Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I’m learning more about pain. Without going into detail I nursed a pain in my side that began in the fall, got worse in the winter, and became chronic this spring. I am just now coming out of it.

Nursed may not be the right word. Avoided, denied, ignored, feared the worst about, suffered might apply equally well. I did it fairly privately, sharing details mainly with my wife. She chided me for not acting in some way to address it, fix it, do something to actively change things around. Instead I did less and less.

Friends sometimes make good observations I don’t acknowledge. My friend Bill, who knew something of what I was going through, made this astute observation.

“The trouble with pain like that is the nagging fear that this might be the one that never goes away.”

That my pain was physical this winter is inconsequential. It just as well could have been emotional pain. The two are hardly distinguishable. Every conversation about one applies to the other.

I tried hard to ignore it, but that proved impossible. Had I known where it came from it may have been easier to deal with but there were any number of things that could have caused it and kept it alive. It was there, consistently, like one of those age spots that appear on your skin or a scar. A thing that became part of me, that was what this pain became. It was my constant companion.

At times it made me nauseous, stopped me from walking, from talking, drove all other thoughts from my mind. It was at its worst in the morning, when I was most likely to be alone. Maybe it was best I was alone. When pain takes over it is impossible to be a good friend even to those you love. Pain demands attention, and robs us of the ability to focus on anything else. Pain is a bully. It makes you do things you don’t want to do.

I have a new perspective on cranky old people, curmudgeons, and young people as well who appear stuck in an awful view of the world, all those who look around them and perceive the world at its worst. I think they are in pain and I think pain overwhelms them. I think they can feel little else, maybe nothing else.

After refusing to see a doctor for way too long I had a shitload of tests, costing thousands of dollars, which in the end were inconclusive. Rather than identifying the source of my pain they confirmed what was not causing it. That’s a futile exercise I think, ruling out what is not causing pain. How large is that universe, that set of things which do not cause us problems? What I wanted was a simple answer. I was especially hopeful when they suspected my gall bladder. I could imagine the conversation. It would no doubt have taken place over the phone, if not via e mail or text.

“Mr. McClure, your test results are in and they show a large number of stones in your gall bladder. It is enlarged and inflamed. The best course of action, we believe, is to remove it.”

“That’s great,” I would have replied. “What’s the earliest we can schedule the surgery?” Gall bladder removal these days is a breeze. Three small holes, probes like tiny blenders (I think of milk shake machines) which mush up the tissue, tubes that suck it out, and it’s over.

“How about Wednesday?”

“Wednesday is great.”

It would have been so sweet. The culprit, source of the pain, identified, the offending organ (not vital in any way) removed. Pain gone. Life returns to normal. Episode forgotten. It didn’t happen. The pain persisted and no one could explain why. I was starting to think they didn’t believe me.
One of the tests, by one of the additional doctors I sought out, did reveal a problem in my back. That was no surprise. My back has caused me pain off and on for years but nothing like this. A trip to a good chiropractor usually fixed me up for months, years even. The doctor in charge of this aspect of pouring over my body theorized that the pain in my side was being caused by this problem in my back, somehow connected, and if he numbed that area in my back it would go away.

“Have you done a good deal of physical labor in your life?”

“I baled hay and shelled corn for years when I was young.”

“Any incidents involving heavy lifting that you can remember which caused you particular back pain?”

“I picked up the front of my riding mower and put it on a concrete block to change a tire. Not my smartest move. I hitchhiked a lot in my mid-twenties. When cars or trucks stopped to pick me up I would run after them wearing a fifty pound backpack. I always thought that was harder on my knees than my back.” I have a bad right knee, an ankle messed up by a skiing accident, one leg shorter than the other, a build up on one shoe. All those things paled in comparison to the pain in my side. Funny how one concern drives away others.

“Well you are over sixty. It’s not unusual for men your age to experience spinal compression and accompanying problems.”

I had injections, something like a woman giving birth receives, an epidural. The pain in my back persisted. Theory dashed, he referred me to physical therapy. It was ironic I think, that the least expensive and most natural service came last.

At physical therapy I was lucky to meet Becky, a young physical therapist, extremely fit, who sized me up in a simple way; by what I could do. Lying on my back, she told me keep my knee straight, pick each leg up until I felt pain in my hamstring, and hold it. I did that, and my leg didn’t go up very far.

“Bend over and touch your toes.”

My fingertips went somewhere between my knees and my ankles, closer to my knees I’d say.

“Without bending forward or backward reach sideways down your leg as far as you can with your fingertips extended.”

That didn’t go very well. I could bend sideways farther on my right side than my left. The pain in my side lit up like a flare.

“Let’s try something simple. Stand up by the bar here. I’m going to put this band around your ankles. With your back straight and your knee locked I want you to pull the band forward, then to the side, then back. Keep your back straight.”

I could barely pull the band back at all without pain. Either leg.

“How am I doing?”

“You’re pretty tight and you’re not moving very well. Your hamstrings, your hip flexors especially. We’re going to have to do a lot of work on your core. Any idea how you got this way?”

“You mean how this happened? I retired, golfed more than usual, had some back pain. I’m not sure my chiropractor didn’t aggravate it some way.”

“No, I don’t mean that specifically. The particular event doesn’t really matter much now. I mean how did you get so tight? I bet at one time you had better muscle tone helping you support that back and rib cage. What have you been doing for exercise?”

“Nothing. It hurts to exercise. I’ve been writing all winter. I sit most all the time. It hurts when I stand. Hell, it hurts most when I lay flat.”

“Well, you’ve got to change that. We’ll help you.”

I went twice a week to therapy. Each time they started with a heat treatment, then massage, then various stretching and strengthening exercises. The staff were all very positive. Though simple and on the surface easy, each session wore me out. The first two weeks I would go home and immediately sleep. They increased the exercises, put me on a stationary bike and an arm bike. My therapist kept talking to me. I learned something at every session.

“Let’s talk about what else you’re doing, or have stopped doing.”

“I used to swim laps, but the rolling to one side, doing the crawl, extending my right arm and pulling against the water hurt my side. I got out of the habit.”

“Swimming could be major. Please try it again. Anything else you’ve stopped doing?”

“I haven’t played golf since last September. I can’t imagine putting that twist on my back.”

“It’s July. You’ve lost half the season. I think you could golf. You’ve got to suck that gut in. Your muscles, your abdominals, protect your bones and ligaments. Try a small bucket of balls, swing easy, see what happens. Who knows? Swinging easy could help your game. What else?”

“Well, in another life I used to do yoga. I’ve thought it could help. My wife swears by it and insists it would help me.”

”I think she’s right. You could do yoga too. Just don’t try to be a hero. Bail out of a pose when it hurts. You may not be ready for ‘plank’ for example. But there’s no reason you couldn’t do yoga. The truth is, you need to do more, move more, get more exercise. And as you age, you need to establish and keep those habits. I’m going to give you elastic bands to use at home for the exercises you do here. You’d be smart to get an exercise ball. In fact, you might sit on a ball when you write. Maybe not all day, but part of it.”

“I used to sit on a ball at work.”

“Sounds like you’ve changed your daily habits quite a bit. You may have to work through this pain. I think your pain may be totally or at least in large part a result of you being out of shape. Whatever eventually happens, you will only be helped by strengthening your body and getting in better physical condition.”

Why is it that when people with special knowledge and standing tell you things it means more than when those close to you say the same thing? I’d even told myself that. And who is closer to us than ourselves?

And so I began to confront my pain. I went back to the YMCA pool where the lifeguard said “Where you been? We missed you.”

