Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Typology of Foxhunters, Part 4: False Staffs

“If you can’t say something nice, then sit next to me.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Liz Williams, long-serving whipper-in for Snickersville Hounds, gets the credit for suggesting False Staffs, this week’s excerpt from A Typology of Foxhunters. In case you missed the previous postings, these musings result from my observation of several clearly definable archetypes that make up the community of fellow foxhunters. So far we’ve considered Nouveau Gentry, Juice Junkies and Falstaffs. Still to come are Saddle Tramps, Strivers, Posers, Hodads, Hunters Emeriti, and Chasers.

See the previous postings for my standard poetically worded Caveat Lector (Reader Beware!).

False Staffs

In the old days, especially in England, there was no glory in being “staff.” The whippers-in were the hired help. The pay was lousy, the work was hard, conditions harsh. On the upside, you could develop an extensive vocabulary of abusive language thanks to constant beratings from your esteemed huntsman. If you survived long enough, and learned a thing or two about hunting, you might one day become a huntsman yourself. Then you could be the one berating the next generation of under-skilled kids with severely limited career options.

Now, though, there’s no better way to impress at a hunt country cocktail party then to casually remark, “I whip-in to Leroy Liptschitz at Skunk Hollow Hounds.” A few hunts have perhaps one professional whip serving their huntsman. But the great majority of those filling this role today are “honorary” (i.e., volunteers who do it strictly for the love of the sport).

And if you believe that parenthetical comment, you’re probably wondering why that promised million dollar check from the Bank of Nigeria hasn’t arrived yet.

For many, perhaps most, the motives are pure. But this isn’t about them, the ones who can actually ride well enough, have a sufficient understanding of hound work, know the country, and are willing to put in the countless, and thankless, hours of work at kennels and in the field to make it all come together on hunting days. These are the rare folks who don’t care about titles, accolades, or attention.

Now, in the spirit of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, let’s talk about some others, those who fall into two subcategories: whipper-wannabes and whipper-shouldn’t-bes.

The wannabe dearly covets the status that goes with the office of a whip. She’d love to be seen discussing the day’s first draw with the huntsman, keeping the hounds packed up at the meet, then riding off to her appointed position as the day’s sport begins, preferably doing so by sailing effortlessly over a four foot fence in full view of the entire field. How she yearns to call out, “Staff, please!” and watch as those of less talent obediently move to let her pass, bowing to her superior skills and with the humble knowledge that but for her they would not be enjoying such a fine time of hunting. She longs for the day when, having stopped a split pack through her uncanny ability to put herself in just the right place at the right time, she then leads the errant hounds back to the grateful huntsman, no less than eight couple dutifully following at her horse’s heels. She dreams of being cited by the master in a public forum – and only a huge gathering of members and guests will do – as “an essential member of our hunt staff.” And, of course, there is that sublime self-satisfaction that comes from gazing demurely over one’s mint julep and blushing with the purest humility when a respected member of the hunt says, “We’re so blessed to have you as part of the Skunk Hollow staff, Esmeralda. I just don’t know how we could get along without you.”

Well, dream on, Esmie darling. You’re missing a couple of key ingredients for such visions to ever become reality. Maybe more than a couple. You see, the whipper-wannabe is at best a mediocre rider. She may be unable to get reliably over all the jumps even when led by the master and several others ahead of her. A big, scary fence on her own? Not a chance. What she knows about hounds she learned mostly from Disney cartoons. Ride out into rough country on days when the wind is up, temperatures are dropping, and the sky is threatening to deliver a deluge of rain, snow, or even sleet? You gotta be kidding. Blaze your way through trail-less terrain when hounds are on the scent, ignoring the slicing brambles, smacking branches, and clinging vines that could pull you from the saddle? Um, maybe not. Demonstrate the skill and composure required to send your horse wherever necessary, including such fun schooling opportunities as into an ice-covered stream, past a monstrous piece of farm machinery spewing out smoke and crop debris, calmly walk alongside a paddock filled with high-strung horses, bleating goats, squawking guinea fowl, or – most fun of all – spitting llamas? Well, we came in sixth in the judged pleasure ride, didn’t we? Exhibit the balance to ride with your whip in one hand, pistol in the other, radio tucked under your chin, and the reins in your teeth? Who knew whipping-in could be so complicated? Stay out hours after everyone else is sopping up the last morsels of tailgate fare while you’re still wandering through woods and fields looking for that one damn hound that wandered off? No way. Throw caution and good sense aside when hounds are at risk, running hard toward that dreaded highway, leaping over fences that others wouldn’t even think about jumping so you can head them off before disaster strikes? Gee, maybe whipping-in is a bit more than dear Esmie bargained for.

