August 22, 2009 § 7 Comments

When I open the door of the empty house, the dog rushes in ahead of me. He barks, shouts of joy, but they die to nothing. He looks back at me, quizzical. Where is everyone?  Perhaps they are out back, he must think, racing to the back door, begging to be let out. I unlock the door onto a patch chest high with weeds. He does not go out. Instead, he looks up at me, circles and sinks into a dejected heap.

We’ve come back to this house many times, Dog and I. Returning from journeys that crossed the country from border to border: family occasions, dog shows, girl journalist and her Dog in search of stories. Each time the door had opened on a cheerful cacophony of singing hounds, the television, the boy jubilant at our return. There was always someone there to embrace us, usually a meal on the stove, another dog or two rushing up to touch noses.

Not so this time. Now the house is silent, inhabited only by mice and memories. A fine layer of dust covers every surface. One door has blown open sometime over the winter. The Dog leaps to his feet to follow me as I move from room to room; not a chance that he’s going to let me out of his sight. He doesn’t know what’s become of the other dogs, but he is doing his best to avoid their fate.

Four days before we’d said goodbye to those dogs and husband and son, leaving Ohio for a few weeks in Montana to clean out the old house. He knew that. But dogs don’t think in abstract. (One of our dogs is very upset to hear a family member on the other end of a telephone; she’s very distressed that her person is locked up in that tiny box and how did they get in there anyway.) The dog knows only that they have always been here, and that they’re not here now.

I haven’t been in this house in a year. I haven’t lived here in two years, having taken our son in advance to start at a performing arts high school in Ohio. It’s a very complicated thing to move nearly two thousand miles across the country, leaving a pack of hounds, a coven of barn cats, a pair of crotchety ponies in your wake. My husband stayed on sorting out these conundrums: the ponies free to a family that found them delightful. The barn cats to a woman who’d just lost hers. One dog with cancer (Edward the Terrible) gently dispatched by our wonderful vet.

A few days before Christmas, on a morning when it should have been too cold to snow, but was snowing anyway, my husband loaded up the remaining three dogs in a minivan stuffed full of clothes, shoes, books, television, crockery and Christmas presents, and made his escape. The Dog and I have come to deal with what he left behind. Mail still on the kitchen table, a dozen chain link dog runs, letters from my late father, old toys, chipped coffee cups, books.

I did not choose this house. My husband’s ex-wife had insisted on it, a miner’s cabin with a singlewide trailer addition, creek side in the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains. Her twin sister still lives a mere quarter mile down the road. Then Merrilee decided to take their daughters and leave Elmer, and the proximity of her sister wasn’t so important anymore. We tried to sell the house 16 years ago but the market hadn’t boomed, and when we finally got an offer, we would have had to borrow money to accept it.

So I relented and moved in. First the trailer had to go. Then the green and tan shag carpet. The accordion door. In the end, we took the house down to the studs, moved the kitchen and the bathroom, put in a new stairwell. And then we stopped, leaving unfinished sheetrock on the walls, window moldings stacked in the barn. Elmer was working double shifts at the railroad; my newspaper work kept me away all hours. We were too damned tired when we got home to do anything other than the essential. And dry wall mud never reached the level of essential.

Montana was home for 17 years, longer than anywhere else. Two years ago when I set out behind the wheel of the Penske truck I didn’t look back. Our son had overstayed his welcome at the country school he attended. Elmer had retired from the railroad. I’d long finished my work as a journalist in this town. There was nothing keeping me in that little house in the shadow of the mountains.

Now it was very strange to be back.

In my return, I have fallen into the arms of friends, I have driven slowly up and down the streets of the town before going west to the house, a little panicked that I am touching the tar baby and will not be able to leave.

This is the house where my child was conceived. This is the house where he took his first steps. It is also where he fractured his leg badly in a freak accident. He was two; it was the day after Christmas, in the middle of a blizzard.  The ambulance wasn’t running, our tiny truck cab was too small, we had to call Jane and Roger to help us get him to Bozeman, and they struggled out to collect us and sat around all night in the hospital while the orthopedist saw to Julian’s leg.

This is the place where we welcomed foals on wobbly legs, watched them grow into promising yearlings. Watched in horror as one hung herself from one leg from a round pen panel, pressured there by a ranch hand who thought he could train horses. When we pulled the pins the filly kicked the panel free. It hit my mother square in the face, knocking her unconscious. Paramedics knelt in the muck to ease her onto a stretcher.

Horses are buried there and there and there; a young stallion that tried to jump a neighbor’s barbed-wire fence and bled out; an ancient mare down with colic, a foal crippled from birth— a Northern Dancer grandson. His mother had gotten into astragalus; it causes birth defects. When he was tiny he could outrun half the horses on the place.

Up on the ridge is a spot where I took off my coat on a winter day to wrap it around the a calf half-dead from hypothermia, rubbing him hard all over to bring back the circulation while someone else ran for the phone.  Just a day or so old, the little white-faced guy had fallen through the fence and rolled a bit down the hill. His mother, a first-timer, wandered away and left him.  When the neighbor drove out along the pasture edge in his pick-up the calf was starting to respond. We put him in the warm cab of the truck, and I retrieved my coat. I heard they nursed the calf a day or so and he was good as new. That next fall he went off to slaughter, because well that’s what becomes of calves.

I was sitting at a desk in that corner of this little cedar shake house when the phone rang with the news that my mother in law had died. It was Elmer who answered when a call came from England that my stepfather was found dead in his apartment.  I was sitting there curled in an oak desk chair, waiting for the call that my father, my anchor, had taken his leave, and when it came the world tilted dangerously beneath my feet. 

This big mailbox used to be affixed to a large Poplar trunk we’d pulled out of the grove on the other side of the creek. In time, it rotted and broke off. We stuck the broken post in a galvanized trashcan full of river rocks and travertine. Every time it snowed the plow knocked it over, and it is lying on the ground now. 

That’s where I’d get the mail, get out of the car, open the gate. If there was something promising, I might open it walking to the gate. That’s where I opened a very ordinary looking envelope with my name scrawled across it. It was a letter telling me I’d won a prestigious fellowship. And that’s where I read the letter of acceptance welcoming Julian to a performing arts high school.  From there you could see the snow capped peaks of the tallest mountains in Montana.

