worth, I think the church up there is in good hands.”

And with that he turned and got in the old coupe and drove away.

I got in my truck and just sat there a while thinking. “Uncle Charlie, you really crossed over the line this time,” I muttered to myself as I created various scenarios in my mind on how to get even.

Then it dawned on me. What better way to meet the founding pastor of my current church? And if I had known who he was I would have even been more nervous if that were possible.

“Uncle Charlie, you’re a genius.” And with that I went home a wiser man.

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