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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 1998

Illustration of boy and dog. Gretchem Brant, ©1998

The digging out of Nip

The tale of a boy, his dog, and a long winter's night.

Dave Crehore

It's funny how you find out about life.

You pick up a lot from your mother, your dad and your wife, of course. It's their job to teach you things, and they do.

But it pays to keep your eyes and ears open all the time. You learn some of the most important lessons by accident.

For example, I learned about the value of friendship from the digging out of Nip on New Year's Eve, 1952.

My family – Mother, Dad, myself and a beagle named Jeff – moved from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1950, when I was eight years old. Dad bought a rambling old house in the woods just outside Manitowoc. For him, the house was a 25-year exercise in home improvement. For me, a city kid from a steel town, it was Eden.

Our neighbors were forests and fields, a ravine and creek, a working dairy farm, and Tony.

Tony, his wife Mildred, a springer spaniel named Mickey, and Tony's pack of beagles lived next door. Tony and Mildred were the epitome of neighbors: friends who would give you their shirts in a pinch, and iron them first.

The matriarch of Tony's beagle pack was a little bitch named Susie, and in time a mating was arranged between Susie and Jeff. The pick of the litter was a pup I called Nip, my personal beagle. Nip inherited Jeff's pedigreed looks and singing voice, and Susie's vast reserves of face-licking affection and rabbit savvy.

Illustration of Nip by Gretchem Brant.

Besides Susie and her beagle clan, Tony had another great asset – the only television set in the neighborhood. Back in the early 'fifties, only two channels "came in" around Manitowoc, one from Green Bay and the other from Milwaukee. The programming wasn't much: Hopalong Cassidy, Howdy-Doody and wrestling.

Even as a kid I thought Howdy-Doody was pretty stupid, and it didn't take long to get tired of watching Hoppy chase the same villains around the same 20 acres of southern California. But the wrestling of that era was something else again. In those wartime days of Red scares and red herrings, wrestling was just what the doctor ordered – a mild sedative for people who had already put in a long day.

There were no showy costumes and makeup. Most of the wrestlers wore high-top sneakers, skimpy little black underpants, and tattoos with simple messages like "USMC" and "Mother." Each match was a melodrama with overtones of slapstick – an irresistible combination, and Dad and I didn't resist. On wrestling nights, we were regulars in Tony's TV den.

Tony and Dad would sprawl in easy chairs while Mickey and I lay on the rug. Tony would put out a big bowl of Kraft caramels, and we'd eat them by the dozens while riveted to the screen. Tony enlivened the occasional dull match by giving Mickey three or four caramels at once. Dogs' teeth are not made for eating caramels; it takes a dog quite a while to dispatch one, and it was fun watching poor old Mickey take huge, sticky bites at the wad of candy he loved to eat and hated to chew.

It was on one of these wrestling nights, between Christmas and New Year's, that Tony suggested the final rabbit hunt of the season.

"I want to get the beagles out one more time before it gets too damn cold," Tony said to Dad. "Gotta work tomorrow morning, so how about in the afternoon? It's New Year's Eve, but I'm not going anyplace."

As fifth-generation Methodists, our family never had plans for New Year's, and so the hunt was on.

Illustration of Nip by Gretchem Brant.

The day dawned cold and clear. By mid-morning, a stiff northwest wind was shuffling the drifts of dry, fluffy snow in our yard. Dad muttered and scraped frost off the kitchen window to get a look at the thermometer. "Ten above," he said, shaking his head. "Tony must be nuts."

I didn't care how cold it was. After an hour of wheedling the night before, I'd convinced Dad to let Nip and me come along. We'd be serving only as observers; at ten, I was too young to carry a gun, and Nip was still a pup with a high-tenor voice. But we were finally going to go rabbit hunting with the grown-up men and the grown-up dogs! I was light-headed with impatience.

Late that morning, mighty preparations began. Mom perked a pot of coffee and poured it into the fragile glass Thermos. Dad rooted through dresser drawers in search of long johns and heavy, red-topped wool socks. He took his Model 12 rabbit gun from the cabinet, clack-clacked the action and put it in its case. His L.L. Bean boots got a coat of mink oil to keep out the snow.

I put on two pairs of socks, longies, flannel-lined jeans, a wool shirt, my kid-sized U.S. Army surplus snorkel parka, seven-buckle galoshes and deerskin choppers with scratchy mittens inside. Dad snapped the leashes on Jeff and Nip, and we plowed through the snow to Tony's house.

I don't remember much about the ride to Tony's number one rabbit cover, a hundred-acre woods near Millhome in the Town of Schleswig. Dad and Tony rode in front, smoking and scraping ice off the inside of the windshield. Six beagles and I had the back seat to ourselves.

The excitement was thick as Tony's car eased to a stop on a narrow road through the woods. I opened a back door, releasing a torrent of beagles. Dad and Tony loaded their pump guns with dark red Winchester shells, and we were off, the dogs fanning out before us.

For an hour we trudged. An hour and a half. After two hours of briar patches, cattails and alder runs without a sound from the beagles, the sun was near the horizon and Tony and Dad were beginning to run out of gas. "The rabbits are holed up today, Dave," Tony said. "They're smarter than we are. It's just too cold."

"I think so," Dad said, around the bit of his pipe. "Let's turn around and head back to the car. The kid's probably pretty cold, too."

And then it happened. The kid and the puppy hit a rabbit track. Nip circled frantically, his white-tipped tail drawing ovals in the air. "Ay-yarp, ay-yarp, ay-yarp," he yodeled, as he took off down the hot scent trail.

