Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church

The Way to Tinkhamtown

October 28th, 2010 by Pastor David Echelbarger

As you may know, I am a bird hunter with three English setters.  I was initiated in the upland fields by my father and grandfather and this has always been a special pursuit.  As a child, we had bird dogs.  This is a piece I published in a newspaper on June 23, 1995.  It may give you a little taste of the spiritual dimension of this pursuit.  In the following piece, I reference what has been called the greatest piece of outdoor literature ever written.  My former dog, Cisly, was related to the English setters described below.   Pastor Dave

 When I tell people that there is a spiritual dimension to the writings in “Pointing Dog Journal” or from the books of George Bird Evans, noted grouse hunter and creator of Old Hemlock English setters, they think I am joking.  But recently I came across a lovely story with spiritual dimensions published in the May/June issue of “Pointing Dog Journal.”  I perceive it to be an essay on heaven and the deep hope for fulfillment beyond our present day experiences.  I could use technical ideas from the Whiteheadian version of process theology to argue that God preserves all of human experiences for eternity and that it is not beyond the realm of hope that these preserved experiences could be returned to us in a new subjective existence in what we call the Kingdom of God.  Or I simply could paraphrase and quote from stories written by Corey Ford entitled “A Dog Named Cider” and “The Way to Tinkhamtown.”  The stories not only are more interesting but they convey a “feeling” of the truth.  This is the benefit of art.

In the stories, Corey addresses his hope that death is not so much an end as it is a new beginning.  In his writings we catch a gleam of heaven, a taste for that which we yearn, through the images of a man, and his grouse dog.  Sounds like heaven to me.

Corey Ford wrote: “We met for the first time when he was only five months old.  I had stopped off at a kennel in Vermont to pick out a puppy and found myself subjected to the intense scrutiny of six young English setters in a pen.  Five of them stood with their front paws against the wire, barking and panting but the sixth sat on his haunches and regarded me solemnly until he caught my eye.  Evidently he made up his mind that he wanted me for he thrust a forefoot through the mesh and reached across the floor toward me.  We belonged to each other from that moment on.”

Corey went on to describe the first night when the pup cried and somehow climbed out of his run, found Corey’s window, and scratched on it.

“Sleepily,” he wrote, “I donned robe and slippers let him in.  He’d never seen a flight of stairs before but he trotted up them confidently beside me, looked over my bedroom and settled for an overstuffed chair in which he slept every night the rest of his life.

I named him Cider ‑‑ it suggested a sparkling New England autumn, the time of the year we both liked best.  Somehow I never thought of Cider as a dog . . . .  Ours was a mutual partnership like, marriage. . . . In the woods we could locate each other without calling.  He had one object in life, and that was to make sure I took him along wherever I went.” 

 Late in his life Corey bred Cider, but when he brought the new puppy home, Cider had nothing to do with him and so the pup was returned to the kennel.  That is when age caught up with Cider.  Lost vision, deafness began to set in.

Corey continued: “The older he grew, the more we depended on each other.  I resigned from several clubs in New York because I never got down to the city anymore.  Like an old married couple we were adjusted to each other.”  They even had the same aliments and took the same sinus medication.

“Came the night,” Corey wrote, “when his legs collapsed under him, and I had to carry him upstairs in my arms and place him in his overstuffed chair.  In the morning he lay in a coma, though the tip of this tail twitched once or twice when I spoke to him, and when the veterinarian arrived to take him to the hospital.  I removed his leather collar, and kissed him for the first and last time; I knew then that I would never see him again.”

Corey resolved not to have another dog.  He considered bringing back the puppy, son of Cider, but he didn’t want to go through all that again.  On his way back through Vermont he stopped off at the kennel to tell them to sell the pup.  “Want to have a look at him?” the kennel man urged, “he’s a ringer for his old man.”

 The pup was in a wire pen sitting on his haunches and waiting.  His markings were identical, to Cider’s.  Corey wrote: “He looked at me steadily until our eyes met, and then he thrust a forepaw through the mesh and reached across the floor toward me.

 I took him home and he trotted up the stairs beside me, claws clicking familiarly on the treads, and made for the overstuffed chair in my bedroom.  It was as though his father, by some transcendent effort, had given himself back to me so that I would not be alone.  I put Cider’s collar around his neck.  It hung loose, but he would fill it in time.”

Corey named Cider’s son, “Tober,” as in October.  He was to be Corey’s last dog and great friend.  And like Cider they were absolutely inseparable, both in the grouse woods and at home.  On July 29, 1969, Corey suffered a terrible stroke leaving him, like Cider, in a coma.  A friend somehow snuck Tober up the fire escape into Corey’s room at the hospital.  Tober saw his master, jumped onto the bed and lay his head on Corey’s shoulder.

Somehow, through medically impossible, Corey knew Tober was there.  He wrapped his arms around his beloved dog’s neck and died.  One year later to the day, Tober followed his master into the mysterious realm of death.

But that is not all there is to life, says Christian hope.  Corey himself had a big hope that he had written about in his essay, “The Road to Tinkhamtown ” ‑‑ the road we are all on, Tinkhamtown call it, New Jerusalem, whatever.  The essay was published three months after his death which included in the original notes a mysterious comment which seemed to predict the manner of his death and the hope he had in the life beyond.  It was about a hunter (himself?) who at the end of an illness, slips into a coma and dies, only to experience a reunion with his long‑dead favorite dog.

 Corey’s notes put it this way:  “And oh what a day it was for sure, afternoons lying in dew, Cider’s muzzle on his leg in the company of his hunting partners in great grouse cover; closeness and understanding and happiness . . .  And then he heard it: echoing through the woods like peepers in the spring, the thin, silvery tinkle of a sleigh bell.  He started running toward the sound, following it down the hill.

The way was dark but he knew where he was going.  His legs were strong again, and he hurdled the blown downs and leapt over fallen logs, he put one fingertip on a pile of slash and sailed over it like a grouse skimming.  Tears of joy ran down his face.

 He was happy.  If only they knew how happy he was.  Then suddenly the bell stopped and he hurried across the clearing.  An apple tree was growing in the corner of the stone wall, and under the trees Cider had halted on a point.  He looked across the stream; he could see it all now; the warm October sunlight, and the ground strewn with freshly pecked apples, and Cider standing immobile with his foot drawn up, his back level and his tail a white plume.  Only his flanks quivered a little.

‘Steady, boy,’ he called as he crossed the bridge.  `I’m coming.'”

When I tell people that there is a spiritual dimension to the writings in “Pointing Dog Journal,” they think I am joking.                                            

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