(dlb Note: In today’s climate each breed has its instant expert who has missed the real meaning (intangible) of field trials and those who love the game so much they can never “Let’em go.” And/Or they are so besotted with their own dog, they cannot understand that field trials is NOT about “My dog’s better than your dog. Your dog is trash. Most folks will never haunt a field trial. Those who do understood field trialing & love the sport, its wonderful dogs & the chasing of the little brown bird are blessed to forever be handling a high class bird dog.)
The short days of February had come again. My mind was wandering to Grand Junction and that great field trial held there, the one they used to call the Grand National. As long as I could remember I had dreamed of just being at “The National”. This year my mind was made up, I was going! When I left work last Friday I told them not to expect me back until it was over.
Driving through the Tennessee countryside it was still hard to believe I was finally on my way. Grand Junction, where the very best bird dogs, their owners & handlers come to compete and I was going to be there. I planned to meet a couple of “field trial friends”. The kind of fine folks you meet in this game & feel like you’ve known them all of your life. We were supposed to meet at the grounds the first morning. One of them sent me a map showing exactly how to get there with a note at the bottom that said “Be early!” Both had been to Grand Junction many times and I guess they were the reason I was finally going.
I arrived at the gathering area just before daylight. A heavy frost was on the ground and I was shivering. I couldn’t be sure if it was from the cold or the excitement. A few others had already arrived but most were yet to come and I was there to see it all. Soon a steady stream of trucks and trailers began to fill the available space. Every kind of rig imaginable rolled in, some plain, some fancy and some just downright beautiful.
The sun was peeking over the horizon and adding some welcome warmth to the scene when I noticed a rig that was different from the others. It definitely belonged in the beautiful category. The truck was a 1941 Chevrolet: my Granddad had owned one exactly like it when I was just a kid, but this one was in better condition. Heck, it looked brand new. The two tone paint was done in the original pattern, brown body and green fenders. This guy even had found some wide white wall tires and original “baby moon” hub caps. I was so interested in the truck that I almost didn’t notice the trailer it was towing. It was a red, open top stock trailer with a canvas tarp stretched tight across the top, the perfect companion for a “40s vintage vehicle. The owner of this rig was obviously a nostalgia buff.
There must have been hundreds of rigs still pouring in but I couldn’t take my eyes off the antique Chevy. It finally came to a stop at the far edge of the parking area, sort of isolated from the rest of the trucks. I had to chuckle a little when the old gentleman emerged from the cab. He really took this nostalgia stuff seriously. He was wearing an oil cloth canvas coast over a wool shirt and a pair of calvary style pants, the kind that balloon out at the thighs. The ends of the pant legs were stuffed into knee-high, lace up leather boots that shined from a recent buffing. His dapper felt hat, with a tuft of pheasant feathers in the hatband, made the outfit complete. The hair that shoed from beneath his hat was as white as cotton, as was the well groomed moustache he sported on his weathered, slightly tanned face. I could see the glint of his eye from a good distance as he surveyed the scene with a slight smile and a look of pride, like a patriarch gloating over his grandchildren.
Just then I noticed the two dogs that had apparently been riding in the truck with him. They hopped out of the cab with tails wagging and then stretched before jumping into the back of the truck. There they sat patiently as if waiting for further instruction. Both dogs were in peak condition and were nice enough to grace a calendar. He patted them on the head as he moved toward the back of the trailer. The trailer door was opened and a fine dapple grey mount backed out. The horse’s neck was gently arched and his ears were alertly erect. He nickered with excitement and two plumes of mist swirled from his nostrils.
The old man tied his horse and placed some hay where it could be reached. His dogs were fed and watered before he turned his attention to the rapidly growing crowd gathering before us. He began to stroll among the people and dogs and horses, generally just looking but sometimes stopping to give a horse a pat or talk to a dog. None of the other people seemed to notice him walking around but their dogs would wag their tails and the horses would stretch their necks to try to catch the old man’s scent. He paused for a moment to retrieve a tin he pulled what appeared to be a hand rolled cigarette. As he replaced the tin with one hand, the other produced a classic metal Zippo lighter,. He cupped his hands to light the cigarette now held in his lips and took a long slow draw. When he removed it from his mouth, he held it deep between his fingers near the knuckles. It seemed as though he would never exhale but finally a thin wisp of smoke emerged from his lips.
The old man must have noticed me staring at him He smiled and gave a quick wink and then slowly walked toward me. As he approached, I could somehow tell he would be another of those “field trial friends” I already felt like I had known him all my life and we hadn’t even spoken. His eyes sparkled brightly and I was trying to decide if they were blue or gray when suddenly we were shaking hands and he was saying, “Good to meet you. My name is Buck. Don’t believe I’ve seen you here before”. We must have talked for an hour about dogs and people and field trials and then Buck said, “You had better saddle up. It’s time to get this dog show started.