The task before me is enormous. It is not just packing up a few books. It is room after room of dust and memories and objects that require my attention. Every day I take a load of stuff to the storage unit. Every day I take a load of stuff to the county dumpsters.  We’ve decided to seek a renter, and that means restoring water to the winterized house. Which means buying a new water heater and having it installed. And when the water is restored, I find a pipe, cracked, that had somehow missed the winterization process, and I have to find a plumber, and then find the money to pay him. 

Every day starts before seven, with McDonald’s breakfast for the Dog and me.  Without fat and protein, I won’t last half the day; the regular restaurants don’t open for another hour.  At that hour McDonald’s trade is tourists headed south to Yellowstone Park, no one to stop me and inquire, where had I been, what was I up to.

Work continues each day until I am filthy and exhausted, walking in circles because I am too tired to think straight. On the good nights, I go back to my friend’s house and stand in the shower, before we repair to Park Place, the only decent bar in town.

The very first evening my regular drink is set before me with precision. The bartender still knows me well enough he doesn’t have to ask, so he asks other questions instead. Where had I been, what was I up to. The Martini is perfect, silver in my mouth.  On the last evening there I will tell Glenn, the proprietor and bartender that other than seeing my friends, sitting at his bar was the absolute best thing about being back in Montana. I regret the qualifier now; sitting in Glenn’s bar was seeing my friends, my past, and comfort was in the company, and not just (as on that last chilly night) Irish whiskey in the glass.

On the other nights, it’s not so good. Once the water is restored, I stay at the house; in the brass bed I slept in from the time I was 15. The Dog sleeps across my feet so that I cannot escape in the night.  The work is taking so much longer than I thought it would. I had thought that there would be people to give me a hand, and there are.

Jane and Roger stop by every couple of days, hauling trash, washing down walls, helping me drag out decades worth of junk. Jane’s mother died last year; she and her sisters were charged with the task of cleaning out the family home, and Jane knows what I’m up against. Their teenage daughter Emily comes out one morning and runs the Bush hog to knock down the waist high grass around the house.

It’s a cliché almost, that when you really need them that people will help you. The truth is that people are busy. They are busting their asses all day running a restaurant. She is a writer, looking after three small children and an elderly, compromised mother in law. She is working in a law practice 60 hours a week and putting up hay in the few hours of daylight left before and after a grueling workday. She is the only vet tech at the county’s very busy animal shelter. This is part of why I love them anyway, because they’re interesting people with full lives. I am grateful for all they give me.

But what about the others? How many stories did I write to support the opening of new businesses? How much free advertising did I give away? What about those Community Thanksgiving dinners I started and ran that fed 700 people each year? We gave whatever we could to every charity auction, every event, every theater production, every time someone needed us . . . but this is Montana, a place where it’s unseemly to ask for help.

Unless you’re dying or something, then you get a spaghetti dinner and a silent auction. 

On the very worst night, hungry and dirty and tired and dispirited, I break down and cry, asking my husband these same questions, tears running down my face and spilling over the telephone. Where are they? Why won’t anyone help me? What about everything I gave to this community?  He is quiet. And then he says, “You didn’t do it to get anything in return.” That is absolutely right. I didn’t do it to get anything in return, and somehow that makes me feel even worse.

In truth, it is his friends that disappoint me the most. Men he worked side by side with for twenty years, every one of them has pretended that they don’t know that I’m in town. They don’t return calls. They don’t come out to the house to see what’s going on. It is a measure of them I did not expect, and it leaves an ugly stain.

My mother, ever the pragmatist, tells me I have to hire someone to help, and I do. The word goes out that I’ll hire as many people as show up for nine bucks an hour, just be at the farm at 2 p.m. One guy turns up, a transplanted east coast carpenter and musician that I’ve known for years.  He laughs at my duct tape belt. I’ve lost so much weight over the last few weeks that I had to fashion it to hold my pants up.

We take a load of furniture and boxes of books to storage. It pours rain, the kind that soaks you to the skin; we stand inside the open door of the storage unit watching it come down in sheets. After the rain abates, and after a few slices of pizza, Alex helps me load the Ohio bound U-Haul trailer with all the things I know I cannot possibly manage on my own: the washer, the antique filing cabinet, a heart pine dresser, Aunt Moe’s Persian carpet. He leaves with his little Saab full of stuff for the community thrift store, and he will come back a few days later to take another load to them. The money I pay him is money well-spent.

Many things leave the house bound for the landfill. The haymaking hard working attorney brings me her horse trailer one Saturday morning and we fill it with garbage and take it to the transfer station where they weigh it and charge me $12. The transfer station attendant pulls a sled out for her grandkids; my friend snags an air-conditioning recharge.  The broken Dogloo and the worn out mohair chair are dumped without ceremony into a giant dumpster, set in a pit at ground level, the roll-off box. I paid more than $100 for the Dogloo; I used to really love that chair. Now I could care less.

Using the volume and weight of the trash that day for comparison, I figure that the amount of garbage I’ve taken from the house must be around 3000 pounds.

Other things leave in an estate sale that runs all day Wednesday without pause. People come to buy dog kennels and crates, an old FIAT convertible half-eaten by mice, tools, trinkets, crockery, the desk where I sat when I learned my father was dead.  I am happy to take their money; there is nothing that they carry away that I am attached to anymore.  It disturbs me that one woman steals things from me; a chain saw, a silver bracelet, whatever else she slipped in her pockets. Walking out to the outbuildings, I’m shocked to see how people have literally thrown things around while going through them. So disrespectful, just to get to that set of socket wrenches or that half empty can of WD-40. It’s hard to fathom what might have been stolen out of the sheds, so I don’t even think about it.

Loading the last of the boxes, the flowerpots, the bathroom scales, the floor lamps onto the trailer as the light fades from the sky, I muse about what makes someplace home. Is it all this stuff I came back for, that I set aside and wrapped and have used to fill every last space in the trailer? It’s a good thing I don’t have a bowling ball left to go in, because there is no room for it. Had the house fallen down where it stood we would have missed a few things we lost, but it is different when you’re standing there with the teacup  (or the letter, or the painting or the spice rack) in your hand.

