Sometimes, on the way to work for the brokerage firm of Montgomery, Scott & Co. I look at other commuters and wonder what sort of tests their marriages have been subjected to. It's hard to compare lives. I always thought mine was average: happy, sometimes boringly uneventful, but certainly a chunk of American life. Yet traveling between Paoli and Philadelphia, I can't help but glance at other men and wonder if they've been through retrievers.
The fact is, retrievers gave me enough fodder to keep the I-have-a-problem page of a newspaper full for a month. I had the works. My wife suddenly found another world. Her thoughts were completely consumed by Labradors. At times I seriously considered practicing the crawl with a duck in my mouth just so she would look.
I know now, of course, that I should have foreseen certain angles of this way back in 1939 when I was selling for the du Pont Co. in Kentucky. That is where I first met Anne. One Sunday I went to a horse show in Louisville, where I saw a very attractive girl trying to clamber onto a horse. A bad back was killing her. I slipped over and boosted her aboard—and that was Anne. So instead of the usual nostalgic memory, the dress she wore or the music the orchestra played, I'll always remember her if-it-kills-me approach to a sporting event. During our courtship this attitude should have become even more apparent because I was caught up in the horse whirl. I rode races, chased foxes and damn near broke my neck. Dedication was expected of me, and if it underlined the importance of the events, it also worried me—it could underline the unimportance of my neck.
After we were married, horses still monopolized Anne. But I didn't know when I was well off. Had I known, I would have been thankful that you can't get a horse into the house or into a station wagon.
We'd always had dogs. Both Anne and I love to shoot, and the Labradors we'd had around the house were nice, homey pot-lickers. Then Anne's back really flared up, and she had to undergo a major operation. With a feeling of guilt I saw a ray of hope because it ended Anne's riding. Perhaps, I thought, we'd be together more now. How blind I was!
It started innocently enough. Shortly after Anne was able to be up and around we were at a cocktail party. Conversation with an English girl was coming slowly, so I thought I'd throw in retrievers. It worked wonders; as a matter of fact, this girl's father bred and trained Labradors in England, and before I was through we were promised a pup. I forgot the offer, honestly thinking it might have been the second Martini with an English accent.
Six months later, at dinner, we received a cable saying that at 7 a.m. the next morning a Lab pup, consigned to us, would arrive at Idlewild Airport. Therewith began the Field Trial Trauma.
I had thought a retriever took a couple of weeks' training and then was ready to pick up birds. I did have sense enough to know a good dog was important to anyone who shot. Nothing makes me madder than losing a winged duck or a running, crippled pheasant, so when Anne said she wanted to train Sabu I was all for it.
Before I knew it Anne was getting up at 5 a.m., driving to Maryland or Delaware—a good two to three hours one way—and coming home at 7 p.m. I'd be showered and thirsty and waiting for her when the station wagon would go right by the house and down to the kennel. After a while Anne would come back and pass me on the terrace with hardly a word, her thoughts still miles away. Sometimes she'd be terribly happy and at other times on the verge of tears. She might go right into the house and call a Vance person or a Jay person, one of the two professional trainers with whom she had spent the day. She'd tell them that on the way home she thought she'd doped out why Sabu kept missing his second bird. Eavesdropping did me little good because the jargon was from another world. There'd be long periods of silence while the man at the other end of the line took a whack at my phone bill.
Immediately, I started to fight the Field Trial Game. When Anne returned with that glazed expression of canine concentration, I'd really have trouble forcing my way into her thoughts. And because her hair was wild, her canvas trousers filthy and I had been the one to wait, the whole scene was the exact opposite of the gingham-and-garden-gate motif. When I saw I couldn't fight it, I tried joining it. I would be the interested mate, trying to learn through guessing at the meaning of the new terms what was going on. All I gathered was that Sabu wasn't really learning a darn thing.