By Michael L. Neiduski
As unlikely a trifecta as it may be, bird dogs, my Grandfather Frank, and The Masters are inseparable to me. I can’t see a green jacket, much less hear Jim Nantz or the little jingle tied to Augusta, without my mind beginning a lightspeed journey down memory lane.
Frank taught me about three things, golf, patience, and hunting, in that order.
My short list of core memories includes sitting in a golf cart on the local municipal course, sandwiched between Frank and my Grandmother Rita, with my little plastic club set wedged in the back. I chipped and putted, and sometimes hit a ball off the tee, but without fail I was bored after a handful of holes. “Patience,” Frank said, “Patience is a virtue, and this is good practice.” By the time I was twelve, through hunter safety and standing in the dark of November deer season mornings, it was a constant refrain. I preferred to move, too anxious to sit still. Frank barely moved his face. He gifted me four seasons of mornings like that before he was murdered on November 14, 2002.
I didn’t pick up a club for a long time after that.
What I gave up in course-time, I made up for afield. I spent as many mornings and afternoons in his deer stand as I could in the years thereafter. Fidgety after a few hours, a familiar whisper drifted in from the nearby empty chair, ‘Patience, Mike.’ Another fifteen minutes always came easier after the reminder. I lived and worked on a college campus in suburban St. Louis at the time, far from my New England roots. I followed my college sweetheart there, only to have that sweetness turn sour.
As I do when things turn south, I went to the woods. I took up bowhunting that year in an effort to extend my time outside in the face of shorter midwestern firearms seasons. I didn’t bring home a deer, but I loosed a few arrows. I was learning and hungry for more. My twenty-something logic combined the thirst for learning and companionship into the quest for my first dog, a hunting dog for sure. Why get one if I couldn’t take it hunting? Operating with a complete lack of patience, I found the first breeder with a litter on the ground.
I picked Plexi up on a Wednesday night in April. I took Thursday and Friday off to help her acclimate. Or that’s what I told my boss. But if I’m being honest, I extended the weekend to build my confidence that I could handle the introduction of this mass of teeth and fur and constant need into my life. I had no idea what I was doing and I needed the boost. The Master’s dominating the television for the next four days didn’t hurt either.
Growing up, I went to Frank’s house often on the weekends, especially in the spring and summer. The ever-present murmur of the TV served as my welcome. I heard the hushed announcers breaking down putts or dissecting club choices as soon as I walked in the door. It was always golf that time of year. My grandmother was failing by then, her body and mind wracked by Alzheimers. Frank positioned their recliners side-by-side and spent most of his days sitting with her, attending to her, while she vacantly stared in the direction of the television and softly hummed along to the music in her head. I sat on the floor and listened to the commentators talk about the heavy hitters of a generation now gone, content in the presence of my family.
As Plexi and I sat on the floor watching golf that first weekend, we cemented a bond that would rival what I had with Frank. It only became stronger over our ten years together, through more than fifteen states, chasing every species of upland bird east of the Mississippi. We built lifelong friendships, found fishing holes and camping spots, and crashed on couches. Along the way, I found the confidence and patience for training and trailing and hunting a strong-willed dog. I have her to thank for that.
Ever since Frank died, I get hung up on dates - particularly tragic ones. I eyeball upcoming anniversaries like most look forward to Christmas or New Years or a birthday. The Master’s weekend is no exception. Every year after I brought Plexi home, I looked forward to the sun and the green and the azaleas; the dog curled in the crook of my legs while I lay sideways on the couch. We both snuck in that requisite afternoon nap to be sharp for the final few holes. I enjoyed the respite, a time to recover from the previous season. I don’t chase turkeys and that early, the allure of fishing hasn't quite set its hook in me for the year.
I had ten years with Plexi, almost to the day. I don’t remember the date I brought her home, but I remember the Masters. And I remember she left on April 9th, 2022, a Saturday; Moving Day as they call it Augusta. I didn’t watch the Master’s last year, at least not Sunday.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines patience as, "The calm, uncomplaining endurance of pain, affliction, inconvenience, etc.; the capacity for such endurance." This year’s Masters was a good weekend for patience. The wind and rain and storms across the southeast were surely an inconvenience on course. But, some of my favorite memories with Plexi and some of my best hunts with Frank were exercises in uncomplaining endurance of affliction.
I missed Plexi’s weight next to me on the couch this year, a painful inconvenience. I missed her in the passenger seat for those long drives. I missed her when I needed that wing-tipped but still lively bird retrieved to hand this past season.
But I’ll endure.
I sat and I watched and I let those memories of eight-week old puppy antics wash over me as the groups cycled their way through eighteen holes. I remembered on the course, in the field, or on stand, or sitting on the couch for the first weekend in April, what became another personal holiday of sorts. There’s that voice and now that wagging tail, too.
Patience, Mike. This is good practice.
About the Author
Mike Neiduski grew up a deer hunter on a small family farm in New England. College, a move to the midwest, and a bird dog puppy opened his eyes to public lands, conservation, and so much more. Now in North Carolina, he and his dogs are equally at home chasing bobwhites, woodcock, and the elusive Appalachian ruffed grouse there as they are pursuing prairie grouse and pheasants in the Heartland. When not training dogs, fly fishing, or running cast iron in the kitchen, you can find him writing about the same and working as a major gift officer to fund conservation.