That's what you are,
Tho' near or far."
Dateline: Under an Alabama tree ...
Let me tell you a love story.
True story, happened when I was sick one day, not deathbed sick, migraine sick. Pain in the arse sick, a day of laying on the couch, wasted day, wasn't about to do anything, migraine sick.
I was home alone, Barb was at work, Jimmy was at college, Ashley is in Texas. Being sick alone, makes you feel even sicker, the "whoa is me," factor expands by the hour.
Admit it, when you are sick, you want to be sick with company. And with a migraine, I could barely open my eyes to the light, sounds explode in my head, and my stomach moves in waves. When I'm that sick I want to tell someone about it. Share, the pain.
But I was alone.
Laying on the couch my left hand held the ice pack on my head, my right hand laid across my stomach, or chest, or rubbed my temples, but I must have fallen asleep for a second, because my arm fell off the couch, hand resting on the floor.
And suddenly, the back of my hand became wet, and when I looked down as to why it was suddenly damp ... there lying next to me on the floor, was Riley.
My wife's Shih-Tzu.
Riley, normally a high energy in spurts kind of dog, never left my side that day, at one point he jumped up on the couch and curled up by my feet.
Turns out I wasn't alone at all.
Riley was there with me.
Protecting me, watching over me, CARING for me.
I never believed a dog could love you, until we got a dog. I never believed I could love a dog, until we got one.
Riley is a cool arse little thing that can make you nuts, or make you laugh, or for me, make me think. The "Riles" as I call him came into my life at a time of turmoil, new job assignment, new challenges, new money issues, craziness.
I now believe the universe sent him, for companionship for my wife, for rolling around on the floor playing with Jimmy, and for me, to explain, to show me, unconditional love.
After two decades of covering the worst of what we do to each other, my unconditional love and compassion was pretty much out the door. My goal was to live until retirement then get as far away from the human race as I could. People in the rearview mirror.
Then came Riley. A four-legged ball of fluff, one eye looking at you, one eye looking somewhere else, mostly white, some brown, a mind all his own.
Six-pounds upside the head courtesy of the universe.
And despite myself, I started calming down. Started coming back, stopped saying, "I like people in theory, not so much in person."
Riley, a dog, showed me how to be a better person. Didn't need a shrink, didn't need drugs, didn't need too many Margaritas.
Just needed the back of my hand licked, just needed a ball of fur sleeping down by my feet. And now I know, I NEEDED Riley in my life, I didn't know it, the universe, and Riley did though.
So, when I was talking to Elite Angler Steve Kennedy about the passing of his dog, Louie, and he told me, "db I need him in the boat with me," and then he uncharacteristically was quiet, I didn't push for an explanation.
I knew it.
The Kennedy family lost a loved one. Not just a dog, a family member, when Louie came into Steve and Julia's life, it was no longer just a dog anymore. It was family, it was a friend, it was entertainment, it was craziness.
But above all, it was unconditional love. And when we forget how to love unconditionally, the universe sends us a message.
And it comes with four legs and a tail.
Louie was a Jack Russell Terrier. Almost 14 years old when he passed away on March 15. Looking down at the ground and not at me, which was good because I'm VERY close to the Steve and Julia, and if he would have lost it, so would have I, Steve told me, "I've been with him almost every day of his life since he was about 6 weeks old ... "
Little known story of how Louie came into Steve and Julia's life. "We were in the Atlanta Library looking at dog books together, talking maybe louder than we should about each one we saw in the pictures."
Then, what some call luck, what I call, the Universe.
"We didn't know it but there was this lady behind a row of books and she heard us talking about getting a dog, and she came around to tell us that her sister's dog just had puppies, and one might be available."
And that one, became Louie.
"Louie was a hunting dog that could run with the hounds, but the truth to the matter was, he preferred fishing to hunting."
That's how I first met Louie, while he was, ah, you know, fishing. "At the launch ramps he would wade in the water looking for fish, and would snap at the waves thinking the waves were fish. Couple times, he actually caught a fish in his mouth."
Yep, he did.
"On my boat when he heard the click of the reel, he would shoot up to where the rod was pointed and would be on point just focused on that fish coming out of the water, and when it came out you had to be real careful not to let it get near him."
To know Louie was to love Louie. A four-legged ball of ... GO. He hated brooms, would always chase the broom around, video photographers also knew he hated the little wind thing that covers the microphone, so they would get the camera close, and he would go after it, get it close, go after it.
And then there was the "Jack Attack."
"When Louie saw me he would go crazy and jump almost straight up in the air to be with me ... " Steve's hand is a little over waist high as he shows me how far Louie would jump, and Steve is six-foot-something.
Under an Alabama tree
Right now, as I write this, Louie is waiting for Steve and Julia to come home and get him and take him on one last Kennedy trip.
Julia: "Steve is a wreck, he's been bawling like a baby since hearing about Louie passing, but it's weird, in times like this he just gets this hyper-focus thing going ... "
Julia trails off, but that hyper-focus thing she spoke of landed Steve in the top 12, fishing on Sunday in the Power-Pole Citrus Slam tournament in Palatka, Fla., and he now sits in sixth place in the Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler Of The Year Race.
"Louie was a big part of keeping me up," Steve told me as the crowd on Sunday left the weigh-in stage area. "Louie lived to be in that boat with me, and when he couldn't be in there anymore during practice, the heart of practicing just fell out of me. Just not motivated to do it ... I really, really miss him."
When Steve and Julia pick Louie up from the veterinarian they are going to take him for a private burial, "Might bury him under this big ole Oak tree with our other family dogs that we have placed there."
One dog there is named, Tramp, a mutt Steve rescued from inside a garbage dumpster years back.
Or, for Louie, for the hunting dog who liked to fish, for all the "Jack Attacks," for his practice partner, for Louie, a new tree may be planted.
"I'd like to get a seedling from Toomer's Trees (the historic Auburn Southern Live Oak trees at Toomer's Corner) and bury him underneath the tree."
The highest honor, from Steve Kennedy.
When the universe sends an angler a hunting dog that loves to fish, that's a message my friend, a message about your fishing, not Louie's.
Unconditional love, while his body may be buried under a Toomer Tree, Louie's spirit will always stand point on the bow of your boat pointing you in the direction of the champion you can be.
Louie knew that.
Knew a champion when he licked your face.
Knew a champion when he jumped in your arms.
You're a good dog.
You made all of us better people.
Run with the hounds my friend.
And snap at those fish ...
In every way,
And forever more
That's how you'll stay.
Nat King Cole
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.