I wouldn’t say I had a perfect childhood. I doubt anybody outside of a Disney movie actually does. But I grew up long before the nanny state decided to address every childhood problem. We simply found our own ways to cope. Mine was hunting. It was in my blood long before I had a gun. I used a BB gun or bow and arrow or just a stick. I was lucky enough to live in a very small town with plenty of woods within walking distance. When life got too hard, I just disappeared into the woods for a while and always emerged feeling better. I guess it formed the roots of my lifelong obsession.
For years I listened to my father and grandfather’s rabbit-hunting tales and knew I had to try it. I actually had a rabbit to my credit. When I was 8 years old we jumped on a brush pile at my uncle’s house until a rabbit hiding inside ran out, and I shot him on the run with a Daisy BB gun. I am sure luck played a major role, but I had credible witnesses and I became a hero at school. To maintain the status, I would never admit to anything less than supernatural skill.
But that was a cottontail, which for reasons I never understood we called “coonie rabbits.” Real rabbit hunting as I understood it then meant only varying hares, which we called “white rabbits.” (I know, I know, they are technically varying hares, but to this Vermonter they will always be “rabbits.”) They were the exotic big game of the moment and I longed to hunt them in the high country where snowshoes and beagles were as important as a gun.
I have always been hard to ignore and by the time I was 10, I had perfected the talent. With a kid in the household as hunting-crazy and persuasive as I was, things tended to happen sooner or later. It may have been a sincere desire to spend time with his oldest son that inspired Dad to buy the dog, but I suspect that it was more a quest for peace and quiet.
I named him Barney (Barney Beagle. Come on, I had just turned 11—I thought it was catchy.) I promised with the sincerity only an excited boy can generate to faithfully train and care for him.
I doubt that a tougher, craftier or more determined beagle ever lived. This guy wanted only freedom and he did not know the meaning of quit. The conventional thinking then was that a hunting dog could never be a pet. It had to be kept outside, not pampered in the house. We provided the comforts needed—a warm doghouse to protect him from the elements and plenty of food and water—but Barney longed only for freedom every day of his life.
We first hooked him to a cable-run in the back yard. It was maybe 50 feet long with a chain on a roller so he could traverse the entire length. It never held him. He built up the strongest legs I have ever seen on a dog by pulling hour after hour on the chain. Even steel has limits and he would yank at the chain for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, until something let go. For that dog, the effort was nothing compared to the pay off.
So we built a pen. He dug under it. We buried the fence. He dug deeper. I lined the inside with big boulders. He climbed up the fence like a ladder. We extended the fence. He climbed higher. We built another extension angled 45 degrees to the inside. He worked the corners of the fence where it attached to the barn, pulling at the staples until he made a hole.
He even conned our housedog, a shepherd-husky cross, to dig him out from the other side. He figured out how to climb up on his doghouse and jump over the fence behind it, so we had to move the house to the center of the pen. Through patience and perseverance he would always find a way to the exciting world on the outside, even if it meant waiting for the snow to slide off the roof of the old icehouse that formed one end of the pen. Like an Olympic vaulter, he would run up the snow pile, spring off the top and jump for the fence. Usually he would grab the angled top with his front paws and scramble with his back feet hanging in the air until he fell back into the pen. But every once in a while, when the snows were big, he made it out.
In the winter I let him into the house at night to eat and, if it was bitter cold, to sleep. When I opened the door to his pen he charged up the path to the back door of the house with the enthusiasm only beagles and small children can generate. While inside the house he made every second count. We might all, before we die, live something as fully as he did those simple pleasures. In his world, this was as good as it could possibly get.
I guess what I am saying is that he was a tail wagging, wiggling bundle of contradictions. He was the most lovable, friendly dog a boy could have, but he was as stubborn and bullheaded as they came. Right from the start he loved to follow me through the woods, and many times that first fall I carried the pooped and sleeping puppy home in the game bag of my hunting vest.
Finally that year, sometime after deer season, the day came to start his formal training as a rabbit dog. Every hunter in the family came out for the event. An hour into the excursion, Dad peeked under a snow-covered spruce tree and was almost bowled over by a panicked snowshoe rabbit. The poor doomed critter literally jumped over the confused dog, then instinct took over and the puppy, which was probably smaller than the rabbit, bellowed and tore after him. My uncle Butch and I were waiting a few hundred yards ahead and when the rabbit hopped into a clearing, smug in the knowledge that he could outrun the pathetic critter chasing him, our shotguns boomed simultaneously. It wasn’t until comparing notes later that we even realized that the other had shot. My uncle claimed he missed and that it was my rabbit. I later realized that I had never seen him miss anything, but I was grinning ear to ear that day as I showed off my first “white rabbit.”
Barney and I were both hooked on rabbit hunting from that moment. Every afternoon after the torture of school ended my friends and I took the dog and headed to the woods within walking distance of town. We had a secret place that was literally infested with cottontails. (Oh, how I long to find a spot such as that again!) The population was in no real danger, as we blasted at them often and hit them only occasionally. But it was great fun and I think that none among us enjoyed it more than Barney. Can you imagine today turning loose a bunch of pre-adolescent kids with guns and no adult supervision? All my mother required was that I be home for supper. The funny thing is, nobody ever got hurt, we all learned to stand on our own two feet and most of us turned out fine.
