Prince Among Men
By David Burn
Prince, my grandpa’s handsome and beloved Weimaraner, lived outside in his kennel. At night and during storms, he took refuge inside his doghouse, which was located inside a kennel made of chain link fencing. Prince, despite his royal name, never once entered the inside of my grandpa’s house, nor did he ever enjoy the sensation of jumping up on a bed or sofa.
My grandpa let him out of his kennel each afternoon to pick up his poops with a fireplace tool. The good boy would then gleefully chase the ‘bird’ which was not a real bird, but a group of rags tied together that went by that name. My grandpa threw these bundled rags as far as he could and said, “Get the bird!” Prince loved to run, and he loved to fetch. He could have kept it up for hours.
On Friday nights during hunting season, my mom would drop me off at Eldon’s for dinner and to spend the night. We’d get up at 4:30 a.m., eat scrambled eggs and bacon while listening to the news on AM radio, then load the station wagon with the shotguns and gear, and Prince. The drive to the farm outside of Nebraska City—where my grandpa would knock on the front door to greet the property owner and get verbal affirmation that it was okay to hunt—took about one hour and 15 minutes.
As soon as Prince was in his cage in the back of the station wagon and we backed out of the driveway in northwest Omaha, his steady cry began, and it did not end until he was out of the car, and he could run freely on the crunchy white snow beneath his feet.
In the car, I asked, “Grandpa, can you please make him quiet down?”
My grandpa let go a single chuckle. “No, I can’t do that.”
“But he does whatever you say,” I replied with my eight-year-old boy’s reason.
Eldon Burn, the Pearl Harbor survivor and retired lumberman, said, “No one can alter a dog’s primal need to hunt and only a fool would try.” I tried to tune Prince out, but it was impossible. His primal need permeated the whole vehicle, and it was hard to think about much else, including the day ahead, because his whines interfered with any string of thoughts I had, no matter how interesting.
When we finally arrived, and Prince was out of the back of the wagon, he dropped his nose to the snow and began to frantically look for the scent of Bob White quail. What he’d been anticipating and waiting for all week long was finally here and the dog was fully present. He was ready to hunt.
After the car ride, I was ready to walk the harvested cornfields, now frozen over and covered in four inches of new snow. I didn’t carry a gun. Not yet. When I was eight, my grandpa did all the shooting when the time came. And Prince made darn sure that the time was about to come. He followed his nose down the rows of corn and along the barbed wire fences and into the thickets. He purposefully froze his solid body. Prince was on point. He was all-in, totally focused on his task and the covey of quail that he was about to disturb from their hiding place.
The first thing you heard after Prince scared the birds was their wings beating madly against the frigid air. Then, BAM, chamber reload, BAM, chamber reload, BAM.
Eldon could only see from one eye and his hearing too was forever damaged by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, he shot three small game birds out of the sky, and he made it look easy.
After the three shots, Prince went to work retrieving the birds. My grandpa gently removed the birds from Prince’s mouth. If the bird was still alive, he’d wring its neck. Eldon would then deposit the dead birds into his game sack—a generous pocket inside of his hunting coat.
We walked more rows and forded frozen creek beds and Prince pointed and Eldon shot the Bob White quail from the air. He was near this daily limit now. Eldon paused in a meadow and reached into another deep pocket of his coat and out came the eggs. “Want an egg, son?” he asked me.
The eggs were not real eggs, thankfully. They were brownies. But my grandpa didn’t call them brownies. He called them eggs. So, I said, “Yes. Two eggs for me, please.”
My grandpa enjoyed his eggs with instant coffee from his thermos. I didn’t yet have the taste for the noble bean. Following our snack, my grandpa found a crabapple on the ground and then set it carefully on a nearby stump. He walked back toward me and handed me the Winchester 20-gauge and shells. I checked the safety and then loaded three shells into the chamber.
“Slowly raise the barrel and get a bead on that crabapple.” I did. “Okay, safety off. And fire.”
The shotgun recoiled against my shoulder, but I hit my target. I put the safety back on and my grandpa returned to the stump with another fallen crabapple. He returned to my side. “Let’s make it a bit more difficult. Step back ten paces.” I did as he suggested. “Okay, safety off. Fire.”
I said, “Grandpa, when can I carry a gun and shoot quail with you?”
“When you’re old enough to do that without hurting yourself, me, or Prince.”
“But when will that be?”
“When you’re ready.”
“But I’m a good shot, grandpa.”
