SA JAGTER/HUNTER | Augustus 2020 | By Kobus de Kock

The black dog of Finca Vigia

That shop is closed,” a helpful passerby shouted from across the street. I peered through the windows of the locked-up double doors. “There is nobody inside, they have all gone home.” It was two o’clock in the afternoon of the twenty seventh, two days after Christmas. I guess there was no reason for a shop to stay open past midday in the small village of Barrydale. It was quite understandable; one has got to guard against burnout at this time of the year. But I desperately wanted one of the books on the open shelf on the veranda. There were no instructions and no honesty box either. And my Dutch Reformed background (as my old pal Droes would have said) did not allow me to nonchalantly “lift” the book from the veranda.

Getting hold of Hemingways is difficult. They are like hen’s teeth. Hemingway’s Book Shop in Hermanus has a shelf full of them, but at Hermanus prices. I wanted pensioner’s prices. And here was this pensioner-priced Hemingway now on the veranda...begging to be taken. Folks just walked up and down the street and nobody gave the bookshelf so much as a second glance. We are seeing more and more of this phenomenon; piles of books with signs saying, “just help yourself”. In Riebeeck Kasteel we once picked up a

Mary and Ernest Hemingway with Black Dog at Finca Vigia in 1949.

compilation of Herman Charles Bosman short stories, The Bosman I Like, on a table, just like that. Fantastic, a real gem, and it was for free. And just recently at Groot Brak there were two huge tables heaped with books, mahala... for free! Was this lot also for free? Here on the veranda of The Hub in Barrydale’s main street was a book I just had to have. 

Papa Hemingway was begging me with spaniel eyes – impossible to resist. A. E. Hotchner’s personal memoir covers the last 13 years of Hemingway’s life. It was in a rather poor condition, but still, it was a first edition. I was in the middle of research for my article Guns Most Murderous (SA JAGTER/HUNTER, June 2020) on the dispute about which gun killed Hemingway, and this was indispensable reading, just what I needed. I did the only thing I could. It felt as if the whole of Barrydale came to a standstill to stare at me as I walked off the veranda with the book tucked under my arm.

 

GETTING IMMERSED IN THE STORY

At home I immersed myself into probably the most interesting book that I have read in many years: “We settled down in the living room, Ernest sitting in Papa’s chair, a big overstuffed lopsided easy chair with a faded well-worn slipcover; Black Dog curled up at his feet. Black Dog, who was mostly a Springer Spaniel, had wondered into Ernest’s Sun Valley ski cabin one afternoon, cold, starved, fear ridden and sub dog in complex – a hunting dog who was scared stiff of gunfire.”

 

Sun Valley is a famous sports resort in the mountains of Idaho, in the far western United States. It started as a ski resort in 1936, but soon developed into a world-class fishing and shooting destination for the rich and famous. Their publicity gurus regularly invited celebrated personalities to stay there and spread the word. Ernest Hemingway was one of them.

 

In those days, Hemingway had a house in Ketchum, a small hamlet located in the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains, a mile from Sun Valley Resort. He lived here intermittently after he, rather abruptly, left Finca Vigia in Cuba on the 25th of July 1960.

 

Increasing political tensions between the Kennedy administration and Cuba had made it uncomfortable for him to stay in that country. However, he was not yet prepared to give it up and sell his property. Some sources claim that the then-US ambassador to Cuba, Philip Wilson Bonsal actually asked (forced?) him to leave the island. Perhaps he was too openly supportive of the Cuban cause.

 

After his death, his wife, Mary Hemingway, donated Finca Vigia to the people of Cuba. Today it is a museum. Finca Vigia means “Outlook Farm” and was their home in San Francisco de Paula, 20km outside Havana and in easy reach of his favourite fishing boat “Pilar.”  The Old Man and the Sea, amongst other novels, was written here.

 

“Ernest had brought him (Black Dog) back to Cuba and patiently and lovingly built up his weight, confidence and affection to the point, Ernest said, that Black Dog believed he was an accomplished author himself. ‘He needs ten hours’ sleep but is always exhausted because he faithfully follows my schedule. When I am between books, he is happy, but when I am working, he takes it very hard. Although he’s a boy that loves his sleep, he thinks he has to get up and stick with me from first light on. He keeps his eyes open loyally. But he doesn’t like it.”

 

A HUGE MISTAKE

Many years ago, I went on a shoot to Tuinplaas on the Springbok Flats and stood in a line waiting for driven Swainsons to come over the bush. Some of the fellows in the party came from the Cape and had never seen or shot Swainsons. The idea was to get them under the birds and give them every chance to shoot something new.

 

I’ve shot many Swainsons over both Patrys and Polka and I should perhaps have been with the beaters, not even carrying a gun, let alone standing in line with the shooters. Shots went off at regular intervals and I saw birds dropping to my left and to my right. A few birds flitted past, they were tempting but just out of range on the other side of the strip of bush. Then I saw one flying through the trees, straight and low. I took a snapshot at it on the assumption that if you can see it, you can shoot it. I killed it outright and congratulated myself on an excellent shot.

 

Taking such a shot again under similar circumstances, would most probably result in a miss. Which tells you that I should have never taken it, and I have regretted it ever since that day. Hindsight they say, is the most exact science.

