by Robert S. Lumsden, Sr.
Rusty was the dog of my youth. There were other dogs (a handsome collie named Prince, a shepherd that was lost to trucks on the highway, a mixed breed named Spider that use to nip the back of my sister’s diapers) but Rusty was the dog that helped raise me.
I first saw him through the slats of a wooden crate in the back yard. Brown eyes stared back and could only be seen when the sunlight glinted through the small openings. I was disappointed. I thought he was a little ugly and maybe even scary. His eyes and fur were all the same color of brown, except for a tuft of hair on the very top of his head. He was very curly and had webbed feet. He had a tail like a muskrat, thick and heavy at the base and tapered to a point on the end.
Rusty had been mailed from Wisconsin. My father was a duck hunter, and Rusty was an American Water Spaniel that had been bred to jump into cold water and retrieve ducks. His purchase had been inspired by a dentist in the neighborhood, Dr. Tendall, who had a dog of the same breed that he had trained and kept in a pen in the back yard. His dog was impressive - he would sit, fetch, and take directions from his owner as to the whereabouts of thrown items.
When we got Rusty we did not have a fence enclosure, so the dentist offered to house Rusty until arrangements could be made. He stayed up the street for several weeks, and we'd remove him from the dog pen to take him to our house to begin his training. He retrieved almost naturally. He was always happy to get out of the pen, but at some time during the training he'd make a run back to the neighbor’s pen where he was fed.
His training proceeded normally for a while. He was a natural retriever of sticks and balls and always seemed to enjoy the exercise. Little did he know that this was only a preliminary to the day when he would be called upon to fulfill his life’s mission.
We awoke early one November morning, loaded hunting equipment, heavy clothes and Rusty into the car and drove toward Louisiana. The day was overcast and windy with the temperature in the high 30’s. Rusty must have wondered why we were going on such a long ride and why so early; couldn’t we just fetch the sticks around the yard?
Dad finally picked him up by the skin on his back and heaved him into the water. He choked and gagged a couple of times and started out toward the downed duck. Much to our disappointment he bit down on the first wooden duck decoy he came across and started dragging it back to the duck blind. Dad stood up in the boat and screamed loudly, “No, fetch,” while pointing at the dead and floating duck. I’m sure Rusty must have been totally confused by all of this.
As soon as it became obvious that Rusty was perfectly content to retrieve the decoys, it also became obvious that the anchor string from the decoy in his mouth was entangled with the anchor string from other decoys. As Rusty paddled toward the boat his pace became labored and slow as the weight of the string of decoys, strings, and lead weight pulled at him. Without our assistance he would have drowned.
We exited the duck blind and hauled Rusty and the decoy back into the boat. There was a second lesson later in the day. Rusty was asked to swim and retrieve a dead duck in much shallower water. Rusty taught us some important lessons that day. The most important lesson was, “Don’t expect the student to pass the final exam if you haven’t covered all the material.”
Rusty became a good yard dog. He fulfilled the responsibilities of lying in the sun in the front yard, digging holes, chasing the paperboy, barking at strangers, and following family members who left the house in anything but a car. This included escorting my mother to the regular meetings of the women’s tea when the ladies met in the neighborhood. My mother never really appreciated this escort service, but Rusty was not dissuaded from his duty. He followed along, parked himself on the front porch of the house where the meeting was being held, and at adjournment escorted my mother home.
But he mostly followed me. He followed me to the hideout in the woods, to everyone’s house around the neighborhood, and could be counted on to trail behind me when I went anywhere on my bicycle. On Saturday this quite often included trips to the movie. He followed me downtown, watched me go into the theater, and returned to sit next to my bicycle at the Methodist church. He'd fold his paws and rest his chin while he waited on the pillow of the front steps. He looked a little like the Sphinx. When the movie ended he followed me home.
In spite of his early trials in duck retrieval, Rusty never tired of stick retrieval. This was especially fun around a pond. Dad once wrapped a large stick with a towel so it would be a little easier on Rusty’s mouth. As the stick was thrown into the water, Rusty bounded into the lake on the “fetch” command. He grabbed the stick, made a U turn and started back to shore. We noticed that Rusty began to sink a little lower in the water. As the towel covered stick soaked it became heavier and started to pull his head under. At the critical moment when it became too heavy to support he had also reached water shallow enough for Dad to step in and pull him out. We always speculated over whether he would have ever released the fetch stick if it had pulled him under.
Rusty was a funny dog. The family has many fond memories of his adventures as our yard dog. But dogs and boys grow older. My bicycle turned into a motorcycle and then into a car. One day I patted Rusty on the head and headed off to college. Rusty moped around the house for several weeks.
During my second year away I got a note from my mother encouraging my academic progress, and at the end she said, “Oh, by the way, Rusty passed away yesterday. Your Dad found him in the side yard. We had a funeral in the woods.”
My mother use to say that dogs and cats that died went to the “Happy Hunting Ground.” I don’t know if Rusty would have wanted to go any place that had anything to do with hunting, but I know he went wherever good dogs go. Even in his passing he helped me grow. In addition, he taught me lessons on preparation, commitment, loyalty, and unqualified devotion.
Dr. Robert Lumsden is a Program Director for the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a graduate of Mississippi State University and Brookhaven High School in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
Doctor Calhoun Day
The Last Hunt
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