Another Cold Christmas, a Long Time Ago
It was a cold, clear morning in central Pennsylvania last week, and I found myself walking a truss yard, working but enjoying life. It was 20 degrees, but the air was so still it felt comfortable. As I gazed across the adjacent field you see above, the pungent smell of liquid fertilizer rose off the field with the warmth of the awakening sun. Its rays glistened off the frosty trusses, and as I followed the line of sparkles to the skyline, the sound of geese headed for warmer fields beckoned goodbye to the ground and its inhabitants below. I listened to them recede off into the sun, and as I turned back to my task the sound of a locomotive blowing far in the distance greeted me like an old friend, one I had known long ago...
... in a cold frosty woodlot in central Texas, back in the middle years of the last century. I had taken out Dolly, the neighbor's trusty beagle, for a morning rabbit hunt on the week before Christmas. As we walked into the wood, I gazed at the frost on the steel rails of the line that ran between the highway and the woodlot, and how it disappeared around a bend. Dolly was whining with excitement until I finally unleashed her, and she sprang off with that crazy zigzag hop that beagles take on when they're free to do what they were born for...to make life miserable for rabbits. In less than a minute, I heard her excited yelp and then listened to her cry out with excitement even as she got farther away in the brush. I settled back to wait for her to bring the quarry back to me, which I knew she would.
As I waited, I cradled the old single-shot .410 in my arms and looked around at the forest. Typical of most woods in central Texas, it was filled with cedar and scrubby oaks, all surrounding a magnificent old cottonwood that towered above the others. It was years before I was to enter forestry school, and I had never heard the term forest succession, but even then I understood that the cedars and oaks were stealing land from King Cottonwood and his cousins in the distance. My thoughts transitioned from the besieged old cottonwood to the cedars, and I began to size them up for their suitability as Christmas trees, and to make plans to come back in the afternoon and get one for the house.
Just then, I was jolted back into the moment as Dolly's cries seemed to spring out of the woods nearly upon me. A big fat cottontail was bounding through the underbrush, trying to shake the crazy little hound that had wakened him out of his morning slumber. But I had been too slow, and even as I shouldered the old shotgun the rabbit's tail waved goodbye as he disappeared into a brush pile. I didn't even get a shot.
I stood there getting mad at myself but feeling a little good for the rabbit. But just then, Dolly burst out of the brush, and seeing me with the gun raised, came running up to me joyfully to look over her trophy. She came up with tail wagging in a blur, bobbing her head up and down as she alternated between looking at me and sniffing the ground. She suddenly stopped and started, and stopped again, as the scent led away from me. She looked up with me with those big beagle eyes as if to say, "What happened?"
I just looked at the dog and shrugged my shoulders, guilty of not holding up my end of the bargain.
Dolly looked confused for about two seconds, because there was supposed to be a dead rabbit hanging out with me. But then, she looked off into the brush, looked back at me with that beagle smile, yelped, and headed off after the rabbit again at a loping run.
I'm not sure why that long-ago morning hunt came back to me when it did, but I'm sure the manure, the sunlight, the cold, the geese, the trusses, and the train whistle all played their part in the memory. And as I sit here and relive that moment of youthful happiness with Dolly, I wonder what I learned then makes me share it with you today. Perhaps that day-dreaming is fine when you're on your own, but when others are counting on you, focus on the task at hand. Or maybe just that dogs are more faithful and forgiving than humans.
Either way, I'm looking forward to making it up to Dolly one of these days. I'm sure she's up there, wagging that tail and waiting for me to join her on a trek through a forest in another kingdom, one where the cottonwoods are kings forever.