 

As I got closer to retrieve my bird it got steadily whiter until I realised that I had made a huge error, it was not a Swainson’s francolin at all, but a whitefaced owl. I am an avid birder and had only seen these beautiful little owls once or twice before. My shock and embarrassment were complete. Without even taking a detailed look at the beautiful little bird (I just remember it was all feathers and almost no body – the way of all owls) I searched for a hole to bury it in. It had to be deep enough to hide it, since the dogs were still going back and forth over the scene of my crime. How embarrassing it would be, if a GSP jumped on the back of the bakkie with an owl in its mouth!

 

I only managed to relax oncewe were all finally on the bakkies ready to leave and my owl was still safely buried between the huilbome and swart apiesdorings of the Springbok Flats. I kept looking back and in my mind I thought everybody could see the nervous and embarrassing crimson blush on my face. It mattered little to me when I checked my Roberts Bird Guide at home and found that this little owl is regarded as fairly common in places.

 

It took me a while to get over this one and almost a year before I could admit my blunder to my mates. It was also barely a consolation when I read that Hemingway had made a similar mistake “collecting” an owl. Whilst in Spain covering the Spanish Civil War, Petra, the Spanish housekeeper at the hotel where he was staying, cooked the game Hemingway shot in the hills during lulls in the fighting. One day his bag consisted of a partridge, four rabbits and an owl he mistook

for a woodcock. Well, at least Hemingway ate his owl. I wish I could ask him how it tasted.

 

And now here in this book I discovered that Hemingway had a Springer Spaniel too. It made me like the man even more! To me it speaks volumes of his character. To nurse a spaniel back to health as he did, takes a tender and loving hand, because abused spaniels can become exceptionally nervous. They are sensitive dogs that don’t handle ill-treatment well. The way Black Dog responded to Hemingway’s kindness is classic spaniel behaviour. They will give a kind master their total devotion. They watch you and follow you everywhere... and I mean literally everywhere. My first one would not even allow me a bit of recuperative solitude in the toilet, I had to lock him out.

 

THE GUN-SHY DOG

But being gun-shy would sadly have ruled Black Dog out as an active gundog. Few things can be more disheartening in the field than a gun-shy gundog, the heel-hugger too afraid to venture out in front of the gun, the one that tucks its tail between the legs and heads back home when the first shots are fired.

 

For any dog to tolerate (let alone enjoy) the earth-shattering 155-decibel blast of a shotgun, it must have happy associations connected to the blast. The early day bonding between the owner and his puppy should be perfect. Any failure in this department, any distrust in the relationship and having failed to establish those vital links of pleasure between hunter, dog, shotgun and blast would make the essential introduction to shot very difficult indeed.

 

Dogs do not take kindly to unexpected explosions around their heads. Sound pressure levels above 85 decibels are considered harmful and above 95 are unsafe when exposed to for protracted periods of time. A 120-decibel sound can cause immediate perforation of the eardrum or tympanic membrane. Windows break at 163 decibels. Dogs with their supersonic hearing must therefore be introduced extremely gently to a shotgun’s blast of 155 decibels. One can only speculate what had happened to Black Dog.

 

Perhaps his owner was one of those wealthy buggers that do not have the time to properly train and work their dogs. They hardly give them a glance throughout the off season and expect them to be on top performance when they pay big money on the super-duper sporting estates. Perhaps he never even checked if Black Dog was afraid of guns, doing the Killer Kowalski thing of firing a 12-bore shotgun directly over his head the first day on Sun Valley. After which he took off over the hills and could not be found again. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

 

Books say that you can try several things to counter possible gun-shyness. The moment you observe any form of anxiety, stop the lessons. Try another day, take a break from training. Never force things. Fortunately, genetic lines with gun-shyness are rare these days, and it’s generally not a problem. That’s the good news. The sad news is that once a dog is proven gun-shy or has become gun-shy through mismanagement, there is really not much hope of fixing it. Sure, like most things in life it’s curable, but the odds are really against you. Better to prevent it.

 

With a gun-shy dog your options are limited. The Hemingway route is probably all that’s left for you. Lovingly convert its fear-ridden and sub-dog complex to one of confidence and affection. Make it a house pet. You will have a loving and devoted friend for life. Maybe he could even be of some value around the house. Black Dog did help Hemingway win the Pulitzer Prize by helping him write the Old Man and the Sea, didn’t he?

 

“Before Castro came to power a bunch of Batista’s soldiers came looking for guns... they barrelled nin there in the middle of the night and poor old Black Dog, old and half blind, tried to stand guard at the door of Finca, but a soldier clubbed him to death with the butt of his rifle. Poor old Black Dog. I miss him. In the early mornings when I work, he’s not here on the kudu skin beside the typewriter; and in the afternoon when I swim, he’s not hunting lizards beside the pool; and in the evenings when I sit in my chair to read, his chin isn’t resting on my foot. I miss Black Dog as much as I miss any friend I ever lost.”

 

Ai Papa, I miss old Polka too. That Monday morning I phoned The Hub. “Are you missing a book from your stoep?” I asked. “It’s possible,” the manager said, “but don’t worry, next time you are in town just replace it with something else!”

 

I could hardly believe my ears – wonders still exist, benevolence and goodwill and trust! I felt a warmth for my country that I haven’t felt for years.

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