As I turned to saddle my horse, I noticed my two friends were standing beside my trailer. “Where have you been?” they asked. I told them I had been talking to an old gentleman and lost track of time. We saddle our horses and rode to the starting point to see the first brace released. My new friend Buck, was mounted on his beautiful grey horse and had both his dogs in roading harness. He was positioned away from the main gallery but in a good position to see the breakaway. He had pulled a small leather-bound notebook and pencil from his coat pocket and was writing something. Buck had just finished writing and placed the notebook back in his pocket when one of the judges shooted “Let’em go.”
From then on I didn’t pay much attention to the old man, I would see him from time to time, writing in his notebook & roading his dogs, but I was so overwhelmed by the fine dog work I found it hard to divide my attention. Each morning Buck would already be at the starting point when I arrived and, after the day’s running, his truck would already be gone when we came in. I witnessed some of the finest dog work I had ever seen. I had been concentrating on the action and hardly noticed the days coming and going. I was surprised when I realized the next to the last brace had been completed. Tomorrow morning the last brace of the National Championship would be run.
By luck of the draw the two dogs with the best chance of winning the Championship had been braced together and drawn for this final morning. The day dawned cool and a little wet. There was a mist in the air with a threat of rain for later in the day. The wind was not blowing yet but was expected to howl as the front moved in. We all approached the breakaway point, the course was draped in an eerie fog that seemed to collect in the low parts of the terrain. The old man was there too, off to the side as usual, but his dogs were not in their roading harness. He had simply heeled them to the line,. Wait a minute…..he was at the line! What was he thinking? Even a novice would know not to interfere, so why was he doing this, and why wasn’t anyone trying to move him and his dogs back? Before I could bring this strange situation to anyone’s attention, the judge called for the breakaway. The two legitimate competitors sprang from the line and headed slightly left. Buck signaled his two dogs and they were off in hot pursuit of the brace. All four were rapidly approaching one of the low-lying areas where the fog had collected. They disappeared for just a moment into the mist and when they emerged, the old man’s dogs were nowhere to be seen. It was like they had vanished, but where could they have gone?
I soon quit pondering the whereabouts of the old man’s dogs. The two competitors had captured everyone’s attention. They were literally flying around the course. Their feet barely touched the ground. The gallery was buzzing about the performance. First one, then the other, would slam into a point. They honored each other every time. They worked the course like they were hunting together rather than competing. None of us had ever witnessed anything like it. The handlers hardly spoke a word. The dogs negotiated the course like they were at their homes. I wasn’t sure how long this went on, it seemed like minutes but must have been hours. One of the handlers asked the judge how much time was left. The judge responded with a dazed look in his eye and said, “Time was up fifteen minutes ago. I suppose we’ll have to stop in a little while.”
Buck was still in his favorite position to the side of the gallery when the two competing dogs turned left into a broad hedgerow where they disappeared once again. To my surprise, four dogs appeared from the other side. Buck’s two dogs ran to him and he dismounted to put them back in roading harness. The judge called for pickup and it was over. We all rode back to the parking area in silence, as if we might detract from the experience by talking about it. By the time we had unsaddled our horses, I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I started to tell my two friends about what I had seen the old man do. “What old man are you talking about” they asked. “What dogs”” A couple of older gentlemen within earshot of our conversation approached us. “Please pardon me for being so rude” said one of them “but did you sway you saw an old man with an antique truck and trailer.” He asked. “And two fine dogs and a dapple grey hose?” asked the other. Then in unison, they both asked, “Was his name Buck?” I answered “Yes” and a cold chill ran up my spine and made the hair on the back of the neck stand up.
The two men became teary-eyed as they started telling me about the old man. One of them put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I saw Buck in 1945. That’s the year Ariel won this thing for the third time. My buddy here saw him in 52 when Paladin won his second, I was here that year too, but I didn’t see the old man. They say he’s here every year, but I’ve only seen him once. I keep coming back with hopes of talking to him just one more time, but I’ve never met anybody who’s seen him more than once.”
The two men thanked me for my time, then turned and started wlaking away. They had only gone a short distance when one of them turned back and said, “By the way I guess you know that right now you’re the only one besides the judges and old Buck who knows for sure which dog is going to be this year’s Champion.”
(This story was related to me by my good friend and partner in bird dogs, Dennis Glover. I was so intrigued by the taile that I asked him if I could write it and share it with others. Obviously he agreed. Imagine how Dennis must have felt when he experienced this story firsthandin a dream that he said seemed so real he felt like he could have touched the old man.)