come stroll among the wildflowers

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dog Years 7

Part seven:  Dogs of the Empty Nest, Jane and Jones

      Time passes.  In a blink Kristi, Beth, Todd, and Sarah were grown and off making lives of their own.  The day I took Sarah to Kansas State to begin college, I arranged to meet a friend on my way home to buy my first dog since Flint died.  I chose a Jack Russell terrier.  Her name was to be Jane Russell.  I had done some homework and knew what I was getting into.  Some claim the breed is misnamed:  they should be called Jack Russell terrorists.  Terriers are bred to be busy, easily distracted by anything that moves, aggressive toward varmints, independent thinkers, quick, strong, athletic, and stubborn.  The Jack Russell is the ultimate terrier.  Jane, the ultimate Jack Russell, was only eight weeks old when I brought her home, and she could leap up on the couch from a flatfooted start.  Her quick turns and sprints meant she could outrun Dammit Max.  She learned to play fetch with a knotted sock in about three minutes and would never bother a sock without a knot in it.  (If you were to see my laundry room, bedroom floor, or TV room, you would understand the importance of this fact.)  She watched television.  Milo and Otis was her favorite movie.  If anyone yelled, “Dogs on TV,” she would rush in and sit up in front of the screen until the dog scene was over. 
    Jane loved to make up her own games.  If she could not get one of her humans to throw her tennis ball, she would take it into the hayloft and drop it down the stairs or out the loft door, then retrieve it herself.  She also played soccer solo by rolling a soccer ball full speed around the yard and pasture.  Jane pursued a packrat into the engine of our car and did $800 worth of damage to the wiring.
     Jack Russells are smart, spunky, cute, and engaging.  Unfortunately, they are so dedicated to “varmint” hunting that they are often self-destructive.  Many do not reach a ripe old age because they get trapped in holes trying to dig out a rabbit, dive from a moving car window when they spot a squirrel, or run in front of a passing car when chasing a cat. When she was just five years old, she was with Duane out by the road helping him fix fence.  She flushed a rabbit and was killed by a passing car as she chased it across the road. 
     I cried.  I missed having a dog around, but it took about a year before I could look for another dog.  I couldn’t bear the thought of another Russell so I decided to look for a corgi.  I found Miss Jones.  She’s Welsh, you know.  What a cute little ball of fluff.  The Pembroke Welsh corgi is the smallest herder.  I quickly understood why The Queen is so crazy about them.  They smile, chuckle, bounce, fetch, herd anything that moves, and clean themselves like cats.  Jones loves to go walking and is a perfect lady on the leash.  She brings me the paper.  I’m never alone.  She follows me from room to room.  She likes to be boarded at the clinic when we go on vacation because all the vets, techs, kennel cleaners, and secretaries love her and take her on errands to the post office or to make bank deposits. 
      And you know what?  She reminds me of Skipper.  Perhaps she will be the one my grandchildren remember as their first favorite dog.  Perhaps memories of her will jog recollections of grandpa and grandma, their house in the country, the funny stories they used to share at the dinner table, the joy of laughter, and the warm security of aunts, uncles and cousins who love them without condition.  Perhaps Miss Jones will foster in them that amazing bond between a person and a well-loved dog.  Who knows?  Perhaps they will also grow to measure time by the lives of their favorite dogs.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dog Years 6

Part Six:  The Country Life with Kids and Dogs

     Duane had his doubts about moving to the country, but he took to it like gnats to bananas:  building fences, planting trees, cutting brush, tilling a garden spot.  He even got into bee keeping.  Two or three times a year, mild-mannered veterinarian disappeared into the tack room and came out as BEEMAN.  You’ve seen the outfit: white coverall, helmet with net, gauntlet gloves, smoker in hand, ready to “work the bees.”  I, on the other hand, am allergic.  I swell when stung.  He calls to me from the bee hives, “Help, I need a big bowl.  This comb is cracking and the honey is spilling.”
     I answer, “I’ll get stung.”
