Jack Harper — A Legend
Special qualities of dogs and men, some of them that have become, for one reason or another, obsolete or unpopular, drift through the dreaming mind of a bird dog man who has more yesteryears than tomorrows afield.
To share them is to make live again, at least for a little while, and to re-establish the values long-learned and long-treasured for a brief appraisal by a few on the printed page.
My most treasured evening in a trainer’s camp in Canada was one with Jack Harper near Frobisher, Saskatchewan, and I’ll bet he’s forgotten it. We shared a potable, and I did something I rarely did—I listened to someone smarter than I was. It was my bent, for many years, to try to impress even the most brilliant and more articulate people—usually folks I characterized as Keepers-of-Secrets—with my knowledge and ability to keep up with them. I only wish I could repeat that evening now that I am wiser, quieter and know myself better.
I first saw Jack Harper when I was very young, and The Texas Ranger won the Invitational at Albany. I first met and spoke to him at length at Quitman, GA, at the Continental nearly 30 years ago, in 1949.
He never was, like so many field trialers, preoccupied with personalities. Somewhere, early in his life, he had put aside the “heroic” view of people, and he most admired, I believe, those field trialers who evaluated class and excellence in a bird dog as paramount.
Jack has always been interested—nay, dedicated—to the dog and the development of the dog. The unselfish dedication of moneyed men—patrons of the dog breeding and dog competition that infused field trials in those days— had captivated him, and while the highest principles held sway in field trial competition, Jack’s ability took him to the pinnacle of the bird dog world.
As the competing animal became more an extension of an owner’s ego and winning of a third place pewter talisman became a man-victory of major importance in itself rather than a means to the end of excellence in the breed, Jack was by his very nature less pleased and sometimes more frustrated than others, because his values have never changed.
Oh, he wanted to win, was a fierce competitor, and gave no quarter in competition. But he was a manager of his affairs with his own goals always. Still is, I am sure. But he has a special kind of humility that places him in a niche that others in the bird dog fraternity can only view from afar as unattainable, inexplicable.
One afternoon, in the late 1950s, Wild Bill Taylor accompanied Jack to Canada. This was Bill Taylor from Tennessee, who discovered Chuckaluck, the setter and placed him in the American Field Quail Futurity.
Wild Bill had brought a string of setters to Canada, and Jack (who most people do not realize had one of the greatest setters in history [my opinion], Little Smoky was very interested in Bill’s string, and Taylor, of course was picking the brains of the man he was perceptive enough to know could teach him more than anyone.
At the Dominion, southwest of Gainsborough, over grounds we do not see these days, there was a winding Antler River, a mostly dry ditch, very steep, inhabited by many chickens, some introduced pheasants, thickets of gnarled popple and stunted creektrees—and a colony of wolves.
Jeff of Arkansas was recently dead at an early age after setting the field trial world on its ear.
I share the opinion of Cap’n John S. Gates, Mister Ed Farrior, and many others including Jack himself, when I say that he was the best any of us had seen, had more promise than any dog we had seen in the Creator only knows when.
Jeff of Arkansas
In retrospect, I’d opine that only Tiny Wahoo and Flush’s Country Squire had ALL of the characteristics in the same balance and in the same amount: guts, physique, eyesight, indefatigability, heart-stopping style, incalculable scent and scenting differentiation, love for his handler, horse-wisdom, and, like Warhoop Jake, he looked as though he might speak to you with intelligence. He died before he was three.
Having had The Texas Ranger, which was rivalled in intelligence only by Fast Delivery, Home Again Mike, Stanton’s Victory and Safari, Jack was equipped to recognize that he had probably lost one that could more than replace “Ole Jimmy”—the Ranger.
Incidentally, you might note that Home Again Mike and Safari both trace back to Fast Delivery and Ole Jimmy.
The Texas Ranger “Ole Jimmy”
But, as usual, I digress.
Picture, if you will, this man (who was already in my personal Hall of Fame before the thing started) Jack Harper, using a length of barbed wire twisted between the shanks of his bit for a “liplatch” or brakes on his steed.
For that matter, picture him using the kind of horse that made it necessary for him to use such an accouterment!!!
