King of the Field

By Joe Manus  |  Paintings courtesy of LouPasqua.com

My dad’s name was Tommy. Everyone loved Tommy. He was tanned, muscular, funny and he had a mustache that could charm its way into any opportunity and out of any conflict. He was a South Carolina boy who chased a girl into Georgia. That’s what he did. He was a hunter. He won over that girl and they romanced two children into the world, then called it quits. She got us and the house. He got a lot more time to himself. Tommy’s friends gave him two Pointer dogs from their litter to help with his loneliness. Dad thrust himself into quail hunting, devouring every book and magazine article he could find about it. He hunted every minute, of every weekend, of every year after that. I spent every other weekend with him, in the bramble, chasing dogs that were chasing birds. The poetic majesty of what I was witnessing was not lost on me. Dad and I were a broken family trying to keep up with two wild beasts. They were beasts that would run themselves to near death in pursuit of a family of birds that would do anything to not be broken. Exhausted, the dogs would find their muse, turn into sculpture, and allow their master to walk and scatter the covey. Remarkable. I have always wanted to be like a Pointer — possessing the assured and unapologetic confidence to go after what you want in the world. 

Dad became a kind of celebrity among his peers. His dogs hunted a little harder, ran a little faster and loved the hunt a little more than other dogs. He spent time with them. The kind of time that eventually would cost him three marriages. It was a true passion he followed with abandon. I watched him tie quail wings to weighted fishing lines and cast them deep into the brush. He’d reel them in, winding the wing’s scent through tall grasses, over logs, settling them into difficult thickets. He would bring his pups there hours later and initiate their hunt with a bellowing “Loooook n’ there, Bob White! Loooook n’ there!” His chant excited them as their nostrils vectored toward the wing’s resting spot. He tugged the nape of their neck to steady them. Calming them, he ran his hand gently up their wagging tails, lifting them skyward. He would hoist their front paw and massage it backward while his bellowing calls dwarfed to a soothing whisper. He was Medusa to their wildness, freezing them in place with his touch, and then walking past them to the wings. By the time I had grown old enough to carry a shotgun and join his hunts, he had already forgotten more than most would ever know about training bird dogs. He had raised dozens of dogs by then and was putting energy into raising a boy, too.

I remember a weekend hunt he planned for the two of us on some acreage owned by a friend. The land sat in Burke County, just outside the reach of Waynesboro. It was a two-hour drive from his house. We pulled out at 2 a.m. in his Volkswagen thing. It wasn’t a car or a truck. It was an autonomoly. He bought it the year I was born and through the years it had shifted from his daily driver to his hunting rig, earning its bright orange paint a scarred patina. We brought two dogs with us: Mack, a five-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer and Perry, a Brittany Spaniel. She was young and this was her first real hunt. The rattly thing hummed down the road, broadcasting its engine’s ping into the darkness behind us. Dew fell in from the opened windows and sheathed my skin and hunting jacket, while Perry licked the back of my ear. Dad sang along to Randy Travis the best he could. I melted into the moment. I was sharing time and space with a man whose attention I desperately wanted. I found comfort in taking him hostage to a faraway place where time would be filled with his favorite activity. The road could have gone on forever that morning. I wanted it to wrap around the earth a thousand times and forget it had an end.

Photo Top Left: Tommy Manus and hunting buddy, Jim Dunbar, huddled over hunting day prize. Photo Top Right: Perry, the Brittany Spaniel, stands with quails.

After driving down long dirt roads, we arrived. Dad got out and pissed. I let the dogs out and they pissed. I pulled our guns from their cloth cases and laid them on the hood. I put on my game vest and slid a rattlesnake guard over each shin. My young mind had me preparing with all the seriousness of a combat soldier. The dogs disappeared into the woods, and we followed them. They caught scent mid-morning. “Loooook n’ there! Bob White. Loooook n’ there!” Panting, leaves crushing, thundering paw pentameter. Silence. Sculpture. Dad prompted me to walk ahead and scare the covey into flight, which created gun-metal explosions and plumes of smoke-laced feathers. Mack and Perry retrieved the birds and our game pouches grew heavy. We cooked quail over a campfire that night. I remember laughing at his wincing face as he spit out random birdshot while he chewed. We slept inside an old church house that once stood in a field, abandoned by its congregation a lifetime ago. We nearly lost Perry that night. I forgot to latch the door on her box, and she ran off in pursuit of something. The next day dad had to return me to mom. We searched for hours and finally left without her. Dad did not seem worried. He dropped his hunting coat and hat on the ground and guaranteed that she would be waiting with them when he returned the next day. She was. How did he know? I aspired to have that kind of confidence — to know that someone you love would always return by the clues you leave for them to find you.

Dad never had the big house or the fancy car. He failed at marriage and, as a result, almost failed at parenting. But despite all of that, the man could hunt. When he hunted, he was king. This turned out to be one of our last hunts together. Some years later he was electrocuted on the farm, in an accident, during the night … his body shocked into sculpture. I think of all the time we spent in each other’s company, the lessons he passed down, the unique habits, the parts I wanted to keep and the others I wanted to forget. Becoming a father has a way of polishing the mirror’s surface we all stare into as we hunt for who and what made us. We get to decide what is worth keeping. I still want to be a Pointer.

Appears in the October 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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