I also signed up for gentle yoga at the Y. They offer it twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, opposite my physical therapy sessions on Monday and Wednesday. Soon after I happened to be at a dinner table opposite my oldest brother and brother in law, telling them I was taking yoga. They both, as if they’d practiced it, yet one looking out the corner of his eye at the other, like young kids in dance routine checking to see if they’re making the right move, closed their eyes, gazed upward, put their forefingers on their thumbs, and hummed. No one can tease you like family.

“Yeah, you guys think it’s funny,” I said, “but I’d like to see either of you do an hour of yoga with me. Yoga, even this gentle yoga I’m doing, would kick your butts.”

We talked about it some. Like many they don’t recognize yoga as true exercise because they equate workouts with being out of breath, only valid if they are aerobic. In yoga you move slowly and hold poses and stretches for prolonged periods of time. The idea is to breathe. If you can’t breathe during a Yoga pose you should stop. Yoga works out muscles, some you don’t know are there, and is ultimately very relaxing. It can be addicting. It has helped me a lot.

So here’s the concept that ended up working for me. You escape pain by getting help, confronting it, getting close to it, working on the edges of it, understanding it rather than fearing it. By admitting and confronting pain you have a chance at overcoming it. It’s starting to happen for me. Pain takes over my thoughts, displacing the good ones, much less, and much less often, than before. I’m able to do more. I’ve golfed twice without causing calamity in my body. I’m back to 5/8ths of a mile in the pool twice a week. And I’m doing both the exercises prescribed by my physical therapist and yoga. I’m getting better, starting to return to normal, or as close to normal as my 63 year old life worn body allows.

I got there with help. My wife primarily, but also the doctors, the physical therapist who was key, the YMCA, my patient yoga instructor. I think that’s how most people escape pain, with help from others. Emotional pain is much the same. We typically recognize emotional pain, addictions, or mental illness only when they result in big events-hospitalization, senseless crime, death, or suicide. Mental health, like our physical health, is rarely accomplished by us alone. I think there are times when each of us needs outside help achieve mental health. I can easily write 2,000 words on physical pain, where it is, what might be causing it, possible remedies, eventual cures. But emotional pain? Still fairly unacceptable to discuss. We suffer emotional pain, addiction, and mental illness privately and silently, fearing exposure of ourselves as weak. As you read this column did you blame me for my bad back and sore ribs? No. It was something that happened. So too with mental illness, but we have miles to go to make such parity a reality.

Of all the many opinions voiced and written about Robin Williams and his death one stood out for me. A Face Book post, connected hazily to conservative Christianity some days later, sought to remind us that in the end Robin Williams made a choice. It asserted his death was willful. As if he needed only to have a stronger faith. As if he was morally flawed.

I would say that Robin William’s choice was something like the choice made by a person atop a burning skyscraper. We witnessed that phenomenon when the World Trade Center was on fire and near collapse. People threw themselves to certain death off the roof and out the windows of the twin towers rather than being consumed by fire. It’s a choice, if you wish to call it one, between two horrible alternatives. Robin Williams died from withering emotional pain. I would no sooner place blame for his death on him than I would suggest an ALS victim was personally responsible for their death. He had received help but needed more. He died alone. Had he surrounded himself with others he may have lived. But he couldn’t stand the pain.

There are lessons to be learned from pain, but it’s a harsh teacher. One of the lessons is this; don’t go through pain by yourself. Seek advice and take it. Get help.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Going Home

I lived on our farm three miles west of Danvers only eighteen years and some change, counting a college summer and a couple of emergency stays as an adult recovering from long trips. That eighteen year stretch began when I came home from the hospital as a baby and lasted until I moved into a dorm at ISU. And it was a very solid stretch. As a family we went on one three day trip to Ft. Leonard Wood to see my brother Denny graduate from basic training, and after graduating Danvers High School I went to Florida for a week with two classmates, Jeff Melick and Larry Rapp, for the first official trip on my own. Other than that and your occasional week of Boy Scout camp or stays at the 4-H fair I woke up every day and went to sleep every night in that big old farmhouse at the crossroads of a township road (first gravel then blacktop) and Route 9. I’ve lived in Ottawa since 1977, on this property that holds the shack since 1987, much longer than I lived in the Danvers community. But Danvers I guess will always be home. Despite the years it just feels that way.

I went to Danvers Days last weekend with my brother Denny, sister Deanelle, and our spouses. We need a better word than spouse. I don’t know what it is. Anyway one of the spouses, Deanelle’s husband Ron, grew up in Danvers also. I’m sure the weekend meant more to us Danvers kids than to Denny’s wife Sandy and my wife Colleen. Sandy is from Los Angeles. She especially wanted a picture of herself at the tractor pull to post on Face Book for her friends.

“They aren’t going to believe where I am,” she said.

My wife Colleen grew up in LaSalle, daughter of a farmer, but her family lived in town. She didn’t get out to the farm all that often, although she walked beans briefly and knew her Dad’s tractor was green. She thinks it was a John Deere but isn’t sure.

We started at the tractor pull, which was not the flat out power contest you might imagine. It was an antique, or at least old, tractor pull. No tractors made after 1964. Without knowing the year each tractor was made I know a lot were much older than that. There was a two cylinder John Deere A that looked even older than my Dad’s, which was a 1938. They displayed a surprising amount of pulling guts, those old two cylinder poppers.

I may have lost most of my urban readers by now but a tractor pull operates with each entrant pulling the same sled down a clay track. The sled uses varying amounts of weight for each class of tractors and increases it over the course of the pull by sliding the weight forward on the sled. There’s physics involved. I can’t explain it more. But the contest becomes how far the tractor can pull this heavy load. Most bogged down, lost traction, or just plain died around 250 feet. You wouldn’t think it would be entertaining but it was.

None of the old tractors had cabs you see. Old tractors being open and simple machines you could see what the driver was doing to extend the pull, increasing or pulling back on the throttle, braking one side then the other, patting the fender, leaning back in the seat as if doing so would put more weight on the rear tires. It’s nothing like the relationship between a farmer and a horse, but there’s something going on there. I love those old tractors, and I developed a feeling for the mostly old guys driving them.

At the tractor pull it rained, and we took shelter in the new township shed north of town. It’s nice and big. Their trucks look new too. Larry Hartzold was there, one of my Aunt Lou’s stepchildren, who we always regarded as cousins. I’ve always liked talking to Larry. He’s direct. I was just about to say farm people are more direct but come to think of it many of them are as roundabout in their thoughts and speech as the rest of us. But not Larry.

“So where you living these days Larry?”

“I’m trailer trash, living in a park on the South Side of Bloomington.”

“I believe they call them mobile homes these days Larry. You’re being kind of hard on yourself.”

“Not this place. When I moved in the park used to be decent but over the years it’s gone to hell. Trailer trash describes it perfectly. If I could find another lot somewhere I’d hook on and pull it out of there in a minute.”

Among various topics discussed were relatives and acquaintances from long ago, I would bring up a name and Larry would give me a short recap on each of them. Without naming names it went like this.

“So how about (so and so), didn’t she marry a guy that was kind of antisocial?”

“No, she married a guy who’s a dick.”

“I was kind of thinking that but didn’t want to say it.”

“Well I’ll say it for you. He’s a dick and still they stay together.” I learned a lot from Larry in the short time we talked.

Danvers Days is a series of events built into a single weekend, none of which are blockbuster, all of which put together are very nice. In addition to the tractor pull was a talent show filled with kids, little girls mostly, singing and dancing, shy in front of the small crowd. There was a Neon 5K race run after sunset with glow in the dark necklaces for the runners. They had at least one band each night, a community sale filled with hard to even describe let alone name items, a parade, food at the tractor pull put on by the Lion’s Club, a Saturday night pork chop dinner at the fire house, Italian beef sandwiches sold by the Industrial Youth 4-H club, home baked pie and cake by the Lutheran church, Carl’s Ice Cream, craft booths in the empty lot by the Presbyterian church. You get the picture. Small town community festival.

