This has been an unsettling October. Usually, I return to my roots in New England to hunt grouse and woodcock but this year has been filled with one unexpected crisis after another and then the devastating loss of a close friend. Fall is a picturesque season in New England. Leaves turn from green to a wide array of vibrant colors; the hunting is among thickly wooded tree stands, often surrounded by centuries-old stone walls. My oldest and most loyal hunting dog seemed to wonder why we were not out in the field. Perhaps it was because, although we did not know it, he had a weak heart and could not have handled the heavy work of bird hunting. Last Wednesday, he suddenly and quietly died of heart failure. Five Octobers have passed since I wrote this story about Chester. The beauty of the story is that when it ends, he is still alive. He remains a crystal clear memory. – R.C.
Chester is comfortably lying under an apple tree, munching to his heart’s delight on old rotted fruit. Occasionally he lifts his nose in the air and smells fall. Then he might roll over on his back with an apple in his mouth or he might stand, shake, and look as though he’s ready to spring into action – only to collapse under the tree and grab another apple.
Standing over him, I urge him to his feet.
Chester is an excellent hunting dog – when he’s not lounging under the apple tree or falling down a flight of stairs.
“Chester, you idiot, you bum you, let’s go,” I cajole. “Exercise. We need to get into shape for the long days ahead.” He stares up balefully. I return his gaze with a look of disgust.
I am not serious. I love Chester.
Most often he doesn’t even look at me, so I grab him by the collar, lift him to his feet and make him walk. He’s compliant but leaves his apple trove reluctantly, looking back wistfully.
I begin to jog and he breaks into a lope, rarely straying from my side but bumping into me and looking up affectionately. Sometimes, he actually runs sideways as if he is a Slinky toy. My 11-year-old daughter, Meredith, imitates him perfectly and I howl in laughter each time I watch her do the “Chester run.”
Autumn, though, is not a time for laughing at Chester’s twisted gait and mocking him. October is the month he begins coursing through the woods with a frantic sense of purpose. This is bird-hunting season and the two of us must be sharp to harvest our prey.
In your mind’s eye, you’re probably not envisioning Chester as a highly motivated, focused hunting machine who instantly springs to life when he enters a field or the woods.
Well, think again, skeptic. Chester is a hunting dog. My hunting partner. Advertised succinctly, accurately and with a light tone of snobbery by the kennel he came from as a “Gentleman’s Shooting Dog.”
The description is half true, if you focus on the promise of the dog. His work in the field is excellent, almost manic.
At home, though, Chester displays a clumsy lovableness that’s endearing but reveals an attention deficit that, were he a child in school, would put him in the principal’s office so often he’d have his own chair. It makes perfect sense that his early training as a bird dog was provided by an elementary school teacher, Bob Barth, who once told me he teaches younger children because “you can still give ’em a hug.”
Like all dogs, Chester needs love and patience. Playing in the yard with our other dogs he often trips over his own feet, tumbling head over tail to the ground. He’s not much more stable in the house.
It’s tradition for a longtime friend to come to our house for dinner on Christmas night. Last year, after the family had left the table, my friend and I sat reminiscing, talking politics in peaceful serenity as snow fell outside the window.
A terrible commotion interrupted the calm as a crashing, bone-thumping set of sounds bounced off the walls.
The guest jumped.
“What’s that?” he asked, shaken.
“Oh,” I said, “that’s just Chester falling down a flight of stairs. He’s fine.”
There are times when I call Chester to the door and he comes at a dead run, misses the door and collides head-on with the side of the house. He’s been known to wander into the middle of a busy street and stand there, quizzically looking at the brake-screeching, horn-blowing cars.
Actually, all of these traits vanish when bird season starts this time of year, as it does in several parts of the country. He and I will be in the North Woods next weekend, hunting grouse and woodcock with some friends.
They have never seen Chester, but when they do, the day before we hunt, he will be curled up at my feet like a big, spotted foot cushion. When we go to our cabins for a night’s rest, he will sleep either next to my bed or on it.
When I describe how the next day they will see a different Chester when he swings into action, hunting and retrieving with passion, they will laugh, skeptical that my unfocused pet could be a serious hunting dog. If they shoot something, I assure them, Chester will retrieve. He will hold up his end of the bargain.
Here is how Chester and I became a pair.
About three years ago, after losing two hunting dogs to old age and mourning for a year or more, I decided the only possible cure for my pain was to buy a new dog.
I had always admired the DeCoverly setter, which has at its roots the English setter, out of a line called Ryman setters.
More than likely, you now know more than you care to know about dog lineage. The explanation is offered only because when people see one of these dogs and ask its breed, owners often say “English setter,” referring to the general type.
Whew. I’m starting to bore myself being so explicit, especially when there’s a good dog story to tell. Readers love dog stories, I know, because my column about my old yellow Lab Boone is still requested for reprint many years after its writing, and after Boone left the good Earth lying in my arms at the vet’s office following many bouts with the maladies of old age.
I was looking for a replacement for Boone and a springer spaniel named Sophie the day I drove to DeCoverly Kennels in Falls, Pa.
“Looking for a puppy I can raise and train to be a bird dog,” I told the kennel owner by phone the day before I drove to the kennel.
When I arrived, the owner invited me into his office. Grimly he stared at me over a cup of coffee.
“No puppy for you,” he said. “I won’t sell you one.”
Crushed as if my prom date had refused at the last second to go to the dance with me, I winced.
“Nope,” he said. “At your age (61 then) you may not be around long enough to hunt a dog who’s now a pup.”
He said he had some dogs that were about 2 years old that had completed their early bird-dog training. There was one lying outside on the porch with Bob Barth, he said. And sure enough, there was Prince (Chester’s kennel name), gnawing on a wooden table.
Barth held him by a leash and said the dog was new to the field but was his favorite training prospect. Prior to his training, he had been considered a possible breeding dog. He’s one handsome devil, a tri-color of brown and black speckles against a background of white coat.
He had failed the final conformation test as a prized stud by one centimeter.
Missing out on a lifetime of breeding in the kennel must have been a blow to him, but he showed great eagerness to greet me.
Although I could imagine this dog and I, against a setting of fall foliage, walking back to my truck after a rewarding day in the field, I told the kennel owner I still wanted a puppy.
“He’ll never bond with me,” I proclaimed.
He asked me to watch him work Chester in the field before turning down the chance to buy him. But by that time Chester had jumped up with his paws on my chest and was looking soulfully into my eyes.
From that point on, I never had a chance.
The first night at my house, Chester followed me to my bedside. He’s been there ever since – well, if you don’t count the times he’s been under the apple tree. He often comes to the office with me.
As much as love I him, there is one grudge I will forever hold against him. If he had come along sooner, revealing the many characters he plays in real life and the many personalities he displays, I could have chronicled them in writing and we might have made millions with a book and then movie about “Chester and Me.”
Of course, Chester’s undying loyalty and friendship are worth far more than fame and fortune – and, actually, it’s not Chester against whom I hold a grudge.
Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.