Friday, August 3, 2012

Dad and Sunny, the dog

Sunny was the first dog I remember.  He was a liver and white springer spaniel that Dad brought home in Toronto before we left for Winnipeg. I'd have been  4 or 5 at the time.
In Ontario it was legal to hunt deer with dogs.  Sunny had been trained to do this.  In Manitoba it was illegal to hunt deer thus.
Nobody ever told Sunny.
Throughout his life Sunny would chase deer and herd them by us, all set up for the perfect shot that would never happen.  Sunny never failed to have a look of bewilderment on his face that no one shot the deer that he'd chase within yards. Sometimes we could literally reach out and touch the deer because Sonny clearly figured that Dad never shot them because Sonny hadn't got them close enough. The consequence would be that we'd be nearly knocked over by deer running through or by where usually were waiting in silence for ducks to fly over.   Then  Dad would be shouting at Sunny to return.  Sonny would be ecstatic chasing behind a panting deer he'd brought to within yards of us whereever we were.  Mostly it happened when we were duck or chicken hunting but it could happen whenever we were out walking in the woods or fishing.  Sunny would be there beside us and then an instant later he'd be gone. Then 10 or 15 minutes later there'd be all this noise in the woods, great crashing sounds.  Then an exhausted panicked deer would appear followed by this great Spring Spaniel, ears flopping, and shit eating grin on his face, kind of like Goofy from Walt Disney. Dad would start shouting, Ron and I would join in and Sunny would turn off but more than once he'd just keep going and bring that deer around for another pass thinking he had to get the deer closer in for us to shoot.   It was an instinct he couldn't break. An overwhelming desire to please his master by bringing him game.  Dad never punished him for it.  But it was sure to disrupt a dawn hunt.  I just figured Sunny got bored waiting for game to be ambush.  He and I were alike that way.  Both of us more stalkers that waiters.  Dad and Ron were the patient ones.  Sunny and I were impatient.
If there were other hunters they'd all be disturbed by the mayhem.  They'd sometimes shout at Dad to be quiet and Dad would shout back at them.  Sunny would look confused and disappointed we didn't shoot the deer.  He never could figure us out that way.  In time  things would return to quiet and the ducks flights would start to come over like clockwork. When they did hundreds of guns it seemed opened up like anti aircraft guns. Thousands of shots would be fired and maybe one duck out of the hundreds would fall from the sky.

Sunny would sit with rapt attention by Dad's side when we'd hear a flight of ducks coming in overhead.  Dad and Ron would rise and so would he. They'd shoot, with Dad saying to Ron 'lead the bird, lead the bird' .  Almost miraculously a bird would occasionally fall out of the sky.  Sunny would see that and be off like a shot.  He'd bound through the brown  and green bullrushes, his great springer ears flapping every leap he took till he landed in the cold marsh waters. Then he was off like an olympic swimmer keeping his eye on the fallen bird till he could clamp his mouth on it's side. Then he'd turn around and swim back to us, walking through the bull rushes to give Dad the bird, one truly jubilant dog.  Just watching this dog at work was worth the trip and so much apart of the hunt all told.

Dad would be full of praise. Man and dog would marvel at the beauty of the bird, the mallard plummage in fall, bright green feathers on the drake.  "Good dog, Sunny,'  Dad would say over and over.  "Isn't that a lovely bird." Sonny's stump of a tail didn't stop shaking when Dad praised him. Then we'd get back in position waiting for the next flock to fly over.

Sunny's other skill was finding ducks that other hunters shot.  As a family we always bet that Sunny would get more ducks than Dad and usually he did.  One time though he brought back another hunter's game bag full of ducks.  Sunny was so pleased with himself and all ready for the praise he expected from Dad when behind him the hunter whose game bag he'd stolen came stumbling through the heavy marsh weeds and bush.
He was obviously drunk and very angry, cursing Sunny as he staggered and swayed up to where we were. Everyone wore hip waiters so it was heavy going at the best of times slogging through the marsh.  This fellow was obviously done in by the ordeal of the chase.

"Your dog stole my game bag." he shouted at Dad.
"You shouldn't  be so drunk hunting that a dog could steal your game bag." Dad shot back.

Sunny was real disappointed when Dad gave the game bag back but typical of Sunny he just found another wounded duck and brought it back to Dad. Since some of the ducks he retrieved we dead we suspected he might be stealing them from other hunters too and the whole game bag did tend to point to that. Dad took his gifts nonetheless praising him for contributing to the pot.  

This was Nettle Marsh close outside of Winnipeg.  Hundreds of hunters surrounded this little postage stamp of a swamp where thousands  of ducks flew in all fall.  Every 20 paces or so there'd be a nother hunter.

That's where I got shot too. I was a young boy and I screamed at Dad when the shot hit my thigh. It was bird shot and hardly ripped the jeans but it was horrifying nonetheless. Dad, the minute he saw this stood up, and started blasting across the marsh in the direction the fire had come from.  Some guys started shouting back.