Is it your history in a place that makes it home? That you can’t go to the grocery without seeing someone you know? That your memories of that intersection or the post office steps or the sound that the doors to the county courthouse make is somehow embedded in your cells, is it that familiarity?  It used to be that I felt like I belonged to this place. I wrote about it, championed it, I knew most of the people in town, and most of the people knew me. Big fish, and all that. It’s not like that anymore. But I don’t think that was what made it home.

Filling the water bottles for the Dog for the long trip home, I am thinking how much I’ll miss the water. Always extra cold, it came from a well hand dug into a spring (with pick axes and shovels the records read) in 1923, and it never ran dry, not even that time we forgot and left it running all day in a horse trough while we went to the movies. It is good, sweet water, perhaps the best I’ve ever had.

I do not number the dogs I am leaving behind. Buried under poppies, under daffodils, under the aspens, under the apple tree. If I stop to think about them, their slender bones wrapped in quilts, and gently bundled into the earth, it will be harder to walk away. If I think about their wagging tails, and eyes, blue and brown, their muzzles cupped in my hand, this place may seize my heart again.

Instead I think about the other dogs, the ones waiting 2000 miles across the Great Plains, and the husband, and the boy. I am overdue there. The Dog settles into the truck. As the house has emptied, he seems to understand that we are not staying on there with the ghosts, that we have just come back to pick up a few things.  Gently, gently, pulling a fully laden trailer, I creep up the driveway, hopping out to close the gate behind me one last time. I do not look at the house, or the meadow, or the barns, or the poppies. I just look at the latch and make sure it catches on the ring.

I point the truck to the east and we head for home. A front is blowing in, and by the time we crest the hill out of the town, the sky behind us is black with rain.


Sherman in the Snow

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.

“Which dog?”

“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. 

Let Us Now Praise Tim Horton

March 27, 2009 § 7 Comments

Last fall, I lost a dog. Every day for ten days I got up after a few hours of restless sleep and took my son to school. The next stop was Tim Horton’s for coffee, thus beginning another day of searching alleys and abandoned houses, handing out flyers, walking the aisles of the animal shelter. Had I the strength I would have done this 24 hours a day. But this story is not about my search for the dog, it is about Tim Horton.

The dog? Oh, you want to know about the dog. Well, okay, but then after that, it’s about Tim Horton. On the night of the ninth day, I got a phone call from a nurse at the local Hospice. They had seen my dog, she’d come up to the doors, looking for food. It was the first call I’d had. That night we tracked her through the woods behind the Hospice and across their park-like campus but came up empty-handed. The next day, very early, after a trip through Tim Horton’s drive-through, I went back to the Hospice and searched. And waited. And searched. At 2:30 in the afternoon, she crept out of the woods and seeing that it was me waiting for her, she flew to me.

Those mornings I could have made coffee in my own kitchen. The freezer has organic Nicaraguan French roast beans, fair trade Sumatran, a bag of Eight o’clock that my husband is very fond of. No, I went to Tim Horton’s because it made me feel hopeful. The window of the drive-through would open, and a friendly person would take my money and hand me a hot coffee in the Tim Horton holiday cup.

They always had a day-old Timbit (or as my son likes to call them “bits of Tim”) for my retriever, sitting in the seat behind me. He would sometimes startle them, sticking his big brown head over my shoulder and through the window in anticipation of his treat, but they always laughed.

Each night when I finally gave up and went home, I’d set the empties on a shelf in the garage. They joined the other Tim Horton cups there, lined up like little soldiers waiting for Macy to come home. And when she did, the cups all went unceremoniously into the trash.

For those of you not versed in the parlance, Tim Horton’s is a chain of coffee and doughnut shops (or as they like to put it “Baked goods, always fresh!”) established in 1964 by Canadian Tim Horton, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Who had previously tried his hand at a Studebaker dealership and a hamburger stand.)

Tim had been signed to the Maple Leafs in the fall of 1952, when he was 22 years old and played for Toronto until 1970, during which the team won four Stanley Cups, and Tim was named to NHL all-star teams seven times. He was tremendously strong, yet calm under pressure, earning few penalty minutes for an enforcer-type defenseman. (Gordie Howe called him “Hockey’s Strongest Man.”) Between 1961 and 1968, Tim Horton played in 486 consecutive regular-season games; that stood as the NHL record for consecutive games by a defensemen until 2007.

He had an unusual method for handling players that were fighting him: he’d wrap his arms around them in a giant bear hug and squeeze. It’s said that the Bruins’ Derek Sanderson bit Tim hard, on the ear, during a fight. The story goes that Sanderson felt one rib snap, then another and was desperate to escape the veteran defenseman’s embrace. Or maybe he was just dreaming of doughnuts.

Tim Horton was never known to be vicious or sneaky though and earned the respect of fellow players throughout his long career. When coach Punch Imlach was fired from the Leafs in 1969 following a humiliating playoff defeat, Tim left soon after, finding a new berth first with the New York Rangers, then a single season with the Penguins before arriving at his old coach’s new team, the Buffalo Sabres, in 1972. Imlach wasn’t the coach anymore, he’d been sidelined by a heart attack, but he remained with the franchise as GM.

Then, very early on the morning of February 21, 1974, in the pre-dawn hours, Tim Horton was coming home to Buffalo from a game in Toronto 90 miles away. He was trying to avoid a traffic stop by Mounties (he’d had a few drinks after the game) when he flipped his DeTomaso Pantera and was killed. (The car, a gift from Punch Imlach, was an awful car anyway. Too little weight for too much engine, the steel unibody construction had a poor fit and finish. Many Panteras broke down on the Ford test track. It’s said that Elvis Presley shot his with a handgun when it wouldn’t start.)

Like the rest of the Pee Wee girls hockey team, I wept at the news. With a child’s grief, I put a stripe of black electrical tape across my 1973 O-Pee-Chee card and tacked it to my bulletin board. I may not have even noticed Tim Horton before (I was really a Flyers fan) but now I mourned him. For the rest of our season I finished off my long braids with black ribbon.

