Of Domesticated Dogs and Feral Boys…


The feist lends its name to the ubiquitous adjective feisty meaning, “Lively, determined,
and courageous.” My grandfather’s example certainly lived up to that descriptor.

The year was 1913, and my grandfather was but eight years old. He lived on a rural Mississippi farm along with his parents and dozen siblings. Life was uniformly hard, but due to their collective unceasing toil the family never went hungry. It would be many decades before Al Gore would invent the Internet, so the local boys made their own entertainment. One reliable pastime was the orchestrated dogfight.

The neighboring mob of unruly boys showed up with their mangy hound ready to scrap. My grandfather and his brothers had little interest in putting their own dog up, but the visiting kids had made it a point of honor. The summer day was blisteringly hot, so they opened wide the hay doors. Reluctantly my grandfather and his siblings cleared out a circle in the top-floor hayloft in the big family barn and got ready to rumble.

The boys formed a ring around the periphery to watch the action. They then rubbed the two dogs’ noses together until the animals grew weary of it and set them loose. The two hounds tore into each other, both out for blood.

If this sounds raw, cruel, and vicious that’s because it was. The modest veneer of civilization under which we all so squirm these days is but a recent contrivance. We are ourselves not so far removed from the Romans and their wanton bloodsport.

It’s in our nature to scrap. Professional football is not that much different from small unit combat. Such stuff as this gory dogfight is quite appropriately illegal today. However, leave human beings to their own devices long enough and our baser instincts tend to bubble to the surface. To ignore this fact is to deny our primal natures. Now just try to enjoy the story.

They maintained two working dogs on my grandfather’s family farm. The larger of the two was currently getting actively destroyed in the aforementioned dogfight. The emergency backup dog was a diminutive feist terrier they kept around to manage rats. In this case the little feist squirmed in my grandfather’s lap watching the proceedings with at least as much enthusiasm as might the neighborhood boys. These two farm dogs were both buddies and partners, and the terrier was none too pleased with developments.

The battle was not going well, and my grandfather grew legitimately concerned that the neighboring dog was about to kill his hound. They were close to this animal, and emotions were running high. As the enemy dog got my grandfather’s beast pinned and went for his throat, the little feist had simply had all he could stand. The tiny animal wriggled free from my grandfather’s horrified grasp and launched insensate into the fray.

Once in the arena, the feist fearlessly leapt up and clamped his tiny razor-sharp teeth around the base of the enemy dog’s tail. The interloper now lost all interest in the original dogfight and began tearing about in circles trying and failing to twist himself around far enough to reach the tenacious little beast now clinging madly to his butt. Throughout it all the tiny terrier was tossed about with epic violence. The congregated boys were too shocked to intervene.

With one mighty contortion the larger animal flung his hips and tore the feist loose, throwing him viciously across the hayloft and against the wall with a sickening thud. Without slowing down the big dog made a beeline for the open door and leapt into the ether. He then dropped unceremoniously some twenty feet to the ground below, rolling in a billowing cloud of dust before regaining his footing and tearing off back home. The audience was rendered speechless.

My grandfather’s larger dog gathered himself up with some difficulty and limped over to the nearest brother for some well-earned love and attention. Then all eyes turned to the writhing feist now covered in hay. The little dog jumped back up and trotted over to my grandfather where he deposited the entirety of the enemy dog’s severed tail proudly at his feet.

The visiting mob of boys left dejected and beaten, and my grandfather’s old farm dog recovered in short order. The feist was rightly revered as a hero by all. This bloody tale from a bygone era just goes to exemplify that one timeless axiom: It’s Not the Size of the Dog in the Fight, It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog…

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