By Bob Ford
“What time are we going to run dogs tomorrow?” I asked Andy last summer at his place of work. “How about six o’clock tomorrow morning,” he scratched his beard. “Sounds good to me!” I exclaimed. Knowing Andy, I was certain that I would have an hour to see what my dogs could do before he dropped a few field champions (or future field champions) from his DeadRiver kennel in on my regular old hunting dogs. Sure enough, he pulled into the running grounds at a little past 7:15 a.m. and by then I had coffee made from the clubhouse pot.
“Want some coffee?” I offered. “I have some,” he held a mug up, “That’s why I am late.”
“It took you an hour and a half to make coffee?”
“Relax. I am not an hour and a half late. I am only an hour and fifteen minutes late.” He dropped the tailgate and put some professionals on the ground to show my knuckleheads hounds how to run a rabbit. And then we got to the tailgate.
There are various ways to evaluate a chase. Some guys can keep up with the hounds and follow them. Those are the sprinters. Some guys can get in front of the chase, watch the rabbit and beagles go past, and then run again to intercept the chase a little further along. Then there is tailgating. That is Andy’s way. Tailgating is a great way to begin a morning of conditioning hounds. You sit on the tailgate and listen to the run. Coffee is a big part of this. In the summer when the gnats run kamikaze missions at your eyes and the mosquitoes feast on your skin it can be miserable. Until Andy would get his tobacco and pipe and sit back on the tailgate, and puff away like Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies. The bugs beat a hasty retreat.
“That sounded like your Hoss getting that check,” he said.
“That wasn’t my dog.”
“Are you sure?” he interrogated me, “That wasn’t one of my dogs. Trust me, that was Hoss.”
Of course it wasn’t my dog. It was one of Andy’s. But that is the way it goes—Andy compliments your hounds and he never brags about his success at trials. Actually he says all the success belongs to the dogs, not him.
“Anyway,” I sipped my coffee, “We can’t tell anything by sitting on this tailgate.”
“We can listen to the music,” Andy corrected me.
That was true. We could hear the music. Oh, we had a good idea what the dogs were doing because we had run together so often. We knew which dogs liked to take the front and run a little mute to get a head start. We knew which dogs would take a big “walkabout” romp on a tough check hoping to stumble on the rabbit’s trail. We knew which dogs were most prone to solving a double. No, you can’t evaluate a pack from the tailgate but you can make very educated guesses about what is happening if it is a pack that has run together frequently. That’s the case for Andy and me.
We meet in the early hours before he has to be at work at Lion Country Supply when the mornings are still cool, but I think Andy prefers the heat of late summer. He likes to run at night. There is always a part of summer when midnight is no cooler than dawn. We ran one night a couple summers ago and had to pull porcupine quills from a few hounds before we went home. Something about rabbit feeders and brush piles seems to attract porcupines into a beagle club in larger numbers than in the wild.
“This stinks!” I yelled as we struggled to hold a dog still and get a quill out.
“That ain’t the worst stink,” he said.
“I smell skunk and it is on your house dog over there about 50 yards,” he muttered through teeth that were clenching his pipe as he puffed away a swarm of sweat-seeking insects.
“I despise night running,” I went to my trunk for the “mostly” effective anti-skunk spray from my truck.
“I love it,” he drug out the word love in a slow, gravelly sort of way, “It’s easier to stay up late than it is to get up early!”
All through the grueling field trial season he would be up late and conditioning hounds. When the mercury soars a great dog has to be in great shape. Andy insists on conditioning. We were out late one night last summer listening to the hounds and I said, “I’d like to look for a derby to run next year.” There was no reply.
The next day I got a text message. It said, “I have a derby for you.” I called him and the ringer was squelched to voicemail. “I’m at work and can’t talk,” he texted.