After that, though, tears long dry, Tim Horton came to mean doughnuts. There was only one Tim Horton’s on Prince Edward Island. It was in the capital, Charlottetown, on University Avenue. Every trip to Charlottetown- picking up someone at the airport, going to the high school drama competition, our annual high school football game with Colonel Gray, Christmas shopping- every trip meant stopping by Tim Horton’s to pick up a dozen doughnuts. There are nearly two dozen Tim Horton’s on the island now. Charlottetown’s paper, The Guardian reported in a story last July that the three Tim Horton’s locations in the city are causing traffic problems as the drive-through lines back up onto city streets.

It’s been twenty plus years since I was last on the Island (and yes, I went to Tim Horton’s on my last trip there) but I found my Tim Horton’s fix in other places: Vancouver, Cranbrook, Lethbridge, Calgary. And then a few years ago, Michigan! The migration south over the border has begun. Now there are nearly a dozen Tim Horton’s in the Dayton area.

A confession is in order here about Tim’s doughnuts: I don’t love them anymore. I don’t know if it’s just that my taste buds are more developed now or if the doughnuts have declined since my childhood (so many things have) but really, they are just okay. It’s a funny thing about those fried rounds of dough: people are very opinionated about what makes a good one. I am sort of partial to the fare offered up at Dunkin’Donuts, but Krispy Kreme—no thanks. (Even if it is fun to watch their Rube Goldberg contraption make them.) Jim’s Donut Shop in Vandalia is said to have excellent doughnuts, but we haven’t tried them yet. The best doughnuts I ever ate were made by Margie Collins in the basement of the Redeemer Lutheran Church. It doesn’t matter though, because Tim Horton’s isn’t really about doughnuts anymore, it’s about coffee.

There are more conspiracy theories about Tim Horton’s coffee than any subject save the American government. It is the “double-double” (two creams, two sugars) that regular drinkers describe as addictive. There have been university studies and chemical analyses, there are web-pages dedicated to the topic (“Tim Horton’s Coffee aka Canadian Crack,” “Tim Horton’s Crack Identified,” “Tim Horton’s Introduces New Crack”—okay, so the last one was about their breakfast sandwiches, but you get the picture.) You have to pry their cold dead fingers from around the cup.

My old high school friend Richard doesn’t understand the fuss, calling the coffee “Generic, but consistently okay.” Perhaps, like me, he is drinking the coffee black instead of ordering the fiendishly addictive double-double. (230 calories, 12g of fat) The Double-double is so pervasive in Canada, that the term has gained entry into the Oxford English Dictionary. As a beverage, it has been endorsed by the law enforcement community in Police Link .

Richard may not be vulnerable to the Tim’s addiction, but my friend Jan doesn’t go into work (for the Canadian Coast Guard) without her extra large Timmie’s in hand. As it happened, during the weeks that Macy the dog was missing, Jan’s profile photo on Facebook was a photograph of a Tim Horton cup sitting on a console at Jan’s work. Every day, she wrote to ask how the search was going, to reassure me that the dog would come home, to ask how I was holding up, and every message that she wrote bore that image of the Tim Horton’s cup. I don’t think I ever got around to telling her that I saw picture of the cup as a gesture of solidarity, a badge of courage, a sign of hope.

Yesterday, my husband and I were sitting eating chicken salad sandwiches at the Tim Horton’s less than a mile up the road from where I was reunited with the dog. (Oh yeah, you can get lunch at Tim Horton’s too.) With a nostalgic smile I pointed at the door to the restroom, the sign says “Wash Rooms.”

“Canadian-speak,” I said. Since I drink my coffee black, I’ve never tried to order a double double there, but I’m sure if I did they’d know what to do. On the shelves are bags of coffee beans from the sustainable coffee program that Tim Horton’s has developed in Guatemala to benefit coffee growers, and their communities. On the walls are photographs of the summer camps Tim Horton’s sends underprivileged children to each year. Behind me there is a poster of Sidney Crosby, “the kid,” a hockey phenomenon signed to the NHL in 2005 at the tender age of 17. Sid was a member of the Timbits hockey program in 1993, and he is shown with a little girl and a little boy from the contemporary program which provides local hockey associations in the Canada and U.S. with jerseys, participation medals, hockey jamborees and for some, the chance to play hockey as the intermission feature at select NHL games.

Later, I will read that altogether the Timbits sports programs supports more than 200,000 children in not just hockey, but lacrosse, soccer, t-ball and baseball, along with sponsoring free swimming at community pools in the summer and free skating at community rinks in the winter. I’ll read about the Smile Cookie program that contributed over two million dollars to support children’s charities in Canada. But first I have to finish the cup of coffee on the table in front of me. It’s brimming with hope.

Sticks and Stones

March 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

on being the target of cyberstalkers

Back in the third grade, I had a real problem. Her name was Lavonda. I may have had three inches on her, but she had a good fifteen pounds, and a whole lot of rage, on me. Everyday when I was walking home from school, she would jump me. I would arrive home with blouse torn, hair pulled, nose bloodied. My parents complained.  They were sent away with all kinds of reassurances and the next day Lavonda pounded me again.

It didn’t matter if I walked home with friends or walked home alone. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I fought back or if I just lay there in the dirt praying for it to be over. It didn’t matter if I tried to be nice to her in the sun-dappled classroom. I remember the day I gave her a cookie she seemed extra vicious as she kicked and slapped at me. My father started picking me up at school. Lavonda got her licks in at recess.

Then one day she wasn’t there. She wasn’t there the next day either. At the end of the week, Miss Fischer rearranged the desks. I never saw Lavonda again. Looking at her in the class picture, I am struck at how unkempt she looked. This was 1971, when little girls and little boys were turned out in their next-best clothes for school pictures, their hair carefully combed. Not Lavonda, her hair stood straight up, a wild shock. Her dress, a little too small, had a stain on the front of it. Her socks didn’t quite match.

It was a baffling time, I never could quite figure it out. I never had a problem making friends. In high school I was editor of the newspaper, and floated easily between groups of kids. Mind you, it was a Canadian school, maybe we didn’t have bullies.

