feature By: Jon Osborn, text and Molly (lundrigan Keefe, photos | March, 21
These words, from the final pages of A Bird in the Hand by Ted Nelson Lundrigan, summarize more than a book about bird hunting. They represent a wing shooter’s way of life. Lundrigan wrote eloquently of his love for the Minnesota landscape and the people who lived upon it. He spun stories about setters and shorthairs, labs and shotguns, puddle ducks and pipes. Although he found all these facets of the sporting life endearing, Lundrigan especially loved ruffed grouse.
His unlikely journey began back in the early 1960s – a time when pursuing “partridge” meant crowding into a smoky Jeep and cruising two-tracks. Road hunting was how grouse were bagged in rural Minnesota a half-century ago. Before long, though, Lundrigan began hunting on foot over dogs.
The Selective Service System had other plans for him. As war raged in Southeast Asia, Lundrigan was drafted into duty as a combat medic. There he learned about blood and fear and the savagery of war. Thirteen months later, a more worldly young man returned home to pursue a law degree at the University of Minnesota.
Men of the Baby Boomer generation seldom waste words, and Lundrigan was no exception.
“My father was a very quiet man,” his daughter Molly Keefe affirmed. “But his journals prove he cared very deeply about certain things, even if he didn’t verbalize his thoughts out loud.”
Like all authors, Lundrigan found solace in words. The pages of his books offer portals into private opinions, fears and sorrows. He wrote honestly about personal tragedies, including divorce, the death of a daughter and the horrors of humid jungles, halfway across the world.
For example, “On the battlefield,” he reflected in Grouse and Lesser Gods, “when a shell fragment strikes an arm or a leg, it hits with a fine hardness, like getting slapped with the end of a belt. The blood runs free and red, until it cools, and it makes your pant leg sticky. You are not really aware of it. It makes you yell and hop.”
Lundrigan wrote of sweating and struggling through the foliage, laboring under a heavy rucksack and rifle. But that was duty, and he answered the call, although there’s no question he felt more at ease among the alders, cradling a petite Westley Richards shotgun and walking up a staunch point in his native Minnesota stomping grounds.
Keefe remembers hunting with her father when she was 13 years old, in a favorite covert called “The Promised Land.” As was his habit, Lundrigan documented the details of the day in his college-ruled journal. All the usuals are there – the points, flushes and weather conditions – but most notably, his words convey an obvious sense of pride. The bold title at the top of page one states: “Molly’s 1st Grouse,” and the narrative begins: “This was a very special day.”
Decades later, Keefe can still smell the damp dirt and leaf litter and recall how the warm sunshine filtered through the October canopy, tinting everything yellow. Following the hard-charging shorthairs wasn’t easy, but keeping pace with her energetic father was even tougher. In those days, Lundrigan hunted hard and expected equal enthusiasm from his companions, novices or not.
Eventually though, their sweat equity paid off. Up ahead, Beans and Butch were drawn up tight, like twin snare drums. As father and daughter approached, two grouse roared away, but a third landed in a tree. Under normal circumstances, Lundigran took birds on the wing, but exceptions could be made for beginners. Keefe’s 20-gauge Berretta boomed, and soon Butch returned with a mouthful of feathers. Since then, she’s shot plenty of flying grouse, but that day still stands as one of the best.
Keefe’s siblings, Tessa and Max, learned to hunt and shoot as well. One of their father’s true joys was introducing kids to the sport. “Max probably took to hunting more than any of us,” Keefe mused, “but Dad and I were regular clay shooting partners. I miss that immensely.”
Wing shooting was Lundrigan’s true passion. During bird season, he even played hooky from church, preferring to commune with the Almighty while among the aspens.
One Sunday morning he tried to hunt and attend service, arriving for usher duty dressed in hunting garb. His journal entry affirms the congregation’s “lukewarm reaction” to his casual attire. Nevertheless, Lundrigan had a deeply spiritual side with which he often infused his stories.
“God speaks to bird dogs in the rustle of leaves under the pads of their feet, in the thin smoke of bird scent, and in a hundred other languages that man once knew but forgot how to hear.”
Like many bird hunters, Lundrigan relished a drink and a smoke after a long day afield. Maker’s Mark bourbon was the usual standby, but he also enjoyed an occasional nip of Carolina moonshine known as “Cat-Daddy.” Corncob pipes fit the bill for smoking in the field, but at home, he preferred a hand-me-down Hardcastle loaded with Virginia or Cavendish tobacco.
Lundrigan’s diverse circle of friends included farmers, ranchers and everyday folk, but it also included well-known writers like Michael McIntosh. Keefe remembers lying on the floor alongside the dogs, listening as the men smoked and chatted about bird hunting.
“Michael was so kind to me,” she said. “He called me ‘Ladybug,’ and I’d sit on his lap while he read Shel Silverstein aloud and blew smoke rings into the air.”
“There are trap guns, skeet guns, duck guns, turkey guns, and goose guns – all tools for specific purposes. Then there is the Westley Richards 20-gauge grouse gun, with its catalog of the finest gun makers in England printed on the top and flats of her barrels … She had evolved like a bird dog at season’s end – all sinew and bone and lean muscle, scratched and cut, muzzle worn down to skin, and carrying no extra weight. What remained was focused on the single purpose of finding and bringing down the king of game birds: the ruffed grouse.”
On August 30, 2020, Lundrigan passed quietly away after suffering complications from Agent Orange.
Authors leave a trail of words behind or as Lundrigan put it, “a writer’s gift to the world.” Take “The Promised Land,” for instance, which tells the story of a hunter traversing an overlooked path through the woods. He’s headed into uncharted territory but seems at peace with his destination:
“On the east side there is a gate. It is a battered and bent frame of twisted iron hanging from its swing post by one hinge … One noon, curious to see why there was a slot in the woods behind the fence, I pushed it open. There was a trail. Not an obvious road, just the faintest change in texture, with blackberry bushes on each side and tall grass between … A run of alder bordered the far edge drawing me across until I could see a hole in the leafy wall, another segment of the road in a green tunnel, and beyond that more sunlight.”
Somewhere beyond that gate, perhaps Lundrigan found Beans on point, backed by Butch. Old Salty, his setter, must have been there too, along with the labs, Dixie and Jet. A reunion of such magnitude surely called for a celebratory smoke, so perhaps Ted enjoyed a few draws from his pipe while reveling in the kaleidoscope of aspens and maples. Then it was time to go. God’s own grouse were waiting, so he whistled up the dogs and began walking up the path without a care in the world.