    “No,” he promises, “I’ll make sure to brush all of them back into the hive.”  Well he missed one.  It flew up and stung me through my shirt right on the left boob.  I threw the bowl at him and ran to the house for aloe and Benadryl.  When he came in later, I showed him my hugely lopsided chest.  “Just a minute,” he quipped, “I’ll go get another bee.”
    The bees prospered.  Time came for the hive to divide.  When this happens, the bees swarm.  They raise a second queen and half the workers escort her from the hive to fly away to find a new home.  Duane was ready for them.  He had spent weeks pounding together new frames for a new hive while the rest of us were trying to watch Magnum P I or Laugh In.  One hot, still afternoon we heard a buzzing as a cloud of bees hovered above the lawn.  I waved Duane off the mower just as the swarm took off.  “What do I do?” he shouted.
    “I think I read somewhere that a loud noise will make them settle,” I answered.  He ran into the barn and came out banging two garbage can lids like giant cymbals while running after the bees.  He chased them down the drive, across the road, and disappeared over the horizon to the west.  After about thirty minutes, I told Todd to get in the truck and go find his father.  When they came home, my out of breath hubby gasped, “I lost them at Plymouth.”  That’s six miles away.  He finally gave up on the bee project after they chased him out of the garden while he was tilling the potato patch.  He just left the tiller there chugging away until it ran out of gas.
     The kids joined 4-H and the next generation of Henrikson dogs belonged to them, not me.  Each of them had a dog as a project, training them in obedience and showmanship.  Kristi’s dog was a sweet black and tan Australian shepherd named Waltzing Matilda, “Tillie.”  She was a terrific showmanship dog, and loved all the attention involved in getting prepared for the dog show.  She would even run upstairs after her bath and bring down a bandana for Kris to tie around her neck.  That old saw of dogs being like their owners was surely true of this duo.  Kristi too loves to please and doesn’t know a stranger.
      Beth’s dog was a dignified Doberman named Raven.  She did well in obedience and was a gentle, stoic friend to anyone who wanted one but was especially devoted to Beth.  She was a smart dog, but found tricks beneath her.  She thought playing fetch was stupid.  She would bring the ball once, but if you threw it again, you were on your own.  In addition to the dog project, Todd was enchanted with rocketry.  After one of his dramatic launches, the rocket drifted beyond the woods behind our house.  Everyone looked, but no one could find the missing rocket.  The next day, Raven brought it to the house after her morning rounds.  Beth was crazy about that dog.  She had a t-shirt with “I love Dobermans” printed on the front.  That shirt never made it to a drawer.  It went from back to washer to dryer, to back and back.  When Raven died at age ten from cancer, we buried her next to Flint by the plum trees.  I was doing just fine until I looked out the next morning and saw Tillie sleeping by the grave.
     Todd wanted to adopt every orphan pup that came to the clinic.  He finally talked his dad into a border collie (she bordered on being a collie) that he named Tux.  Tux was a challenge even for patient Mr. Todd.  This was a dog of limited learning power, possibly the only stupid border collie on the planet.  She learned “sit” and thought that sitting was the correct response to any command.  And she would look up at Todd with this “ain’t I good” expression.  Todd always brushed and polished her perfectly for showmanship, because he knew his chances were not good in obedience.  At one show, the judge complimented him on the condition of Tux’s coat.  She asked if he bathed her every day.  Todd said, “No, but she swims in the lagoon pretty often.” Finally Todd retired Tux and bought a beautiful Viszla he named Anna.  She was a wonderful pet and a fine showdog, taking top prizes at the Kansas State Fair.  One litter of her puppies paid his first semester tuition at K-State. 
     Todd talked us into keeping one of those pups.  We named him Max, but he thought his name was Dammit Max.  He was the ultimate retriever, but he retrieved objects into the hayloft.  Lay down a screwdriver, hayloft.  Drop your sunglasses, hayloft.  Lean the rake against the fence, hayloft.  Once he picked up the rope on a ground-tied horse and tried to lead it up the stairs into the hayloft.  The plan was for us to keep Max until Todd was settled into his own place.  But Todd just kept going to school.  He became a veterinarian, and then did more schooling to become a veterinary radiologist.  When he had a place for Max, the dog was getting pretty old.  He took him for a weekend, and he stopped eating and developed a cough.  Ironically, a radiograph proved he had lung cancer.  We brought him home and he made a small rally, but the disease was advancing quickly.  Again we had to face that moment.  The little graveyard beside the plum thicket was getting to be quite the pet cemetery.