Has it been a charmed life? Maybe. Sure I’ve had disagreements with people. There are people who I used to consider friends whom I wouldn’t consider friends anymore. They’ll probably spit on my grave, and fine, have at it.  There are times I’ve behaved in a way that I later regretted.  But when you come right down to it, I have many close friends for whom I am deeply grateful and a wonderful family that cherishes me and now that I’m no longer publishing a newspaper, not too much trouble in my life.

So imagine my surprise when I became the target of a bully.

It started in a chat room, a forum for fanciers of a particular dog breed, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

We are hound people. We like hounds, their easy going, bucolic personalities. But we also have Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and they while they are sometimes bucolic, they are unusually intense dogs, one might even say driven. They are protective, loyal, possessive, and occasionally quarrelsome.  There is no breed quite like them, and I hope that we will always have one in the family.

When I began to participate at the Chesapeake forum, cbrs4me, in 2003, it was rocky at first. It seemed like I was failing to communicate, that people couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Since I’d been writing professionally for nearly 15 years by then, this was perplexing to me. In time, though, I realized that you write differently on a forum, couching your messages in little emoticons to further underline the tenor of your post. Still, I made friends there, real friendships that exist in the real world, not just in cyberspace.

One woman, though, was intent to make trouble. I couldn’t post anything on any subject without fomenting a caustic response from Julie R., a realtor in central Virginia. In another universe, one might have thought that we could have friends, sharing an abiding interest in this unusual dog breed, in horses, in foxhunting, in photography. On the other hand, she described her place as “Redneck Riviera” and her sentiments are stolidly Republican, so maybe not. Not to say that I don’t have Republican redneck friends, because I guess I have a few of those too.

Julie was a persistent as a horsefly and often as stinging. She had really ramped up into overdrive with her insinuations and insults at about the time that we learned that my father was not going to win his long battle with laryngeal cancer. I sent her a civil email and asked her to back off given the circumstances and she made fun of me for “dragging out my dead and dying relatives.”  My next email was not so civil, and Julie tried to twist that to have my membership in the American Chesapeake Club revoked. (It didn’t work.) 

The National Crime Prevention Council’s definition of cyber-bullying is “when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.” We generally think of cyber bullying as it applies to children and teenagers: it came sharply into focus last May when jurors convicted Lori Drew, a suburban housewife who used MySpace to torment one of her daughter’s friends, Megan Meier, 13, to the point that the girl killed herself. 

But the problem is not limited to teens. Referred to as cyberstalking when involving adults, it is estimated that one in four American adults has been a victim of cyberstalkers who employ a variety of online means, particularly forums and chatrooms, to present their victim in a false and unflattering light. 

When it got to the point that I could no longer participate on cbrs4me without being harassed, I simply stopped. I’d been reading another board, the Retriever Training Forum. Most of the people who participate are interested in hunting or participating in field events with their dogs.

Over time, strange things started to happen. People I didn’t know started asking me pointed questions about my dogs. Soon it was clear that Julie was behind these posts. Not that she’d stopped posting of her own accord when she found me at RTF. She’d come after me hammer and tongs, and when I complained to the moderators, well she made fun of that too.

Once upon a time I thought I’d like to participate in field games with my dogs. I’m not enthusiastic about killing things. (Though frankly, I don’t mind that others are, you could never pin me as “anti-hunting”) That turned out to be my cardinal sin. It didn’t matter that I’d been on hunts. If I couldn’t point to my pile of mallards then clearly I was a poseur.

Julie started posting montages consisting of a photograph of me with my dog (pilfered from a dog show website) with the Clintons, Barack Obama and Kim-Jong-Il in a duck boat. In every sentence where I was mentioned she called me a liar.  She began using that photo as her “avatar” so that it appeared every time she posted. Then her friends started using the photo as their avatar as well. 

I posted a photograph of our dogs in the field (but no dead birds) to a thread of Chesapeake Bay Retriever photos. One of Julie’s friends took me to task. When I pointed out that more than sixty percent of the other photos didn’t have dead waterfowl in them either,  “Copiah Creek” went ballistic.  I wouldn’t have known this man if he’d turned up on my doorstep, but he’d challenged me on other occasions and I’d tried to have  a civil answer for him in every instance. (One time, he objected vigorously to me referring to a dog show in Louisiana as “dog games,” as he felt that phrase must be reserved for field events.)

Now he was saying he was going to quit the forum because he couldn’t stand all the trouble I was always making. I sat back and took a long hard look at how unpleasant this had become for me, and how little I was getting out of it. I realized that these people had killed any interest I’d ever have in field sports with the dogs. I could live without the drama. So I wrote the administrator and asked him to delete my profile, that I would no longer post there. I swear they probably all got up and sang “Ding Dong the witch is dead.”

Now I wasn’t posting anywhere. But still the cyber stalking continued. Julie took posts I’d made out of context and posted them on other dog forums. She attributed posts written by other people as being written by me. The whole group claimed they had emails from me. None of it was true. They started posting on a third forum, Team Chesapeake.

More “doctored” photographs of me appeared on Team Chesapeake. (Interestingly, the only photograph of Julie to be found on the internet is a very old and very tiny one on her website with a real estate firm. In it, her face is about the size of a pencil eraser.) I went to the website she’d taken my photos from and deleted each and every photograph of there and felt utterly defeated as I did it.

Lamber Royakkers, a professor of Ethics in Technology at the Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology has described cyberstalking as “a continuous process, consisting of a series of actions, each of which may be entirely legal in itself.” He defines the stalking as “a form of mental assault, in which the perpetrator repeatedly, unwantedly, and disruptively breaks into the life-world of the victim, with whom he has no relationship (or no longer has), with motives that are directly or indirectly traceable to the affective sphere. Moreover, the separated acts that make up the intrusion cannot by themselves cause the mental abuse, but do taken together (have a cumulative effect.)

On this third, unmonitored forum, one I read but had never contributed to, the nasty comments appreared daily.

“Why do you even look,” my husband asked.  But it’s like a car accident, you can’t look away. It wasn’t just Julie, but her friend Copiah Creek, some guy who called himself Drakeslayer, and one poor soul, “Dr. Charles A. Bortell, Ph.D.” I’ve never met any of these people, not even Julie. I did see her once, from a distance at a dog show in Philadelphia in 2004. As one woman pointed out, they wouldn’t know me if they fell on me.

