From the moment I first laid eyes on Major, I knew he had the right stuff.
Story by Tommy Baysden + Photo by Jim Erickson
Even as a puppy, he was big for a Boykin, his searing yellow eyes and wispy blond ears a testament to his forbearers – Chesapeake and Water Spaniel – so many generations back. If the AKC had really wanted to standardize the breed, they could simply have pointed to Major and said: “there – now that’s a Boykin Spaniel!”
His behavior that first day was another tip-off that he had his priorities straight. He took one look at Martha-the-bitch-cat from-hell and knew exactly what he was supposed to do. (They reconciled eventually, after Major gained respect for the punitive power of razor-sharp claws.)
Naturally, he came equipped with the patented Boykin energy. (The word “hyper” is sometimes used outside Boykin circles). The local vet finally persuaded me, against all my instincts, to rob him of his manhood. I am here to bear witness that if this diminished his hunting prowess by one iota, it is positively scary to think of what might have been.
Training was pure joy. I quickly realized that all I really needed to do with Major was to show him what I wanted and get out of the way. I am still awed by how the genes of great retrievers get passed along with such power. A friend of mine simplified it for me: “It’s just in ‘em,” he said.
This was borne out by my first experience in gun-breaking. I had previously trained a Lab who was as fine a retriever of tennis balls as I’ve ever seen, but was so gun-shy as to be virtually useless in the field. (“Rug Warmer” was the title she picked up at the duck club.)
But Major was a whole different matter. Determined to avoid the problem, I took him to a sporting clays clinic where the celebrated instructor Dan Carlisle was holding forth, poised to administer a panacea of back-stroking and dog bits as soon as the shooting began. But at the first 12-gauge blast, the leash was ripped from my hand and off went Major, looking not for a place to hide, but hell-bent on finding something to bring back.
And then there were the squirrels. Have you ever even seen a Lab chase a squirrel? They can’t be bothered. But for Major, squirrels ranked right up there with grizzly bears and timber wolves. Those vicious rodents posed a threat to our family, and any one daring enough to come to ground was quickly dispatched, with that series of high-pitched squealing yelps that means “treed” to any hunter of coons or cougars – or squirrels. Nobody taught Major to bark like that. It was just those damn genes.
So, it seemed like all the raw materials for a crackerjack hunting dog were there and coming together. But experience has taught me not to count the eggs until they’re in the omelet, so after weeks of practice on golf balls, rubber duckies and the neighbor’s newspaper, it finally came time to put Major in the field.
His debut took place on a dove shoot at Fife Plantation, the wonderful old Harrison family property adjoining the Savannah National Refuge. The usual retinue of black Lab studs was on hand. You know, those muscular bruisers with heads like cinder blocks and names like “Brutus,” “Rambo” and “Thor.” Now, I love Labs, I really do. But this particular day saw the tables turned in a most amusing way.
“Baysden brought his poodle,” somebody said, as we climbed into the back of the truck. “I’d be worried about that thing if a goodsized dove gets ahold of him,” someone else pitched in.
The birds were criss-crossing the field that day in a pattern that focused on a huge stack of dead trees pushed up together along the edge. And, as fate would have it, that was where most of the downed birds were falling, one after another, disappearing into the spaces between logs, where those big chunky Lab heads would never fit. As the other dogs circled the woodpile, whining in frustration, the strangest thing happened. I dropped a bird, right in there with the others, and Major took off like he was on a mission. Straight up the side of the woodpile he went, disappearing into one of the cracks where a Lab would never have fit. Seconds later, dogs and hunters alike watched in awe as the little brown dog emerged from the pile with no less than three dead birds in tow.
Duck hunting in ankle-deep water was the only time Major conceded anything to a Lab. The big guys could bounce off the bottom and surge through the water (I love to see them do that!), while Major would have to paddle furiously with his short Boykin legs, just to make any headway at all. He never won a swimming race against a Lab.
Last Christmas, hunting ducks at Skeet Burris’ place near Hampton, Andrew noticed that Major seemed to be having trouble swimming straight to the birds. I brushed it off at the time, but three weeks later he was stone blind. Though it was breaking our hearts, we were prepared to love and take care of him in that condition for the rest of his life. But when kidney failure kicked in around June, the handwriting was on the wall.
Dogs reward their Masters with unconditional love – you hear that a lot. But Major took it to a new level. When inside, he had to be not only in the room with me, but touching me, stuck to me like Velcro, taking a step each time I did. In the years that we were together he was my friend, my traveling companion, my playmate, my partner in the field. No matter how mad or frustrated I got with him, he never got mad or frustrated with me.
You can never really replace a great dog, for they are as different one from another as we humans are. But you can hold them in your heart and your memory, and lavish that same love and appreciation on the next one to come along, should God grant you such luck. So farewell, old dear Major. Come on in, Jackson Browne!