April 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Sometimes you just have to write about the mundane. You find you just don’t have the wherewithal to write about sadness or faith or even the last thing left in Pandora’s box: hope. What is left then is either a blank canvas and hours wasted noodling around because you know you need to write, but you’re not strong enough for writing your heart. That’s when you write about McDonald’s instead.
Unless you’ve been in a cave since sometime-before-Mardi-Gras, you’ve seen the ad. If you’re like most Americans, you probably know every word to the jingle. Love it or hate it, McDonald’s Lenten season commercial for their Filet-o-Fish sandwich has achieved a kind of pop culture status that the Super Bowl spots only dream of.
Easter has come and gone, Lent’s been over for weeks and McDonald’s has ended the promotion, yet people still crave the singing fish. Views of the multiple listings for the spot on Youtube topped two million last week and continue to climb; the first one posted garnered 10,000 views in the first hours it was available.
Since it appeared, Freddy the Fish’s 15 seconds of fame has been parlayed into mashups and remixes by DJs , it’s being played in clubs, there are parodies, children sing it, cats sing it, hell, I even sing it. (Not on Youtube, though, you’ll be glad to know.) You can get the jingle as a ringtone for your cell phone.
Give me back that Filet-o-Fish
Give me that fish
Give me back that Filet-o-Fish
Give me that fish
What if it were you hanging
up on this wall?
If it were you in that sandwich
you wouldn’t be laughing at all….
When they were looking for a way to promote the fish sandwich during this year’s Lenten season, McDonald’s turned to Arnold, a Boston ad agency. (You can blame them for the Carnival Cruise beach ball ads, along with “Powered by Tyson” and spots for Ocean Spray.) The catch? (Sorry.) The same spot had to work for both English and Spanish-speaking markets.
Pete Harvey, senior ad man at the agency, gave them “Freddy the Fish.” (For the Spanish markets, the piscine star was presented as “Pepe de Pescado.”) Brainstorming in the aptly named “Fish Bowl” conference room, one staffer recalled a decade-old hit novelty item “Billy the Big-Mouthed Bass,” an animatronic rubber fish that sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River” when passersby set off the motion sensor.
Though Freddy bears more than a passing resemblance to Billy, he is actually a real fish, a pollack, prepared by a Los Angeles taxidermist. (Both pollack and cod are used in the Filet-o-Fish, but the crew decided that the cod was “too scary looking.”) Freddy’s head and tail are activated by remote control. Nonetheless, Gemmy Industries, the manufacturers of the original Billy, were flattered by the imitation. One of their veeps sent a thank you note to McDonalds, and they are introducing a recordable Billy Bass that will be sold through Cabela’s, and a Billy Bass app for your iPhone.
The agency supplied the lyrics to the New York music production company, Pulse Music and composer Josh Peck sent back seven different interpretations of Freddy’s song. Just before presenting the last variation Peck told the firm “We don’t think you’ll go with this one, it’s the most weird.” That techno-meets-garage-band sound (“the most weird”) was the unanimous favorite.
“It was the one everyone wanted to hear over and over again,” Pete Harvey told USA Today. “There’s more risk with jingles, but also more reward.” In scouting out a location, a garage was found that had a Billy Bass already mounted on the wall: they had found the right spot. Ray Conchado, the actor who plays the head-bobbing man eating the sandwich, said he started out eating the whole sandwich with each take. After a few takes, he learned to just take a bite. J.R. Reed, who portrays the dumbstruck friend returning a borrowed drill, gets the most comment at our house. “The look on that guy’s face is just great,” my husband has said each and every time we’ve seen the spot. Or even just when talking about it.
Give me that fish.
Every year McDonald’s sells 300 million Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, and twenty-five percent of those are sold during Lent, the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter during which many devout Roman Catholics give up eating meat. McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food giant to cash in on this fish-selling opportunity; every chain from Burger King (BK Big Fish replaced the long standing “Whaler” a few years ago) to Rally (Deep Sea Double) to Arby’s (and their touted “fish shaped” sandwich) is in on the act. As you might expect, the regular fishmongers like Long John Silver and Captain D.’s really step up their ad campaigns too.
We’re not Catholic; we give up nothing for Lent. (I’d be happy to give up housekeeping and overcooked vegetables, but I guess that’s not really in the proper spirit of the thing.) But we do eat more fish in March, and that is due in some small part to the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish promotions. Though my husband was pretty upbeat about Rally’s Deep Sea Double, I wasn’t impressed. The fish squares were dry and had a kind of bitter aftertaste. They were too crunchy, and the cheese, well, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it.