My grandfather, who had trained several rabbit dogs, had told me the best training for a puppy would be to let the dog track down and finish any rabbit we mistakenly wounded. One day a new kid came along with us. As he approached the first brush pile he spotted a cottontail sitting in the sun on the edge. He popped once with his .22 Winchester Automatic. The rabbit crawled into the brush pile and we enthusiastically sent the puppy in after him, certain that this was the big opportunity. A few minutes later Barney emerged with the rabbit and took off on a dead run. We found him half an hour later with a bloated belly, a smug expression and no sign of the rabbit except for a few bones and scraps of fur. The “hunter” went home in tears at the loss of his first rabbit, and after a halfhearted scolding Barney went home a better rabbit dog.
Sunday afternoons were the best, though, because that’s when Barney and I crawled into the back of Dad’s old Jeep while Dad and Gramp sat in the front. We hunted snowshoe rabbits then and I believe that they were some of the best days I ever spent hunting. My grandfather was deadly with his custom 20-gauge Fox side-by-side double-barrel; a dark shadow fell over any rabbit that ran in front of that shotgun. It accounted for more game over the years than most of us can even imagine, including a bear, with No. 7½ birdshot, no less. Gramp could shoot it like it was an extension of his body and even then, in his late 60s, he shot so fast and so well that few rabbits got by him.
Dad and I blasted at a few ourselves, Dad with his Winchester 20-gauge semi-auto and me with my Ithaca 12-gauge single-shot. Which, by the way, was the coolest shotgun on the planet. (I regret to this day that I was talked into trading it.)
After the first of January, hunting usually required snowshoes, and in kid fashion I was infatuated by the old bearpaws my grandfather had hanging in his cellar. I was a small kid, but I insisted on using them despite the sound advice that the narrower styles were better suited to my stubby legs. I stubbornly thrashed around on these oversize supports, spending as much time with my head buried in the snow as I did upright. Barney soon learned, as does every beagle, to stand on someone’s snowshoes. That habit accounted for plenty of faceplants in the snow for me. They say a dog can’t laugh, but they never saw Barney watch me try to get back on my feet.
But when a rabbit was started, Barney’s bull-headed determination kicked in and he would stick on a rabbit’s trail until we killed the rabbit or physically grabbed the dog and carried him away kicking and screaming. He simply did not know the meaning of quit.
More than once it got so late that we had to leave him overnight and go back the next day to find him. The old hunters always advised leaving a coat on the ground where you last saw the dog. The idea was that he would recognize the scent on your coat and lie down on it. Not this dog. After losing three coats (one was shredded) I gave up on that idea. I think Barney looked at my coats as a way to punish me for leaving him behind.
Usually he would find a nearby house and make a friend. (Presumably this was after dealing with my coat.) The people of Vermont were different back in the ’60s; we always got a call to come and get him, usually followed by something like: “Don’t hurry, he just finished dinner and the kids are having a ball playing with him.”
Once when he hadn’t turned up a week later I figured he was gone forever. There had been rumors of a “ring” of dog thieves in the area and we heard there was a new beagle at a house in the town north of where I lived. My grandmother let it be known around the laundromat she owned that I had lost my dog and was quite anxious to retrieve him. A woman called me the next day and said my dog had just wandered into her yard. She didn’t explain why she’d kept him for two weeks. I got my mom to drive me up to her place, which was about 20 miles from where we had lost the dog, and there he was. His paws were soft and in good shape with long claws, hardly what you would have expected from a dog who had just walked 20 or more miles in the ice and snow. I was just a kid, not even old enough to drive, and I was happy to have my best friend back, so I just said thanks and went home, letting the matter drop.
Barney developed into a wonderful rabbit dog, nothing spectacular, just good. For several years we hunted with him all we could, but all things must end. I got older and discovered fast cars and pretty girls. Gramp got older and Dad lost interest. We hunted rabbits less. Mom couldn’t bear to see Barney locked up, so we let him in the house more. Being a beagle, he could never be bothered to learn about cars and such things. We lived right on Route 7, the primary north-south corridor in the state. It was a sleepy two-lane back then, but it still had traffic. We didn’t allow the dog outside unless he was in his pen, but the desire to roam was too strong and he was too quick. One day he scooted out when somebody opened the door and ran into a Chevy.
Thanks to a good vet he lived and fully recovered from that April accident in time to hunt opening day in late September. I had graduated high school and had a full-time, six-days-a-week job. I was feeling guilty about not hunting with him much and vowed to change that. We had a lot of rabbits that fall and Barney was running well. That got Dad and Gramp back in the game, and we all looked forward to a good year once we started hunting rabbits seriously in December.
Then one day I came home from work and Mom greeted me at the door. That bullheaded little beagle had not learned from his close call. He had bolted through the door again and into another car.
I buried him in back of the barn that night. At 19 you’re not supposed to cry, but as I worked in the dark, digging in the frozen dirt, I wasn’t 19, I was 11, and I had just lost my best friend.