     Since Sarah arrived after the first rush, she inherited clothes, dogs, and horses from the first three.  They all claim she is hopelessly spoiled.  She just smiles.  Somehow she was born with this amazing sweet, refined, placid disposition.  She could have been prissy, but the others took care of that.  She complained once that the dogs had gone to the bathroom in the garage.  Beth informed her that dogs do not go to the bathroom, they shit.
    Sarah continued the tradition of dogs at the fair.  Her pup was a tiny minpin named Gabby.  He was smart and did well in the dog shows, but he was constantly getting into rows with the local wildlife.  A raccoon nearly took off his left ear.  A direct hit in the face from a harried skunk left him half blind for a week.  He was nearly disemboweled by a coyote.  After each of these incidents, Duane did a masterful job of putting him back together, but he began to look a bit Frankensteinish:  one ear sat too far up on his head and scars zagged across his little body like stitches on grandma’s crazy quilt.  He met his end when he took on a bobcat.  We buried what was left of him by the plums in the pasture. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dog Years 5

Part Five:  A Man, Some Kids, and Flint

    The best cure for missing a dog is another dog.  I heard that a rancher just west in Chase county had a litter of Australian shepherd border collie cross puppies for sale.  I was about to buy my first dog.  I drove to the Glendale Ranch near Lake Kahola.  This is beautiful country.  The idea that Kansas is flat is pure myth, at least as far as eastern Kansas is concerned.  We have the Flint Hills.  Here hills roll and bluestem grass abounds.  This grass will fatten a cow more efficiently than any other grass on earth.  There is space and blue sky, an occasional cottonwood or hedge tree along the draws, deer, wild turkeys, prairie chicken, quail, coyotes, and a colorful assortment of song birds.  Of course, summers sizzle and winters freeze, but springs and falls can be amazing, and in between, there are always climatological surprises.  Seasonal change seasons life.  Just when you think you cannot stand another snow flake and the brown grass is most depressing, a crocus blooms, and just when you think another gloomy April shower will bring on an outbreak of foot rot, the sun shines hot and drives you to the lake for a swim, and just when the hot wind has crisped the leaves on the redbud trees, a cold front sends you hunting for a sweatshirt, and just when the last leaf falls soggy to the ground, a soft snow blankets the bushes and soothes your soul.  Don’t tell anyone.  I like the fact that a traffic jam in Kansas is two cars behind a combine.
    Again I digress.  In the Flint Hills, I found Flint, my Aussie.  He was a blue merle with one blue eye and one brown eye and maybe the smartest dog I’ve ever known.  He caught on to house training immediately, not one mess.  During the summer, he sometimes went with me to work.  I worked for the Rec Center as a playground supervisor. Neighborhood kids could attend six different playgrounds and participate in organized games and activities from summer movies to mankala tournaments.  If my little Nash is still running, I’ll bet to this day it reeks of sweaty kids.  Flint loved to get in line with the kids and take his turn sliding down the slippery slide.  He also went with me and my friends ice skating in the winter.  He would stand in front of a skater and wait for her to pick up his tail.  Then he would pull her at full speed across the ice.  Once he attended a “woodsie” with a group of college friends.  For the uninformed, a woodsie was a party with a bonfire, hotdogs, guitar led singing, and beer.  Flint circled the fire helping himself from revelers cups.  He got drunk.
     Because Flint lived for sixteen years, he shared an important part of my life.  He fell in love with my future husband right along with me, and welcomed each of our four children into the family.  Duane and I met in junior high but didn’t begin seriously dating until the end of our senior year in high school.  The first time I noticed him was in eighth grade English class.  We were working on an assignment and I kept feeling something tickle my back.  I turned around to glare into horned rim glasses, Butch Waxed hair, and an amazing set of white teeth.  Nerd!  I returned to my essay.  More tickling.  Another dirty look.  The tickling stopped, but when I got home and took off my white oxford cloth button-down shirt, SOMEONE had traced my bra straps in pencil on the back. 
