When I was 6, my parents brought home a black labrador puppy. He was two months old, no longer a soft little butterball but growing fast, his proportions different from either a puppy or a grown dog. His legs were long, and his oversized feet were not completely under his control. In his eager bouncing and circling he often fell in a tangled heap. He was always happy and certain he was about to do, or eat, something wonderful.
I was consulted about what his name should be. The Korean War was going on, and the fast new fighter planes, with jet engines, were frequently mentioned in grownup conversation. I was impressed with the new puppy’s speed as he ran in his circles or after tennis balls, so I suggested we call him Jet. This was enthusiastically accepted, and I was considered a regular prodigy for knowing such an unusual word for black.
My father was an upland gamebird and duck hunter, and the choice of a labrador was largely for retrieving ducks in the marshes of Long Island Sound or grouse and woodcock in the woods that in those days surrounded our house. Jet was always ready to go, no matter the conditions, ready to sit in an icy duck blind at the break of dawn, stock-still for hours until, finally, ducks would come in and there would be a flurry of shooting, and he would be ordered to leap into the freezing water and swim out to fetch a dead duck floating among the decoys (or once, one of the decoys). Sometimes two or three trips were needed. Then he would sit still again, shivering, until the next ducks came in or the hunters couldn’t take the cold anymore.
Upland bird-hunting was very different, and Jet, in his eagerness to do what was expected of him, was not always an ideal bird dog. No pointing for him. He clearly believed that his task was to make sure that my father and I, as we walked through the dense grouse and woodcock cover, would never come too close to a bird. He was very good at detecting a game bird in the brush, but he could not be restrained from rushing in and flushing it, thereby, in many cases, saving its life.
By almost continuous shouting and whistling at him, my father could keep Jet close enough that we could get a shot at the birds he flushed. My father was a good wing shot, and I got lucky from time to time, and then it was Jet’s job to find and retrieve the downed bird. His nose made it easy for him to find it, but he hated the taste of a woodcock and would only pick one up if he had to. If my father and I searched and searched, and Jet could tell we had no idea where it was, he would pick up a woodcock and bring it and, as soon as he was sure we saw it, drop it there.
Grouse were different. Jet was a great retriever of grouse, and he gave them up reluctantly. Once, the temptation to have one for himself was too great. We had downed a grouse along a dirt track through tall grass. Jet had been out of sight for some time, and then we saw his head, with bird in mouth, emerge from the grass into the track, see us, and hurriedly withdraw. But he was caught, and he knew it. He brought the bird, but we knew he had intended to keep it.
Jet shared with most labradors I have known an expressive face. His normal expression was of feckless goofiness, and there was also trusting expectation, sometimes inquisitiveness—one eyebrow raised—, often sheepishness, as when made to give up the grouse, or even shame—head and tail down, both eyebrows raised and pulled together—as when scolded for swiping an hors d’oeuvre from the coffee table. In middle age, he was sick with distemper—I think that’s what it was called—that left him with a literal tick; his jaw, when relaxed, would clench every few seconds, and his lower and upper teeth would click together lightly. It completed his goofy look. He could do fierceness, too, when face to face with a strange dog, but we noticed that he was never so obedient as when called off from a confrontation.
Jet’s greatest fierceness was reserved for the garbage men. He may have been a racist, because they were mostly black men, or it may have been simply that they were strangers who came to the house and noisily took things away. I don’t think he would have bitten one of them, but he snarled and barked, and we never gave him the chance.
Jet had the well known labrador’s gentle mouth. He never hurt the birds he retrieved, even when they were only winged and quite alive. Ducks at field trials, thrown into a lake in canvas jackets to be retrieved by the dogs, learned to be quite unconcerned while being carried ashore by Jet or another lab.
Jet ignored small children, no matter how they climbed on him and poked at him. No one ever feared that he would snap at one. Sometimes he would leave the room when he had had enough. Our snow-white cat, Inky, often slept against him in front of the fire.
Late in his dog’s life, Jet got old. He had always loved gunfire, but it finally made him deaf. He was still eager in principle, but he no longer leapt to his feet to accompany us outdoors; in fact, getting to his feet became a struggle, and he developed a new expression, of struggle and difficulty—the eyes unfocused, the attention inward—when he did so.
A day came when Jet could not get up. In addition to his old age, he suffered from the hip dysplasia that affects many labradors. His expression as he tried and could not seemed of both embarrassment and pleading. My parents knew that it was time and sadly took him to the vet for his final shot. Now he lies in an unmarked grave, near later arrivals, in a corner of the property on which he had lived.