Nip disappeared into the darkening woods, his high-pitched voice slowly looping around and turning toward us. "By God, he's driving it back to us, Dave," Tony said excitedly. "His first rabbit, and he's turned it!"

I swelled with pride. Nip was a prodigy! Tony, Dad and I narrowed our eyes and watched for the rabbit to lope into sight.<

But it didn't. Nip's frenzied yapping stopped. Five minutes passed. No rabbit, no Nip.

"Well, he's lost it or holed it," Dad said. "Let's put the first team on it."

"Pup, pup, pup, pup," Tony called, assembling Jeff, Susie, and three of her kids from an earlier litter. Surely two masters and three journeymen would shift that rabbit.

"A-roop, A-roop," bugled Jeff as he hit the scent. "Karp, karp, karp," hollered Susie. "Yipe, yipe, yipe," caroled the journeymen. Off they ran in hot pursuit, but within minutes they, too, were silent.

"It's holed up for sure," Tony said. "Let's round 'em up and head for the barn."

About a hundred yards into the woods we found the beagles running back and forth in confusion. "Here's where the rabbit went," Dad said, pointing to a hole in the ground. "I'll bet these are Nip's tracks leading right up to it."

Illustration of Nip by Gretchem Brant.

The beagles were cold, too, and it wasn't hard to get them started back to the car. The winter sunset spread long purple shadows across the snow as we walked. Bringing up the rear, I idly counted the dogs. Jeff, Susie, Max, Whitey, Lady – where was Nip?

"Dad," I yelled, "Nip isn't here!"

"Oh, great," Dad said. "He picked a fine time to run off." Dad started whistling. "Pup, pup, pup, pup," Tony called. Nothing.

"Maybe he's back at the hole," Tony suggested. Back we went, but Nip wasn't there. Cold and scared, I sat down by the hole to tuck my pant legs into my galoshes.

"Ay-yarp, ay-yarp," squealed Nip, but faintly, as if at a great distance. Tony and Dad cupped their ears. "Ay-yarp," came Nip's voice – from the hole in the ground.

Tony leaned down and listened intently. "Sweet Jesus, the little bugger's down there with the rabbit! He's probably stuck!" We called and called. It was almost dark. "Ay-yarp," cried Nip from the hole, but fainter now. It was really getting cold. "We'll have to dig him out before he freezes to death," Dad said.

It didn't take Dad and Tony long to make decisions. "Davy, you stay here in case he decides to come out," Dad said. "Tony and I will go home and get picks and shovels. If you get too cold, walk to the farm down the road. C'mon, dogs."

The loneliest thing I ever saw was the single taillight of Tony's Dodge as it winked out of sight through the trees. The loneliest thing I ever heard was the ear-ringing silence of that cold shadowy woods.

I was too young to have a watch, but a lot of hard, cold time passed as I sat alone by the hole. I called my little dog, I prayed, I cried, I pounded my mittened hands on the frozen ground. He wasn't baying any more. I didn't want to imagine him down there in the blackness.

Then I heard engines. Headlights jolted down the road, casting crazy moving shadows in the woods. The engines stopped and I heard voices. Lots of voices. I saw what looked like a half-dozen fireflies swinging through the woods, coming slowly closer. Who were all these people? I hollered so they could find me.

Dad was the first to get there, carrying a Coleman lantern and calling "Davy!" Tony was next, leading four other men with lanterns, picks, mattocks, spades and pry bars.

"This is young Dave Crehore," Tony said, introducing me. "He's lost his dog."

"Don't worry, kid, we'll get him out of there," said one of the strangers, a short, wiry Belgian-looking man with a mustache. "Charlie, you start here with the pick, and we'll see which way the hole goes. But dig easy! Let's find some branches to hang the lanterns on. Giddown dog!"


Illustration of Nip by Gretchem Brant.

There was Nip, wet, dirty, bloody Nip. In cold weather, cottontails hole up in old woodchuck burrows, and woodchuck burrows have several exits. Unable to turn around, Nip had dug his way underground to one of these back doors. It had taken him more than three hours to do it. "Well, I'll be damned," Dad said.

Nip was exhausted, but he still had a lick for me. It wasn't cold any more, so I took off my parka, wrapped Nip in it, and carried him out of the woods.

It was a happy little convoy that headed back to our house. Tony's car first, followed by an orange Manitowoc County dump truck and a station wagon. As I burst through the front door, I could smell chili, a lot of it, and a big pot of coffee working on the stove. Mom had built a fire in the fireplace, and seven places were set at the kitchen table.

There were introductions, and a lot of talk. The Belgian-looking man was Tony's brother-in-law, who worked for the county highway department. He had loaded the truck with tools and picked up Charlie, who worked with him. The three other men were from the shipyard, where Dad worked. A couple of phone calls had rounded them up.

It didn't take long for six men and a boy to finish a gallon of chili and a quart or two of coffee. Dad raised his cup in a kind of toast.

"Well, this wasn't much of a New Year's Eve for you guys," he said. "Haven't got a drink in the house, but I thank you."

"Hell," said Charlie. "It was just a little walk in the woods. Could have been my dog out there."

When everyone had left, Dad lit his pipe and smiled at me across the kitchen table. "Well," he said, "this is what it's like to have friends."

In our family, we used to sit up until midnight on New Year's Eve, and when Guy Lombardo started playing "Auld Lang Syne" on the radio we would blow our duck calls and polish off some Canada Dry.

I didn't wait for midnight that night. Up in my cold, dark bedroom, Nip's tail was thumping on the comforter.

Dave Crehore is the DNR's Northeast Region Public Affairs Manager in Green Bay.