Last Dance for My Ladies

Illustration by Daniel Adel
by Tom Brokaw - April/May 2010

What a pair of bird dogs taught me about life, love, and aging gracefully

This is the story of two Labrador ladies: one, an elegant, highly intelligent, and self-confident blonde, the other, her kissing cousin, a tautly shaped raven-haired bundle of energy and anxiety. The blonde was known to a wide circle of admirers as Sage the Wonder Dog. The cousin was called Abbie, a name assigned by her Scottish breeders before she arrived in our family at the age of two.

My wife, Meredith, and I have been so willing to arrange our lives to accommodate Sage and Abbie that in a vain attempt to re-claim some dignity we say aloud from time to time, “Good God, we’re the kind of people we used to make fun of.” It doesn’t change our behavior, but we do take some comfort in acknowledging our weakness in their presence.

They, in turn, demand nothing more than regular meals, soft beds, hands-on affection, and deep grass hillsides or fields of grain so they can exercise their God-given abilities to find upland birds, send them aloft, and, if their master doesn’t screw up, retrieve for him the shotgunned quarry.

But I am ahead of myself.

We were empty nesters, our last-born child having departed for Duke. Meredith decided we needed a dog to fill the vacuum. She heard about a litter in Colorado sired by Chopper, the legendary avalanche dog at the top of Aspen Mountain.

Sage came from that litter first to our ranch in Montana, where from her earliest age she demonstrated a unique combination of curiosity and what can only be described as canine self-confidence. She seemed to know she had royalty in her bloodline.

When Sage arrived, she was nameless and remained so for several weeks as we struggled to find the right call sign while remembering the admonition to pick a name that also serves as a command. Preferably one syllable and punchy.

We were struggling until a family friend suggested running through the spices. Rosemary and thyme may work for Paul Simon but not for a bird dog. But Sage? Yes. Perfect, especially for a dog already showing signs of innate wisdom and, besides, she was starting life nosing through the sagebrush on the surrounding hills.

Sage seemed to understand that her moniker brought with it certain expectations of self-confidence and making the right choices.

Shortly before acquiring Sage, I had edged back into shooting again after a hiatus brought on by the lethal consequences of 1968 when two of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, were gunned down. I had moved up from the Remington Wingmasters of my South Dakota youth to my friends’ over-and-under Berettas and Purdeys at their exclusive shooting clubs in New York.

My eye had not left me, and the old thrill of nailing a pheasant on afterburners had returned. I began to wonder, could this new dog become a boon companion in the field?

From her earliest days with us she was nose down and tail up whenever we wandered into the hills surrounding our ranch, endlessly curious and focused.

I called a well-known trainer in upstate New York, Jerry Cacchio, who came highly recommended. He set the tone quickly. “You celebrities all think you’ve got a bird dog. You’ll have to leave her with me for six weeks at least before we find out.” We hesitated, but agreed that, however Sage turned out, the training would be helpful for her as a pet.

Three weeks after we dropped her off, Cacchio called to say, “Come get your dog.” Damn, I thought, she flunked out. “No,” Cacchio assured me. “You’re a lucky guy. This is a smart dog. I can’t teach her much more. You and I are going to spend a lot of time together.”

It was a conversation that changed my life. I had a bird dog. Now the challenge was to get her into the field as swiftly as possible. And so began one of the unexpected but altogether harmonic experiences of my life, an annual rite of man, dog, friends, guns, and cackling roosters in the autumnal glory of the high plains or the quick flush of Hungarian partridge and sharptail grouse in the sagebrush-dotted landscape of Park County, Montana.

On our first trip back to South Dakota, my hunting pals were simultaneously skeptical and patronizing: “A New York dog, here in the mother lode of wily wild pheasants, competitive canines, thick cover, country boy shooters, and hunting as high church? Ho ho.”

Two memories from those first hunts will linger forever. Sage was in a post-puppy phase, still finding her way when we hunted with friends in a sprawl of vast cornfields. I had left the main party with Sage to work her in a more isolated corner of the grain when I heard Meredith shouting to send her back. My friend Emmett had downed a rooster, and the other dogs had not been able to find it in the jungle of unpicked corn spilling over the horizon.