This time the comments included sexual references, along with remarks alluding to my size, “thunder thighs” and “thick chick.” Ironically, someone told me a few weeks ago that they when they saw Julie at a dog show recently that she had gained so much weight that they didn’t even recognize her. One charming person said he didn’t mind having sex with fat girls but have you seen Larkin’s face? I guess this is sophomoric humor, people didn’t make cracks like that at my high school. But let me tell you, it wasn’t so funny when my14 year old son read it.

The following features or combination of features can be considered to characterize a true stalking situation: malice, premeditation, repetition, distress, obsession, vendetta, no legitimate purpose, personally directed, disregarded warnings to stop, harassment, and threats.

Yesterday afternoon I had the first truly nasty comments on this blog. They were outrageously vulgar, racist remarks. (I have the option to approve comments and of course, I deleted those.) I can also see from what websites people access this page. There, among the usual sites that direct traffic to A Thousand Days was a surprise: Retriever Training Forum.

Why is this woman so obsessed with me? It’s hard to just stumble upon A Thousand Days, she had to look for it. She’s like that little black kid lying in wait for me everyday. Why has she invested so much time and energy in trying to make my life miserable? Why is she so intent on turning others, complete strangers, against me? (Surely at some point, they’ll start to wonder why.) 

Yes, there are times when I was furious. There were times when I felt sad. It was truly terrible trying to help my son make sense of the rage he felt at seeing his mother portrayed like that.

But in the end, I am a happy person, and I have a happy life. My husband adores me. We’ve been enjoying puttering in the yard on these glorious spring days. The daffodils are up, the dogs frolic around us. We’ve got a great kid. Lots of friends, a wonderful extended family. There’s plenty to eat. We sleep well at night.

Then I remember Lavonda and her mismatched socks, and with that memory, a realization.  

It’s all right, Julie, I forgive you.

(And you Alan, and you Dr. CAB and you Kathy Miller and all the rest of you goobers, you’re all forgiven.)

And you too, Lavonda, wherever you are. I hope each of you finds someone to make you feel loved.  I hope that in time you find peace in your heart, the kind that frees you from wanting to hurt other people. It doesn’t matter that your socks don’t match. 

Folly Beach

March 7, 2009 § 5 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

When my son, native child of a landlocked state, was eight years old, I took him to see the Atlantic Ocean. We were visiting my grandmother in upstate South Carolina when it occurred to me that we were pretty close to the ocean at Charleston. It’s about 150 miles, but living in Montana, where the distances are so vast that it’s nothing to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk, that didn’t seem far at all. Heck, we were driving 72 miles a day to get Julian to school (18 miles there to take him, 18 miles home, 18 miles to get him, 18 miles home.)

But Charleston is not the beach. Further inspection of the road atlas revealed a little barrier island just south of the city. There, a tiny green patch was labeled “Folly Beach,” so we took our suits and sandals and were bound for glory, or at least a sunburn. The interstate goes within about ten miles of the island, after that you have to wend your way along a suburban highway lined with Burger Kings, tanning salons, gas stations, drug stores. (No doubt a suburban hell during hurricane evacuations.)

Finally the roadsides give way to low-country marshlands, estuaries, fishing docks, seafood merchants, and as you get to Folly Beach proper, an authentic beach town. Churches and the post office and the public library sit on prime real estate and one hopes that they always will remain so. 

“Can you smell the salt?” I asked Julian. He put his head out the window like a dog. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

What makes the shore smell like the shore is actually dimethylsulfide, a gas produced when phytoplankton (the basis of the ocean’s food chain) are consumed or die. A few hundred parts per trillion is enough to scent the sea air, and it is a smell enjoyed by seabirds, (to them it must say “lunch”) as well as humans. I guess “salt breeze” sounds more poetic than dimethylsulfide. Whichever, what it said to me as I drew closer is “home home home home.” Maybe I was a mermaid in another life.

My pulse quickened as we neared the shore. I knew that any minute, I mean, any minute now, the Ocean was going to appear before us in all of her shimmering glory. Kind reader, I wish I could describe to you the wonder on my child’s face, the thrill of that first sighting, but like our first glimpse of the ocean at Folly Beach, that has to wait.

For at the top of Center Street, right on the beach side sat an absolute eyesore: a concrete behemoth that has as much sensitivity to its location on the water as a Federal Prison would, blocking any and all views of the sea. It’s the Holiday Inn, and it had sat there like a colossal insult only since 1995, which makes it even more reprehensible.

Whoever is in charge of zoning at Folly Beach should be tarred and feathered, or at least spanked. The architect who designed this horrible structure should be used as an example at every architecture school in the country of what not to build, of what kind of aesthetic disaster it is to not design the correct structure for the setting. What is wrong with these people? Whatever kind of payoff occurred to have that Holiday Inn situated there it was not enough. There’s no amount of money large enough to justify it.

But that’s not what this essay is about, because the monolithic Holiday Inn is the exception at Folly Beach, not the rule. So we will ignore it and go on. We turned left along Arctic and drove down along the edge of the world. The dunes rise up next to the road, so you still don’t immediately see the water. We parked the car next to boardwalk steps and walked up to have a look. Julian had only one word: Wow.

The beach stretched up and down as far we could see. Late in the afternoon, it was nearly empty.We played in the water until nightfall. Julian picked up a hundred shells, got wrinkly fingers and toes, and licked the salt from the skin on his forearm. The sand along Folly Beach is so silvery and fine, it “sings” when you walk in it, the faint, fine song of the siren. Just before we left, I fetched a plastic grocery bag from the car and filled it with dry sand to carry back to my landlocked home. There I would keep it in an enormous Mason jar and whenever I needed some relief from the oppression of the mountains, I’d open up the jar and breathe deeply.

We didn’t get back to Folly the next year. Though our travels took us to the Carolinas, we went north this time, up through Myrtle Beach and along the coast to the Outer Banks. The intense development from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk left an impatient feeling in my soul.

It’s nothing like the little town south of Charleston that still made room for ordinary things: VFW turkey shoots, funny little package stores, trail rides, girl scout troops. No wonder the locals call it “Mayberry By the Sea.”