The boy scouts helped serve the meal at the fire station, built where the old community hall used to stand. The volunteer fire department is very proud that seventeen of their number are being certified as paramedics so they can continue to offer ambulance service to the town and surrounding area. That’s quite a commitment, with the ongoing training and all, for no pay.

Danvers is not as small as it used to be. I’ve been telling people for fifty years Danvers was a town of 800 and come to find out it’s up to 1180. Bob Yoder says a lot of people figure it’s over 1200 now. 1200. Woo. In a small town brag of sorts he says Danvers is doing well, while nearby towns like Stanford are dwindling. Danvers still has a tavern (there’s another just outside of town at the Y intersection) a gas station that sells a few groceries and will cook you one of their frozen pizzas, a bank and the library. Despite that new homes are being built. It’s a place to live, not shop. Being close to Bloomington Normal and the Mitsubishi plant, and lower home prices, is an advantage.

“I really wish we had a Casey’s,” Bob said.

We saw Bob Yoder at the pork chop dinner along with Patty Bergstrom. Patty Bergstrom became Patty Yoder fifty some years ago, but she’s still Patty Bergstrom to us. They live on the farm place at the curve north of town where Yoders have lived for as long as we know. While we were there I saw one of the Lemons boys, Bob and Marion Hartzold, and JoAnne Bratt. The faces were old but familiar. I found I knew the families but not the individuals. How does that happen? At the tractor pull my brother in law pointed to a man standing next to him and said

“I bet you don’t know who this is, do you David?” I peered into the man’s face trying to make something register and failed, but only partially.

“I’m not certain, but I think he’s a Bostic.” He was. He was Mike Bostic, who used to ride the bus with me. The Bostic boys if I remember were Steve, Mike, and Bobby.

I can’t name all the people I saw from the past. John Nafziger rode his motorcycle to the tractor pull and talked to me until it started raining. Jeff Melick and his wife Bonnie were cooking all weekend for various groups. Denny Grieder showed up, who I have see just once since we graduated together in 1969, in a class of twenty seven. Larry Rapp, my old battery mate who caught when I pitched in high school, was there looking and walking just the same as always. I found I could tell families, especially the Yoders, by their walks. I saw a kid in the park who both walked and looked exactly like Steve Yoder did in 1968. He gave me a start. I saw Bill and Claudine Deterding who are about to celebrate a 65 year anniversary. I saw Carolyn Kaufman, not Bob’s wife the younger Carolyn Kaufman, Bill’s wife, who used to live across the road from our farmhouse. Bill would take me with him to check his trap lines early on winter mornings when I was a kid. He was one of our boy scout leaders.

I saw Kurt Glaser, who brought his Mom Carol over to the fire station to see me. She lost her husband Bob not many years ago, but still lives on the place west of our farm on a blacktop off Route 9. While she and Bob were renting Grandma and Grandpa’s house across the road she gave birth to twins, one of whom had Down syndrome. That boy now lives semi independently in a group home in Bloomington and is doing just fine.

“Your Mom helped me so much through that. Nobody knew anything about Down syndrome back then. Your Mom talked with me every day, just giving me moral support. I was alone with those kids when Bob worked and it was so hard. I don’t know what I would have done without your Mom.”

The old names in Danvers are Yoder, Otto, Kaufman (with both one and two m’s), McClure, Hartzold, Detweiler, Weinzerl, Schieber. Some Irish but mostly German. Some Catholic but mostly Protestant. Still very white and not very diverse. I’m sure that will change soon. It must bother the new people though, who have moved to Danvers, to be among the group who is “not from here.”

I saw dear women from my past. Marge Irwin, whose sons bought our farm and who went to our church, was a fixture in my childhood. She taught me Sunday School. I shelled corn for her husband, now gone many years. Marge is turning ninety and just had her second knee replaced. I was glad to see her, because I have wanted to tell her something I’ve thought often.

“Marge, you and Lyman didn’t know it, but I would have shelled corn at your place for free just to eat those hot pecan rolls you made.” That brought a big smile to her face. She’s a lovely woman.

I saw Audrey Yoder, now ninety four, who was glad to see me. Audrey has a wonderful smile. She was walking a block away to her car and carrying her lawn chair. I was able to tell her in person how sad I was to learn of her loss of her son Duane. She teared up, her eyes becoming even brighter.

“It’s so hard,” she said. “But I’m so glad you talked to me.”

Bob Hartzold shared a memory from when Henry Dunlap, a farmer like my Dad who lived less than a mile down the road, had to come to our house on the state highway to get his mail. He would stop in to the house, have coffee with my Dad, and stay half the day.

“Your Dad loved to talk,” Bob said. “He valued talk over work I think. Didn’t care if he was the last one to get his corn planted. He’d go on, telling stories, laughing, talking with Henry until your Mom would kick both of them out of her kitchen, telling them to ‘Go do something for Christ’s sake.’"

“I can hear her saying that.”

The old men and women I met in Danvers were active, sharp as tacks, kind, and engaging. They remind me of my parents. They inspire me to grow old well.

My brother Darwin makes sure he is in his camper on the Illinois River across from Kingston Mines when Danvers Days takes place. He doesn’t like the bustle, preferring Danvers when it’s quieter.

“Stay in my house,” he said. “The key is… (if I finished that sentence I would completely ruin Darwin’s simple but effective security system). So we did. Colleen and I made our way there after the pork chop dinner and did our best to imagine how it felt to be Darwin and Sheryl in the house they’ve owned and lived in since I was a kid. Despite it being Danvers Days, and the house being situated on the relatively busy Yuton blacktop, it was quiet and peaceful. Nice.

Danvers doesn’t make much news. The town folks and the people who live on farms and in the country around it change, like everything changes if you pay attention, but only to the careful observer. It’s a little town, overlooked. In it are wonderful people. We have to remember that about our country and it's small towns. They make up some of the best of us in America.

Why do we go home anyway? We go home to find ourselves as we used to be, to find the people who helped make us who we are. People told me I looked and sounded like my Dad. And here I’ve been feeling like my Mom. It’s the old guys on the tractors, the fields we walked and the roads we used to travel, the trees in the park, the bricks in the church, the sound of a voice you last heard so many years ago. It’s being present in your community. It’s finding your Dad.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Farm Dogs

If dogs run free, why not we?

Bob Dylan 1970
From the album “New Morning”

Farm dogs, at least those I knew and loved in the 1950’s and 60’s, led radically different lives than dogs today, their relationship to humans being then very different. Farm dogs were free. They led their own lives parallel to ours, and we controlled them little. Farm dogs took charge of their lives each day and chose their own path.

Take Henry Dunlap’s dog for example. Henry and Edna lived on the farm a mile south on the gravel road from us. They had a black, curly haired, short legged dog named Tiny. My parents bought our family a set of 1959 blue (cloth bound) World Book Encyclopedias and kept up religiously with the annual supplements. When things got slow on the farm, which they often did, I read those encyclopedias. From my favorite volume, “D” because of the full color pages illustrating breeds of dogs, I decided Tiny was most like a Cairn terrier. By the way the World Book at our house was the Google of its day. If we wondered out loud about something Mom or Dad would invariably say “look it up in the World Book. That’s why we got them.”

