by Dave Henderson
I have always taken pride in being known as a storyteller. Here at 80, and in an era of cyberspace, whatever that is, I may be one of the last to pass on verbally the tales told me by my father, and his before him. But before time calls the coda on this life, I need to record the story of the great red dog. And what she did to deserve it.
Actually, it was told to me many times by my dad, her heroics having occurred shortly before I was born. But if you keep reading, you'll see why I have cause for gratitude.
Once upon a time," he'd say, "there was a boy who lived by the sea." And, of course, I'd know that boy was my dad. Then he'd tell how he grew up in the village of Chester on the North Carolina coast. Actually, it faced on Core Sound, named for the Core Indian tribe found there by the first English colonists. Every Chesterman was a waterman, making a living fishing or guiding for ducks and geese in season, and many a time, out of season as well, back in the day of market hunters. But also, every man at one time or another in his life served in the U.S. Life Saving Service (later the U. S. Coast Guard). For just south lay the famous Cape Lookout, and the Core Banks and Lookout Shoals that were almost as deadly to shipping as the "graveyard of the Atlantic," farther north at Cape Hatteras.
A surfman received sixty-five dollars a month, cash, for the ten dangerous months, although he had to pay for his uniform and keep. Still, far better at the turn of the century than most residents of Carteret County. And my dad, at about twenty in the early 1900s, was a surfman in District 6.
This, though, is the story of a dog, and how she came to be a part of the crew.
Dad said that he had lived for two winters up near the Virginia line, guiding for rich Northerners who had built hunting lodges at Knott's Island, and Corolla, and Pine Island. A Mr. Sears lived at Water Lily on Currituck Sound and hired out to outfit, which meant he had skiffs and furnished guides. Unlike most of the Currituck folks, Mr. Sears raised and kept retrievers. His were the biggest, bulkiest, and best in the region, and they were all Chesapeakes "Tougher 'n Whitleather," Dad said.
About the end of the season in 1908 or '09, Sears had a reservation for hunters from Philadelphia and persuaded Dad to stay and guide. When the hunters canceled, Mr. Sears said he didn't have the money to pay Dad, but "maybe you'll feel better if you take one of Sheila's pups." Now there was nothing an Atlantic Coast guide would rather have than one of the Sears' Chessies, so a bargain was struck.
In the litter was a gyp that stood out from the rest because, instead of the chocolate brown of the bitch and the dog, this little one was almost red, just about the color of a chow or redbone hound. She was first to come out of the box, and Dad promptly put the eight-week old youngster in the pocket of his hunting coat. And so, off south to Chester and the girl Dad pined for- my mother to be. He named the pup Rose, alter mother, but nobody ever called her anything but Red.
By the beginning of the following season, she, with her inherited genes, weighed almost seventy pounds and was destined to tip the scales at well over a hundred. Dad said she was a natural retriever, having had a battering from an old crippled gander early on, and thereafter putting her foot on the head of every bird before picking up and returning. And she was the strongest swimmer in the community. Early on, because there were few retrievers locally, nobody knew just how much she was a mistress of the sea. Or how good a retriever she was.
My uncle Tom Fulcher, my mother's youngest brother, was just a boy when Dad brought Rose (Red) home. He was an old man when last I talked to him. Fulcher is a name well remembered in what are locally known as the "Straights Settlements," that series of fishing villages running north from the trading town of Beaufort, through Davis and Stacy, and to Cedar Island, where a ferry ran to Portsmouth Island. Uncle Tom had operated the ferry, and knew everybody within twenty miles.
I pressed him to tell me what he remembered about how things were, and especially about Rose that everybody called Red. Uncle Tom remembered that she would retrieve anything smaller than she was. Once there was a fire in the village, a residence belonging to some folks named Sawyer. lie was the local butcher. The old house had withstood twenty hurricanes in its lifetime, but a careless hand with the kerosene heater spoiled that record in a trice.
Now in the days when there was no piped water and everyone relied on a well, there wasn't really much that could be done to quench a house fire. The crossroads had a pumper pulled by hand, and when a hose was tossed in a well, two volunteers pushed-pulled a rocking handle that forced water up from the well - at least until the well went dry. At the Sawyer's, twenty or so neighbors were rushing around, and Uncle Tom and Zeke Mitchell were manning the pump, but throwing very little water.