     He went to Kansas State in Manhattan to begin work on a degree in Veterinary Medicine.  I went across the backyard to begin studying to be an English teacher.  I went to K-State on weekends.  There are still people who think I went to college there.  Duane was a good influence on my college career.  In high school, I made decent grades, As and Bs except for typing.  Miss Langley and I drove each other nuts.  She always looked over my shoulder during timings and I wanted to attack her Smith Corona with a sledge hammer.  When Du made a 4.0 first semester, I decided I could do likewise.  Besides, those weekends when I went to Manhattan were largely spent studying, well mostly studying.
     After six short years we finally got engaged.  One year later we were married.  Duane, Flint, and I moved to a charming (realestate for small and old) duplex on Houston Street in Manhattan for the final year of Vet. School.  I taught seventh grade English at the Middle School just two blocks away.  Flint stayed in the basement during the day.  There was a landing at the top of the basement stairs and a door to the back yard.  We would leave the outside door open and lock the screen.  Flint would pee through the screen.  Flint also enjoyed taking a bath.  We didn’t dare leave a tub full of water unattended.
     When Duane graduated from Vet school, we packed up our few early attic belongings and moved to San Antonio to begin his service in the US Air Force.  This was 1967 back in the day of the draft.  Duane had signed up with an early commission in the Veterinary Corps through ROTC.  Vietnam loomed as a real possibility because health care for guard dogs demanded veterinarians there.  But we were lucky and he drew an assignment as the procurement and standardization vet for research animals at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Field.  As military bases go, Brooks was fortunately rather unmilitary.  Duane’s basic training was deferred because he was desperately needed at the research facility.  ROTC really hadn’t quite prepared him.  He didn’t even know how to put his lieutenant tracks on his uniform collar.  I was afraid to go watch his first parade review because I figured he would march his unit up the bleachers. 
     I was just as unprepared to be a military wife.  I decided to get to know other wives by writing for the base newspaper.  They sent me to interview the general’s wife.  She was a gracious, refined lady who collected orchids and antiques.  She invited me into her white carpeted living room to sit on her white satin couch.  She was telling me her story, and I was dutifully taking notes in my spiral notebook when a mouse ran across the carpet in front of my feet.  I reacted like any self-respecting country girl.  I stomped the sucker.  Big mistake.  Blood and guts on the white carpet.  The general’s wife managed to contain her horror, and I helped her clean up the mess after I picked Mickey up by the tail and took him to the white powder room for a dignified burial in a swirling white sea.  Not long after this incident, Mrs. General was hostess at the officer’s club for a lovely brunch.  All the officers’ wives were invited, even the mouse masher.  She had emptied her china cupboard to set the tables with fine dishes and sparkling crystal.  She served champagne cocktails in elegant, bowl shaped antique stemware.  As I took a drink, my glass broke right down the middle.  There I sat with half the glass in my mouth and the other half in my hand and champagne staining the front of my pink silk blouse.  This was my final invitation from the poor lady. 
     While we lived in San Antonio, Flint developed some interesting habits.  He discovered his sexuality.  We had a fenced back yard, but he was a leaper.  We would monitor his location carefully, but when he got the urge to take off, the longer we forestalled his escape, the longer he would be gone when he finally made his break.  Once he was gone for an entire week.  We called the catcher and scanned the pounds.  He finally came home, dragging a chain and filthy.  There was a dead minnow caught in his coat. 
    It was during our Texas tour that Miss Kristin Carol Henrikson joined our family.  Flint had to learn to share, but he handled the new addition gracefully.  The day we brought her home from the hospital, he walked into the nursery, stood on his hind legs without touching the crib with his front paws, and gave her a good long look.  He became a terrific family dog.  We gave him lots of practice.  Thirteen months after Kristi, Beth was born, two years later, Todd joined the crew, and after a gap of five years, Sarah was born. 