Tiny the Cairn like terrier mutt lived at our house. After they’d had Tiny for a year or so Henry and Edna added a pup they named Blackie to their household. They intended for the two dogs to be companions, to enjoy each other’s company. Blackie was born to the same mother, similar in size to Tiny but smooth haired (father unknown), a half brother to Tiny. When Blackie came to Henry and Edna’s place, Tiny came to our house and stayed. Henry came and got him a couple of times. Dad took him to their place once or twice. But each time he was brought home Tiny made that mile trip across the fields on his short legs to our house. In the end Henry said

“Looks like my dog Tiny wants to live at your place with your dogs, Dean. I don’t think he likes Blackie much.”

To which my Dad answered, “Yeah well let’s let him. He gets along fine here.” And that was that. Tiny chose his own home.

At our house at that time were two dogs in addition to Tiny; Tuffy and Ginger. Tuffy was non-descript. I made him out to be a mongrel collie, and while being a nice dog he didn’t strike you as terribly smart. Of that three dog pack that ran together then on the McClure farm Tuffy was a follower. He tagged along. Tuffy would later die under the wheels of a white Buick on the hard road.

Ginger was the leader. He had personality. By carefully studying the World Book plates of various breeds of dogs I put Ginger somewhere in the Whippet, Pointer, Boxer continuum. Very hard to tell. He was long legged and skinny, had a pretty reddish coat of short hair with a white blaze on his face, and one bum leg. Ginger just showed up at our farm one day. He’d been hurt and didn’t put weight on one back leg. He was a whiner with a low tolerance for pain. If there was a dog fight Ginger would be the first one to run away, yipping loudly. After his leg appeared to heal it looked OK but he still held the leg up, until he chased cars. Ginger was a ferocious car chaser and fast. He would get into a low crouch with both his front and back legs pumping in tandem and scoot, biting tires and staying with them halfway to Henry’s house. When he was chasing the car he used that supposedly lame back leg just fine. But when he gave up on the car and trotted back, he held it up again.

Ginger was also known to bring you presents. Sit down in the yard on the spring seat or a lawn chair and before you know it Ginger would be at your side with some kind of offering; a piece of corn stalk, a stick, the dried stiff skin of some long dead animal. He would put his gift on your leg, or drop it at your feet and look up at you with sad black eyes. If you ignored him Ginger would whimper. Sustained like a howl, but soft like a growl, he almost seemed to talk. He’d go up and down the scale. Wish I had recorded it and could play it for you. We would say to each other “Ginger’s talking again.” To get him to shut up we’d get him to come closer and put his head on our knee. There we’d pet him, check for ticks, pull out any burrs that he’d picked up in his travels.

We were good to our dogs, but respected their freedom. They never came in the house and we never put them on a leash. Until the county required rabies shots and registration, thus dog tags, we never put collars on them. Dad thought collars were a danger in that dogs could get hung up on a fence or in brush. But he paid the dog tax willingly. The dog tax in McLean County funded a program where farmers could be reimbursed if dogs killed their farm animals, typically sheep. We kept sheep. (Title of an early blog post.) There was always a chance we might need to collect from that fund.

Tiny the short legged terrier ran furiously to keep up with Ginger and Tuffy, but couldn’t, due to the length of his legs compared to theirs. If you called the dogs from where they were far down in the pasture, Ginger would arrive first, Tuffy next, and after some time Tiny pulled in, panting and worn out. Tiny’s fate was to always be behind. But his size gave him advantages. I once saw the three of them chase a rabbit into a culvert (steel tube placed in a ditch to form a flat place to drive over). Tuffy guarded one end of the culvert and Ginger the other. Both were too big to climb inside. But bringing up the rear was Tiny, who without hesitation ran straight into the culvert, chased the rabbit out Ginger’s end, who clamped it in his jaws. That was the end of the rabbit.

Dogs back then rarely went to the vet. The rule at our house was that you couldn’t call the vet until Dad decided, and we all knew you couldn’t call the vet for a pet. Farming was a business, vets were an expense, and you did not call the vet for an animal that didn’t make you money. Fluffo, a shiny black cat that I befriended and tamed, once got caught up into the belts and pulleys and tumbling rods of the speed jack that ran the corn elevator. Tore her up pretty good. Her legs were OK but she had a patch of fur and skin hanging off her belly and lost most of her tail. She immediately retreated into the safety of the narrow crawl space under the “old house” an ancient storage shed fashioned from what was the first family home on the farm. Like dogs and the culvert, that space was too small for us to climb into. We could see Fluffo under there, licking her wounds, but not reach her.

“Please Dad can’t take her to the vet?” I cried. “Fluffo could bleed to death.” We were sitting on the spring seat in the front yard.

Dad put his arm around me. “You know the saying that cats have nine lives? There’s a reason for that. Cats know how to take care of themselves. They hole up. Fluffo will either get better or she won’t. You make sure she has food and water under there and I’m betting she comes out OK.”

Dad was right. I pushed a saucer of milk with dog food in it (we never specifically fed the cats) under the old house with a stick every day and after a week or so Fluffo emerged. She was never quite the same mind you, the concept of OK being relative, but she survived.

Because pets never went to the vet few if any of them were spayed. As a result, the farm community was replete with puppies and kittens. Female dogs went into heat and when they did you could anticipate a crowd of male dogs hanging around for days and days competing for her affections. Apparently the scent of a bitch dog in heat is so powerful that it will draw male dogs from miles away. If you owned a male dog he might be gone for up to a week. The farmers we knew were good natured about it.

“Your dog’s been at our place for three days,” Mom would tell one of the farm wives at the store in Danvers.

“We wondered where he’d gotten to.”

“He’s not going to come home happy because we put Lady up in the haymow. We had a hard time giving away her pups the last time and that was less than a year ago.”

Lady was a prolific and beautiful long haired Irish setter looking dog who would go away to whelp her pups and in doing so hide them from us. Cows did the same thing in the summer when on pasture, go way into the timber to have their calves. We would follow them from a distance to discover the spot. I once did the same thing with Lady and found a little nest filled with puppies in the long grass among the willows, which grew in a swampy area south of the house before we built the waterway. I didn’t tell anyone for a while. I visited those puppies every day.

Lady died young, hit by a grain truck on the hard road. The truth was most farm dogs died in accidents rather than old age. Freedom presents great risk. I don’t remember a farm dog dying of old age ever.

Champ was a cow dog, sort of a long haired border collie mutt. He had the herding instinct built in. We got him as a pup from the Larson family North of Danvers. When I was a baby they tell me we once owned a good cow dog named Ace, who would help drive the cows. Ever since Ace died on the hard road our family had looked for another. Long after his death we would only have to loudly say “Sic ‘em Ace” for the cows to hurry along, looking behind them, fearing a dog at their heels.

Word would get out that pups were available and families would discuss their worth. It was a small community, so often you would know one of the parent dogs. Most often you knew the mother and no one was sure about the father. There was conjecture, based on the look of the pups, but no proof. Fatherhood was a guess, motherhood a fact. The Larson’s female dog was known to be good with cows, so Mom took me over to the Larson farm and we picked out a pup to be brought home after it was weaned. The farm dogs were all ours collectively but because I picked Champ out of the litter and he was on the farm when I was young I thought of him as mine. He was black with a shaggy white collar in the way of collies and four white paws, soon to be three.

Not long after we brought Champ home he had an accident. Safety for humans was lacking on farms then let alone for animals. The dogs had free reign and were always underfoot, no matter what was happening on the farm. My pup Champ found himself under the rear tire of a neighbor’s John Deere tractor which was pulling a load of corn from the field where it was just shucked. It crushed his back leg.

I was at school. Knowing my attachment to our new pup my Mom made sure in this instance that Dad consented to him being seen by the vet. The vet, whose office was in Tremont, assessed Champ’s injury this way in his report over the phone in the evening after chores were done.