In fact, I generally can’t abide fast food fish. (Yes, I confess, I’m one of those peculiar people that peel the batter off the shrimp.) But that particular combination of the Filet-o-Fish: a tender square of fish, a bit of tartar sauce, a little cheese assembled tidily on (and this is the important part) a steamed bun. A remarkable number of consumers complain that McDonald’s only puts half a slice of cheese on the Filet-o-Fish. Hello? They’ve only put half a slice of cheese on the sandwich since 1982, when most of the malcontents hadn’t even been born yet.
It’s less a cost-cutting measure than a means to reduce the calorie and fat content in a sandwich that some people might choose as a healthier option to the Big Mac. You could do worse in that respect, the sandwich weighs in (sorry) at 350 calories, 16 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat. An odd side notes here is that two diet websites list the calorie/fat count of the Filet-o-Fish at 450cal/26g and 380cal/18g but those are anomalies, most independent sites agree with McDonald’s own nutritional analysis.
The phenomenon of Freddy the singing fish’s popularity generated a considerable amount of press, not just in trade journals like Brandweek, but also in the “generalist” newspapers, like USA Today and in all manner of websites. Many of them include comment sections, and the comments have run the gamut from “I can’t stand this commercial, I turn the channel every time it comes on” to “I love this! It’s my ringtone.” (And complaints about the half slice of cheese.)
The real puzzle in the comment section is the invective that pops up fairly regularly. They’re not just critical of McDonald’s, they are screeds: apoplectic rants about the American institution, and its sandwiches. Do vegetarians write them? Sometimes. Are they written by animal rights activists? Probably. Are they written by former employees—some of them, without a doubt. Why do these people even read articles about singing fish commercials if they are going to make their blood pressure go through the roof? It would be less deleterious to their health if they just had a couple of Big Macs and chilled.
It made me think of the Internet rumour a good friend sent me a few months ago, urging me to boycott McDonald’s in a show of support for American cattlemen. The rumour purported that McDonald’s was going to be buying uninspected South American beef, raised on pastures that used to be rainforest, cutting into the livelihoods of ranchers across this fair land. Most of the other big burger chains (Burger King and Wendy’s predominantly) do use South American beef. (And all beef, imported and domestic, in this country is inspected, so that part was just a bugaboo.)
McDonald’s is the single largest buyer of U.S. beef, its not surprising that American cattle producers would be worried that the chain was looking elsewhere for their patties. The problem, according to McDonald’s, is not that there isn’t enough beef produced in the U.S. but because most of the beef here is grain-fed, there is not enough lean beef available here. Therefore, McDonald’s began importing grass-fed beef from Australia and New Zealand; those imports account for about ten percent of the beef they use in this country.
Unlike most other fast food chains, McDonalds has become the standard bearer in environmental conservation. (When they gave up Styrofoam use, it cut Styrofoam demand in this country in half and rainforest conservation via their refusal to use South American beef.) They were among the first to provide better nutritional choices and full disclosure of nutritional analysis. In philanthropic endeavors, they provide 6,000 bedrooms every night for families of ill children through nearly 300 Ronald McDonald houses (serving more than a million families every year) and through Ronald McDonald House charities, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and program services to benefit children worldwide.
Because they are so ubiquitous and because every McDonald’s in America can be mapped on their website, they have also become a cog in the vast network that compromises dog rescue and the transport system that makes it work, not just for pure breed rescues, but for shelters across the country in their efforts to place dogs. You’d think people could find something more worthwhile to be enraged about.
We stop at McDonald’s pretty routinely. My father made McDonald’s his regular stop for pee breaks, and when we’re traveling we do the same. When my son was little he and I used to go through the local Drive-thru after school for an order of French fries to share. When I was little you used to be able to go to McDonald’s, get a hamburger, fries and a coke and still get change back for your dollar. I even remember the commercial for it. “Sir? You forgot your change.” The greatest food? No, probably not. Maybe the most reliable fast food, though, and always, always, the comfort of the familiar. My Mom usually ordered the Filet-o-Fish.
April 20, 2009 § 12 Comments
for Doug on the loss of his Dad, and in loving memory of Larry Vonalt.
Last week we attended the funeral of a man we’d never met. I could not have told you much at all about him. I was four states and 900 miles away when I learned of his death. My husband read the obituary to me over the telephone, both of us learning that this gentleman had served in two wars, worked for the telephone company, he was 82, and he’d been married for 56 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children, four grandchildren, a brother, a sister. While recounting the news of his death to my mother, tears spill down my face.