A few manage to find ways to steal at least a part of their dearly desired “staff appeal.” They may bid at the silent auction on the opportunity to ride with a staff member. If the huntsman is especially shorthanded, he might even be forced to call on the wannabe for some help, assigning her a relatively safe role so one of his real whips can be freed up for more significant duty. In such instances, Esmie will manage to expand that brief role into a full career in her own mind. It’s like the girl who gets randomly plucked from the front row at a Springsteen concert to come up on stage and dance with The Boss for all of two minutes and, forever after, makes it sound like she was part of the tour.

One good thing about the whipper-wannabe: it’s unlikely her unfulfilled longings will ever cause any detriment to the sport. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the whipper-shouldn’t-be. This is the guy to whom the hunt is indebted in some way. He may be a major landowner or a patron without whose support the club would suffer (or dues would have to be substantially increased). He might underwrite the hunt’s races or allow the kennels to operate on his land. Or he may simply be a crony of the master, a good old buddy for whom the master would do anything (read: he knows where all the masters’ skeletons are buried and will either get his way or start blabbing).

Whatever the source of his mighty leverage, the result is that if he wants to be a whipper-in, he’ll bloody well be one. The fact that he has little or no real skill for that office doesn’t count for as much as a hound’s toenail.

The poor huntsman, then, is forced to use him as part of the staff and make the best of it. With any luck, the shouldn’t-be will only want to ride out once in awhile, typically when conditions are pleasant, and might even manage to avoid messing up the sport too badly. Even the best staffers make occasional mistakes, so there’s no reason to expect perfection from a shouldn’t-be. Perhaps he’ll at least attempt to follow the huntsman’s instructions and, if nothing else, ride along the periphery and not try to pretend he’s truly part of the action.

Yeah, right. Can you spell “chutzpah?” If the shouldn’t-be had that much humility and self-awareness, he wouldn’t be a shouldn’t-be in the first place. He’d be happily riding with the field, enjoying the sport, and letting the real staff do their job. The fact that he has no compunction about using his considerable influence, whatever the source, to get what he wants suggests that he’s not about to acquiesce to the huntsman and assume a subservient role. Nope, this guy’s going to insist on being right in the thick of things, the presumed first whip, a hair’s breadth away from taking over the huntsman’s role himself. He’ll think nothing of running right through the pack, taking his own line and turning the fox, halloaing every moving critter he sees without the slightest concern as to whether or not it’s the hunted quarry.

The huntsman may hope that, given the shouldn’t-be’s penchant for hot air, he’ll run out of gas after an hour or two, especially if the sport is brisk. But he didn’t amass all that clout by being a namby-pamby. Nope, he’s out there for the duration, fatigue be damned. He’ll show them he’s as tough a hunter as anyone. Although these guys do seem to have the most amazing bad luck when it comes to horseshoes. Seems like one or more comes off, almost without fail, around the one or two hour mark. Damn, he’d like to stay out and “help” the rest of the day, but his horse can’t continue on without a shoe. So he’d better head in, perhaps let the real staffer who got stuck riding with the field come up and take his spot. He has to get back to the meet, and make sure no one finds that nail puller.

© 2010, J. Harris Anderson

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