“I’ll never be able to set that leg and have it heal normally. Somebody else might, but that would mean getting him to some university hospital or big city. Dogs are four legged but get along just fine on three, especially when they lose a back leg. My idea is to amputate that hind leg. I think he’ll grow up just fine.”

Mom relayed all this to us at the kitchen table, pausing from time to time with her hand over the mouthpiece, repeating the vet’s words. Mom was sort of the speakerphone of her day.

“Ask him how much it will cost and tell him we’ll call him back tomorrow after we decide,” Dad said.

Apparently either the price was right or Mom leaned hard on Dad to spend the money because the next day after chores but before breakfast Mom called the vet, again in our presence, and announced he could cut off Champ’s leg and return him to us as a three legged dog. The vet said he’d already done so.

“He’s been such a good dog around here that I decided if you had told me to destroy him I’d keep him for myself with three legs. I don’t think you’ll be sorry for doing this.”

We brought Champ home and kept him in the basement while he healed. The vet suggested feeding him fresh liver and gave us powdered vitamins to add to it. We gave him a pan of milk each evening. He came along fine. He did have to learn how to walk again. He would move his front feet forward, hop with his one back leg, and then stand there swiveling that stump. He finally learned to just keep hopping on his back leg, and when he did life got a lot easier. Over time he could run just as fast as ever, although he fell a lot learning. It was difficult for him to get up after lying down, and hard for him to crawl on his belly likes dogs do. While he was learning I would take him the long way through gates so he didn’t have to crawl under fences. But that one back leg grew very strong and he adapted.

Champ was a great cow dog. We drove our herd of jersey cows across Illinois Rte. 9 every spring and summer day to permanent pasture and the pond. That meant twenty five cows or so crossing a fairly busy state highway twice a day. We put two people on the road with red flags, usually Mom and Dad, but it was much safer if the cows hurried across that hard road. A good cow dog moved them along by nipping at their heels, get them all running. That what Champ did. He drove cows as naturally as he ate and slept. Seemed eager to do it. Didn’t need training or telling. You could leave a gate open and he would lie in the middle of it all on his own, guarding the opening by driving any cow or calf away that tried to pass through.

I would play with him in the yard to his herding instinct. I walked slowly towards him, trying to sneak past, and he would go into a crouch, his head close to the ground, eyes glued to me. I’d walk slow, a step at a time, and so would he, one paw rising up and going down slowly, then another, then a tiny hop of his back leg. After a time I would run past him, crossing an imaginary line Champ had set, and he would chase me, get in front of me, and establish another line I shouldn’t cross. He was never mean. I loved that dog so.

I was away at college when they told me Champ died. It was winter and there were ruts in the snow on the driveway. Champ was old and a lot slower than his younger days. Somehow Champ got in a rut behind the Schwann man who was delivering the monthly supply of Butter Brickle ice cream and frozen fish sticks. That day instead of going forward toward Rte. 9 the Schwann man backed up to get on the blacktop. This time Champ was run over proved to be his last. Dad said he was pressed flat there in the rut, probably not able to get up and out of the way in time. He reported that it didn’t look like Champ struggled at all. He told me this over the phone in my dorm room. I felt a little numb, and was glad I wasn’t there to see it. But I was grown up then.

The dog’s death that hit me hardest as a kid was Ginger’s. It was summer and I was home from school. I was in about fourth grade. Dad was mowing the alfalfa field, which meant we’d be making hay in three days. He was mowing with the John Deere, Bait Correll mowed with his Allis Chalmers, and Paul Mehl was using our Minneapolis Z to pull the crimper. Back then farmers used sickle bar mowers to cut hay, a long bar extending perpendicular to the tractor behind the big rear wheel. The mowers were ground driven by gears. Triangular knives moved back and forth behind pointed guards, skimming the ground, cutting the tall green hay stalks. The stalks fell backwards like tiny trees. Sickle bar mowers made a soft noise like the sinister hiss of a snake. They were mean and dangerous machines.

Dad cut the first swath, Bait the second, and Paul raced around with the crimper keeping up with both. They would cut twenty acres of hay in an afternoon, working their way around and around the rectangular field till it was done. I wanted Dad to let me run the crimper but he said I was too little.

Just before milking time Dad pulled into the barnyard with the John Deere. Instead of heading towards the gas tanks, where he usually parked the tractors, he stopped by the big front yard where I was playing.
“David, I need to tell you something.”

He came over and sat on the spring seat. I sat beside him, a little puzzled. Dad was usually not that direct.

“A bad thing happened in the hay field. I mowed into Ginger. He was hurt really bad and he couldn’t live.”

“Couldn’t live?”

“The mower cut his legs.”

“Couldn’t you stop?”

“No. I tried. He came around the front of the tractor real fast. He was chasing a rabbit. I was looking back at the mower and saw him out of the corner of my eye. I reached for the clutch and hit the brakes as fast as I could but before I could get it stopped he was into the sickle bar. He bled a lot.”

“Did he die right then?”

“No. But he was hurt too bad to live. No vet could have fixed what that mower did to him.”

“So you killed him?”

“No. Bait came up behind me, saw what happened, and offered to do it for me. It had to be done David. He’s a good guy Bait. He knew how much we liked that dog.” Dad’s voice cut short.

“I’m really sorry David. Ginger was special. I would have done anything to keep from hurting him but it just happened too fast.”

I had been looking at my Dad the whole time he was talking. My Dad had pale blue eyes and a tan face. A tear came out of the corner of his eye and ran down a crease in his face by his nose. He took a red handkerchief out of the back pocket of his bib overalls and blew his nose. I had never seen him cry before.

“How did Bait, you know… kill him?”

“He hit him in the head with a wrench.”

Bait was a strong guy who did things right. I didn’t think then, or since, killing Ginger that way was cruel. I’d seen my Dad, my brothers, and other farmers dispatch animals quickly and humanely before in the same way. They never knew what hit them. I imagined Ginger went the same way.

“Where is he now?”

“I left him in the field. After milking I’ll go down and bury him there"

“Can you take him to the willows? I know a good spot.”

“Sure. We can take him to the willows. You can go with me.”

After chores were over Dad and I rode down on the Z with a gunny sack and a long handled shovel. He dropped me off by the willows and brought Ginger back in the sack. All I could see was Ginger’s pretty head, that white blaze between his eyes. I showed Dad the spot in the willows where Lady had her pups and he dug the hole there.

Over fifty years later, my dog Ally would die old of an overdose of phenol barbitol in a vet’s office. That day, Ginger died relatively young of an overdose of 12 inch Crescent wrench in a hay field. The effect was the same, as was the emotion. I cried. Dad put his arm around my shoulders.

Farm dogs were free, their world was big, and life in the country was sweet. But it was dangerous and typically short. With freedom came risk. I don’t know which is better, life on a leash or a life lived large. But I think those farm dogs I knew and loved, given the choice, would have wanted to run free.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Talking to My Dog

I knew I had written something about Ally, my dog who was recently and mercifully killed, but I couldn’t find it. I’ve written lots of things I didn’t know what to do with and where I put them is anybody’s guess. I finally found it in this blog. There are seventy (70) posts now on Dave in the Shack, although I know the old ones rarely appear on your screen. You have to click around to find them. It was written in 2011, while I was still working, and the blog was just beginning. I didn’t know exactly what to do with a blog then; how people would find it or who would read it. So I tweaked it and moved it up to the top of the Dave in the Shack list. Hope you like it. I’m writing one more dog drama after this, about farm dogs, for something like a canine trilogy. After that I promise I’ll get off dogs and on to something else.

