As a woman, it is ingrained in me to constantly compare myself to other women. Sadly, daily I am reminded that I am not typical. I use “colorful language” to describe things. I would much rather be dirty and have something wild, writhing in my hands, than be confined to a dress and heels.
That said, I did not get my start honest. My mother was never impressed with my shenanigans and, even as I was an adult, rebuked my adventurous ways.
Last night, as I lay in bed trying to find some semblance of sleep, my mind drifted off to a place I hadn’t visited in a while…childhood memories. My mom was a city girl, through and through. She didn’t mind dirt, but loathed my chickens, my reptiles, and my penchant for camo. So, where then, where did I get this adventurous spirit from?
As a girl, I remember my parents inviting colleagues and friends over to the house on the regular. It was always a mix of academic types…people my father worked with daily. Let me tell you…agricultural scientists are some of the most fascinating folks. Each holding a specialized degree in something bizarre and specific, but most growing up either on a farm…or in close proximity to one. Plant scientists are the rarest of creatures…they can tell you plant diseases by genus species with just a glance and quote peer reviewed journals by memory, but also know the perfect method to call in a tom turkey, show you how to make homemade fireworks and usually mix a perfect drink.
These were the adults that shaped my life. But more importantly, the spouses of these great men taught me the ways of the southern woman. Being birthed by a Yankee, or a canuck at the least, I was doomed to the clean, the civilized. The future seemed bleak until, I decided to embrace the somewhat rugged lifestyles of the women I met that were born and raised in the south.
The woman that most vividly came to mind last night was none other than Shirley Arrington Wells …Ms. Shirley, for short.
My most favorite story of her was told, one night, by her husband, the now late Dr. Homer Wells, after a few too many libations. It goes a little something like this… (Writer's note: you are about to read the highly stylized recollection of an eight year old girl...I give no guarantees to the accuracy of my statements!)
Dr. Wells, although a research pathologist, was also an avid fox hunter and he and his wife proudly raised renowned Walker fox hounds. Anyone who’s read up on the subject or been on a hunt knows that a fox hunt involves a few individuals, a fox and a horde of dogs in pursuit. Anyone who’s ever hunted with dogs knows that, when running game, dogs don’t stop at dinner time.
That evening, the pups had been in pursuit of a wily fox, who’d outsmarted them a time or two. As the night grew cold, the hunters grew weary – longing for the warmth of food in their bellies. Dr. Wells was hunting a plot of land he knew well and had chased many a fox across it.
As the dogs drove on across the field, he called his wife (probably on the walkie talkie, for this was in the early‘80’s) and said, “Shirley…the dogs are pushing toward that break in the fence on the east side by the creek. See if you can head them off and catch up the lead…”. To translate, get in front of the horde, grab the lead pup when he crosses the creek bed and hopefully, we’ll be able to call off this hunt, gather all the pups and head home.
Shirley, by this time, had been with Homer many years and had participated in several hunts. She knew exactly where to expect the dogs to emerge from the field. She fired up the truck and slowly made her way to the creek bed.
By now, the sky had cleared, and a large, full opal hued moon shown down on the land. “Perfect!”, Shirley thought, because in her rush to get to the creek, she left her head lamp in the other truck. But there was plenty of moonlight to see her way to the break in the fence.
Hunting dogs at night has a certain magic to it. I've been on many a coon hunt in the South GA swamps. Hearing the hounds bay, seeing your breath in the moonlight, shivering with both cold, and anticipation, at the appearance of the dogs. It’s a rush. You can feel the adrenaline of the pack push toward you. A group of several dogs, working together as a single unit, like an unstoppable wave of electricity, pulsing toward you through the night. You can’t see them, but you can feel their energy, hear the excited yips and barks as they course through the dark. Shirley trembled as the baying grew closer. Then, silence.
Shirley stopped breathing for a moment. Quiet cold surrounded her. She drew more and more shallow breaths, hoping to silence the stillness ringing in her ears to be better able to hear the dogs approach.
All at once, the silence split, as a lively bay rose up from the fields. The dogs were coming. Shirley knelt in place, waiting for the moment the lead dog would pass through the gap in the fence. She crouched for what seemed like days. The chaos of hounds wound it's way toward her like a startled snake, cutting a path through the tall, dried grass.
A rustle, just stronger than a breeze, brushed by her. With instinct and strength, the reached out and snatched up the lead Walker hound by the scruff of the neck and carried him a few feet to the truck. Quickly, she tossed him in the dog box and clicked the latch to secure him.
“Homer? Homer…I got him. We’re good.”, she radioed in. Within minutes, the ground was teaming with the horde…dogs seemed to engulf her and the truck within seconds, like frantic, frothing waves of the sea, lapping at her legs. And moments later, the men appeared, weaving their way among the trees and through the broken fence boards.
It had been a long night without success of a catching game, but as most hunters would agree, any night spent in the woods where you come home with everyone in your hunting party, is a good night.
As the hunters loaded their gear in the truck and began to gather up the remaining dogs, Shirley took Homer gently by the arm and said, “You need to make sure you put another collar on old Jack. When I tossed him in the box, I noticed his was missing.”
Homer stared at Shirley for a moment and then down through the beam of light on his head, to his feet, then back at her.
“I said, I think Jack slipped his collar. I didn’t feel it on him when I tossed him I the box.”
Homer shined his light to the ground at a happy, still wired up, winded but wagging Jack.
“Jack is right there and he’s got his collar still on.”
Shirley looked at the ground, then at Homer, then at the other men, then at the back of the truck and paused...
“Well…then who the heck do we have in the box???”
The hunting party gathered slowly around the back of the truck. One man produced a flashlight and shined the beam into the dog box…at a very wide eyed, very wild and raggedly run red fox cowering low in the back corner of the box!
In her zeal to catch up the dogs, Shirley had inadvertently caught the wily old fox, bare handed but the scruff of the neck, and tossed him effortlessly into the dog box without a fuss or scratch!
Homer looked in the box, and then at Shirley and said, “Well, I reckon it’s time to head home!”
Shirley Arrington Wells…the hero to a young me, passed away in 2001. But the impression she left with me, as a young girl in pigtails longing for a life of outside adventure, lives on to this day. I hope, that my days can be as passionate and fearless as her.