When I went back the next year, I tried to convince my grandmother, then 92, to come down to the sea with me. She put her novel down on her lap and thought about it for a minute. “That might be nice,” she said. Later, though, she decided that she probably should just stay home. I asked if she was sure, and she said she was. “You go on, I think I’ll just stay here and read.” Now I wish I’d tried harder to get her to come along.

So I went with my dog and it was nearly dark when we finally got there. We walked along the beach together, his joy plain as he darted in and out of the surf. After returning him to the car, I walked to a restaurant on the pier and ate oysters and drank a Pilsner while writing postcards to friends back in that dry and ocean-less state.

Historians think that Folly Beach was named for the old English word meaning “an area of dense foliage,” but come on, the word “folly” as we understand it, the quality of being rash and foolish, has been in wide use since Shakespeare. “Though age from folly could not give me freedom,” as Mark Anthony said.

In the 18th century, the island was used as a quarantine by ships entering Charleston harbor to drop off passengers suffering from cholera, and was at the time called “Coffin Land.” Try developing a tourism industry with that kind of moniker.

There were shipwrecks, Charleston cut off communication and supplies during a particularly bad patch of disease, the Union Troops used Folly Island to help launch their offensive against the important port city to the north.

Being a barrier island, it has seen its share of storms, and grainy black and white photos in local histories show the devastation that the the wind and the sea have wrought from time to time.

With the dawning of the twentieth century came rum-running, pavilions, boardwalks, piers and Folly-land became the vacation destination for city dwellers. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were regularly featured at the Pavilion.

In 1934, George Gershwin spent the summer on Folly Beach, in a bungalow at 708 West Arctic Avenue. It’s reported that he “went completely native” (sometimes unshaven and in blue jeans) there, rambling around Folly Beach and James Island, attending revival meetings and church services of the Gullah.

In 1926, Gershwin had read (in one sitting) the novel Porgy, by Charleston writer (and real estate and insurance agent) W. DuBose Heyward. Working in concert with his brother, Ira (in New York) writing the lyrics to some songs, and with DuBose Heyward (in Folly Beach) as librettist, Gershwin composed the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. It is said that he also judged a local beauty contest.

Yesterday, I went back to Folly Beach again, this time with my mother. I went back to the restaurant on the pier, it has declined a little. The pale gray blues and lemon yellows of the walls are a bit grimy. It reminded me, sadly, of an old lady who has turned herself out in a fine linen dress, not realizing that there are stains on the front, or that it is soiled around the collar and cuffs. The She-Crab soup had too much celery (I think it was celery) and the Prince Edward Island mussels, while lovely and mild would have been better served in a saffron cream sauce than the spinach and yellow pepper broth chosen. Mother said the crab cake was good, but you could tell from looking at it that it came this close to being burned. Still, we got to sit, looking out at the water, watching the pelicans and pigeons, a few bedraggled-looking starlings marching around.

Afterwards we walked out on the pier for a bit, laughing at the sign that Sharks Are Catch and Release Only! “Catch and Release” is a minor religion in landlocked Montana, the tourists releasing Browns and Rainbows because they can’t differentiate them from the native and endangered cutthroat trout. Just as well the mountain streams aren’t populated with sharks as well.

We drove a little further up the street, not too far from the trailhead to Morris Island. (You can’t actually get to the lighthouse anymore. Erosion has left it surrounded by water, and it was decommissioned a few years ago. The Light had been scheduled for demolition, but a local group rallied their support and found a private buyer.) We found a spot to park, paid to get a parking chit, got out of the car and broke the law.

Dogs are permitted on the beach November through April all day long, and in May through September they are allowed before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. but they must, and I repeat, must remained leashed. Taking a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to the beach and keeping him leashed is like putting a bowl of She-Crab soup in front of a starving man and not allowing him to eat. Both dogs are trained to come at a whistle, are always under voice control and will sit immediately to be leashed. They’re pretty good canine citizens. We released them.

They had a splendid time racing full-tilt into the surf, chasing each other and the foamy tops of wavelets rolling into the shore. After about 40 minutes, when we were joined on the beach by a couple with a Yorkshire terrier puppy, we called in the dogs, clipped on their leashes and went to the car to find towels. They might have thought the Yorkie was a squirrel, which would have resulted in considerable consternation.

“It was really nice to just stand there on the beach,” my mother said, handing me a dry towel.

Nearly every house on the island has a shingle in front, offering it for vacation rental. It’s very tempting, this notion of spending some extra time in Folly Beach. We did motor the seven miles into Charleston and devoted ten minutes to looking at the historic district around the Joseph Manigault house. I always think there will be enough time after the beach to go and explore the city. This is what I’ve always intended and it is absolute folly.  I always spend so much time on the barrier island I never have a chance to see Charleston before its time to go home.

Perhaps a week or two at the beach would do the trick, perhaps then there would be time to see what Charleston is about, in between sneaking dogs onto the beach and eating shellfish and drinking Pilsners, going native, answering the siren song of Folly Beach. I wonder if 708 West Arctic Avenue is available.


March 3, 2009 § 5 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

I took a dog to the animal shelter today.  This is an unusual experience for me. When my dog was lost last fall I was a frequent visitor to the excellent Montgomery County Animal Shelter, searching for Macy’s lovely face in every immaculate run.  In my efforts on behalf of Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue, I have sprung dogs from shelters, an essential cog in the works to get the dog to their forever family. Today, driving to the shelter with the little beagle sitting on the seat next to me, I tried to remember if I have ever taken a dog to a shelter before and in fact, I don’t think I have. 

We found this little beagle the Sunday before last, deep in the South Carolina woods, deep in the middle of scrub pines and clear-cut.  Years of watching for deer on the roads has made me alert to any movement alongside the highway, and that’s how I happened to see a very small dog sitting by the edge of the road. When I slowed the car, she came running for it. Concerned that I had just rounded a blind curve, I put on the blinkers, opened the door and helped her in, depositing her rather unceremoniously on the lap of my Aunt Margaret.  

She smelled to high heaven. (The dog, not Margaret.) It wasn’t skunk, more like some kind of oily residue from something long dead. We raced back to my mother’s house (and bathtub) drawing breath through mouth only. The little beagle was so bloated from malnutrition that we initially thought she was pregnant, but over the course of a day or two of regular feeding, her belly returned to its normal size. 