     Between the first two, Duane was discharged from the service and we returned to Emporia where he joined his dad’s busy mixed animal practice.  We settled into a little Cape Cod house in my old neighborhood on Garfield Street.  (Of course, my parents no longer lived down the street…moved again.) Flint was so patient with the kids.  He would lie with them as they played in the sandbox and let them bury him in the sand.  He continued to be an escape artist.  The dog catcher and he were on first name terms.  He was an old friend in the neighborhood and would visit Mr. Howerton in the next block, taking along a tennis ball for games of fetch.  He also went to the Brunners to check for steak bones whenever he smelled barbecue.  The man across the street was not so accepting of his wanderlust.  Once he sent an engraved invitation to Flint’s funeral.
         Ours was a busy household.  The first three so close in age kept me spinning.  They were cute, well-behaved kids, but I never seemed to keep ahead of them.  They didn’t disobey, but I just didn’t always know what to tell them not to do.  For example, it never occurred to me to tell them not to wax the kitchen floor with baby oil, or not to play tether ball with croquet mallets, or not to moisten the Gravy Train by dumping all 25 pounds in the sump pump.  Still I was proud of them.  I about popped my buttons when Kristi said her first sentence, six whole words, “Why don’t you just shut up?”  And I loved Beth’s astute critique of my beef stew after pushing it around for five minutes with her spoon, “Everything in here is wet.” And Todd’s sharp, scientific explanation to his grandmother’s query in response to his inability to sit still, “No I don’t have worms.  Beth has worms.  I have itchy boy spots.”
     One day Duane came home from work and asked why I didn’t pick up some of the toys.  (You’d think he would learn, but he still poses these kinds of questions: What did you do to your hair? Are you going to wear that? Is lasagna a casserole?)  I took a deep breath and answered, “Have you ever spayed a dog and had someone come along and put the ovaries back in?  Your work stays done.  Mine does not.  Now back off, Buster.”
     When we found another Henrikson was coming, we decided we needed a bigger house.  This was my chance to get back to country living.  We began looking for a place to build on the edge of town.  We finally found twenty acres three miles west just north of Highway 50.  Flint was still with us to make the move, but by then he was fourteen years old and beginning to slow down.  The day he made one of his breaks for freedom and I was able to run him down was a tragic moment for him.  I could see the pain in his eyes.  I’ve never been known for foot speed or endurance.  We had lived in our new house for less than a month when I found him at the end of our drive, apparently lost.  His eyesight was about gone, and he didn’t know where he was.  Dr. Duane knew the time had come to put him down.  We put it off for another month, but Flint had stopped eating and hardly moved from his bed in the garage.  One of the other doctors in the practice gave the injection and we buried him in the pasture by the plum thicket. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dog Years 4

Part Four:  A Move, A Sister, and Queenie

     Just before I began school, my parents presented me with another puppy.  This dog was more appropriate for life on the farm.  She was half collie, half German shepherd.  We named her Queenie.  She was a gem; smart, loyal, and beautiful, marked like a collie with shorter hair like a shepherd.  When Queenie was about a year old, I learned I was going to have a brother or sister.  This seemed unnecessary and arbitrary.  I was six and the only child and grandchild to date, but the days were accomplished and she was delivered.  Mary Beth, small, red, and useless.  While she was being born, I was suffering, quarantined with the red measles, in a dark bedroom.  I couldn’t approach her or my mother until I was spot free.  Understandably, I was not thrilled with this situation.  I remember standing in the doorway of the bedroom while the family at large was introduced to the newest member.  My dad passed her piggybank and everyone dropped in coins.  I lobbed my plastic pig into the room from the bedroom door, but no one had any coins left.  My grandpa saved the day by stuffing a dollar in the slot in my piggy’s back.
     This was just the beginning.  Soon it became obvious that my parents valued MB more than my dog.  I got a spanking for taking Queenie for a ride in the new baby carriage.  There were shoutings about germs, hair, and fleas, but this was a huge injustice.  My dog was surely better looking and certainly more intelligent than that squalling brat.
