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Tribute to an Outdoors Father - Donald Rainer

By DAVID RAINER

The tattered game jacket that he used during his bobwhite quail adventures may be the most graphic relic of a bygone era when there were plenty of wild birds roaming the fence rows and pea patches of the South.

Icicles of frayed cotton duck material hang from the jacket’s cuffs and bottom. The inside game bag, long ago set free from the confines of stitching, is supported by safety pins to keep the memories from spilling out.

His trusty, old Remington Sportsman 58 16-gauge has been handed down to his grandson, who had the forethought to ask for that one cherished piece of inheritance long ago.

Much farther back in our family history - fourth or fifth grade, I think – my teacher asked me where I got my broad shoulders. I almost said my mother but hesitated because my mom weighed a whopping 98 pounds after I was born. My father was a tall, towering figure whose demeanor followed the strong, silent types of the middle of the 20th century.

Whereas the origin of my broad shoulders may not be immediately discernable, I definitely can pinpoint one major component of my life that came from my father – an enduring love of the outdoors.

Before I was old enough for firearms, the Daisy pump BB gun was my constant companion. Living on the edge of very small towns, I was only a walk away from some adventure that might result in a squirrel, rabbit or dove being deposited at the back door when my mom called us in for supper.

And I’ll never forget the first time my father allowed me to shoot his beloved Sportsman 58. He wanted to work a couple of pointer puppies and let me tag along. One of the puppies stopped in a half-hearted point and my father gave me shooting instructions as we walked toward the bird. Suddenly, the bird popped out of the brush and made a beeline for the edge of the woods. I don’t remember knocking off the safety, but I do remember swinging the gun until the barrel was just ahead of the bird and pulling the trigger. Boom. The bird dropped like a rock.

“Great shot,” my father said. “Wrong bird, but great shot.”

To a 9-year-old that flushing field lark sure did look like a quail. My father laughed and put the bird in the game jacket. I remember it to this day because compliments from my father were rare. I suppose he figured praise would make us soft. Later in life, I realized his love was expressed through his hands, not his voice.

Quail hunting and bowhunting were his passions in the late 50s, the decade of the 60s and the first half of the 70s. His dog-training methods were stern but effective. I figure he probably wanted it to work that way with us kids, and I guess it probably did to a certain extent. I know that if a dog ever broke point, it was in for a bad day. It was pretty much the same for us kids.

He must have been an excellent dog trainer from the amount of interest his dogs garnered. I can remember several times he was offered thousands of dollars – big money back then – for a particular bird dog. I don’t remember him making the sale unless he had a prime puppy ready to take its place.

When the wild quail began to diminish and his last, good bird dog died, Daddy said, “Well, I’m out of the bird-hunting business. There ain’t enough wild birds to justify me training another dog.”

Fortunately, he still had deer hunting, and he approached that outdoors activity with as much determination as his quail hunting. However, deer hunting back then was nothing like it is today. Deer were only found in a few pockets here and there, and the technology was significantly limited. He hunted a wildlife management area and always managed to bring home a season’s limit with his Curtis Pounds Custom recurve bow, which now hangs in my office.

I remember well the first eight-point he bagged with his bow. He was as excited as an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. For the stoic, tough-guy type like my father, it was an unusual display of emotion. The only other time I can remember him that excited is when my youngest brother, 13 years my junior, was born.

While he immensely enjoyed a day in the field, whether chasing bobwhites or whitetails, it was the fact that he was providing food for our table that gave him the most satisfaction. I’ve eaten venison every way it can be prepared, and still relish it today. Fried quail and Momma’s biscuits make the ultimate meal.

Of course, my father didn’t spend all of his time in the woods. When I was growing up, wild turkeys were scarce as hen’s teeth where we lived, so in the springtime off to the lake or river we would go – mainly for bluegills and crappie. A few times we’d go bass fishing in friends’ ponds and lakes, and he showed me how to take a Creme worm and thread it on the hook with just the right twist so that it would wiggle during the retrieve. If you got the wiggle right, the bass couldn’t resist it.

