Out on Opening Day
and Ol' Dawg Are Done
JOHN BLACK FARM, CHARLES CITY COUNTY, VIRGINIA—The
cooks arrive before
daylight, the headlights sweeping up into the yard
and out again as they make their way past the house
and down to a big equipment shed, but the farm dogs
are aroused and the arousal of them is the end of
sleep, and of silence.
smile and contemplate my good fortune. I am in a comfortable bed, upstairs in a
comfortable house, on a sprawling farm just off of
Highway 5, east of
It is opening day of dove season and I am
guest at the John Black farm for the premier shoot
is a historic part of the country, this fertile
peninsula between the York
and the James. Charles
one of Virginia’s
original "shires," dates to 1613. Shirley is here, and Berkley,
two of the fabled James
surrendered to Washington
just down the road, at
And this is the place of Seven Days, in the summer
of 1862, when R. E. Lee beat George McClellan black
and blue in what would become known as "The
have two yellow labs with me. Dawg, an old, slow, heavy,
white-whiskered friend of many years has retrieved
birds for me all over --
name it. He
has been a fabulous dog, but he’s like me now --
can barely go. And
I have his son, "Jinks," with me, a beautiful,
big-framed, not-quite-six-months-old idiot, a
miracle sired in Dawg’s old, old age. This
will be Jinks’ first hunt. I know in my heart it will be Dawg’s last. At the moment they are both raising hell down
in the truck, so I am
Black is a ruddy-complexioned, clear-eyed man of
that plain-spoken, unassuming honesty and directness
which marks so many folks who make their living from
the land. And
his sons are the same way — Alan, the oldest, John,
known universally in these parts as "Chubb,"
Keith, and Randy, the youngest.
‘Chubb’ and Keith farm with their father
-- 2,500 acres of cotton, corn and soybeans. Alan, a lawyer, is my neighbor here in
Meadows of Dan. Randy, the youngest, has five children under
the age of seven.
Bangit and his son David do the breakfast, lump crab
meat tortillas cooked on a grill. The No Kill Hunt Club shows up
— and, no,
this is not some equivalent to catch-and-release
fishing — this is… well… never mind.
Dill and Bill Montcastle get a full-to-the-brim
black pot of Brunswick stew going. Is the recipe written down? I realize that’s a stupid question as soon
as I ask it. Kenny
inherited his position from his father Bob. They keep track of the years by notching the
handle on the stirring paddle. I count them.
There are twenty-three of them. Sarah Barnette has been coming with her
father, Bill, since she was a little girl and is
given the honor of notching the paddle this year.
is barbecue on a big cooker. And strips of duck breast wrapped in bacon. And grilled fish and…
the noon starting time some 50 shooters have
are friends or neighbors.
Most are both.
Some of the brass from the Virginia
Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is here. Bob Ellis, chief of the waterfowl division,
is here, and Gary Costanza.
Patty Moore, the state’s dove expert, has
not made it, but is missed. And Donald Hayes is here.
is… well… let’s see…
probably the best
ambassador the state government has hereabouts. He has a permanent smile on his face, a
perpetual twinkle in his eye and otherwise looks
like Santa Claus. With a beer gut. He’s a raconteur of the first rank. (A word of caution here: You might want to allow, at best, no more
than ten inches to the foot on what he tells you.) And he’s an expert politician.
He got eight votes in the local treasurer’s
race once — which is a lot better than he shoots.
I mention that you couldn’t find a Democrat down
here with a search warrant? This is a Republican crowd. Kenny cooked stew for Ollie North once. Did I mention that?
late afternoon, birds are pouring into this farm by
the thousand and the place sounds like opening night
over Baghdad. But
dove shooting can be… well… humbling. Alan is probably the best pure shooter this
limits out (12 birds) on a box of shells (25
shots) — no easy feat. His father, who recently finished second in
the state in his age bracket in sporting clays
competition, goes 12 for 40. I limit in maybe 2 boxes.
Keith goes 2 for 35. Don Hayes? One bird.
class of the field, though, is clearly 88-year-old
Abe Blankenship. He’s about like ol’
Dawg. Abe totters off of his stool every little
bit — someone from the No Kill Hunt Club quickly
picks him up and sets him right again — but still
manages to bag eight birds.
how does ol’ Dawg do?
have to understand that there are some fancy dogs at
this shoot -- store-bought dogs, dogs that have been
to charm school, but at the very end of the second
day of shooting a downed bird lost in high, thick
cover is stumping the very fanciest of them.
Dawg is summoned and he and I huff and puff down to
the search party together.
what will surely be the last time I ever send him
into a thicket, he’s out again in 10 seconds. Robot dog is still in, still looking. I hand the man his bird.
Nobody says anything. Me and ol’ Dawg turn and head for the truck
one last time. Me
and ol’ Dawg are done.
September 20, 2004