     Other than the small matter of the sister, life in Plymouth was kid heaven.  There was a tire swing in the elm tree, a cedar with conveniently arranged branches for climbing, and a muddy, forbidden creek a half mile away for frog catching and bullhead fishing.  My friend, Nona, (a year younger and a head taller) lived less than a mile down the gravel road.  We built forts and camps in the hedgerow behind her house, which her older brother Jerry destroyed as fast as we constructed.  We played “Roy Rogers” endlessly.  Our biggest arguments were about “who had to be Dale Evans.”  Her dog, Friday, and my Queenie accompanied us everywhere.  He was a collie-type too and a valuable member of a working farm.  He brought the cows in for milking every morning and evening.  Nona’s dad, Albert, cried for days when deaf old Friday didn’t hear the tractor start, and Jerry accidentally backed over him.  
     Nona’s mother Mary and my mom had been friends since childhood.  The two of them belonged to Eastern Star, but could not afford formal dresses for one of the events, so they put an ad in the Emporia Gazette.  My dad and Albert and an anonymous accomplice called them with directions to a house in town that was brimming with just the right sort of used formalwear.  The residence, just south of the tracks on State Street, was infamous as the local whore house. 
     Time for another move, again without consulting me this time we moved to Emporia to a white colonial on Peyton Street at the edge of town near the soybean plant.  There was a huge yard complete with fish pond and a lovely arbor with a hammock and Paul Scarlet roses.  MB and I each had our own rooms upstairs.  Queenie had ten acres to roam and a barn and chicken house to keep free of rats.  But problems with the sister just got worse.  She became mobile and demanded to follow Queenie and me on all our adventures.  My mother would always respond to her begging by saying, “Take her along.”  One day I had enough.  I had made it to the edge of the pasture when she came to the gate.  “Take me,” she wailed.  “Go home, or I’ll throw this rock,” I threatened.  She didn’t, and I did, and for the first time in history, I hit what I aimed at.  It was a small rock and it made a small slit right at her hairline, dead center.  Blood promptly oozed down her turned up nose.  Screaming ensued as did another flaking.  I was heart sore and angry at the unfairness of it all.  As usual, Queenie sympathized entirely.
     Unlike Spike, she did not kill farm animals or molest persons in uniform.  Her only peccadillo was to roll in anything fetid and then go upstairs for a nap on my bed.  I forgave her for fouling my sheets, and she forgave me for frequent baths.  She learned to bring in my horse, catch escaped chickens without hurting them, jump a stick, sit up, roll over, speak on command, retrieve anything thrown, shake hands.  She loved to ride in the wagon (or the baby carriage), hunt rabbits and mice, kill snakes, and generally do whatever you asked her to do.  This was a problem the day MB directed her to jump a picket fence in the back yard.  She missed and impaled herself on one of the pickets.  The vet patched her up in short order, but it took me years to forgive my poor, contrite sister.  I can still see the puddled tears in her big brown eyes. 
     Nevertheless, coldhearted, I set about getting even.  I filled out her baby book.  She often pouted because hers was empty while mine was crammed with pictures, cards, notes, family trees, snipped hair, finger and foot prints, lists of “firsts,” cute sayings, and the beaded bracelet from the hospital with my last name.  I began with a National Geographic article about a baby albino gorilla.  This supplied most of the baby pictures.  Queenie and an inkpad provided the footprint.  In the “first haircut” spot went a hank of calf tail hair complete with a bit of manure.  First word:  “duh.”  Favorite food:  “boogers.”  The result: another flaking from my mother.
     The climax of all this animosity came when she was six and I was twelve.  Our parents had gone out and left me in charge.  I suggested we play amusement park and Mary was all for it.  We took all the cushions off the chairs and couch and piled them at the bottom of the staircase.  Then I put her in a cardboard box and shoved her down the stairs.  “Whee!”  She loved it.  Do it again.  “Whee!”  But this time the box tipped over and she hit her head on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.  I thought she was dead.  If I got a spanking for unlawful use of a baby carriage, pegging her with a rock, and filling out the baby book, what would happen if I had killed her?  By the time I rushed to the bottom of the stairs, she was sitting up and blinking.  There was a good sized lump behind her ear, but no sign of death.  She didn’t even cry.  Moreover, she didn’t tell on me.  This was a huge turning point in our relationship.  I realized I loved her and didn’t want her to die.  I saw that she valued my good opinion and wanted my approval.  The fussing stopped and we have henceforth been buddies.  She is a great person and I love her even though everything in her house matches and there is nothing in her garage but a car.  Queenie and I both forgave her for the fence fiasco.
