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MONDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2006
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A special dog made for a great Christmas

During my high school years, the arrival of winter always meant two important things for a few select friends and me — school was out and duck hunting season was under way.

Waterfowl hunting was excellent during the mid-1970s. But as far as we were concerned, harvesting a duck or two was a bonus. Just being out in the “outdoor kingdom,” as I called it, was exciting enough.

Many fond memories were developed at that magic location. There were even times when we would trek through the thick brush and thorns to our stationary duck blind in the off-season just to sit down and daydream. It was a secluded spot on the Swan Creek Management Area that hardly anybody knew about.

In September 1976, we would spend the weekends talking about duck hunting while we were dove hunting on either Swan Creek Management Area or Mallard-Fox Creek Management Area. There was also a few acres of private land near Mallard-Fox where we had permission to hunt any time we wished.

On this particular day, my friend T.J. took a shot at a dove that was flying by and dropped the bird easily with a direct hit. All of a sudden, seemingly from nowhere, a big black Labrador Retriever appeared.

The female lab rushed to pick up the bird and with tail wagging and what looked like a huge smile on her face, she took the dove to T.J.

After watching the performance, we knew that the lab, which didn’t have a collar or anything else that could be used for identification, belonged to someone who had trained her. The owner surely was looking frantically for his trained pet, which appeared to be 3 or 4-years-old.

We became concerned because the tract of land we were hunting on was many miles away from the nearest house. We were the only ones allowed to hunt on this property so we ruled out the idea that somebody else was hunting a mile or two away.

Also, the dog looked a little malnourished, and its coat wasn’t shiny. It was as if the lab had been in the scrub a long time.

Getting close to the end of shooting hours that day we loaded up our gear, including the lab, into Anthony’s truck and headed out in search of the dog’s owner. We checked at the nearest houses and spoke with a few people walking down the road. Nobody knew the dog or its owners.

Anthony and I already had dogs of our own, so T.J. took the lab to his house. He had a spacious backyard surrounded by a chain link fence so the dog couldn’t run out into traffic and get hurt. Once he confirmed that the dog was already house-trained, T.J. kept it inside when he was home.

All of us tried to locate the dog’s owner through word of mouth. We also placed an ad in The Daily for a long time. After receiving no response, T.J. declared the dog as his own and named her Falstaff because of an aluminum beer can she loved to chew and play with.

It was obvious that T.J. became close to Falstaff. While dove hunting or fishing, Falstaff was always at his side. When waterfowl season rolled around, Falstaff showed her stuff. She had been trained to assist her owner when he was duck hunting.

Something I remember most about Falstaff was her ability to let us know if a duck or goose was nearby. If rain was coming down hard, we were not always looking to the sky for passing birds — we didn’t have to.

If a duck circled, Falstaff’s eyes focused on the target and she started whining. Once the shotguns delivered a few blasts, she was ready to go to work. T.J. would give her a command and off she went to retrieve the duck.

Normally, we kept the ducks we had harvested or gave them to friends. They made a great meal when cooked properly. Toward the last two weeks in December, we would keep the ducks we could use and then drive down a couple of streets where the people living there knew what T.J.’s Chevrolet looks like. We would ride down the street, honk the horn a couple of times and turn around to follow the same path we had just taken.

On certain days, people would line the street to get one of the ducks we were giving away. They were fond of a duck dinner. And if we had harvested a goose that day, certain precautions had to be taken. Even though no physical confrontation resulted, sometimes folks exchanged words while trying to decide who got the goose.

Never at any time would we accept money for the ducks and geese given away. It was always a great time for us knowing that we helped feed a needy family. During that time of year, we always had a smile on our face.

T.J.’s smile disappeared a week before Christmas Day as Falstaff’s owner was finally located. T.J. was crushed and saddened to say the least, but he gave Falstaff to her owner without a hitch.

Duck hunting took on a different meaning for us that week. On a couple of days, T.J. wouldn’t even go hunting with us because of the pain he felt about losing Falstaff.

Two days before Christmas, T.J.’s parents put on a big smile every time they saw T.J. or Anthony or me. They would just smile and not say a single word.

It was obvious to us they were hiding something. When they did finally speak, we could tell they were just trying to comfort T.J. They said they went out and bought a special gift to try and make T.J. feel better.

The day before Christmas was an outstanding day of duck hunting for Anthony, T.J. and me. It wasn’t raining, the skies were clear and there was hardly any wind blowing at all. To say the least, it was terrible hunting conditions, and we didn’t get a single shot off.

Nearing the end of shooting hours for that day, with big smiles on our faces, we headed in and as usual loaded up our equipment in Anthony’s truck. As Anthony was getting ready to drive away, T.J. whistled out loud and then spoke, “Come on Falstaff, it’s time to go home.”

T.J.’s parents had indeed bought a spectacular Christmas present. T.J. would say the gift wasn’t just for him, but that Falstaff belonged to everybody on our hunting team. As far as gifts go, it was a Christmas Day that will never be forgotten — for all of us.

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Paul Stackhouse
Outdoors
Paul Stackhouse
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