I talk regularly to my dog Ally. She is a black and white terrier mutt named by my kids after Ally McBeal, a TV show we watched together as a family. Ally and I have known each other for over ten years, she’s seen a lot in her relatively long dog life, but she has yet to find anything worth talking about. I don’t know why. It’s not for lack of opportunity. I often ask her questions but she doesn’t answer. I still have hope she will. She looks at me when I speak to her in a way that makes me think she understands. Then again she may simply want a dog biscuit. But when I talk she seems to know something is happening.

God knows what she thinks, or even if she thinks, about human language or anything else as we know it. But my words get her attention. When I venture outside simple one word commands and begin to fill the air around her with sounds that when combined form full sentences, one way dialogue on one subject or another, it gives her pause. I do this mostly when I’m alone with Ally. On the rare occasion I talk at any length to the dog, and my wife hears, she invariably asks who I’m talking to. I’m sure she knows but she persists in asking. When I reply that I’m talking to the dog she huffs or laughs derisively. However she reacts, her response implies goofiness, behavior that is out of bounds. She thinks I’m crazy for talking to the dog, although I catch her doing the same at times. We do it anyway.

In the beginning I said mean things to the dog with a smile, and the dog responded by looking at me with fondness, lovingly even, panting with her tongue out, cocking her head, looking extremely calm and satisfied in a doglike way. I think dogs react more to the sound level, how we look when we talk, rather than what we say. Surely back then had the dog heard what I was saying, and comprehended, she would have bit me. I said things like “How are you, you little bitch? What have you been doing? Oh wait, I know. You’ve been sleeping and licking yourself, like you do every day. You don’t know what I’m talking about do you? Of course you don’t, because you’re nothing but a dog.” I went on like that. The dog looked at me warmly and wagged her tail. She seemed to know nothing of what I’d just said. It was great fun while it lasted, but the fun wore off. Could I have wanted to insult people and instead took it out on my dog? I don’t know. Whatever it was, it didn’t last long. I turned to more enlightened conversation. I became kinder, more intellectual in my approach.

I began to muse with my dog about politics. I find it safer to talk to animals about politics than people. “What do you think of Sarah Palin?” I asked. “Do you think if she was president, and of course then commander in chief of America’s armed forces, she’d be much use in an international crisis? I really don’t think she would be. I’m afraid emergency meetings demanding strong diplomacy or military action would be especially long because the generals would have to get out lots of maps and such to explain to her what was going on where so she could act intelligently, if that’s possible. I think Sarah would slow down the pace of decision making considerably. I hate to think of her dealing with, you know Syria attacking Turkey or something, because I’m not sure she knows where those countries are. How about you? Can you even imagine? Do you worry about things like that? Or do you think I’m over reacting? Is it sexist? Am I not being fair?”

She seemed thoughtful, my dog Ally did, about the question. She plopped down and put her head on her paws pondering. She never responded in any particular way. She scratched herself vigorously at one point, but I couldn’t determine what she meant by that.

I find my dog doesn’t like to talk about sports, especially baseball. She senses trouble, but then I’m a Cubs fan. I think when I talk about my team she senses both underlying anger and pent up frustration. Her look tells me she fears something bad might happen. When I talk about Carlos Zambrano she often leaves the room.

“The guy gets mad and throws at batters Ally. Gives up a homer, his team commits an error behind him, and he goes nuts. How emotionally immature is that? How much do you have to pay the guy to keep his cool? You can’t tell me he doesn’t want to get kicked out of the game. How does he expect to stick with any team when he behaves like such a head case? I say we dump him. I don’t care how many strikeouts he gets. Team is team and he’s an asshole. You can’t keep an asshole on your team. It will kill you.” I don’t think Ally likes sports. She looks away. She seems troubled by my animated talk and I respect that. Sometimes when that happens I switch to religion.

“Here’s what I want to know Ally. What did Gomorrah ever do as a town to get such a stain on their reputation? Everything in scripture that seems to impugn Gomorrah happened in Sodom. Gomorrah didn’t get a sex act named after it. You can’t practice gomorrahy. I think Gomorrah is simply screwed by geography. It could have been an OK place, just unlucky to be located next to Sodom. It would be as if Normal was lumped in with Bloomington, or St. Paul had to pay for the sins of Minneapolis. The Bible doesn’t explain some of these things worth a damn. Have you noticed that? Where’s the evidence? That’s what I want to know.”

Ally seems bored by talk of religion and the bible. I know there is a lot to understand and that she’s a dog and all, but come to think of it why should she be interested. I have yet to find mention of a dog in the Bible. I talked to Ally about that too.

“There are famous references to pigs in the Bible, and camels. Donkeys, colts, cows, and sheep get mention. Don’t you feel slighted? They could have put a dog at the manger scene. What, dogs aren’t good enough to be in the Bible? What do you have to do for Christ’s sake to make it into the bestselling book in the world? You’ve been faithful to man for thousands and thousands of years. Biblical authors couldn’t have given dogs a few lines? It wouldn’t have hurt to have a border collie laying there by the baby Jesus when the wise men showed, do you think? Or a St. Bernard at the foot of the cross? There’s any number of places they could have written in a dog. Give me a break.”

Ally reacts little if at all when I talk about religion. But then again I look at Ally just as densely when it comes to abilities unrelated to language. Smells for example. I know her sense of smell is a lot better than mine but I forget.

One notable night she leapt off the couch like it was on fire, rushed to the door and began to bark while pawing at it. She looked back at me as if I was a deaf mute and then ran to me and barked. Sitting in front of my recliner she looked at me in a way that convinced me if she was unable to go outside, she would likely drop a load of excrement on the fake Oriental rug the likes of which I would never experience again in my life. Being no dummy I leapt up, got her leash, and before you knew it we were both out the door. To my surprise she didn’t squat to poop but immediately dove into the bushes by the house. Not finding what she thought she would she emerged with a crazed look in her eye and nearly pulled me through the hedge. She was nuts. When I held her, then pulled her back, she looked back at me as if to say “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you smell that?” Whatever was going on in her sensory world wasn’t occurring in mine. She may well have pitied my inferior nose just as I regret her lack of sophisticated vocal cords. The next morning we found a dead fawn in our yard, obviously the victim of a coyote. It all went straight over my head, or past my nose more accurately. Not Ally’s.

I wanted to teach Ally English in the worst way. If she only had language skills, I thought, she would be complete. I considered where best to start.

“Ally,” I said, “you might know the verbs, or think you know the verbs, because you can describe the action. You might think you know jump, run, and bark. I know for a fact you know sit. But you’re nowhere without knowledge of the helping verbs. And they’re easy. Is, are, was, were, has, have and had. You can memorize them in minutes. Is, are, was, were...” she looked at me with what I thought was keen interest, “has, have, and had. But you can’t bark that can you? Your tongue and palate just aren’t suited to make those noises. What if you could think it? Not say it but think it. What if everything I said registered, and you imagined a response, but you could only try in vain to communicate it through your eyes and your body language. What if, without the ability to speak, you had actual knowledge of English in your canine brain all along? What about that Ally?”

She looked at me as directly, as intently, as closely as I think she ever had. I’m not sure if she somehow knew what I was saying, if she longed to choose and conjugate verbs or whether she longed, hope against hope, that there was a piece of bacon somewhere in her future. But she looked at me warmly, and I think if she could have talked to me she would have. More than that, I think if Ally could talk she would agree with me. I sense this. It came to me like a vision that Ally was, at that very moment, about to nod in agreement and say

“You know Dave, you’re absolutely right. Palin can’t handle it. I think that’s why she’s staying out of the presidential race. Deep down she knows, just like you, that she would be over her head.”

