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Big Herb’s Heart Attack

By Gerry MacKenzie | Oct 10, 2017
The inimitable Herb N. Holmes, circa 1970.

A rather ominous title for an article, but relax, Gentle Reader, as ultimately you will find this cardiac catastrophe to be akin to Sanford and Son patriarch Fred’s frequent announcement in times of stress or strife “that he was having the big one!” It will take awhile to clarify that, but be patient and we shall get there.

One of the most difficult aspects of creative writing is coming up with new subject matter to write about. I have suffered through a paucity of new and fresh ideas and, finally out of frustration, decided to dredge up some of the more interesting events from my early years as a member of the bird dog fraternity.

Every now and then a seemingly insignificant event in terms of providing new material will ironically trigger a sequence of recollections that will ultimately result in new material. Such an event took place for me just a few weeks ago.

That event materialized in the form of a phone call I received from a gentleman I had not heard from in perhaps a decade. That gentleman, John Taylor, resided in Eugene, Oregon when I made my home in Aloha, Oregon. John was the president and secretary-treasurer of the Emerald Valley Field Trial Club, one of the three active clubs in the state in the 1960s and 1970s. John now resides in Pilot Rock, Oregon, near Pendleton.

During our conversation, John informed that Warren Smith had passed away a year or so ago (see issue of September 9, 2017). Warren was a mainstay within the field trial scene in Oregon and Washington. I did not recall ever seeing an obituary in Warren’s behalf in the pages of The Field — an obituary that he richly deserved. I placed a call to the esteemed editor. He could not locate any notification of Warren’s passing, and began to dig into his vast sources of information, finally being able to gather enough to prepare a fitting tribute to Warren Smith I had also mentioned John Taylor.

He also did a bit of research on him. You see, that is what proficient editors do, is dig up pertinent information. He discovered that John Taylor once owned a dog named Taylordale’s Jon Henry. He also discovered that I had bred the litter of which Jon Henry was a member and that I handled Jon Henry to his very first field trial placement and my very first open win, prevailing in the Pacific Coast Open Puppy Classic in March, 1969. Jon Henry was only eight and one-half months old, as he had been whelped the previous July. His performance in that event was proof positive of his precociousness.

Unfortunately, I would not be able to enjoy the future I had envisioned with Jon Henry for three years. Early in the winter of 1969 I had grown disgruntled with my employer at the time because I had not received a promotion I felt I had earned. Thus I followed the not so good advice of an acquaintance who suggested I leave that company and make the fortune that awaited me as a hearing aid salesman. This venture did not go well, and soon after the thrill of winning that first open event, I was forced to sell the pup in order to avoid certain starvation.

Enter the aforementioned John Taylor. He purchased the youngster, and placed him with local professional John Keels. Taylor bred a female he owned named Taylordale’s Lassie to Jon, and was kind enough to give me three puppies from that first mating.

I registered them as Catskinner, Hammerswinger, and Steamdrill. I used the three as a springboard to get me started when I decided to hang out my own shingle and join the ranks of professional trainer/handlers.

I had a great deal of success with the trio, and in fact won that prestigious Pacific Coast Puppy Classic with Hammerswinger. Still, I was lacking that finished “brag dog” with which to compete in stakes for broke dogs, and to be the masthead of my neophyte kennel.

I was working a gun dog at that time for the recently deceased West Coast icon Herb Anderson. He steered a timber magnate, Mr. Ted Lilly, my way. Ted was an avid — no, a fanatic — chukar hunter. He told me that if I would find a good chukar dog for him, he would buy Jon Henry and sponsor him until I could find an owner for him.

I had raised a litter by Jon Henry’s dam, Smokette, which I bred to Ch. Paladela’s Delivery. One of the males turned out to be exactly what Mr. Lilly wanted, and in appreciation for his benevolence I gave him the dog. He kept his word, and promptly made Mr. Taylor an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Jon Henry returned from whence he came.

One day while working dogs on my primary training area, I saw a lady who lived just across the road from the area’s west edge shooing a fine looking setter off of her stoop with a broom. I rode over quickly to see what that was all about. Upon closer scrutiny it was obvious that the setter was a fine looking specimen — an attractive tricolor female. Noticing that it was wearing a collar with a nameplate, I caught the frightened creature and took a close look at the nameplate. The setter was the property of one Dr. Paul Broun, and showed a Georgia address but an Oregon phone number. I told the lady that I would take the dog home with me and try to contact the owner. She did not hesitate for a second, exclaiming that it had spent the night on her stoop and not knowing if it was vicious dared not venture outside before finally resorting to her attack with the broom. I didn’t know who was more relieved to part company, she or the dog.