     I began to notice that my little sister was becoming a character.  When I look back at the old 8mm movies my dad took, I notice how goofy all of us were.  Why would a group of reasonably intelligent people line up in rows and smile at the camera for a motion picture?  The only one in motion was MB.  She was that blur that streaked by in front of the group.  To this day, it is hard to get her to hold still.  One day she crossed the road to visit Mr. Purttle.  “Charlie,” she warned, “I’m going to lock you in the shed.”  He laughed, silly man.  She did.  He was locked in most of the afternoon.  His wife had to take the door off the hinges because MB threw the key in the fish pond.
    We lived in the white house on Peyton Street until I was in high school.  Just about every summer, Mary and I would travel by train to LA to visit my dad’s sisters. We had passes because dad was a switchman for the Santa Fe.   We came home from one of these trips to find we had moved again.  Big surprise.  The house on Garfield never quite felt like home. Queenie and I both missed the space and freedom, and I never really liked living in town.
     Queenie lived for twelve years.  She walked me to my first day of first grade at the old Plymouth School.  I wore new jeans with stovepipe-sized cuff rolls, a plaid cowboy shirt, saddle shoes, and a green plastic raincoat that still fit when I started junior high.  My mother was always expecting me to grow, and I never did.   I don’t think any of my kid clothes ever fit before they wore out.  (Mom made most of my clothes on her Singer Featherweight, bless her.  And bless me because I wore them without complaint.  I’ll never forget the gauzy prom dress with orange roses.)  Twelve years later, Queenie walked me to college.  Our house at 1214 Garfield was directly behind the College of Emporia campus.  A scholarship and work study (fifty cents an hour) allowed me a fine liberal arts education at a bargain price. By then Queenie’s joints were stiff and her eyes milky from cataracts.  She became incontinent and was in obvious pain.  The day we decided she should be put down, I led her to the back yard and took some pictures of her sweet face.  The family mourned and for months missed stepping over her sleeping form when we went out the back door.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dog Years 3

   Part Three:  Back to Kansas

    I was perfectly happy with 111th Street but my parents decided we should move back to Kansas.  Aunt Dot and Uncle Roy bought the place and lived there for many years.  I’m sure that is why my memories of the house and neighborhood remain vivid.  We loaded the Chevy and headed east.  I shared the backseat with Spike and a blonde console radio.  Crossing the desert with no air-conditioning and a short-nosed dog in close quarters involved much panting, snorting, and slobber.  Spike and I took turns napping among the legs of the radio and drinking 7-up from a paper cup.  We moved into an old farmhouse about eight miles from Emporia in a small village called Plymouth.  Spike had a tough time adjusting to life in the country.  He killed the neighbor’s chickens and chased cows.  Then he disappeared.  My Uncle Bud told me he had run away. 
     The community of Plymouth was home territory.  My grandparents had lived there when their children were small.  Grandpa Lehnherr ran a service station up on Highway 50.  I’ve often wished I had the hand-lettered placard he placed in the window:  “I’ll pump your gas, I’ll mind your baby.  But I only take cash, and I don’t mean maybe.”  He could have written for BurmaShave.  Another of his poems was a bit more salty.  Each morning, my grandmother served him his coffee with the sugar bowl and a small tin of condensed milk.  Next to the milk can she placed a punch type can opener.  As he poked a hole in the tin, he always said, “No tits to pull, no hay to pitch.  Just poke a hole in the sonofabitch.”  My mom’s brother, Uncle Bud and his wife Betty lived with us for a time.  The antics of he and my dad are the stuff of legend in Plymouth.  The Gossers had this black cow that was always getting out of the pasture and tromping other people’s tomatoes.  My dad and Uncle Bud caught her and made a Holstein out of her with some whitewash.  The Gossers didn’t find her until it rained.  Our neighbor, Albert Harris, was sometimes in on and frequently the victim of their escapades.  I don’t think the poor man was ever able to visit the outhouse in peace.  Someone always dropped a cherry bomb down the vent pipe.