When it came to catfish, my father figured the more the better, especially when he was in charge of the fish fry at the lodge. After we were grown, we’d head to the Tombigbee or Alabama rivers for a long weekend of camping and fishing. We’d tell him we were going to do some bass fishing, so don’t go overboard on the catfishing equipment. Apparently his selective hearing never heard the bass fishing part. “OK boys, the trotlines are ready to be set. You’ve only got 500 hooks this time. Won’t take you long.” We really had no recourse because he’d done all the preparation beforehand, building the trotlines and procuring the bait, whether minnows, crawfish or this gosh-awful blood bait he made from beef blood that had been roasting in the sun for a week.

Because my parents were born during the Great Depression, there was a significant “waste not, want not” mentality. If you were going to spend resources and time in the outdoors, it’s much better to bring something back for the table. That “waste not” philosophy pretty much carried over to everything for my father, who could basically fix anything that wasn’t totally destroyed. 

After a career working for the GM&O Railroad, he found out that the company was going to phase out most of the depots. The railroad was taking bids with the stipulation that the depots must be torn down and removed from the premises within six months. Daddy bid something like $101 for the depot at Scooba, Miss., and won the bid. We, as a family and a little other help, tore down the depot and hauled it 30 miles away to family land and built a house where our family now gathers.

Once he spent several days in the hospital with a lung infection. Doctors sent him home with a machine to assist his breathing. A few weeks later, after he had recovered, he turned that breathing machine into “the best minnow aerator I ever had.” I’m still maintaining my camouflage in my shop with a washer and dryer he took off a trailer destined for the scrap heap and brought them back to life.

Speaking of bringing something back to life, Daddy displayed MacGyver-like ingenuity when one of his prized bird dog puppies somehow managed to climb up and fall over into a five-gallon bucket of water in the dead of winter. The puppy had broken through a thin sheet of ice in the bucket and my father found the non-breathing puppy floating in the water moments later. He grabbed the puppy and whirled it around to try to purge the water with centrifugal force. With the puppy still not breathing, he grabbed duct tape and a ball-point pen. He unscrewed the pen and discarded the ink cartridge. He poked the tube down the puppy’s mouth and taped its muzzle. He started the mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation.

My mother came home from her nursing job and opened the door. She was surprised to see this hulk of a man on his knees using a stethoscope to hopefully find a heartbeat in the puppy swaddled in blankets in a cardboard box in front of the fireplace.

“That puppy was soon up running around, and he never acted like he suffered any ill effects from it,” my mother said.

Unfortunately, the EMTs were not so fortunate when it came time recently to tend to my father.

One of my brothers had built a shooting house just for Daddy on his small farm. He’d long ago retired his bow and was hunting with a Ruger .30-06 that was once mine. After a morning of deer hunting and listening to the wood ducks chuckle on a nearby pond, Daddy was walking out the woods when he flushed a covey of wild bobwhite quail. I suppose he should have realized then that the Good Lord had something unprecedented planned.

After the afternoon hunt, my father walked to his truck, unloaded and stored his rifle before taking a few steps toward my brother’s house. Like his aforementioned tattered game jacket, Daddy’s heart was worn out. It stopped beating in an instant. He was 76.

He lived a life rich with the outdoors. And as much as we miss him, we also know this was the way he would have wanted to go, with his boots on – his hunting boots.

PHOTO (and the story behind it): After his last quail hunt, Donald Rainer (center) posed for a photo with two of his three sons. Each of us carried our weapons of choice, I with my side-by-side 20-gauge, Donald with his trusty Remington Sportsman 58 16-gauge, and Doyle, with his one-size-fits-all, hunter orange baseball cap. As usual with released quail, there are always a couple of birds that run instead of fly. In an attempt to make one bird take to wing, Doyle fired his hat in the bird's direction. His aim was a little too good. The metal bead on the top of the hat struck the quail in the head, rendering it dead as a doornail.

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