“Also, I feel exactly the same as you about Zambrano. He is an idiot. They should have dumped him last year.”

“And Gomorrah? Guilt by association. But you’re wrong about the Bible. We’re just as happy, us dogs, that we’re not in the Bible. You can’t win. Who knows how Christians over the years might twist our reputation based on some screwy literal interpretation of dog related scripture? There’s too much controversy these days about anything in the Bible. We’re perfectly happy to be left out of that one. However since you brought it up there are other books we’re not happy about, and movies. Old Yeller for one, and All Dogs Go to Heaven for that matter. But what can you do, you know?”

If Ally could talk we would take walks together and she would thank me for introducing her to helping verbs, expanding her vocabulary, and teaching her English in general. She would tell me about being a puppy, relate stories of where she came from, talk about her Mom and Dad and her littermates. We would recall together the day we took her from the shelter and how that day changed both our lives. She would explain how her life hit rock bottom when she ended up in the shelter, alone, only to be rescued by us. She would thank us profusely.

We would talk about the kids and how much we both miss them now that they’ve moved away. It would be a wonderful day, just me and my dog, sharing observations on a life lived together, finding common ground and sparking each others’ interest in ideas that pass through our brains; one canine, the other human. Variety. It’s the best part of being different

Friday, August 1, 2014

Our Dog Died

Our dog died. No, that’s not quite true. I arranged for my dog to be killed. I know we prefer to say “we had to have our dog put down.” Or some people characterize the act as “we had to have our dog put to sleep.” While both of those are true I have always preferred the simple truth. It was a mercy killing, and she was killed by lethal injection by a veterinarian, but she was killed all the same. I asked that she be killed. Thankfully, the veterinarian agreed with my decision. He said “I agree with that. It’s time.”

We discussed the decision first. She had been throwing up more and more over the past month, and during her final week kept no food down that we could tell. What turned out to be her last night in our house was fitful. She retched, refused to drink water, paced until it appeared she was exhausted, and finally stood woozily, her head lowered, staring ahead at nothing. I felt then we’d waited too long. I had hoped she would die on her own peacefully. I hoped that selfishly I think, so I might avoid the trip to the vet, the conversation, the request. I didn't want her to suffer needlessly. It’s a long process, going from hoping your dog gets better to hoping she dies, to finally making her death happen. Killing her. But in the end that’s what my wife and I decided to do. We’d been hinting the same thing to the kids for some time. I didn’t want to blind side anyone. I couldn’t help but blindside Ally though, because she was a dog and didn't speak our language. When we put her in the car she had no idea. She always liked riding in the car. I think she enjoyed new smells. Oblivious to her impending doom I rolled down the windows, she raised her head weakly, and her nostrils flared as I drove more slowly than usual to the vet.

Ally was seventeen years old as close as we can figure. We rescued her from a shelter in Benld, which shares an interstate exit sign with White City, south of Springfield. I had taken my wife and son with me to some overnight work thing. We promised our son Dean we would visit shelters to see if we could find a dog. Our previous dog, Sandy, had been gone over a year. Gone as in dead, suffering the same fate as Ally. I was gone for that one. Gone as in not home, on a canoe trip with Dean. Our daughter Maureen was away with friends. Somehow all of us had left my wife alone with Sandy who, in advanced years, was rapidly slowing down. He took a quick turn for the worse, lying in the yard and refusing to get up. Sandy was big, too big for Colleen to lug around. Like most rescued dogs we didn’t exactly know his age or makeup. He was a cross between a golden retriever and a collie or a chow, some combination of the three or perhaps something else. All we knew was that he was loveable, and gentle, and very good to be with. He barked too much. We got used to it. Colleen called our kindly vet, who came to the house and gave Sandy the dose of drugs that killed him. Colleen couldn’t watch and didn’t want to see his lifeless body. The vet put Sandy in a bag in the garage to await my return. I buried him in the back yard, not far from where I later built the shack.

I found Sandy through the newspaper. Before there were no kill shelters a young guy found a stray dog by the Fox River near Sheridan, cleaned him up, and asked a vet to take him off his hands. The vet said he would, but that if no one claimed him after a number of days, he would be “put to sleep.” Killed. The guy didn’t want to take that chance with a dog so good so after the dog had been given his shots he took him home and put an ad in the paper. I split the cost of the ad and the vet bill with the guy and Sandy became ours. I brought him home the first night I saw him.

My wife had put down some conditions. “You can get a dog, but I don’t want him to be big or have long hair.”

Sandy had a mane of reddish gold hair like a lion. He was big like a golden retriever. I went against my wife's wishes knowing as soon as she was with him for ten minutes and saw how kind he was with the kids, how friendly he was with people, she would drop her objections. She did. Like many of us she talks a tough game but down deep is soft hearted.

Sandy was part of the family for nine years or so. We loved him. And if it is possible he might have loved us. Though deep down I doubt it. As wonderful as he was, he was still just a dog. It’s so easy to forget that.

Dean most among us wanted a new dog to replace Sandy, and we thought he needed one. We had looked at a lot of dogs in Benld and nothing seemed to click. Finally one of the volunteers brought out a little black and white dog they called “Eva” and stood in front of us with the dog in her arms. As the woman talked the dog gazed at us, coarse black hair shaggy around her eyes.

“We just got her in and don’t know a lot about her but she seems like a sweetie. Crossbred Terrier. She’s a little lethargic, but it appears someone has cared for her. She’s spayed we think. And right now she has a bee sting above her eye.”

We all looked at her, and then looked at each other. There was something about her. We could see it in each other’s eyes. She met my wife’s previous conditions, Dean liked her, and so did I. We walked her outside on a leash. She was compliant and easy going. In thirty minutes we were taking her home to Ottawa.

That bee sting above her eye turned out to be an abscess, she wasn’t spayed, and after the abscess was healed she was a lot friskier than she first appeared to be. She turned out to be so smart, and so alert to smells, sounds, and movement. When Ally left the house each morning she ran forward a few paces and stopped dead still. She would put her nose in the air, raise one paw, and survey the entire yard, the same yard she surveyed every day, before striking out, her nose to the ground. Each day was new to her and she took it on with zeal, though her routine seemed to me mind numbingly boring. Life was never boring to Ally. On the contrary, she brought life to us.

Ally would run out an open door at every opportunity and be blocks away in minutes, sometimes not returning for twelve hours or more, if then. If you pursued her, and she saw you, she would stop, look at you with perked ears, perhaps even take a step toward you. But as soon as you called her name, or came nearer, she would bolt away again at top speed. She came home when she wanted, on her own terms. When she was young, if we caught her, it was through sheer luck. She was stubborn and willful, as dog people say terriers can be. We think she might have been rat terrier and schnauzer, Jack Russell and something else, who knows? They say you can do DNA tests of dogs now and find out exactly their lineage. While I think as a rule it is always better to know than not on that one I think I’ll pass. It doesn’t matter. I think dogs are what they are, each one an individual, no matter what the breed(s).

That Ally would grow weak and feeble was in such contrast to what she once was. Because of her propensity to run away (was that why she ended up in a shelter?) we walked her around the neighborhood twice daily on a leash, the retractable kind that gave her the momentary illusion that she was free to go where she chose, until she reached the end of her cord. When she encountered a rabbit or a squirrel, seeing or smelling it before we did, and took off after it she would hit the end of that cord and nine time out of ten violently jerk the leash out of our hands. Unless she quickly treed a squirrel, in which case she would wind up sitting at the base of the tree staring up, or leaping, four feet off the ground, against the trunk of the tree naively as if she could scale it and nab the squirrel, she was off, the black plastic handle of the leash bouncing and sliding behind her. If we were lucky the cord would quickly become wrapped around a tree or a bush, but often we were in an open space and Ally, realizing she was free of humans, would take off and go.

