We just pulled into our driveway after being on the road for weeks. I step out of the vehicle and hear a low-pitched howling coming from my house. It’s a baying sound you could hear a mile away.
The bloodhound’s voice is special. A single howl can last three or four seconds, maybe longer if there is a squirrel or a UPS employee involved. Their deep groan is rich, throaty, hoarse, and sounds like the Marlboro Man trying to sing Handel.
They’re comical dogs. A bloodhound has paws the size of baseball mitts. Their ears get caught in their mouth when they eat. Their skin is a few sizes too big for their body. In other words they’re the perfect animal.
We are dog people. And I am a bloodhound guy. It runs deep in me. I have loved hounds since boyhood, when my cousin and I first saw Ellie Mae Clampett and her bloodhound, Duke, in a TV episode of the “Beverly Hillbillies.”
My cousin had a severe crush on Ellie Mae. But I was in love with her dog.
As a young man, I had friends whose fathers were avid hunters. They used bloodhounds to track raccoons through the South Alabamian forest, usually at night. You’ve never seen anything more poetic than five hounds tearing into the midnight woods beneath a yellow moon, howling.
The hunting party would hike through groves of swampland, carrying lanterns, chewing short cigars. It was cold and damp, and I wanted to go home because I’m not a hunter.
I’m a fisherman, not a hunter. There is a big difference. A hunter is brave, tireless, he will endure hard weather, dire odds, and will sit motionless for hours without even scratching his back pocket. A fisherman has koozies that read: “She thinks my belly’s sexy.”
Often, a true fisherman will spend all day out on the water enjoying himself before he realizes he forgot his rod and reel.
But the best part about hunting with the bloodhounds was hearing them “talk.” That’s what my pal’s father called it. My friend’s father would hush everyone and point his ear toward the treeline. The dogs would be wailing.
My friend’s father would smile and say, “Listen to them babies talk.”
We’d follow the hounds all night, slogging through dark muddy terrain. The howls sounded like old men moaning, “Hoooooooo! Wooooooo!”
That night, one elderly hunter said to me, “You do this enough, you start to know which voice is your dog’s.”
I got my first bloodhound one fateful spring morning. I was so excited I could hardly stand being around myself. She was a hound’s hound, bred in Georgia, she grew to 83 pounds. She was black-and-tan, midnight face, with two cinnamon eyebrows that gave away her moods. We called her Ellie Mae.
Nobody ever warned me that bloodhounds were big old babies. I’ve always thought they were sort of tough and sturdy, but they’re not. They’re clumsy, skittish, and 90 percent saliva. They’re smart, but in their own way.
Ellie Mae, for instance, could open doors with her paws, swim faster than a teenager, and predict the weather. But she was frightened of beer.
No fooling. I don’t know why, but whenever she smelled an open longneck bottle she would lose her mind and start hopping around like a frightened fundamentalist. This made the SEC football season very complicated.
She was also a shameless thief. My wife once baked a batch of 16 blueberry muffins and left them on the counter to cool. Most dogs would have eaten the whole tray at once. But Ellie Mae worked slowly, like a Soviet spy. She stole one muffin every five minutes.
My wife never even noticed muffins were going missing until we found the furry genius asleep on our bed, covered in wax-paper muffin wrappers. She was the smartest hound I ever knew. But she was frightened of beer?
That animal rode everywhere with me. My truck belonged to her. It was filled with chew toys, expensive treats, stuffed ducks, water bowls, pig ears, rawhides, buffalo horns, and Brazilian beef femurs.
She slept at the foot of my bed, and sometimes between me and my wife. In the mornings, I’d wake up with her nine-pound head resting on my chest. Her breath was atrocious. Also, she had gas.
She went camping with me. She loved the beach. She ate what I ate. She only came to my voice. And when I was down in the dumps, it became her mission to make me un-sad.
We wrestled every evening on the living room carpet. We fished together. Showered together. Watched “Golden Girls” together. And she gave the best sugar.
She was the only real child I ever had. And when she died it almost ruined me.
But I was lucky to fall in love with another bloodhound who we named Thelma Lou. When I got her she was only nine pounds, but she filled the 83-pound hole in my heart.
Thelma is all ears and legs. She’s the color of iced tea, with a black saddle, and a coal-dust muzzle. And when she howls, it turns even the most lonely heart into clay. She’s howling right now.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the voice of a bloodhound excited to see you after you’ve been apart for so long, but I hope you get to hear it one day.
And some glad morning, when I pass through those abalone gates, I hope it’s the first thing I hear, too.