Georgia was coming abloom with blossoms and buds last week, and not only at Augusta, where the golfers gathered, but in the downstate plantation country around Thomasville too. There, every day, in clear weather or showers, a 60-year-old Negro named Rufus Davis led a 3-year-old English setter named George out over the rolling hills in pursuit of George's continuing education as a gun dog.
In Washington, as Rufus knew, there was talk of the President of the United States coming to Georgia for sun and golf after the Masters. Rufus did not actually expect the President to come to Thomasville this time, but it is part of his pride that, whenever Ike does come to Milestone Plantation, the dog called George will be in a sharp state of drill.
George is a special one among the 20 dogs that Rufus handles and trains at Milestone, home of George Humphrey, former Secretary of the Treasury. Statuesque, like all his breed, he wears a coat of white with blue-black spots that Rufus describes as "blue ticks, kinda like." More importantly, he belongs to Dwight Eisenhower and is called George in honor of the boss of Milestone Plantation. Ike has ordered the setter trained for field-trial competition.
"Rufus," the President said on his February visit to Milestone, "I think George is ready for the field trials. I think he can do O.K."
"Yes, sir," said Rufus, "I think so myself."
So, as Rufus explained before a training walk the other morning, "I'm getting George ready. I take him out every day and shoot over him and teach him the fine points he should know."
But Rufus is not only the trainer. On hunting days he's the guide. He's been doing the same thing for the President for six years now.
"I always wakes up first around here in the morning," he said. "And go on down to the big house to get my orders. When the President is here, Mr. Humphrey gives them to me. He tells me to meet them at a certain location. So I loads up the hunting wagon and gets on my horse and head for the woods. When I find quail, I holler 'point,' and the President and Mr. Humphrey drive up behind me in the wagon. I goes in the middle and flush the quail. The dogs are standing still as I train them to do. They do the shooting and then we go on again."
Rufus can well remember that first time the President came to Milestone. He chuckles with the memory as Mrs. Humphrey tells the story. "The President walked up to Rufus after the hunt was over, and told him how much he had enjoyed it. 'Well,' Rufus said, 'I enjoyed handling you, Mr. President.' "
SMOKED BACON AND RIBS
"On that same visit Mr. Humphrey asked Rufus if he were thrilled to hunt with the President of the United States. 'Well,' Rufus answered, 'he's a fine hunter, Mr. Humphrey, but he ain't steadied to shot. Every time he shoots a bird he runs out and picks it up. Shucks, that's what I train dogs to do.' "
For the visitor, Rufus talked some more about his friend the President. His eyes sparkled, as eyes do when recollections are lurking behind them, etched in the memory and brought up to date by questions.
"The last time the President was here," Rufus spoke, "we talked about smoked bacon. He told me about the good old smoked bacon he used to get back in Abilene, his home town. We have it down here, and that time we also had some good ribs. The President really goes for those. When he comes down here he gets healthy. He leaves all his troubles and worries in Washington.
"He didn't come for a good while after he had his heart attack and even now he takes it easy. He has to stop and rest every once in a while."
Without so much as reaching down for a second wind, Rufus went on, stretching his lean, 5-foot-9 frame to shake the early-morning fuzziness from his head.
"That dog of his is a real good one. George came to Milestone as a pup. The President told me one day he has this dog somebody gave him and he wished me to take him down here and see what I can do with him. He told me he didn't know what he would make, but he was well bred. I told him he would have to ask Mr. Humphrey if it was O.K. If it was, it would be a great honor for me. He got the consent from the boss and I went to work on George.
"He turned out to be pretty good that first year, and now, two years later, he's really a good dog. By next year he'll be ready to run with the best in the field trials."
George is only one of two English setters on Milestone. The other belongs to Mrs. Humphrey. The 18 remaining dogs are pointers. The difference was apparent. George and his single colleague wore the long hair of the setter and swished a longer tail.
"These are mighty fine dogs," Rufus bragged. "I'm not saying I'm a good trainer, but I always gets the job done. I'll let somebody else say I'm good. We nearly always gets the limit of quail. The last time the President was here, only one day did he fail to fill the bag. He got nine one day, but all the other times he got 12 and that's the limit."
Rufus explained that Ike used a 20 gauge on his last safari. "He usually uses a 410 gauge," he said, "but the quail were stronger and the larger gauge was necessary."
Rufus paused. "The President is a regular guy," he said on an impulse, guessing correctly that his visitor was thinking of the same thing.
"He's a very nice fellow and a very good hunter. I can't rightly say if I would vote for him if he were running again. I have never voted because I just registered this year. I haven't got nothing against him at all. I'd probably go ahead and vote for him."
Then Rufus laughed. It was a low outburst that he failed to hide.
"I was just remembering the last time that the President was here," he confessed. "The President fell in a stump hole. Everybody rushed over to see if he's O.K. I went over and picked him up. There were a lot of people around. Maybe 20 or 30 of those Secret Service men. They don't bother me. They're all pretty nice people. The only thing I worry about is finding some birds. That's my job."
When training duties were over, Rufus led the way to his six-room cottage, lonelier now that Rufus is a widower and his children have grown up and moved to town. Inside, Rufus took out a photograph that is a prized and precious possession. It is of the two of them, Rufus and the President of the United States.
His visitor asked if it could be borrowed for use in a magazine. Rufus shook his head and asked the visitor to find some other picture. This one was something between him and the President. "I just couldn't let you print it. It just wouldn't seem right."
Rufus changed the subject. "I once trained another dog for the President," he said. "He took that one, another setter, to Gettysburg and used him to hunt there."
Why didn't Ike try to lure Rufus to Gettysburg?
"Couldn't take me away from Mr. Humphrey," Rufus said.
RUFUS DAVIS HOLDS LEASH ON PRESIDENT'S SETTER GEORGE (FOREGROUND) AS IKE AND HOST HUMPHREY AWAIT HUNTING START THIS WINTER AT THOMASVILLE