We took her out to the shelter last Tuesday, and arranged to foster her during her five day “stray-hold,” with instructions to bring her back on Monday. She would then be spayed and immediately offered for adoption, no hanging around.  In the meantime, we plied every friend and relative who might like to have a winsome beagle in his or her household. We had no takers. That was okay; this sweet little girl deserves a life with someone who is thrilled with her. 

So this was Monday, and we were on our way to the shelter. Sitting on the passenger seat, she placed her paw on my arm and looked up at me. 

“Oh, come on now,” I said. “You have to be a brave little dog. This is a great adventure you’re going on and when it’s all said and done, you will have for your very own, someone who will love you dearly all of your days.” She made a little hiccup sound and looked out the window. 

It wasn’t just idle talk. The women at the Newberry County Animal Shelter not only thought that she would quickly find a home, they already knew of someone planning to come see her on Wednesday morning. 

They do a remarkable job there, operating out of a singlewide trailer and a long higgledy-piggledy set of runs and sheds. The dogs don’t mind that it isn’t fancy. Kenneled together as their personalities permit, they look relaxed and happy. There is very little barking. Their longest term “resident,” was George, who was there nearly three years before being adopted by a local news anchor. Their website pages tell stories of dogs treated for mange and heartworm, gunshots and other injuries, nurtured back to health, made whole again.

They embody the very definition of the word “shelter:” 

  1. Something that provides cover or protection, as from the weather.
  2. An establishment that provides temporary housing for homeless people or stray animals.
  3. A refuge, a haven, a sanctuary.

Contrast that with the actions of the Columbia (SC) Animal Shelter, the most egregious of which has made news recently.  

On Christmas Eve, a park ranger in Columbia’s Granby Park found a big Foxhound wearing a tracking collar and tags. He called the number and left a message for the owner and called the Columbia shelter to pick up the dog. 

The dog, Big Hitter, had been lost during a hunt four days earlier twenty miles away. He was a well-regarded hound among hunting circles, and was sought after as a stud dog. When his owner came to claim him, he was told that the dog would have to be neutered before he could be released, as per city ordinance. 

Now there are three exceptions to the law: sick dogs (I don’t get the rationale for that), seeing-eye dogs (or the rationale for that) and show dogs. Shelters in counties surrounding Columbia will release hunting dogs to their owners with proof of a hunting license, but not Columbia. Big Hitter had placed in some National Trials and his owner scrambled to pull together the paperwork to prove it  in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When he got the papers together, the shelter director said that those placements “didn’t meet the criteria” and that the dog would still have to be neutered. 

On Friday, December 30th, a friend of the owner’s tried to adopt to the dog, but was not allowed to as shelter personnel felt he was doing so to avoid the “redemption fees” and anyway, the dog would have to be neutered before he could be adopted.  When the owner came back in on Monday, January 2nd, he was told the dog had been euthanized

Yes, put to sleep after being at the shelter 9 days, four of which were Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s. The shelter director, Marli Drum, said in a memo that the dog had developed “kennel cough” and “because of this the dog could not be held any longer. To do so would have put many other dogs at risk.” 

You know how when you’re hearing someone tell a story and something they say sends up a red flag, something that tells you that they are full of, well, you know what they’re full of. This was that defining moment for me in this story.

Kennel cough, my friends, is the canine equivalent of the common cold. There are more than 1000 identified strains of it, and a vaccine that covers about thirty percent of those strains. Only very elderly and infirm dogs and occasionally young puppies require any treatment for kennel cough, as it spontaneously resolves in most cases. Just like the cold.

To euthanize a dog, whose owners are actively seeking to reclaim him, is vindictive, an abuse of power, and surely ought to grounds for immediate termination. (Where is Ahnold when you need him?)  It is, in fact, sickening. 

The Columbia Animal Shelter’s director, Marli Drum, at whose behest this terrible miscarriage of “sheltering” occurred, is a very busy woman. She claims (erroneously and with great exaggeration) that the Columbia Shelter “handles” 10,000 animals a year, or 42 unique individual animals every single day. Ironically, 42 is also the number of other dogs that were euthanized that Monday alongside Big Hitter. 

(The number of animals “handled” is inflated by counting owned animals that come in for spay-neuter and vaccination programs as part of their intake. PeTA uses similar tactics to try to hide the fact that they euthanize more than 99 percent of the animals that are surrendered to them, by far the highest percentage of any “shelter” anywhere.) 

Marli Drum’s busy days are made more so by her tasks as Madam President of the South Carolina Animal Care and Control Association and an Executive Member of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators. If you’d like to call her to tell her what you think of the way she “handled” Big Hitter, here’s her number: (803) 776-7387. If you’d rather send an email, it should go to mcdrum@columbiasc.net

But it isn’t just about Big Hitter or even about Marli Drum. It’s that our rights as dog owners are being eroded every day. Though we regard dogs as members of our family, we must continue to see them legally as “property.”  Because when they are our property, what the City of Columbia, the Columbia Animal Shelter and Marli Drum did to Arnold Jones and his lovely dog would be considered theft, and prosecuted accordingly. You have more rights to your lost umbrella than you do to a lost member of your family. 

We don’t set up the likes of Marli Drum to be the arbiter of what is our right to do with our dogs, whether we choose to breed dogs or hunt with dogs or just enjoy them; they belong to us and decisions regarding them and their welfare should belong to us, not some lower-level bureaucrat. It is imperative that you make it clear to your city councillors, county commissioners and state legislators that you regard your dog as yours and the decisions regarding his health and welfare as yours alone. Not Marli Drum’s. Or anyone like her.

Big Hitter came in wearing a tracking collar and tags. His owner came in to get him. They wouldn’t give him back without rendering him surgically sterile and when the owner made a fuss, they killed the dog. If that’s “shelter,” I’d rather my dog was lost in the woods. 

And as for the little dog found in the woods, we are grateful that she’s temporarily housed in a refuge, a haven, a sanctuary. Somewhere where they understand what “shelter” means.

The Garage Door

February 28, 2009 § 2 Comments


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