A phone call to the number on the collar resulted in a lengthy conversation with a very relieved Dr. Paul Broun. He related that he was from Georgia, but was doing his residency in neurosurgery at a Portland hospital. It was no wonder that the setter was such a pretty one; he said he had purchased her from Harold and Sherry Ray. Making an already long story short, in the aftermath of our phone conversation a friendship developed that exists to this day, as did an owner for Jon Henry.

My string of dogs was slowly growing both in quantity and quality, and I began to have a good deal of success at the trials held on the West Coast.

However, never having gotten being a Midwesterner out of my system, I longed to travel back to the place of my roots and compete on what I felt at the topmost level. So, in the spring of 1973 I headed east hoping to make a bit of a showing in front of old friends and competitors.

Herb Holmes, from whom I had purchased my very first bird dog, and whom I admired greatly and who I looked upon as a personal guru, was kind enough to allow me to keep my dogs at his kennel and work them on his fantastic training area when it didn’t interfere with his agenda. This courtesy was extended to me knowing that it would aggravate the hell out of his kennel manager, Mr. C. L. Owens — but then ANYONE would have aggravated the hell out of C. L. Owens — MOTHER THERESA would have aggravated the hell out of C. L. Owens.

Following Herb’s counsel, a bottle of cheap scotch and appearing to be attentive to Owens’ myriad of tall tales went a long way toward alleviating the aggravation.

Dr. Paul Broun had changed specialties and moved to Alabama, and drove up to spend some time with me, and help with Jon Henry’s workouts. We bunked at Herb’s home on East Lake Shore Drive in Springfield, Illinois and in the evening delighted in listening to Herb as he held court at his kitchen table.

Herb was especially interested in Jon Henry; he had purchased two of his littermates from me when they were but three months old, adding a degree of irony to the situation. Herb was wanting to introduce some Elhew blood into his breeding program, and Jon’s sire was Elhew Quick Draw.

His dam, Smokette, she a daughter of Herb’s winner and producer Gunsmoke.

My primary purpose for this eastern trip was to compete in the Illinois Open Shooting Dog Championship, an event held just thirty miles from my home town, and one that had come to be regarded as the most prestigious of its kind on the open shooting dog circuit. With its usually large entry it was considered an honor simply to be selected as one of the finalists following the thirty-minute qualifying series.

Upon arriving at the Green River Wildlife Area venue, I must admit I was awestruck when I saw the parking area filled to capacity with rigs and seemingly some 150 dogs staked out in front of them. I wondered if I had bitten off more than I was capable of masticating.

Dr. Broun and I attended the drawing that evening and marveled at the efficiency with which an entry in excess of seventy dogs was handled.

If the overflowing parking lot wouldn’t have been awe-inspiring in itself, the array of handlers who were there to compete would have; names that up to then I had only read about but that comprised a who’s who of shooting dog trainer/handlers. Names like Ray, Lord, Hazlewood, Rayl, McDowell, Elsberry, and of course, Herb Holmes, just to name a few.

Much to Dr. Broun’s and my delight, Jon Henry was named as one of the finalists. He had but one find in his qualifying thirty minutes but impressed with a strong ground effort. I must admit both of us were almost moved to tears by what we regarded as a hurculean accomplishment.

And now the pairings for the one-hour finals were announced. As fate would have it, my brag dog, Jon Henry, would be braced with Herb Holmes’ brag dog, Jester. This created for me what I could only consider a monumental task, as I would be pitted against a handler who I regarded as my idol compounded by the fact that Jester had already established himself as one of the top shooting dogs in the Midwest. It would be no different than trying to make the Chicago Bulls squad contingent on beating Michael Jordan in a game of h-o-r-s-e, or being pitted in the finals of Dancing With The Stars against Sammy Davis, Jr., as Herb was the consummate showman.

I could only hope that I would not be humiliated. As it turned out, I wasn’t.

Both Jon Henry and Jester were on the top of their game that day, and jointly put forth one of the most exciting braces in the finals series.

Reporter Ki Vandemore’s account of the running gave the brace the flavor of a clash of the Titans. The pair was trading finds comparable to Ali and Joe Frazier trading blows in the “thrilla in Manila.” One great cast would be erased by one just as showy. Jester racked up eleven finds, while Jon Henry countered with seven. However, one of Jester’s finds actually should have been credited to Jon.

