For Col. Orville Gaston Robertson

By Joshua R. Quong

This is going to be extremely difficult.

There is neither time nor words enough.

Colonel is in the happiest of hunting grounds with all of his old hunting buddies and old bird dogs. And while he is with them hunting the heavenly hedgerows of Glory, we are left here to hunt for comfort in the void his passing has left.

Any attempt to describe or relate what Colonel meant to us would fall light years short of his magnanimous spirit, and his gravity which drew all of us into his orbit.

But I will try my best to round out the colossus that was Colonel.

Orville Gaston Robertson was an absolute giant. Not only did he regularly fill Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles with ambeer from the plugs of Red Man he pinched with his enormous paws, but he also filled entire rooms to the brim with his thunderous personality and our hearts with joy.

The first time I saw Colonel was in the hall at South Panola High School. He was in uniform and carrying a sweet tea glass he had no doubt absconded with from the cafeteria. He was walking with a hard limp and I thought to myself, this is a man that has seen serious action.

For most young teachers, it takes time to figure out where one fits within the faculty dynamic of their school.

That was not the case for me. I knew where I not only wanted to be but where I needed to be. And that place was at Colonel’s lunch table where he held court with a rotating cast of noble knights.

Oh! The weeks it took me to maneuver myself to that Round Table and when that day came Colonel wrapped me into the fold by grasping my shoulder and proclaiming, with a mouth full of John Wayne casserole, “I like the direction this school is headed. It’s like a small United Nations. We got plenty of blacks and whites here. I got a few Middle Eastern kids in ROTC. Now we’ve hired a Chinaman English teacher!” The entire table nodded in agreement, and I could not have been prouder.

At that lunch table I learned the best times to plant watermelons, corn, and peas; that Ford trucks are superior to all other trucks; and that John Deere tractors are the only tractors worth the money. I also learned that Colonel’s limp wasn’t incurred from enemy fire but from a horrific 4-wheeler accident he had had in the middle of his pasture one rainy day after corralling an escaped herd of cows.

But the most important thing I learned from Colonel at that round table, and with nary a clue as to the impact the tutelage would have, was about quail hunting.

“Josh… me and you will go one day,” was a phrase iterated to me often.

But our bird hunting days would have to wait, for Colonel had other business to attend to like educating and instructing the innumerable cadets that came through South Panola’s ROTC program. If one were fortunate enough to pass the doors of his classroom while he was teaching, they would hear the sonic boom of Colonel’s voice narrating first-hand accounts of jets and missiles, and they would see the youth of Panola County immersed within his tellings so much so that they were all in the cockpit and silo with him.

And then there were the ROTC trips…

By God those trips he led us on… traveling on buses and planes to march us through sunny streets or slog us down stormy sidewalks… to air bases and battlefields… museums and monuments. We were all following our Colonel on great adventures.

Good God those ROTC trips…

And when teachers and students were ready to kill each other, Colonel was ever level-headed and cool. The epitome of leadership, he never failed to smooth out tensions amongst his rabble of adults and teens with a gentle firmness that only he possessed and could wield.

To be fair, it didn’t take much convincing to chaperone those jaunts around the country even if one of those trips happened to be on the Monday following mine and Sally’s Saturday nuptials. What a honeymoon!

I can hear Colonel now, “Josh… It’ll be good for the kids to be around a young newlywed couple.” He did, after all, take credit for match-making Mr. Quong and Ms. Booth; a matching for which I am eternally grateful.

And then he retired from South Panola.

He would return now and then in civilian attire and the two of us would happen to meet, usually in Mrs. Norma Arnold’s office near her coffee pot.

(I always found it strange how a man who could do complex math in his head and who was in charge of our nation’s nuclear weapons could be so befuddled by coffee pots.)

I recall him being in Mrs. Arnold’s office once on crutches and him explaining that while on a bird hunt in Missouri with his son-in-law, Mike, one of the bird dogs, Patches, had run into his leg… the same leg injured in the 4-wheeler wreck… and broke it. He and Mike hadn’t fired a shot and the hunt was over. God bless you, Mike.