No, we’d never met Edsel Peters. If we’d seen him working in his yard or fishing at the lake, we would not have recognized him. But we mourn his passing because his youngest child, his baby boy, is our good and loyal friend. The kind of friend that will help you unload a moving van full of furniture in hundred-degree heat, who shoots baskets with your kid, a man of wit and grace and excellent humor. If the measure of a man is in the children he leaves behind, then Edsel Peters was a very fine man indeed.
Losing your father unmoors you. It doesn’t matter how grown up you might be, how accomplished. Suddenly you are rudderless, flying blind, walking the tightrope without a net. Three years ago, when I told my friend Judy that my father had died, she said, “Oh honey, you’ve done lost your right arm.” It was the absolute truth. I lost my sense of navigation. I was clumsy with grief.
Judy’s own father, Virg Lovell, has been gone forty years or so. He spent years raising and showing Foxhounds, and it was Judy, not her brothers, who followed in his footsteps, from the time she was two years old. Seventy years later, Judy’s still raising and showing Foxhounds, maybe the best in the country. She still talks about her father like he might well walk through the door.
We carry our fathers with us; perhaps in a gesture, a certain turn of a phrase, a predilection for Miracle Whip on our fried egg sandwich, maybe a tendency to sing along with the car radio. I wonder at times about my mother’s father, Bennie Lee Ouzts, who died after being injured in a logging accident when my mother was just twelve. Did he look out across the horizon lost in thought the way my mother does? Did he throw his head back when he laughed the way his sons and daughters do? I never saw my Nana do that, but each of the six children do.
There aren’t many photographs of him. In my mind’s eye, he looks like Gregory Peck (though my mother will no doubt say “Of course not”) and I know that his nickname for my mother was Cooter (after the snapping turtle) and I know that his death became a kind of wound for my mother that never quite heals.
My Nana’s father died when she was just a girl as well. If I knew the exact circumstances, I have forgotten them. What I remember is that his death meant that my grandmother had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work in the cotton mills. In the last hours of my grandmother’s life, my mother sat at the hospital bedside, watching Nana sleep. Suddenly, my mother said, Nana looked to a place somewhere above the doorframe, lifted up her arms the way a child will when she wants to be carried and whispered “Papa! Papa!”
For me the first death in the family was my father’s father, my Grandpa Paul Vonalt. He died just shy of 80, after an illness. I was an adult by then, and the news, conveyed to me by telephone did not dissemble me the way I expected it to. I felt very sad, missing in advance the unassuming man who taught me to fish for bluegills, sharpen pencils with a Swiss Army knife, how to paint hex signs. Every summer visit, he’d loan me his green Huffy 3-speed bicycle to tool around town.
I expected to go to Grandpa’s funeral. It was just a day’s drive, and I made plans to go. But my father told me not to come. He said that it was too risky with the February weather, that Grannie and Grandpa knew how much I loved them, that I didn’t need to come out, that I shouldn’t. Being that this is an extended family that reassembles for fish fries and baby showers and 40th birthdays, I was puzzled by my father’s insistence that I stay in Boston and not come.
It was only after his funeral that I truly understood why. My father needed that time to be the grieving child. Consumed by sorrow for the loss of his father, he didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there for me. I knew this finally because when Dad died, it was my husband who stepped in to care for our son and guide him through the loss of his Grandpa. I was too shattered to be anyone’s mother.
Daniel Sullivan was the first of my friend’s fathers to be lost. His daughter Noelle has been one of my closest friends for nearly twenty years. When I first met Noelle, her father was in remission. It didn’t last. I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t the friend that I should have been. We were new to this, to facing the unthinkable. Dan Sullivan fought the fight long and hard. I wish I could say that I was present for Noelle; that I provided tea and sympathy, a kind ear and arms to shelter in. But I wasn’t, at least not in the way I should have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I was a little bit afraid. If Noelle’s father could so easily slip away over the edge, what about my own?
In truth I had two fathers and in the end, I lost them both. My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, died while brushing his teeth, shooting straight to the sun, gone before his body hit the floor. That was always his style anyway. He was in England, the news came by telephone. This is the man who taught me to drive, (“remember to speed up in the curves”) bought me my first horse, my first car, ordered me my first Martini. He soothed my broken heart, smoothed the oft-ruffled feathers between my mother and me, and made damn sure the lunch ladies in the English primary school never again made comment on the way I held my fork. His death, instant and far away, was also a strange kindness, a leg up on being an orphan before I really had to face it.
