James "Eddie" Lake
~By Randy Lawrence
He never talked about himself. Only after he passed away at age 86 did his small circle of "country friends" learn that that he'd spent time in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. We knew he had shot competitive trap and live pigeons. He never, ever told us he and his pet Remington Model 32 won the Grand American High Overall Championship at Vandalia one year. I read about it in a scrapbook his family had laid out for funeral calling hours.
We knew he'd been an auctioneer of note, that he'd hobnobbed with the high rollers of Columbus's sporting set, especially the Ohio Valley Retriever Club. We knew he'd once had a prize-winning herd of Hereford cattle on a hobby farm where, he once confided to me, "every gate hung true."
Mostly we knew Eddie Lake as a committed collector of fine English guns. Every year for the dove opener, he'd assemble this or that gleaming Holland and Holland or James Purdey and Sons, or Boss and pass it around amongst our five or six quite irregular "Regulars." My favorites were the Purdey hammer guns. One 20-bore with impossibly figured stock wood had hammers sculpted to resemble raptors' heads. Had there been a nearby crossroads with a devil on duty, I would have crawled through glass to get there after our shoot and sell my very soul for that masterpiece of the gunmaker’s art.
One evening, Ed and his wife Guiana hosted our annual game dinner. Eddie, the most gracious of hosts, kept disappearing into another room. The long suffering Guiana rolled her eyes and allowed as how Eddie was bidding via telephone auction on a particular vintage double gun that he'd been tracking for years. He finally rejoined the party muttering that he'd lost out to Sheik So-and-So. “By golly, he knew I was around,” Eddie growled, drinking a tall iced tea that had lost its ice many bids ago.
On a visit to one of the country's great gun rooms, I was treated to a backroom showing of an exquisite 20-gauge Woodward over-under that had just come in on consignment. The next time I was shared a campfire cookout with Eddie and some other friends, I began describing this rare gun that had belonged to a woman who shot, and how her Harvard math professor son had inherited the gun and decided he’d rather have the cash and...
Eddie quietly interrupted me. “I know that gun” - and then recited the serial number.
On another visit, Eddie asked me what I was writing. I told him I was working on a magazine article about dealing with pressure in competitive shotgunning, and wondered if he have any experiences to share (this was before I knew about the Grand American title). He spat a long stream of Mail Pouch off the porch and said that the only time he ever felt pressure was during a live pigeon tournament in Havana. He had two birds to kill for the Big Prize and as he was loading two shells into his pigeon gun, he looked down and noticed his pants were flapping.
"I looked up at the flags to see if the wind was blowing, and they were all limp. My pants were flapping because my legs were shaking so hard."
Yes, he killed the last pair. No, he didn't tell me how much money was in the pot.
Nobody on the porch said a word, but I'm certain all of us were thinking, "Havana??"
Eddie was looking off over the horse pasture, as if watching something only he could see. “I didn’t shoot that way every time out,” he said, more to himself than to the rest of us. “But they always knew I was around.”
Toward the end of his shooting life, Eddie wrangled a Caesar Guerini dealership. He was a big fan of those solid built with the benefit of so much modern technology. That was good enough for our ring of dove shooters. More than a decade later, several of us are still shooting hand-picked Guerinis from Ed's inventory, purchased at what Ed called "the kinfolk price."
But Eddie didn't last long as a dealer, giving up the enterprise after he'd nearly come to blows with his stateside connection. Caught between the Italians and Eddie, the guy must have gone nearly insane with the gun aficionado badgering him for specific models executed to Best Gun standards at wholesale production gun prices. Eddie sent a lot more guns back to the distributor than he ever sold to the public.
Ed had made a lot of money. He managed to hold on to a bunch of that money because, as Mike Ditka once said of Chicago Bears patriarch George Halas, “He threw nickels around like manhole covers." My Elhew-bred brag dog Fancy Dancer had whelped a litter of pointer puppies. Ed had admired Fancy’s work and expressed interest buying one of her sons. He came to look at the litter in the company of a mutual friend, another older gent who had also done particularly well in business.
I handed Eddie a black-headed male I thought was exceptional. Ed gave the pup a thorough once-over, then asked the price. When I quoted Eddie what I thought was my own version of "the kinfolk price," the old auctioneer couldn't help himself. He launched a spurt of tobacco juice into my wife's shrubbery, cocked one eye, and said, "I don't suppose you'd take ____"
His companion growled, "#*&%@, Ed," and walked back to the truck.
Ed shrugged, sighed, then peeled off a small stack of crisp hundred dollar bills. That's how "Billydog" the pointer pup entered a long and much loved career as sporting ornament, one-Lake States -trip-a-year-grouse savant, and a regular on Bob Thompson's farm for training and quail shooting.
When Billy died, we all took it hard. But when I offered to help Ed find another bird dog, he very quietly said, "No thank you. I just don't think another dog would suit me like Billydog."
The photo that begins this blog is my favorite of Eddie Lake. Every September 1, he was the first to roll into the barnyard, one of his wife's amazing lemon cakes balanced on the seat of his gleaming pickup, oak and leather gun case stashed behind the seat. In those days, he was among the last to leave the field, too, laughing and whooping and loving every single second of the day. Nobody I have ever known loved to pull a shotgun trigger more than Ed Lake.
This picture was made the year he admitted that his eyes were beginning to let him down. The pile of 2" RST shot shells was threatening to dwarf his small bag of doves. But Ed had found a barred black and white turkey wing feather near his favorite shooting post in the shade of a volunteer apple tree. He said he thought it would give him "a little In'din stealth" if he stuck it in his hat. He grinned and asked me to take his picture "so my friends will know I'm still around."
I love to think of him there, striking a pose in the hot September sun, one of his beloved Purdeys cradled in his big, capable hands, the guy who understood in the very marrow of his bones that the only thing that mattered after safety was that all of this was supposed to be fun, whether a person is age 8 or 80 as Eddie was in this photo.
Fast forward five Septembers, and Eddie's wife Guiana sends her annual Opening Day lemon cake with another friend. We had been told Eddie was lost somewhere down the dark hallway of dementia and had gone to live in his beautiful lodge-like country home, a sprawling place remodeled for home health care. But his predicament didn’t seem real until it came time to gather our gear and traipse up that hill to shoot.
I have no way of knowing if Eddie had even a clue Guiana had sent that cake. What I do know is that nobody shot doves from under "Eddie's Apple" that bittersweet late summer's afternoon. I remember, too, a difficult time seeing what I was doing later that evening when I cut each shooter an Eddie-sized slab of that beautiful cake.
Something in my eye, I reckon. Or maybe it was just the certainty that Eddie’s friends did indeed know he would always be around.