“You are, and we’ll continue to practice, just like we practice cleaning the guns and the birds at home. Knowing how to conduct yourself with a firearm is a life-and-death matter. Understand, with firearms there’s no room for error.”
Prince, with the taste of quail on his panting tongue, didn’t care much for our practice sessions. He was a gamer and he badly wanted back in the game.
We did as Price desired and headed back to the frozen fields. We walked and there was a cold silence to the day. A sense of peace descended. There was room to think here, and we both liked that about hunting. It had only been five years since Eldon laid Dorothy to rest after her multi-year battle with colon cancer. His two sons were now lost in vice and booze and any drug strong enough to distract them from the loss of their beloved mother.
I wondered if he might be thinking about Dorothy now as we walked, or if he was thinking about nothing at all. I was thinking about school and about my mom’s new boyfriend. He was handsome and well educated, but he was not kind. I was hoping she’d end it with him soon.
Prince led us down a culvert and into a creek bed. The creek was frozen over, and Prince ran across it. A cottonwood tree stood witness. I stepped onto the ice and took two steps before the ice collapsed and I was waist-deep in the freezing cold creek. I didn’t know what to do and I was frightened. I started to cry.
Eldon grabbed the collar of my parka and in one clean jerk lifted me out of the creek. I was back on solid land.
Grandpa simply said, “Hunters don’t cry.”
When we got back to the station wagon, I took off my wet socks and pants and long underwear and wrapped myself in a red stadium blanket emblazoned with the letter ’N’ across its center. Eldon cranked the heat, and we started the drive back to the duplex in West Omaha, where my grandpa moved after selling the family house in Benson. Prince was exhausted and he laid down in his cage.
Once we were home, Eldon told me to go upstairs and change my pants and then come back to the basement for the de-feathering and cleaning of the birds.
When I returned to the basement, the morning’s Omaha World-Herald was spread on the concrete floor. My grandpa sat on a wooden stool, and he motioned me to the stool next to his. He handed me a dead bird and I held it and marveled at the beauty of its feathers and body. I felt another tear coming on, but I choked it back. Hunters don’t cry.
After pulling all the feathers off the birds, Eldon used his favorite knife to cut the birds open and spill all their guts onto the newspaper. By spill, I mean he reached up into the bird and emptied its organs onto the newspaper. Then it was my turn.
The stench was real, and the pile of small intestines and livers and stomachs was not pleasant to gaze upon. Hunters don’t cry.
After a hot bath and several more ‘eggs’ per person, Eldon unfolded two TV trays and set them in front of the two oversized chairs in the den. The Cornhuskers were on TV. A night game in Columbia, Missouri. We could both smell the lasagna in the oven. Eldon said, “That was a good day of bird hunting.”
“I’ve had better,” I said.
“Don’t ever be embarrassed by falling down. Every man falls down and the good ones get back up.”
“Is my dad a bad man?”
My grandpa considered the question and finally said, “He’s negligent in his duties towards you and that’s wrong. So, I wouldn’t say he’s bad. I’d say he’s wrong.”
I wished I could bring Prince inside and let him sit beside me. But he was an outside dog. A hunting dog.
“But grandpa, I don’t need him to be my dad. I don’t need him to do stuff with me. We do that.”
Eldon considered my position. He also rejected it but didn’t want to convey his thoughts with words. He was angry and he didn’t want to show those cards.
Eldon wasn’t much of a poker player. Where I felt a vague obligation to act like it mattered to me, Eldon felt rage that a son he raised was utterly negligent about his own son. About me.
Unlike his dad, my dad wore his rage proudly, like an emblem or patch sewn into his faded jean jacket. A jacket with pockets that contained a pack of cigs, pills, matches, and various notes to self. One note said, “America is a prison, and you get to be the inmate or the guard.”
I wanted to see if he had any money in there. That’s why I looked in his pockets and finding $100 bills from his work on the Alaska Pipeline would have been a lot more interesting to me than his thoughts on the state of the nation.
Eldon returned from the kitchen with two plates both full of lasagna, and a side salad. He set them on the TV trays, and we began to eat.
Nebraska’s defensive line was too much for the Tigers on this cold November night. Eldon rose and turned on a second television, found the Florida State game, and turned the volume all the way down. “Bobby Bowden’s quite a coach,” he said.
We watched the screens in silence. Finally, Eldon asked if I wanted more eggs. Since he was referring to brownies and not eggs, the answer from me was in the affirmative.
Read more essays by David Burn:
The Coming Election Won’t Change Things, You Will