"Hey mister you're shooting at us."
"I know I am, you just shot my son.  Watch where you're shooting."  Dad said spent shot couldn't do any harm except it still could blind you and guys should know what's beyond where they're shooting at all times. He used any opportunity to teach us lessons.

Everyone was packed in so close at Nettle.  The guys had obviously shot at a low flying bird and the pellets that sprayed me had just been falling out of the air without that much force. But around there everyone knew to shoot high because of the close proximity of other hunters all sides of the swamp.  That's why Dad gave the guy drinking heck too.  Dad took hunting seriously.  He didn't drink and he didn't like others drinking around guns either.

After that we didn't hunt Netle Marsh much.  Dad had a lot of explaining to do to Mom because of the shot pattern on my pants.  I think I was kept home from a few hunts after that too, till Mom simmered some.  All I wanted to do though was to go hunting with my Dad, my older brother Ron and our dog Sunny. Those were the best of times.

Dad was always pointing out things of nature and whispering to us kids in a conspiratory way.  "See there's the muskrat. That's his home he's built. The entrance will be under the water. See he's taking something in his mouth down to his home."  We'd watch the muskrat dive and disappear, not likely to have seen it at all were Dad not to point it out.  "Shsh, there's a coyote, see him there by the bull rushes. See him watching us,  Billy." Sure enough there'd be a coyote standing by the edge of the marsh but again I'd never have seen him had Dad not pointed him out first.

I remember the first time Dad let me shoot the 12 guage shot gun. I was begging and pouting and whining while Dad and Ron were laughing that I was too small for the big gun. I was allowed to shoot the 22 but the 12 guage shot gun was just too big for me, they'd say. I must have been 7 or 8 when this interchange occurred.  Dad let in and loaded the gun for me that one day.  He gave me all the instructions, like he always did. He really was a great teacher.  I did everything just as I was told but when I pulled the trigger I was literally lifted backwards in the air 10 feet to land on my butt in the swamp.

My shoulder was sore but mostly sitting there in the wet swamp water I was embarrassed.  Dad took the gun and helped me up.

"I guess you're not big enough for a shot gun yet , eh Billy? " Dad said. There was no more whining and begging after that. I was just glad to be along for the early morning duck hunts.  Mom would pack sandwiches, often cheese slices on bread, with hard boiled eggs and a thermos of hot chocolate. We'd sit in the cabin of the truck eating together watching the sun come up. In the afternoon we'd usually sit outside on the ground often with our backs against a hay stack in the autumn oranges, yellows and browns.  We'd eat and rest a bit and then we'd be off again, hiking about the marsh or fields. Mom always packed lots of food for us.  While there were lucky days it was not uncommon for us to come home with only one or two birds. Were it not for all the food mom packed we'd have gone hungry for sure. But the hunt wasn't about the game for Dad, though that was good, it was mostly about being out in nature with the boys and the dog.  We never had a bad hunt as far as Dad was concerned.

When we were prairie chicken hunting the dog would run ahead and raise the birds. Dad and Ron would shoot the birds on the fly, my brother Ron probably becoming a better shot than Dad as we grew older. When Dad and Ron and I were chicken hunting I'd sometimes get to shoot the 22 rifle.  Ron and Dad had the shot guns but I actually shot the occasional grouse and chicken too.  Dad was all praise when Sunny brought my bird back to me.  Sunny brought all the birds back to Dad but he'd shew Sunny over to whichever one of us had actually shot the bird.  Sunny was Dad's dog and they were inseparable.

Mom cooked all the ducks and chickens so we had great wild game meals in the fall.  Dad would take us to the Duck Hunting Club too for fowl suppers, all the hunters bringing in game and their wives volunteering to cook. Great feasts where the men and boys got together to tell over and over the hunting stories of the fall.  Dad was more  in his element here than at church suppers but Mom and Dad were both good sports. She'd accompany him to the gun club events and he accompanied her to the church events.  It was figured both were important for Ron and my upbringing.

The dog Sunny was at Dad's side whenever he could be and loved riding in Dad's truck with him. Dad was always one for feeding the dog under the table too so Sunny was always there from the beginning to the end of the meal waiting for treats from Dad.  Dad never ceased to enjoy playing with Sunny either. He'd suddenly shout "where is it,  Sunny!" and Sunny would be chasing all over the house looking for an imaginary bird with us kids running behind him and Mom trying not to get knocked down by the melee .

Just bringing a gun out of the gun case got Sunny howling. We'd do that and when the excitement settled because we really weren't going hunting, it was usually dead of winter with 10 feet of snow outside that Dad's pranks would be at their height, Dad would then grab Sunny and roll about with him, saying "You mutt, you mutt".  Us kids would pile on and the four of us would be rolling around on the living room floor, Dad roughhousing with the dog and Ron and I trying to pull Dad down to help Sunny.  Mom would look on with a smile, our tousles often ending because she'd bring on some ice cream or find us a little chocolate she'd been hiding somewhere.

After all the roughhousing with the dog and kids, Dad would often hug Mom in the hallways, the two of them laughing as Mom slipped away insisting she still had things to do.  "Not in front of the kids," was a phrase we heard at times like that but you could tell her heart wasn't into what she was saying.

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