Last week began another turkey hunting season for Mort Sutherland, who at age 75 was on the job as usual at the crack of dawn.
He and his dog Rip worked the high ground near Winchester, Va., in search of flocks from sunup to sunset. From time to time, Gary Kirksey, Sutherland's considerably younger hunting partner, would turn to ask how the older man was doing as they traipsed along.
"Just keep a-going," Sutherland sang cheerfully each time. "I'm fine."
After two days of stalking turkeys up and down the steep, rocky landscape, a young admirer just over half Sutherland's age asked how the elderly gentleman kept it up. Was it work, a chore? Or did he still enjoy the labors of hard hunting?
"I thoroughly enjoy every minute of it," said Sutherland, beaming. "I can't go as fast as I used to, but I'll keep up with you, don't worry, and I can go all day.
"To tell the truth, I feel so good that if you wanted to, I'd go out right now and hunt raccoons all night. I'd be delighted to do that."
"A man like that," said Teresa Clay, who shared dinner with the hunters that night at a fine Winchester restaurant called Manuel & Wife, "gives you a glimpse of what we used to think America was all about -- hard work and a cheerful attitude."
The hard work certainly hasn't hurt him. With three-quarters of a century under his belt, Sutherland stands straight and tall at more than 6 feet, with a full head of rich, brown hair and a quick wit.
But he can't hear out of one ear and can barely see out of one eye. Last year, Kirksey said, the twin disabilities so hampered Sutherland that several times he had turkeys ripe for the taking, but couldn't shoot straight to kill one. He even tried shooting left-handed, and his partners started calling him "Turkey" in jest.
He laughed right with them.
Teen-agers aren't the only people who need role models and, after two days hunting with Sutherland, Tommy Duvall, Jim Clay and I were all saying the same thing: "Oh, to make it to 75 and be like him."
There is richness in the breadth of knowledge of a man who keeps his eyes and ears open that long, after all, even if they do finally fail him.
Sutherland's family has held the 500 acres he farms outside Charlottesville since the early 1800s, he said. His father was born in 1860, died in 1940 and farmed there all his life.
Sutherland went to college, then taught high school for seven years until he was needed back on the farm. He taught mathematics and geology, coached basketball, baseball and boxing, was assistant principal and then principal.
That was back in the Depression and students were respectful, he said. Times change. A colleague who stayed on teaching told him recently, "I've been called a gray-haired son of a bitch so many times, I'm starting to believe it," Sutherland said.
These days, Sutherland raises cattle on his 500 acres. His wife died recently and Sutherland has no children. He used to hire help, but he told Teresa Clay, "All they did was break my equipment." So he farms alone.
In the high woods, I took a breather with Sutherland and mentioned I had a hard time differentiating trees.
He launched instantly into a learned discourse on the merits of chestnut oaks versus white oaks, the two species closest at hand.
White oaks signify good ground, Sutherland said, but a piece of property with chestnut oaks on it is "worthless." He knew why, too, right down to the minerals and drainage patterns that fostered their growth.
Sutherland knows birds and dogs, as well. He kept bird dogs, he said, until modern farming practices decimated Virginia's quail populations.
Quail need weeds and loose grasses, not the tight-woven fescues popular today, he said. The little game birds thrive around poor ground, but with modern fertilizers there is no more poor ground.
Baby quail aren't built to forage in thick growth. They get soaked by the dew and drown, or starve for lack of seeds. "What they need is a place where the weeds go black at the first frost," Sutherland said. "You used to see fields like that everywhere, but if you drive around my county, you won't see a single field like that anymore."
So 25 years ago, Sutherland gave up quail hunting and went after turkeys. He has had great success since, and has always kept a good turkey dog, which required some adjustments.
A turkey dog, he said, needs attributes exactly opposite those of a good quail dog. Instead of holding steady to wing and shot, it must be wild as it can be.
A quail dog's job is to find birds and point them out to its master, then stand silent and stock still while the gunner strides in to break the flock and shoot birds off the covey rise.
But a turkey dog breaks the flock himself, barking madly, so his master can later call the wary birds back in for his shot.
In Rip, a big, strong pointer, Sutherland found a turkey dog so wild he's sometimes uncontrollable.
Usually, when Rip breaks up a flock Sutherland takes him back to the truck, locks him in a kennel and goes back out to hunt alone.
But once he decided to keep the dog alongside as he called the birds back in. He put Rip on a choke chain and sat on top of him.
Rip stayed steady for a while, but when turkeys started filtering back the dog was beyond control, yanking, mewling, squirming and slobbering. Sutherland hung on gallantly, but Rip pulled so hard he eventually broke the chain, tore the blind Sutherland had built to shreds and tore off at a gallop after the returning birds.
"I came running when I heard the fuss," said Kirksey, "and there was Mort, sitting in a wasteland. The blind was torn to pieces, the dog was gone and Mort was holding half a chain. It looked like somebody'd dropped a bomb on him."
Sutherland had heard the story a hundred times and told it a few himself, but he laughed to hear it again. It was a big, happy laugh, too, just full of life.