Whittle: Howling dogs

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Do wolves really howl at the moon?

Not like the "howling" of my former neighbors who liked to shout and show out during Saturday nights in one of five saloons that out-numbered our little farm town's three churches back in the 1940s.

I'm talking about the primal "call of the wild," the howling that originated with wolves before man domesticated multiple breeds of dogs ... the type of wolf howls that send shivers down your spine.

The late great author/TV personality Charles Kuralt showed an appreciation for wolves and their howling in his last book - "American Moments" - penned before his death on Independence Day 1997.

The author travelled to Minnesota to find Jim Brandenburg, whose professional photography specialty was wolves. But Branden also enjoyed the soulful-sounding "howls" of wolves.

"I'd almost rather hear the wolves than see them, because that howl is so enchanting and so primal," Kuralt quoted Brandenburg. "Howling is very serious business to a wolf.''

But outdoorsman Brandenburg "had qualms" about visiting wolves too often, according to Kuralt: "Howling is serious business to him (Brandenburg), too. And he tries not to impose too often on the animals that have become - as much as wild animals can - his friends.

Brandenburg shared that he missed hearing the wolves if he stayed too long out of Minnesota's wilderness: "Every once in a while, you need a fix."

Brandenburg was also accomplished at mimicking a good soulful wolf "howl."

"He howls, and sometimes from out in the distance, a wolf howls back," Kuralt shared.

Wolves have disappeared in most regions of today's America, but they were still numerous in massive Nigger Wool Swamp that formed on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River at the same time as Reelfoot Lake's swamp formed on the Tennessee side of Big Muddy during the massive New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812.

Legendary river trapper (the late) "Uncle" Harry Robinson is credited with killing the last wolf known to roam and howl in that swamp that formerly covered six counties before the big swamp was drained around 1910, to convert Southeast Missouri's "Bootheel" region into an agrarian economy.

Uncle Harry, shortly before he died in the 1980s, shared a very ominous "wolf story" with me: "I was in one of our town's saloons, have a dram of whiskey, when this other hunter invited me to go hunt some wolves. This was around 1912, when wolves still inhabited Nigger Wool Swamp.

"Since I was in charge of Daddy's prized oxen being used to construct the first 'corduroy road' to aid people coming in and out of the swamp, I refused to go hunt wolves," Uncle Harry shared. "About a week later, the law came into the swamp, to find that hunter seated in a cabin kitchen that belonged to this family named Wolf. He'd killed all Wolf family members, and was eating at the family's kitchen table when Old John Law came to arrest him."

In the Whittle clan, "howling" by one of our farm dogs goes back to Oct. 28, 1950 ... the night after Daddy's funeral, following his death in a grinding car wreck on Oct. 25, 1950.

That's when "Hitler," our dog, began his deep-throated long, slow and mournful howling into the dark of late night ...

Hitler was my farm Dad's constant companion.

When Daddy plowed with our stubborn mule named "Burt," Hitler took every step they made through the countless rows of soybeans.

Daddy Whittle perished in a grinding car crash in 1950.

Hitler had never "howled" before when Daddy was frequently away from our farm home for extended days and nights as a Mississippi riverboat gambler at Cairo, Ill., during non-farming cold winter months.

Although I was only six years old, I remember the funeral vision of cotton gin workers, lining our little farm town's mile-long Main Street, with their lint-covered hats held over their hearts, as Daddy, a man of the soil, rolled by in the hearse from Albritton Funeral Home out of nearby Sikeston, Mo.

That night, Oct. 28, 1950, Hitler began howling for the first time.

Question: Since we never took Daddy's body back to the farm house following the car wreck, how did Hitler know that his master had died?

Hitler's howling, which lasted about 3 months after Daddy died, still echoes in this former farm boy's soul!

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Dan Whittle
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