And even then, I came undone. I stayed out all night, writing, drinking. When I slept it was fitful. When I ate, it was a dozen raw oysters and a few Bombay Sapphire martinis every night at the Livingston Bar and Grille. One night it was one of the wait staff that drove me home. Other times I’d crash on the studio floor of a painter friend. Finally I asked a woman I knew for something to help get me out of the fog. She gave me a prescription, but no one remembered to tell me that I shouldn’t wash it down with gin. That landed me in the world of ipecac and activated charcoal, discussing a Thomas Jefferson biography with one of the ER docs in between wretching. The next morning I felt much better, as if somehow I’d got my bearings back again.
My stepsister read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” at her father’s funeral. At the time it struck me as a peculiar choice, one made only because it is a plaint from child to father. And you, my father, there on the sad height/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage rage against the dying of the light. Reading it now, I realize that it is absolute stricken wail of a child. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, but that doesn’t disguise the primal nature of the plea: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Daddy, don’t leave me.
My father told me he was dying by asking me if I wanted his poetry books. My father and I had many of the same poetry books. (Perhaps another shared quality, like the way I hold the steering wheel, or a preference for Cabernet over Merlot) He was an English professor; I’d grown up reading Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and for a while was a poet myself. Some bookshelves bow under the weight of those slender volumes. If my father was offering me his poetry books it was because he would not need them anymore. That was in August. He taught his last class in December. He was dead the day after Christmas.
In the months between August and December, I wrestled with my father’s impending death. He was dying from laryngeal cancer. There had been immense amounts of radiation, and finally in a last ditch attempt the previous January they’d taken out his larynx, and made a permanent hole in his throat, given him a little black box on a cord around his neck in exchange for his voice. It was supposed to be the price for a cure, but they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
It’s a parlor game to ask what you would do if you knew you only had a year, a few months, a few weeks left. I don’t know what my father might have said when the question was just hypothetical. When it was real, he went on with his life as he knew it. He drove down to his office at the university, met with students, taught classes, stopped by the Chef’s Pantry for good wine and roast beef and cheese on the way home. He took his wife to dinner, they listened to music. He sent emails to old friends and family members. They scheduled times for people to visit.
I suggested that we might come for Thanksgiving, and was told, no, Michael and his family were coming. I’m an only child. Michael is the son of my father’s wife. It was a stinging knockdown, one that left me sitting in tears. I wanted to finish the unfinished business; I wanted to clear the air, set things right. My father just wanted to go on with his life as he knew it. He asked for suggestions for the memorial service. I made them. He said he’d check with his wife. I lost my temper and reminded him he had other family. He sent back a six-word email “Why don’t you just cool it?”
I carefully crafted an email about how upset and enraged I felt about his impending death, how I wanted to set things right between us. He wrote that he didn’t want me to feel enraged. How could I help it? I wasn’t ready. Grave men near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It seemed that I could do nothing right. There are platitudes about having a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s easier if you lose your father while he is brushing his teeth.
We went to see my father in the middle of December. He was clearly near the end. Dad went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in. From his hospital bed, he wrote directions on a half-size legal pad as to cleaning out his office at school. I might have spent hours at his bedside, but instead I went up to the university and packed. Every few hours I would return to the hospital and ask what to do about various papers, or files, or stacks of literary journals. “Send them,” he scribbled, or “Take them if you want them,” or most often “Pitch it.” I took all the poetry books.
The doctors thought we had another month. They were wrong. As we drove away that night, through a snowstorm to Kansas City on our way back to Montana, I could not stop crying. My heart knew what my head could not yet accept. We promised to come back in two weeks. The last thing my Dad said to me, his mouth silently forming the words was “I’m sorry.”
“Me too, Dad. I’m sorry too.”
We got a phone call on the morning of the 26th. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, this was it. He might have until the close of day. I called every airline that flew out of Montana. If I could get to the airport in the next twenty minutes, I could catch the last flight that would have made a connection to get me to St. Louis at ten o’clock that night. But the airport was an hour and a half away.
“I’ll drive you to Missouri,” my husband said. “Don’t worry, I can drive straight through.” Straight through was1400 miles in the snow. I shook my head. He wasn’t even conscious anymore, it was time to act like the daughter of the pragmatist he was. The day seemed to go on without end. When the phone rang again about 8 p.m., it was all over. If we’d started driving, we would only have gotten as far as Denver.
My husband’s father died a long time ago, and when I’ve asked him about it, he changes the subject. Oh, he’ll say how he got the call. How no one in his family had told him that his father was dying. That he flew to L.A. by himself, as his first wife declined to accompany him. He’ll recall how he found a cash register slip on his father’s dresser for six Porterhouse steaks that were on sale at a great price. His father had bought them just a few days before he died and now Porterhouse steaks are forever entwined with that memory. The stories my husband tells about Pon Lieu are the stories of his life and never of his death. When I asked once how his father had died, Elmer said, “I think he just gave up.” I don’t have to ask him how he felt to lose his father; I know the answer to that.
