I had a friend whose last wish was that he wouldn't die without a Labrador by his side. He didn't mention his wife and kids but maybe they made honorable mention. On the overnight flight from Miami to Buenos Aires during his annual Argentina duck hunts he'd buy a seat in first class for his dog to sit alongside him. So, the two were tight.
I was thinking about this other day while walking a 4-month-old black Lab puppy in the half-light of early morning. A couple of older Labradors were also with me, 2-year-old littermates, one dark yellow and one light, Rowdy and Fella. But it was the puppy that demanded my attention, cartwheeling helter-skelter as he did and making a break for horse poop when I wasn't looking. "No!'' I would holler and sometimes it worked.
An argument can be made, and my wife has made it, that I didn't need another dog. Then again no one really needs kids, either. But you throw your hat in the ring and before you know it, they're the reason you get out of bed every morning, albeit earlier than you might have liked.
Years ago, I needed a puppy fix while eating breakfast at a truck stop in Atlanta. I had a Freightliner parked outside pulling a 45-foot drop frame and was due to leave for Boston the next morning. An ad in the local sheet trumpeted golden retriever puppies for sale and soon I was pulling up to an expansive Cape Cod in a tony subdivision and peeling off a wad of greenbacks in exchange for a promising little tail-wagger. Housebreaking at times included holding the little fellow out the truck window while I idled in line at toll booths. I named the pup Boogie because I liked the yell of it. You do the best you can.
Dad was a good retriever trainer who advised me a long time ago that a dog should never be bragged about unless it's dead or 2,000 miles away. He might have stolen this from a professional trainer because it's the kind of thing someone who hangs around dogs all the time would say. Risky Business Ruby, a 1980 vintage female black Labrador owned by Gary Thompson of Plymouth, was a 60-pound National Retriever Champion whose guts, brains and athleticism were unparalleled. But sometimes when she was off course slightly on a long mark or blind she would just keep going, over hill and dale, believing for sure in the next county or the next, a bird could be found. "Start the pickup,'' her trainer would say. "Start the pickup.'' And the chase was on to bring her home for another crack at it the next day.
Say what you will, but acquiring a puppy exposes the most dog-eared cynic's vein of optimism. Horse trainers drawl that no one ever committed suicide with a 2-year-old in the barn, believing the youngster could be better than all the colts and fillies that came before it, a trophy on the mantel.
So, too, I was thinking, perhaps, with this new puppy, watching him chase shadows but imagining a red-carpet future in which other dogs feted us with standing ovations. OK, the chewing would have to stop, also the digging and the generalized indifference to my whereabouts except at feeding time or when he collapses at day's end, wanting, finally, to hug.
King Buck was a multiple-year National Retriever Champion who was among a litter of eight born April 3, 1948, in Storm Lake, Iowa. One of the last puppies claimed, Buck was sold for $50, and upon arrival at his new home in Omaha promptly contracted distemper. Sick for months, and weak, Buck nonetheless won an all-age stake at 2 years old, and at 3 was sold to John Olin, the ammunition virtuoso of Winchester Olin fame.
Cotton Pershall was Olin's trainer, and it was he who took possession of Buck after he had won an open stake, paws down, in Winona. The selling price was $5,000, a princely sum in 1951.
Pershall wasn't as high on Buck as OIin was. That changed a year later when Pershall handled Buck to his first National Retriever Championship at Weldon Springs, Mo. Nearly flawless through 10 series, Buck concluded his performance with a 225-yard water retrieve, a feat that stirred the imagination of all who saw it, not only about Buck's infinite capacity to understand, and to please. But, potentially, to any dog's.
In North Dakota when I was a kid, we had a big black Lab named Boze. Like a lot of hunting dogs at the time, Boze rode in the trunk.
One early morning, my dad, my older brother and I were duck hunting, and I was told to wait in Dad's car with Boze in the trunk while Dad and my brother set decoys in a slough over a nearby hill.
But soon impatience got the best of me and I sprang Boze from the trunk, appended him to my wrist with a leash and led him to the crest overlooking the slough. It was then Boze saw a decoy fly from Dad's hand and bolted in the direction of the fake duck with me in tow, twisting like a rag doll. When I hit the fetid water, I skipped atop it briefly. But in short order I sank.
The other early morning I was wondering if this new puppy might someday pull a stunt like that, or if instead, like King Buck, from meager beginnings he might rise to doggy stardom. So far, he's kind of incorrigible, I get that. But he can "Sit'' and "Stay,'' and on occasion he's not indifferent to me, not totally anyway.
So, there's promise.
Mark Twain said people are lucky because entry to heaven goes by favor, adding that if it went by merit, we'd all stay out while our dogs got in.
Somewhere in there is the reason my friend wanted a Labrador by his side when he died. He got his wish, and I hope I do, too.