Keeping Up

If you want to find out where you stand physically, try following two enthusiastic English Springer Spaniels through dense, wet, tangled cover for the first few days of the pheasant season. It’ll put you in you place fast if you’ve made your living sitting behind a desk for any length of time. So I guess it’s a fact that crippled office rats who refuse the health club can’t hunt forever. They just think they can.

I know, I’m one of them — north of a half-century and feeling like the plump warhorse I am, fatigued, groins aching and wondering when the day will arrive when I won’t be up to the task. Something tells me that day will come, or at least I’ll have to change my style, but please allow my denial to last a little longer. I prefer it that way, regardless of the messages my body is transmitting.

Thank God I finally gave in and strapped a knee brace on my scarred, mangled left knee, the one that’s been painfully operating just fine, thank you, since May 1976, when the ACL snapped never to be repaired. Yup, that’s right, 29 years worth of loose abuse, and still plugging. I can only imagine the pain that would be emanating from that joint was I not lining it up properly with the brace to limit the bone-on-bone grinding. It’s a sound you hope you never hear, and one I’ve learned to live with for nearly three decades.

So I guess that’s the good news: the brace seems to be working fine, and the knee’s feeling better than it has during Octobers of the recent past. Now it’s my quads, groins, hamstrings and lower back that are killing me as I sit here pecking at this noisy keyboard, trying to pen a column with a tired brain.

Oh, I’ll be back out there tomorrow, sleep-deprived, pushing my body to its reduced limits. You can bet on that. You only get six weeks to hunt birds, so you can’t step into it gently. No sir, it’s full speed ahead. But I am for the first time cognizant that the day will come when even stubborn willpower will not be enough to outweigh the pains of aching wheels.

I suppose the primary problem is that Springers were created to slither through, burrow under and bound over the most unforgiving cover, which cannot be said for aging two-legged creatures, particularly ones who’ve abused their bodies on the field of play. Sure, it was great upending a second baseman with a take-out slide or lowering your shoulder to punish a tackler or drop a punishing runner, but there’s a price to pay for the nicks incurred from such violent behavior, and now it’s time for me to pay the bill. At least that’s how I look at it. No denial, no regrets. It is what it is.

Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I’ll have to give in and change my style. You know, slow it down a bit, maybe even purchase a pointer and make the transition to a gentleman hunter during my gray years. But how can I do that with a year-old Springer bitch that has seven or eight good years ahead of her? It just wouldn’t be fair, would it? And besides, it’s that steady, sometimes furious chase behind a flush-and-retrieve dynamo that pushes my buttons and calls me to the covert daily. The chase is more challenging, and so are the wing shots.

But still, I may be approaching a familiar crossroads. What I’m going through today brings me back some 30 years, to my days on the baseball diamond. I can vividly recall stopping at a local watering hole on my way home from a game back then and bumping into old high school teammates or foes in their finest teasing mode. They were slo-pitch heroes, and they’d have a half-hour head start on me sitting at the bar. The ribbing would begin soon after I walked through the door and ordered a beverage.

“Hey Bags, when you gonna give up baseball and play a man’s game,” they’d bellow. But the playful banter didn’t bother me. “It won’t be long,” I’d reply. “As soon as my legs can’t handle the big diamond.”

And, sure enough, I was a man of my word. Sporting a noticeable limp, I moved to the smaller diamond with the bigger ball at around 30 and proceeded to delay adulthood another 10 years. To be sure, it was a different game — slower, more mistakes — but there were still four bases, a mound and a bench, and the dugout camaraderie was worth every hour of commitment. Couldn’t give it up, especially when I discovered the semi-fast alternative. Fastballs, changeups, knucklers, risers — as close as you could get to the real thing.

Now, with that activity 12 years in my rearview, all that’s left for me is the exhilarating flush-and-retrieve game. The adrenaline flows as you challenge yourself to follow a better animal than you on a chase through thorn-laced cover — stumbling over hummocks, pulling your feet through snaring swamp grass, and bulling through bittersweet vines on the way to a flush. Then, when you hear the flush, you step toward the sound, locate the fleeing bird, point, swing and fire to drop it from the sky.

Maybe as my legs grow older, my eyes weaker, my back and shoulders stiffer, the success rate will diminish. Perhaps my endurance will diminish, shortening the typical hunt. But somehow I don’t believe those humbling issues could ruin a good day afield.

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