I envy my friends who still have their fathers, and especially my cousins, the children of my father’s brothers. I worry about my husband and our 14-year-old son, who are caught up in that push-me-pull-you of adolescence. I can’t stand to hear them yelling at each other. Don’t they realize how precious is the time they have together, how we can’t really say which memories will linger on, which parts of the relationship become the legacy carried in one’s heart?
Worse still is my husband’s younger daughter from his first marriage. She is so caught up in her own anger and self-pity that she has excluded her father altogether from her life. He hasn’t heard from her in three years, and any attempts he’s made at communicating have gone unanswered. I want to take her by the shoulders and say “Don’t you realize?! Don’t you know how much you’ll regret this when it’s too late?”
It was only after my father’s memorial service that I learned from strangers that he had been proud of me, that he thought I’d turned out just fine despite everything. One person after another recounted for me the things Dad had told them about me. Sorting through his boxes and files, I found letters I’d written as a child, pieces I’d published in high school, poems I’d worked on, and reams of newspaper stories I’d written. I can’t help but wonder how different those last months might have been if only I’d known.
Driving in the car one morning the spring after my father’s death, I heard a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Wood on the radio. I’ve seen the play, and I turned up the song.
People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistake. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.
I’m a little abashed to say that I found the answer to the father-child conundrum in a Broadway song. All that expectation, all that disappointment, all that dependence and love and struggle. But there it is: People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. In recognizing my father as only human, I am able to accept having to let him go. I am glad he went gentle into that good night, and suffered no more. I miss him every day. I wish he could have come farther along the journey with us, but sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Still, we carry his map and his compass.
After the funeral of our friend’s father, I wanted to say some of these things. At least I wanted to say it gets better. It won’t always hurt so much. Your questions won’t have answers but the questions grow quieter in time. I wanted to say you won’t always feel like a fatherless child. You never stop missing your father, but you grow stronger in time. But I didn’t say any of this. I just hugged our friends and said how sorry I was.
April 13, 2009 § 2 Comments
It always snows on Easter in Montana. It doesn’t matter if there’s been a deluge of warm spring days. It doesn’t matter if it’s an early Easter, or a late one as it was that year. The weather gods care not if the City Fire Department colored 3000 eggs for the annual Easter egg scramble (and why they go on doing that since it always snows is a mystery to me) the forecast for Easter is always snow, and that Easter was no different.
Finishing up the last of dishes from Easter lunch, I grinned as I watched out the window at our old Chesapeake Bay retriever playing in the snow. Pushing 16, Sherman’s enthusiasm for the weather made him seem a young dog again. He loved being outside, in water if at all possible. Snow seemed a reasonable second. He stuck his nose in the juniper bushes, dislodging a small avalanche onto his head. He rolled and gamboled through the drifts.
My husband and I are hound people, and when Sherman came to live with us we had a kennel full of rescued coonhounds. When you read, “kennel full” you should realize that means they were in the house too: on the sofa, under the kitchen table, underfoot and in the way, vying with our toddler son for attention.
Six years before that Easter Sunday, Sherman was my mother’s project. Daily, she passed by a trailer court where a dull brown dog was endlessly tethered to a doghouse. One afternoon before Christmas, she stopped in at the trailer and inquired if she could visit with the dog. Yes, they said, she was welcome to play with the dog, his name was Sherman and by the way, they were looking for a good home for him, if she knew anyone that might be interested.
The neighborhood children who teased him at the end of his chain marked Sherman’s life at the trailer park. He’d been maced a few times by the meter readers. His pelvis had been crushed when he was hit by a pickup, but the owner thought enough of the dog that he paid to have him put back together again. Sherman was seven years old, the owner thought, but he might be eight or nine, even.
Rescued dog stories are supposed to have happily-ever-after endings, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. My mother already had a big male dog, a middle-aged golden retriever named Gus. Sherman and Gus hated each other on sight. Mom kept a couple of horses out at our farm and she brought the dogs out with her in the afternoons. Gus in the back seat and Sherman behind the barrier, snarling at each other the whole way.
Sherman would romp in the dog yard with the coonhounds while our son Julian threw tennis balls for Gus out front. Only two years old, Julian couldn’t toss the ball far, but Gus didn’t mind. He retrieved the tennis ball faithfully each and every time. Occasionally a passing adult would lob it a greater distance to reward the dog for his patience.