Then it was that Mrs. Sawyer began screaming, asking who had seen little Danny, her two-year old. She was fighting to go back in the burning house, holding the child's jacket that she had grabbed on the way to safety. Uncle Tom said Dad came up about then and, sensing the peril the child might be in, snatched the child's clothing from the panicky mother, and sticking it under Red's nose, said, "Fetch."
Now we aren't talking about bloodhounds, nor trained retrievers- just a young duck dog. Uncle Tom said he could have made the story really exciting if he had told me Red jumped through ten-foot flames to make a rescue. The truth was, Red bored in under the smoke on the bedroom side of the house, found a retrievable that smelled like what Dad had been holding, and, picking the youngster up by his britches, retrieved him to hand. Dad's hand, that is.
If nothing had, up until that time, made Red something special in the community, the saving of Danny Sawyer certainly did. Of course there was no medal, no reward. Just a hug from Mrs. Sawyer, and next butchering, Mr. Sawyer dropped by Dad's with a shank bone.
Dad guided frequently when not registered as a surfman or part-time surfman. Some of the people he'd guided for on Currituck followed him south, staying at Beaufort or at boarding houses at Marshallberg, or Davis, or a crossroads later named "Otway" for an ancestor of one of Dad's clients. Mr. Clarence Otway came from shipping in New York City and frequently brought with him a fellow shipper, a Mr. Carter and Otway's nephew, Andrew. Nobody locally would guide if Andrew was in the party because of his attitude, which to put on the best face, was simply "nasty." Once, however, when money was short Mr. Otway asked Dad to make an exception and to take his party.
Dad said that he had access to a stilt blind in the sound and finally agreed to take the three Northerners for the day. Shooting was good, and they were approaching the limits when Red brought in a canvasback and, shaking herself free of ice water, attempted to retrieve as always directly to Dad. Unfortunately, he told me, the dog had to pass Andrew, who reached out for the bird. That was a mistake of the first order. Red would not drop. Whereupon, Andrew slapped her across the face.
Now the first rule of guiding is restraint where paying clients are concerned, but Dad said he simply slapped the snot out of Andrew, knocking him flat, and stood on his gun hand, still locked around the shotgun. Andrew got up shouting that he was getting a warrant for assault "as soon as I get to town." It was then that Mr. 0, standing only about five-feet six, quietly said to his kinsman, "That's enough, Andrew. Here's a hundred dollars for your return fare. We'll flag the launch to take you to Beaufort. I shall expect to find that you are on the four- o'clock train home."
That story showed me how Red stood in Dad's household. And it was the same with the crews at the Life Saving Station, where she was adopted and pampered by all the crewmen, which turned out to be a wondrous thing.
The winter of 1912-'13 was rough on shipping off Beaufort Inlet, just south of Cape Lookout.
On February 13, there was a SSW gale with very high seas. The captain of the Manchester Haynes could not clear the shoals, so he anchored, but the deckload of yellow pine broke loose and the Haynes filled with water. The life saving crew was headed for the disabled vessel when the motor launch broached, throwing Red and six crewmen into the roaring surf. The lookout shoals are sometimes shallow and sometimes deep. The winds from the SSW left some shoal water shallow enough so a man could stand - provided the undertow, or more properly the cross-currents, didn't sweep him out to sea.
But between the shoals and the shore, sometimes half a mile, but again only a hundred yards, frequently lie deep sloughs. And humans wearing oilskins and sea boots. even if they kept their feet, had no hope of making land without help. Somehow, my father said, Red seemed to sense the prospects and the men's panic. She immediately swam to him and when he grabbed her collar, she headed straight northwest to shore. With that help, he fell flat on the sand, but was completely exhausted.
So he did not see, but only heard of, what happened next. Back went Red to "her boys" fighting to stay upright on the shoals. Three more times she ventured south into the wind to help a crewman back to safety. After four such rescues, the big, tough bitch would have tried again, but the last crewman now on the beach, pulled her close. She never saw that two of the crew were no longer standing.
When Dad recovered enough strength to get upright, his first thought was for his dog. Down the beach he staggered until he came upon the survivors. Hugging Red to his chest, he wept for the lost members of the crew. But those are the expected, those lost heroes of the Coast Guard. And for the watermen and their dogs, life goes on.
Red continued to retrieve for Dad, and I, born two years later, remember her only as a tired old dog with a rusty coat and a grizzled muzzle. But on the little square in Chester there stands to this day a bronze marker on which some sensitive sculptor of the Depression Federal Arts program has created a replica of a big Chesapeake, looking out to sea.