If you have never been to Lion Country Supply, which advertises in all the beagle magazines, it is a small store in the front, and a massive warehouse in the back. There are a few desks back there where the employees are answering the phones. Andy’s desk has some plaques that narrate some of the greater achievements his hounds have accomplished. They were issued from major trials or consistency awards. They aren’t on display in his house for all visitors to behold–probably there as a bit of good news on days when the phones are ringing off the hook. If you ever had a GPS question and called the store you probably talked to Andy. He is the GPS Guru. He would be on the phone and helping guys as a person who not only sells equipment, but has tested it all. He knew the pros and cons. His boss gave him the new Garmin Alpha before it was on the market and said “See how good it is so we can serve our customers.” Anyway, back to the text conversation…
“I have a dog that I think will be a good derby. He runs a good rabbit.”
“O.K.” I texted back.
“Come get him. He is in my truck.”
“Run him. See if you like him. His name is Badger.”
I ran the dog and I liked him. He told me to keep the dog for as long as I wanted to evaluate the beagle. Who does that? I ran him for a month and when we were out running dogs one night I said, “How much do you want for Badger?”
“He ain’t for sale,” he muttered while biting his pipe.
“Well, I would sell him to you. But if you don’t want him I am not going to sell him to anyone else.”
“I gotta pay ya!” I insisted.
“Whatever you think is fair,” he patted me on the back, assuring me that money wasn’t what was happening here.
I texted him at work one day and asked if he was able to fix my GPS if I stopped. I told him I was just leaving the Altoona Hospital from doing hospital visits. He can’t talk on the phone at work, remember? Ten minutes later my phone rang.
“How close are you to the store?” Andy sounded urgent.
“Can you stop at the Subway in Bald Eagle?” he asked, “I forgot my lunch at home.”
“Sure,” I said, “What do you want, “Oh, I will text it to you. It’s a pretty involved sandwich.”
It was an elaborate order, including a very specific brand of chips that had to be the proper style (Barbeque maybe) and size. I entered the store with food and GPS. He ran to the back, fixed my collar, and upon returning he insisted on paying me for the food. Things like that have happened a lot. I would stop at the store and Andy would come out and we would talk rabbit dogs, make hunting plans, discuss new spots, and laugh. Always lots of laughing. I have a job that can be less than fun. I go to hospitals and nursing homes and funeral parlors. Beagles are a pleasant distraction from all of that—I have never been the biggest competitor on the field trial circuit—I can’t even attend a Sunday trial without taking vacation! Andy has always been my welcome friend to forget all the negativity. You can’t find him in a bad mood. He is never argumentative (rare in beagling!) and he is mellow. Real mellow—keeps things in perspective. There are guys that despise each other and they both love Andy. I officiated Andy’s wedding when he and his wife Lisa married. It was an outdoor ceremony, on 12-12-12 on top of a hill in a wind gale. After dark. The orders were to wear hunting clothes.
I drove Andy to the top of the hill and on the way up I said, “How the hell am I gonna read the liturgy up there. It’s dark.” He pulled a coon hunting light from his pocket and strapped it to his forehead, “How is this?” – “Yeah man,” I said, “Just look at this book through the ceremony so I have light.”
In a lot of ways he shined a light of happiness everywhere. I always appreciated that light. He certainly lifted my spirits whenever I left a nursing home where a woman was distraught as her Alzheimer ridden husband did not recognize her, or after a hospital visit with a patient diagnosed with terminal cancer. One winter I had two funerals in 8 days, both were babies. Andy and I went hunting. And as I write this I am preparing to preside at Andy’s funeral. Gone too soon from this world. He never bragged about his dogs, but his DeadRiver kennel finished five field champions in a short time—Dixie, Rebel, Ruby, Ranger, and Bell, all within a little over a decade. But it is not his competitive spirit that I will miss, but his compassionate side. His joy and his laugh are emblazoned upon my mind. He died peacefully in his sleep eagerly anticipating a rabbit hunt the next morning, where he was going to introduce a friend’s kids to the exciting world of hunting with beagles. When I got the news I held my own DeadRiver dog real close. I use different analogies for heaven at different funerals. This week the analogy will be winners’ pack. He certainly was a winner who would do anything for anybody.