One afternoon the gate to the dog yard didn’t get quite closed. Sherman came charging around the front of the house, tangling with Gus, fighting with serious intent. Julian was knocked to one side, fell down and began to cry. Hearing the fracas, my mother came running from the barn. The dogs didn’t kill each other, but they could have, had they been allowed to continue.
I saw the question coming weeks before she actually asked. Did we think that Sherman could stay with us for a little while? The dog’s temperament made me somewhat anxious. Julian was only two and not entirely sensible about dogs. Sherman was a sweet dog much of the time, but we agreed we couldn’t trust him around our son, not after the treatment he’d had from the kids in the trailer court.
“Okay,” I told my Mom. “He can stay here with us for awhile. We’ll see how it goes.” And for the most part, it went pretty well. Sherman was a little grumbly at times, demanding to be fed or let out with something that seemed a lot like ferocity. We were careful around him, taking pains to avoid confrontation, never leaving him unsupervised, trying to keep him in a place where he wouldn’t get himself into trouble.
“You cannot touch him when he is eating or sleeping,” we told Julian over and over, with great emphasis. But Sherman thought Julian was great, just the right size to have his faced licked, while Julian giggled hysterically.
“Not so fun to throw the ball for Sherman as Gus, Mommy,” Julian said to me one day.
“Why is that, Jules?” I asked calmly, though my blood ran cold. When had Julian been throwing the tennis ball for Sherman?
“Oh Daddy lemme throw ball some times but Sherman dunnit like to give back,” he answered matter-of-factly. “Gus always drop ball on my foot, and slimy.”
It was poor judgment to try to remove anything from Sherman’s mouth, and being a retriever he almost always had something in his mouth. Socks, a toy dinosaur, Julian’s tennis ball, an ornament off the Christmas tree, pens, pencils, pocket calculators, bags of pasta.
He’s the only dog I’ve ever known that had a real yen for uncooked noodles. He’d sit in front of me while I was dropping spaghetti in a pot and beg for some. Left in the kitchen alone for just a few moments, he could open the cupboard, pull out a bag of egg noodles, consume half and leave the other half scattered across the kitchen floor in the two minutes I was gone.
In time we realized that Sherman would happily relinquish whatever treasure he had in his mouth for a dog biscuit. He was playing a game with us, of holding various objects ransom for a Milk Bone, and he’d trained us well.
Some nights, coming up hard on deadline, I often took Sherman with me when I went to the newspaper office. At first I took him because he looked and sounded ferocious enough to dissuade anyone who might show up with bad intentions. What I found is that he was good company, listening patiently while I read a story out loud looking for errors; sleeping peacefully when I needed to work without interruptions.
We’d had Sherman for two years when I took him with me up to a Forest Service cabin one October. I was working on a story about a long-lost route pioneers threaded through the mountains. Sherman and I set off together in the little pickup truck, with the big brown dog riding shotgun for a few days in our own Walden. Halfway up the mountain road, I stopped the truck and let him out to ride in the truck bed, driving ten miles an hour up the logging road to the cabin. He was ecstatic.
It was late afternoon when we arrived, and as I unlocked the door and pushed it open, Sherman rushed in, immediately seizing a box of rat poison left on the floor. I didn’t think about Sherman’s game. I didn’t think about his supposedly unpredictable nature. I put my hand straight down his throat and pulled that box of rat poison right out. He and I stood there and looked at each other, both of us just a little stunned.
I never again had a problem taking anything from Sherman’s mouth, though occasionally I would play along and give him a cookie for ransom. He continued to buffalo the rest of the family for Milk Bones.
Sherman often slept beside our bed at night, and if I went to bed first, he would hop up in the bed next to me. When my husband came to bed, Sherman would growl at him. It sounded very convincing. I had to get up, walk around to the other side of the bed, take him by the collar and say “Sherman, knock it off.” He’d grin up at me and clamber down off the bed, follow me around to my side and lie down on the floor.
Sherman and I often traveled together, retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark, covering the circuit of small town rodeos, searching out the western roots of long dead movie stars. He was an excellent companion. There’s something very nice about the loyalty of the sporting dog. Free from the tyranny of the nose that rules the hound, Sherman was happiest following alongside.
There were frequent inquiries: what kind of dog is that? If you could cross a Labrador with a bear that might approximate the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Their coats rough and wavy, their bearing noble, their hearts deeply loyal. Generally polite, they can take awhile to warm up to strangers, but the devotion they show their owners knows no bounds. The bottom line for these dogs, for Sherman, is that he would give his life for mine.