(For in was not, as some of the gallery murmured “Isn’t it too bad about Jack that he has to use barbed wire on his bridle.” Hell! It was absolutely necessary that he use something that would work.)
Now, Taylor had scouted for Jack and Jack was scouting for Wild Bill, as we turned loose on that downslope that morning towards the River-that-is-a-creek, loaded with game, thickets, head-high buckbrush and wolfwillow—and wolves.
In addition to this, Bill had supplied Jack with— in his words— “a REAL scout’s horse—he’s a damned guaranteed thoroughbred—just the thing for this li’l setter…”
And, so he was, black, glistening with lather…and huge!
Oh! Talking about being grateful, we should all be grateful that Jack’s eyes had been bothering him some and he had adopted big, wide, yellow pilot’s night-flying glasses to brighten the grey prairie days and make the bright ones even brighter, for if he had not had them on that day, he would have been blinded.
Because, after we turned loose the dogs and Wild Bill (for we always cast him too), we never saw Jack Harper at rest again until—well, a long time later.
Now western Canada is not known for its underbrush and the visibility there is the whole sales pitch.
Still, we HEARD more of Harper and his jet scout horse than we saw of him.
He started out, snorting on his hind legs, Jack holding him like he was still riding those broncs at that military school he attended, and Wild Bill reassuring him “He’ll settle down after you find that setter pointing one time…”
And then, far in the distance, along the Antler River ditchbank, a glimpse of white and a lot of brown airborne wings, some of them flying over us with a “qua-qua-qua-qua-wuh,” fading away and Wild Bill shouting:
“Now, you might find that setter down there along that bank, Jack!” And away Jack went—never to be seen in anything like un-motion again that day.
He passed near us several times, two or three times in front of us, once very close to the consummately affrighted judiciary, bisecting the gallery a couple of times, and behind us (he was gaining some control, we hoped, vainly) many times in the hour.
Each time he was a bit nearer naked. He left shreds of padded coat, flannel shirt, jeans and his beloved cap, whole, hanging on twigs and branches, spurs and thorns all over the township, on both sides of the Antler River. Wolves scattered upstream in a panic, froze, and observed from afar.
Somebody made a hell of an error in ever gelding that thoroughbred…(Surely it was gelded; I forget)…for as Doc Nitchman has opined, “They spend billions a year trying to get a horse that can run a mile and a half and there you go snatching and jerking him—LET HIM GO!!!”
Well, a learner if ever there was one—long before Al Nitchman—Jack Harper let him go, indeed, and never dismounted until he got ready to—wherever and whenever that was.
As I recollect, their last communication having been some garbled words of direction and assent as Jack faded away into the ditch at Belmont speed, almost disrobed, smiling and chuckling in tatters, still on the job. Wild Bill went to look for his setter when time was up.
And just incidentally, Jack, whom we are glad to know survived undismayed, and undismounted somewhere nearly south of the border.
Now this story has a purpose. You may have seen Randy Downs and Tommy Davis do this when they were establishing themselves. But, not exactly. I don’t ever remember seeing the Gold Dust Twins, Paul Walker and Fred “Geechie” Arant submit themselves to this kind of treatment—even though they were slick and comical and effective in winning with the help of the late Allen Shore as a “front rider”—a thing they invented as it is utilized today.
Fred Arant and Jack Harper (dogs unidentified)
But Jack Harper was an elder statesman then, a reservoir of experience and wisdom. He didn’t have to do that. But his ego never got between him and the little dog—anyone’s dog. It wasn’t a matter of dignity, or sense of personal importance, or the appearance of people. It was, in Jack Harper’s mind, a competition between and among dogs—not between saddles, britches, tack, trucks, horse trailers, bank accounts, acquaintances or reputation.
If the dog was out there hunting, or making mistakes, the man’s job was to help the dog, bring out the best, so that the dog—not the handler or his equipment—could win admiration, approval, and a chance at improving dogs in the future.
That’s a very elusive thing—the kind of creative single-minded humility all field trialers might find valuable in the preservation of the Royal Sport.
Jack Harper’s book “Bird Dogs and Field Trials” is still available at the Bird Dog Museum Gift Shop.
Photos from “The Unforgettables and Other Trues Fables” and courtesy of The American Field Publishing.