Walking the dogs early one recent morning I heard a quail’s call, something absent from my ears for decades. These birds were once plentiful throughout the South until fire ants, coyotes, developers; all members of the same irritating sub-species, took their toll.
Many refer to this bird by the distinctive whistle; Bob White. My father called them potter-idges. He introduced me to quail hunting early, allowing me to tag along on a bird hunting trip to the family farm when I was six.
I was armed with cap pistols delivered fresh by Santa a few weeks earlier. Dad carried a sixteen gauge Remington pump shotgun casually over his right shoulder. When I was six, guns were treated with respect rather than fear. Firearms were still a long way from becoming fantasy objects.
Uncle Howard and his dog Possum accompanied us. Possum was an oversized English Setter that relished the open fields of West Alabama like area residents appreciated Schultz Creek Baptist Church.
Joe, a litter mate of Possum and the only bird dog who could keep pace with the big devil, ran alongside. Joe became part of our household six days before I was born. He remains the best dog that ever lived.
Thirty years later my father and I roamed those same fields, doing the same thing as before; the thing he loved more than anything except Alabama football and my momma. Uncle Howard, Possum, and Joe had long since passed on. We no longer owned the property but were allowed to stroll the fields on occasion.
Daddy still carried the same sixteen gauge. Mine was identical. He bought it a week preceding my fifteenth Christmas. I still have it and still don’t know how he got the money. On this day, George L. Cox pointed out a place where potter-idges might be hiding, found fresh evidence of a nearby covey, and actually identified the spot where they would likely flush.
I was still young enough to consider myself smarter than him and wasn’t ready when the birds exploded from cover. He shot three times and downed two birds. I shot twice without success and nearly ruined my underwear.
That day in 1986 was the last time I fired my Remington, the last time he and I walked those fields, and the last time we heard the same quail call out. He lived another seventeen years and we made great memories, but nothing like walking the woods of Bibb County as free and relaxed as two men can be.
I was planning a spring bird hunting trip for his 2003 Christmas gift when he contracted pancreatic cancer. My bird hunting buddy was gone before Thanksgiving. He never knew about the trip.
Daddies are bigger than life itself in the South. Sometimes they tower over a family like a thunderhead; other times like a rainbow. Growing up in the Sixties convinced me my dad wasn’t relevant anymore. My first son’s birth changed my mind and I stayed real close from then on.
When I heard the quail the other morning, I could smell Old Spice mixed with gun oil, hear the soft swishing of canvas pants against saw briars followed by the explosion of a dozen sets of wings flapping in unison, and feel the presence of the person who shaped my life. All like it was yesterday.
The best dog that ever lived was out in front.