Had South Panola been the extent of my association and connection with Colonel, I feel as though my cup, like the ones he spat Red Man into, would have truly runneth over.

But it was not to be. Colonel’s exit from service not only marked the end of a storied career but it also ignited the start of a new adventure; a fire that has consumed all who have warmed themselves by its flames: Little “q” Ranch.

If you hear nothing I have said about Colonel to this point and if you didn’t see what has been so obviously apparent until now, please chisel this into stone. The man lived to bird hunt and Little “q” Ranch was all Col. Orville Gaston Robertson’s idea.

This is important because it is the one and only thing he and I ever butted heads over. And now that he isn’t here bodily to protest, I would like to set things in order.

Colonel and I met at the Beacon Cafe for breakfast shortly after his retirement, and we rode out to a small patch of land in eastern Lafayette County. We walked through the fields of overgrown sedge. I asked him if he thought I could rent the place out to deer hunters and soy bean farmers to help “tote the note.”

And then, as when the Almighty spoke Creation into Existence, Colonel paused from picking his teeth with a strand of grass he had plucked and said, “Josh…you should make this place a quail hunting outfit, and I will be the guide.”  I had never heard of such, so like gardens, trucks, and tractors I listened to Colonel explain how a quail hunting outfit worked.

When I dropped him off at his house afterward, I drove home thinking “what utter insanity.”

I am so glad I succumbed to that insanity. I owe everything to Colonel and his insanity.

The first year of operation was a might shaky. One morning, Colonel arrived at the ranch to guide a hunt and he was limping. It was the same leg that had fallen victim to the 4-wheeler and bird dog.

“Josh,” he said, “A cow kicked me in the leg but I’m ready to go. I just need to walk on it.”

After guiding three more hunts over the course of a couple of weeks, Colonel called to tell me that the leg was broken.

“Josh! I went to the doctor ‘cause this leg got to hurting pretty bad after that last hunt and the doc said ‘Orville! Your leg’s broke.’ I told him ain’t no way. I’ve been walking around the farm and guiding bird hunts. Doc told me, ‘Well, that ain’t normal but of course we all know that you ain’t normal.’”

This statement of abnormality was no prognosis, it was a statement of fact. Not only was Colonel abnormally strong and resistant to pain but he was abnormally kind and generous.

Whether it was a helping hand or that most valuable of all commodities, his time, Colonel gave freely and lovingly to family, to friends, and to complete strangers.

Over the past 15 years, hunters have come from all over to Little “q” to hunt with Colonel. To listen to his stories. To be part of his life. To make him part of theirs. To be walked down until their feet ached but they would keep going when Colonel said, “Let’s go around that barn one more time, boys. I believe we sent a single over there earlier.”

Even in those last days when he was guiding with a chemo pack hidden under his overalls, they came to hunt with him and he was still walking them down.

After one of those last hunts he guided earlier this season, the two of us were dressing birds in a rare silence. His hands were covered in blood and feathers and his vest was stained with tobacco. He broke that silence by saying, “You know, Josh… this is about the only thing that keeps me going.” All I could say was, “Me too, Colonel.”

There are so many hunters… so many people… like us here today… who absolutely adored him.

To his wife Ms. Peggy… Even though Colonel had written on your marriage license “Can go bird hunting whenever he wants to” … we thank you for letting him take us.

To his children Letitia, Russell, Tracey, and Christopher… We thank you for letting him treat all of us like we belonged to him and thinking how lucky y’all were because y’all actually did.

To Colonel… from all the boys at the ranch… your last little squadron of guides… Aaron, Marshall, Michael, Lukas, Campbell, William, and Brooks (who are at this very moment guiding a group of hunters and carrying on your legacy) … we thank you for taking us under your massive wings along with countless others you loved and who loved you.

Your life has made all of our lives so much the better, and we will miss you terribly.

It’s cold and cloudy today, Colonel.

A beautiful day for a bird hunt!

From the FE Films Archive

See More Films from Field Ethos

You May Also Like