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Saying Goodbye to the McGuffin

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

I called him McGuffin. I stole the name from Alfred Hitchcock. The suspense movie director always had a gimmick, the thing that everyone was after, and he called that "the McGuffin."

McGuffin du Calembour was a French Brittany and between the moment I met him on an airline loading dock at St. Louis Lambert airport until I laid him in a rocky grave on the hill across the lake, he was my best friend.

It was a dozen years-plus. McGuffin didn't recognize the advances of age. Age was for old dogs; Guff was the eternal puppy. Every day was the best day he ever had. He yawped against the kennel fence every time anyone opened the house door, sure it meant a trip to some bird field.

Guff was an eternal optimist. He could be cold and wet, covered with snow, pelted by sleet, even struck down by heat exhaustion, but those were minor inconveniences, all part of being there. And being there was life.

Something poisoned Guff. One day he was healthy, the next he was ill and the third day I was burying him, sobbing disconsolately. I still can't visit the grave without breaking down. Maybe never will.

I took him to the far slope, across the lake, where the afternoon sun slants through the oak trees and lights the forest floor.

Nearby is an old log, covered with moss, that I found one day years ago. It looked like a good place to sit and think. I've gone to this log often. Sometimes I'm pretending to squirrel hunt; other times it's turkeys or deer, but mostly it's just thinking...or sometimes not even that, just soaking in the feel and smell of the earth and the sky.

It's a sweet place and I took McGuffin there knowing it made no difference to him whether the sun warmed his grave or not. It just makes a difference to me. I wanted him to be where I have felt content.

There's a new puppy, but he will not be McGuffin. The puppy is only a successor, not a replacement. He will carve his initials on my heart just as Guff did.

He and I will share times of glory and times of ignominy through the years, just as Guff and I did. Probably I'll grow to cherish him as much as I cherished Guff. I know that...but I miss my old friend so much.

Animal rights advocates and I seldom agree, yet when they lobby for the term "animal companion" instead of "pet," I can see the point. Guff was my friend more than my dog.

I was never lonely on long trips when he was with me. He listened to me shoot off my mouth and he always sensed when I was blue. He was the only one of the dogs who enjoyed being hugged and who would tuck his soft face under my arm and comfort me with his warm presence.

I can't estimate how many miles we traveled together. It was many thousands, to states as far away as Idaho. He pointed ruffed grouse in the bogs of Minnesota and pheasants in the Dakotas.

But it was Missouri quail that we both cherished. Guff pointed his first quail at just over five months in an old field in north Missouri. It was a sunny November day, typically warm for early season. He was chuffing the air as if chewing the scent out of it.

His eyes were squinted and he trembled with intensity. I shot the bird and he found it dead in the foxtail and I was inordinately proud of my little dog.

Guff wasn't a pretty pointing dog. No calendar artist would have picked him. But when he was on birds, as opposed to rabbits or possums or various other wildlife that he also enjoyed hunting, there was no doubt.

I remember him tiptoeing through a bog that reeked of woodcock scent. He walked on eggs, soaking wet from vegetation and a misting rain, but he didn't care. He was surrounded by game birds and all else was immaterial. Finally, he locked on point, and I walked the bird up and shot it.

Guff stood by it. Wouldn't pick it up. He didn't much like to retrieve. He'd rather find a downed bird and make sure I saw where it was, then move on to new games.

Another time, we relaxed against a log with a pair of grouse atop it. He'd pointed both and I, with rare skill, had killed them. I ate a cold apple and gave him a chunk. The thin sun lit the fallen leaves. I knuckled his ears and stroked him gently, knowing that such moments must be cherished because they are bound to end.

I'd intended to take Guff dove hunting the day he got sick. But it was hot and I went fishing instead and never got to have that last hunt with my friend. His first hunt was for doves. He was nine weeks old and fell asleep on my shell vest, rousing only a bit when the gun went off. He sniffed the dead birds with puppy delight, then went back to sleep.

Guff was more than a hunting dog. He rode a canoe like the lookout on the Santa Maria, ever eager for the sight of something other than water. In his old age, he took up fishing.

He'd lie on the dock, his feet over the edge, and watch the circling bluegills below, trembling so violently he was a blur. Jimmy Houston never got that excited about fishing. If I hooked a catfish, he'd wade in as I led it to shore and offer to help land it.

It's always intrigued me that hunters, who make mistakes routinely (like missing more shots than they hit) expect perfection from their dogs. Guff never came close to perfection.

He was just an intelligent and skilled bird dog with an average nose, but sometimes he screwed up almost as badly as I did. There was a memorable day when Guff did absolutely everything wrong. First, he busted birds. He acted as if he couldn't have smelled them if they'd been glued to his muzzle. Then he rolled in a cowpie. I got him reasonably cleaned up and brought him inside the cabin at the hunt's end.

He promptly threw up. While I was cleaning up that mess, yelling at him, he pouted over to the duffel bag of a fellow hunter and flopped down on it...depressing the nozzle of a can of WD-40 inside. The entire can emptied inside the bag.

Guff never turned down a dogfight and never won one. He was covered with scars. His eartips, lacerated by a decade's-worth of briars, were scarred and often bled after a tough day in the field. He had several scars on his face from losing encounters with his grandson, Dacques.

Dacques hero-worshiped Guff for a couple of seasons, followed him everywhere. Then, with young dog arrogance, Dacques decided he was the heir-apparent and Guff was over the hill. He was wrong, of course, but you can't tell a young dog anything.

Guff had been the same way. After a first season when he made few mistakes, he hit the sophomore jinx. He knew it all. It took another year of hard work and often impatient instruction before he settled back down. Once he realized it was a partnership between him and me, we melded like solder and a metal joint.

Dacques became a better bird finder. He has a great nose and good range, more like a pointer than a Brittany. I loved to hunt with him. But when I wanted a day by myself, more to get away than to kill birds, I'd load Guff and we'd take our time working the fields and draws and creek edges.

I knew he'd find some birds and hold them forever. I didn't have to worry about where he was because we each always knew where the other was. It was like a marriage. We merged personalities and became as one. Guff and I, a couple of old dogs, scarred and stiff and comfortable with each other.

That's why I feel as if I've lost a piece of me.

So, from time to time, I'll go to the mossy log and sit there and think about McGuffin and me. There needs to be an end to mourning and there are those who will say it's silly emotion even to cry after dead dogs. The new pup will warm the cold spots in my heart. It took a long time to get over the death of Guff's predecessor, but I did.

Life moves on and dead dogs don't come back.

They just leave great dark holes in the November landscape where once they flamed like the sun.

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