In hotels and sheepherder wagons, forest service cabins and motor courts, when I lay down for the night, Sherman settled on the floor right next to the bed. He chose the spot where I’d have to put my feet should I get up while he was sleeping. He didn’t want me to slip away while he was in dreamland, and he stood between me and whatever went bump in the night.
Together we covered a lot of ground: up to British Columbia, along the Flathead lake shore, east to the plains, retrieving timbers from the Mighty Mo. We sat together atop a boulder in the Charles M. Russell National Wilderness Refuge having driven all day without seeing anyone. We went west to the Oregon coast, exploring lighthouses and rocky shorelines and the great wide sandy beach at Seaside.
On the beach Sherman ran like a dog one quarter his age, crossing back and forth in and out of the surf. We shared cheeseburgers on the boardwalk, which meant trying to get his out of the bag and unwrapped before he ate it, and then trying to keep him out of my lap while I ate mine. He was certain I needed help with it.
Now, though, time was catching up with him. He had a persistent cough, not wracking, but there all the same. His vision was probably reduced to light and dark, basic shapes and forms. Sometimes you had to call him more than once.
“I need to take the old guy on one more road trip,” I thought, watching him playing in the late afternoon snow. Hanging up the dishtowel, I went to finish up a short article that was due on an editor’s desk in two days. Julian was sugared out on Easter candy, constantly appearing at my elbow to show me or ask me or tell me. His Dad was napping on the sofa in front of the television.
When I heard the ticking stopwatch theme of “Sixty Minutes” I realized it was time to feed dogs. I scooped kibble into stainless dishes, and then stopped, a little panicky around the edges. Where was Sherman? It was long beyond dusk, and Sherman had not come in. I opened the door and called his name into the still and snowy landscape. Surely he was just curled up against the house, or sleeping in the barn. I expected his smiling face to appear in a rush before me.
“Sherman,” I called. There was not even a rustle in the darkness.
“Have you seen the dog?” I asked my husband.
“Sherman. He was playing outside earlier. Did you let him in?”
“I thought I saw him….” My husband’s voice trailed off as he moved through the house, calling the dog’s name. I shrugged into my winter jacket, laced up my boots, found hat and mittens and a flashlight and went out.
The snow had stopped and before me the world sparkled, a wonderland of smooth white frosting in the moonlight. There were dog tracks around the house, lots of them from his afternoon antics, but none went off in any particular direction.
“Sherman!” I called. The driveway was smooth with a deep cover of snow, unmarred by tracks of any sort. The ponies blinked at me sleepily as my flashlight beam found them dozing in a corner of the pasture. “Sherman!” The aspens whispered, but no brown dog came barreling out at me.
In the distance I could hear my husband calling “Sherman, Sherrrmmannnn” I crossed the bridge over the creek, but it too was covered with undisturbed snow. I found tracks on the other side: deer, a small padded track, maybe a weasel, maybe a barn cat; but nothing, nothing that could have been a dog. There had to be something. If not tracks, then some other sign of a disturbance, a struggle, blood; but the fields of unblemished snow stretched out endlessly.
“Sherman!” I called, sliding down an embankment, brushing the snow off my jeans. What if he needed me? What if he was hurt somewhere and couldn’t answer me? I searched along the creek banks, peered into gullies, struggled through briars, tearing my coat. “Damn,” I said, inspecting the tear. “Sherman, where are you?” To the south, in Farrell Lloyd’s pasture, cows shuffled in the night air, stirring sleepily. Nothing was amiss but my missing dog.
Years ago, we lost a small dog in the brush. She trotted off one morning and was never seen again. Months later, another of our dogs walked straight up to me and delicately dropped a tiny jawbone on my foot. The county coroner, a family friend, verified that it was indeed the jaw of a small dog.
We knew that we had an elderly mountain lion living at the far end of the property. He had made a bad end for many of our barn cats, and we surmised that he had been Sadie’s last encounter too. I couldn’t help but think of the lion as I searched.
But cats and a 15-pound dog are prey of a certain order; Sherman weighed ninety pounds and was, even at his advanced age, able to summon ferocious bravado. Surely an old lion wouldn’t bother with such a struggle? Surely a lion wouldn’t come right up the house? I hadn’t seen any lion tracks among those in the snow outside the kitchen window.
The sleepy cows added some measure of comfort as when a predator is in the area, all the animals are on high alert, not dozing contentedly on a hillside.
Still, dread was beginning to form a lead ball in the pit of my stomach. I peered into the long abandoned chicken coop, slogged my way through the snow to another outbuilding along the creek. Empty, and silent.
“Sherman,” I called. “Where are you buddy?” The creek burbled. Could he have stumbled in? Or jumped in intentionally, not realizing how swift and cold it was with the combination of spring melt and new snow?