Both dogs were found pointing about fifteen yards apart at the outside edge of a small growth of trees. They were each turned at an angle wherein their gazes were directed toward the center of the thicket. I arrived on the scene shortly before Herb, and “politely” awaited his arrival. As I stood there transfixed by what I saw, Herb quickly dismounted and in a flash ran into the thicket raising a pheasant that erupted in much closer proximity to Jon Henry than Jester. He fired his gun, collared his dog and was ready to resume while I stood there like an idiot. That having been said, the bird score really should have been ten to eight. As it turned out, the discrepancy was rendered benign by what happened toward the end of the hour, and the education was worth my temporary embarrassment. Jon probably did have a bit of an edge in terms of their respective ground efforts, but that became a moot point as well.

With about twelve minutes remaining in the hour, both dogs disappeared. We approached Pump Factory Road heading east as time expired, and as we did Jon Henry came to the gallery from the left front. However, with the quality of the dogs in the finals, a twelve-minute absence would be hard to overcome. Jester was nowhere to be seen. Herb took off down the road heading north, hoping to find Jester before his twenty-minute grace period expired. About two minutes past his twenty minute limit he came galloping back down the road with Jester in harness, frantically blowing his whistle in three blast increments, the universal signal for “I found him”. However, the judges had already gotten into a vehicle and were being transported to Roy Rogers’ Shooting Preserve’s clubhouse for lunch, and were totally unaware of Herb’s approach. Even at that, he continued to pursue the departing vehicle —  his horse lathered and Herb’s face beet red from the effort.

I marveled at his unflagging competitive spirit. Little did I know that soon I would see that spirit elevated to a new level in a most bizarre fashion.

When he arrived for lunch, Herb made it a point to plead his case to the judges, offering that if they had only turned around and saw him approaching with Jester in harness, they could have logically assumed that he had found him within the twenty-minute grace period. Much to his chagrin they were not buying his logic.

Herb sat there for a few moments quietly staring at his food, when suddenly he began coughing and making strangling noises in his throat. He got up and staggered over to a small alcove near the rest room that was furnished with a cot. Clutching his chest he collapsed onto the cot and began asking anyone within earshot to send Dr. Paul Broun over to where he lay.

Herb was a rather portly individual at that time, and how much he loved food was legend. He had left his plate of food untouched, which added authenticity to his apparent plight. A very concerned Dr. Paul Broun rushed over to where Herb lay panting and apparently struggling for breath. What a dilemma, as here was a man the young doctor had met for the first time but a few weeks prior, and now his life was in the doctor’s hands. It was only after Dr. Broun had asked those crowding around the cot to leave so that Herb could get air that Herb responded to Paul’s query as to what symptoms he was dealing with.

In a hushed whisper Herb told Paul that he was fine, but was trying to elicit sympathy from those #*&^ judges so that they would cut him some slack relevant to Jester’s absence.

As you might suspect, this scenario had to be played out, and it was only after Paul had taken Herb’s pulse, placed his ear on his chest, as he was sans stethoscope, and did a few more doctorish things that he announced to all concerned that it was simply a case of heartburn, and that Herb would be fine after he rested for a short while.

No doubt a pair of thespian performances of Academy Award caliber. In rating them you’d have to give the edge to Dr. Broun; his was impromptu, whereas Herb’s was premeditated.

The one thought that it left me with was that I had witnessed a competitor that would go to any lengths to win a field trial. I was privy to much of Herb’s career in years to come, and that performance served as an omen as to what I would witness in the future.

It was an eventful scenario for Dr. Broun and me. He had saved Herb Holmes’ life; Jon Henry was a source of pride to both of us, and by the way, I got runner-up in the very competitive Derby Classic that accompanied this Championship with a dandy female by the name of Charismette, which would definitely be heard from later in her career.

Herb N. Holmes was indubitably one of the more colorful characters of the field trial sport spanning nearly fifty years of involvement with the game, from his tenure in Springfield, Ill., where his Gunsmoke Kennels were located to Union Springs, Ala., where they eventually relocated in the early 1970s.

A remarkable event occurred in 1970 when both Herb Holmes and his performer-producer Gunsmoke were elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame.

Alabama trainer Howard Kirk was  mostly responsible for Gunsmoke’s development and he handled him in important open stakes, his owner doing the honors in the amateur stakes, Gunsmoke’s wins including the 1958 National Amateur Quail Championship. At the time (late 1950s-early 1960s), Gunsmoke’s record as sire —196 winners that amassed 797 wins — was indeed impressive.

Herb Holmes also enjoyed great success with Cannonade, Riflesmoke, Smokepole, Gunsmoke’s Admiration and Jester.

Smokepole was elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1980.

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