We would pursue, usually Dean and I, and find her in various places. In someone’s yard tethered to a fire hydrant, at the edge of the meadow wrapped around a sapling. But occasionally it would get dark and become hopeless. She wouldn’t bark until she wanted to come back. I remember going out early one morning, after losing her the previous evening, into a ravine a quarter mile away, as it was just becoming light. I whistled. She gave one bark. I went toward the sound and there she was, in the woods, lying in a dense thicket of saplings. As I approached she looked at me as if to say “where have you been?” I freed her and we resumed our walk, she acting as if no time had passed at all.

That’s the great thing about dogs. They have no shame, suffer no embarrassment, and rarely if ever carry a grudge. Over the past year, as Ally’s strength failed and her faculties diminished, she appeared not to care. Her eyes, surrounded by gray hair, became cloudy with cataracts. As she bumped into things more and more we realized she was blind. When she stopped greeting us at the side stairs, alerted to our arrival by the sound of tires on the gravel, we realized she was deaf. Only the shrillest of whistles would alert her to a bowl of leftover cereal milk on the floor. When she was young she would sit at my feet awaiting the treat at the mere sound of my spoon scraping a bowl. It was painful to watch her grow old, but seemingly easy for her. She adapted and went on. Rather than pull us or escape us on her walks we could now easily pull Ally in the direction we wanted to go. She, unsteady on her feet, offered little resistance. But did she sulk? Was she indignant, offended, pouty, depressed? No. She was a dog. She went on living her dog’s life, one day at a time.

A month ago we gave her a bath and a home haircut. Growths and sores on her skin, bumpy in her coat of black and white hair, afflicted her during her final years, but now they seemed worse. She itched more, scratched a lot, and licked herself too much. We applied lotion, gave her Benadryl when it got bad, but little helped. As I bathed her I realized her backbone was suddenly bony. Her digestive problems were making her thin. I was afraid she was starving.

When I took her to the vet for the last time the attendant directed me to put her on the scale. She weighed only 29 pounds. She checked the file. At her last visit, not so long ago, she weighed 37. They put us in a room. I stroked her head. She stood with that vacant blind stare.

The vet came in. Thankfully it was Dr. Lendy, the same kind man who helped Colleen with Sandy so many years ago. We were contemporaries in a way. He started his practice at nearly the same time I started at YSB. We both had thirty years of work invested in the community. He looked older than I remembered. I’m sure I looked the same to him.

We discussed Ally’s problems. He brought it up first.

“So you’re considering putting her down?”

“Yes.” I was so thankful he said it first.

“I agree. You could spend a lot of money diagnosing her problems, and in all likelihood you would discover a condition that required an equally expensive treatment that may or may not be successful. In her condition, likely not. If she were five years old it would be a different story. But she’s seventeen. She’s been amazingly healthy up to now. I think her time has come.”

“You helped us in the same way with our old dog Sandy over fifteen years ago.”

“I remember. Went to your house and your wife was alone.”

We were both silent for a moment. I didn’t know what to say. It was sinking in that Ally would soon be gone, as in dead. I continued to stroke her head, concentrating on that place behind her ears she liked.

“Do you want to be present when I do this?”

“Yeah I think I should. How does it work?”

“I give her a sedative first, fairly strong under the skin, and when she’s comfortable, after five minutes or so, I inject another drug intravenously. It goes quickly then. Are you ready? I’m in no hurry. Take your time. I’ll go get the syringes ready.” He left us alone again.

I was committed to it now. Ally looked up at me. Thank God she doesn’t comprehend human language. I had just sealed her fate and she didn’t flinch. I took her collar off and scratched her in the flat ring of hair that is always hidden. I rubbed her chest between her front legs, lifting her a little. We only had a little time left together. We’d been together in some fashion for fifteen years, and it was about to end. I put my hands, one aside each ear, and looked straight into her cloudy eyes. I lowered my head so that it touched her forehead and held it there a while. The vet came back.

“Ok, are you ready? If so I’ll give her the sedative, and then give it five minutes or so to work. This will relax her without knocking her out, and make her comfortable. You’ll have a little more time with her.” He lifted some loose skin on the back of her neck and pushed the plunger, forcing a yellow liquid into Ally. She was always good with shots. Never whimpered.

“I’ll be back again.” With that he left.

Ally stood as she had since we’d arrived, not immediately affected. I talked to her. I told her the Cubs were getting better, and may win a pennant in my lifetime though they didn’t in hers. She looked oblivious and unbelieving as do many baseball fans. I often talked to her about the Cubs, because no one else really wants to listen. I thanked her for being a good dog. I tried to stay calm. After a while she sat on her hind legs. I thought her breathing seemed slower. Then she laid down, and slowly lowered her head to the floor between her front paws. I rubbed her neck the whole time. Then Dr. Lendy came back into the room. He picked up the syringe filled with a blue liquid. He had a small set of clippers in his other hand.

“Whenever you’re ready, just put her up on the table here.”

I picked Ally up. She was docile and cooperative. I put her four legs on the table and she lay down right away. Dr. Lendy gently pushed her over on one side. He shaved a part of her top front foreleg, exposing a vein.

“What is that Dr. Lendy?”

“The drug? It’s an overdose of phenol barbital. It will affect her brain first, shutting down all the feeling centers, and slow her breathing to a stop. Then her heart will stop beating.”

“Why dogs do you think Dr. Lendy? We outlive them. This is the second time we’ve gone through this. Why don’t humans take some animal into their homes that will roughly equal their own life span? Then all this wouldn’t be unnecessary.”

“Well, there’s parrots. You give a ten year old a young parrot, the bird lives seventy years, and you’ve given a kid a lifelong companion.”

“But aren’t parrots sort of a pain in the ass?”

“Well, they’re temperamental and they make a lot of noise. Not especially affectionate. I don’t think you can beat a dog. We bring them home and love them because we think they love us. And maybe they do. But take it from me, people love dogs. They cry when they lose them and they miss them long after they’re gone. Dogs are the best.”

“Yes they are.”

“You ready?”


He pushed the needle into the small exposed vein in Ally’s front leg, and then pushed the plunger slowly. The blue liquid left the syringe and went into Ally’s bloodstream. I watched her closely. Her eyes closed. She didn’t twitch, she didn’t move. She took a deep breath, four of five smaller breaths, and then didn’t breathe again. Dr. Lendy put a stethoscope to her chest.

“I don’t hear a heartbeat.”

I just stood there. It happened so fast. Much faster than the execution of that man convicted of murder in Arizona.

“You want me to take care of her from here?”

“No, I’ll take her home. I have a spot for her in the backyard.”

“You want a bag?”

“No, I have a towel in my car. I’ll just go get it quick. Is it OK to leave her here?”


“You need me to pay before I go?”

“No, we’ll send you a bill. You can leave out this side door here.”

“Thanks Doc.”

“You’re welcome. Take care of yourself.”

I got the towel, wrapped her up, and put her in the trunk of the Buick beside my golf clubs. When I got back home to the garage, and shut the door behind me, my wife came in from the patio.

“Is it over?”


“Is she with you?”

“Yeah, she’s in the trunk.”

“I don’t want to see her dead.”

“It’s OK. I’ll bury her right away.”

“How did it go? Did the vet understand?”

I walked toward Colleen and started to speak. I got about two words out and began to sob. Big shoulder shaking sobs. We held each other by the garage fridge and cried for a long time. Who knew?