He would cheerfully go into frigid waters after a duck, but I couldn’t think of anything that would have enticed him into the creek late in the afternoon. There was, after all, no one to retrieve for. And anyway, the creek was still shallow enough that his body could not have floated freely to the Yellowstone, it would have been snagged along the bank, here or here or here.
My wool mittens were wet and soggy from searching and my toes numb with cold; I hadn’t stopped to put on an extra pair of socks on my way out the door.
Along the banks of the creek, east of the house, in a grove of willows I found dog tracks.
“Sherman!” I called with renewed intensity. “Sherman . . .” A rustle, near the creek. “Sherman?” A low bark answered me; my heart leapt. “Hey, old pal, what are you doing?”
I still couldn’t see the dog, but I heard more rustling, another single woof. Finally, my flashlight beam lit on the figure of a dog climbing up the side of the ridge: our neighbor’s blue heeler, headed south towards home. I sat down in the snow and cried.
Sherman wasn’t asleep in the barn. He wasn’t waiting for me by the door. He wasn’t resting under the junipers. He wasn’t drowned in the creek. There were no tracks up to the road, but I went up there anyway and walked along the highway, looking for a huddled form. There was none. Where could he be? He wouldn’t have gotten into a car with a stranger. He wouldn’t have trotted off to town. Everything he loved was in the house at the end of the drive.
Inside the house, I shed coat, hat, and mittens and called the Sheriff’s dispatcher. “Has anyone reported finding a dog? Or the body of a dog?” No one had. I left a message on the answering machine of the Humane Society. Many times through the evening I went to the door and called.
Julian went to bed, asking as I tucked him in: “Do you think Sherman is okay?”
I kissed my eight year old on the forehead and said, much more brightly than I felt “I bet Sherman will be here in the morning when you wake up.”
But he wasn’t. Sleep makes you forget, but as soon as my eyes opened grim reality flooded in. Sherman! He was missing. Driving Julian to school, I scanned the horizon for the dog or for something that might have been the dog. There was nothing. My husband went to work, I kept searching.
My heart leapt when the Humane Society called, but they just wanted more information about my missing dog. “Yes, he had a collar,” I told them. “Yes, he’d been wearing tags. No, he wouldn’t have gone with anyone, and besides if anyone had approached the house the other dogs would have gone bananas.” My mother came over to help me look.
“Sherman!” we called, our voices trailing away in the Montana wind. The other dogs barked and fussed. After some consideration I let one of them, a blue tick hound named Sophie, out to help look. Delighted with her newfound freedom, Sophie took off full-tilt for the pastures and meadows behind the house and headed towards the mountain range.
One day came to an end and another began, without a sign of our woolly dog. I continued to search. Sophie, the errant hound, returned grinning. As we drove down the driveway after school on Tuesday afternoon, I spied something in the west pasture. A dark brown fuzzy heap collapsed in the snow.
“Oh no,” my husband said sadly.
I got out of the car wordlessly, walking towards the mound in the snow, tears welling in my eyes. I couldn’t quite comprehend how my wonderful old dog, my brown clown, had become this bundle in the middle of the pasture. Perhaps a heart attack felled him in his tracks. Had he been caught up somewhere and used the last of his life forces to extricate himself, dying on his way home? As I drew near I began to laugh. It wasn’t Sherman in the snow at all. It was the head of an enormous buffalo.
Our neighbor to the west was new to country living. No doubt he’d bought the head of a domestic buffalo from a slaughterhouse and left it outside to “cure,” as he had so many other things. Sophie must have found the head, gnawed the ears and horns and tried to drag home her treasure. I left it there in the pasture; let the neighbor draw his own conclusions.
The Humane Society never had a dog that matched Sherman’s description or even a sighting of one. The Department of Transportation didn’t find him by any roadside. None of the neighbors found him in any of their outbuildings, or pastures or creek sides. There was never a single call on the any of the “lost” ads we ran in the local papers. We never found a trace of Sherman. Not a bone, not a scrap of fur. Sherman was simply gone.
In time, we constructed a plausible story to explain the end of his life, saying simply that we’d lost him to heart problems; the coughing, he was fifteen after all. We always say how he’d been playing in the snow in the hours before he died, an example of the Chesapeake zeal for life. With close friends we examined the mystery, how had the dog simply disappeared? Maybe he’d crawled into the brush and died, I just hadn’t been able to find him.
Maybe that was it. Because people look askance if you told them what you knew to be the truth: that your great old dog, your truest friend and your protector went straight up to heaven, leaving no tracks in the snow behind him.