    My mom worked in Emporia at the hospital and Aunt Betty was my day care provider.  One day she was cleaning house and discovered a coiled up snake at the back of the utility closet.  She phoned Uncle Bud at his job in town at the welding shop screaming in panic that there was a rattle snake in the closet.  He broke  a land speed record and several traffic laws covering the eight miles in less than ten minutes.  Rushing into the house, he grabbed a shotgun from the back porch, ran to the closet and blasted away.  He opened up a ragged dinnerplate-sized hole in the floor of the closet, then had some choice words to say to his wife when a closer examination proved the snake to be a coil of fringe off an old chair.  Lucky for us because if it had been a snake, he would have missed it completely.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dog Years 2

Part Two:  California and Spike    

    My parents found a puppy for me for my third birthday.  By then, we lived on 111th Street in LA where we moved from Kansas after my dad returned from fighting Hitler. His brother-in-law got him a job at the Jantzen Swim Suit factory (“Just wear a smile and a Jantzen”.)  My mother, a registered nurse, worked at small maternity hospital nearby.  Daycare was provided by Evie, my mom’s youngest sister, and Dorothy and Lucile, my dad’s sisters.  My memories of those days consist of an odd collection of disconnected details and are probably highly influenced by listening to family talk of these times and looking at those old black and white snapshots with the serrated edges.
     My aunt Evie was just twelve years older than I.  She babysat me during the summers when she was not in school.  She still claims that I was a spoiled brat.  There is some evidence, I must admit, in that direction.  My mother had a professional photographer come to the house regularly to take my picture.  I was cute.  I look in the mirror now and wonder what happened.  Evie claims I used to tell my mom everyday when she came home from work, “Aunt Evie spanked my butt,” whether she had or not.  Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cile were both married, but never had children.  They absolutely doted on our family.  Even after we moved back to Kansas, they were just a phone call or train ride away.  They took us in almost every summer and entertained us with all Southern California had to offer:  Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Marine Land, The La Brea Tar Pits (or Par Tits as Aunt Dot called them) and of course, the beach.
     I used to love the days when Aunt Dot babysat.  She was a person of amazing innocence and sweetness, a master of misspeak and constant victim of teasing from her ornery brother, my dad.  Once for breakfast at the local greasy spoon, she ordered Number Two with Pisscuits.  Part of our ritual when she came to baby sit was to take a bubble bath before my nap.  She would bring paper packets of gardenia-scented bubble powder that created foamy mounds.  One day she put off bath time saying that we needed to wait for the Postal Express man.  She was expecting a package.  I thought she meant that he was going to join us in the bath.  When he rang the doorbell, I ran to answer the door.  “Oh boy,” I gushed.  “Are you going to take a bubble bath with Aunt Dorothy and me?”  He looked over my head at a shapely, embarrassed Aunt Dot and leered, “Well, I guess that’s up to Aunt Dorothy!” 
     Our house was tiny and cute:  living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a pink tiled bath.  The driveway was two strips of concrete with grass between.  Three tree roses trimmed the front entry, a peach tree grew in the back, and a pink oleander dominated the small front lawn.  The flowers on that bush smelled like sugar cookies.  My mother warned me that they were poisonous and that I should not eat them.  Of course, I would never have thought of eating flowers if she had not mentioned it. 
     The Oliveras lived on one side.  They had many beautiful brown children and brought home tortoises every time they came back from a weekend trip to the desert.  Mr. Baker and Mrs. Cook (or vise versa, I never could remember) lived on the other side.  They had a Chihuahua that played the piano.  I was fascinated by that dog and puzzled by the disparity in the owners’ last names.  I never did get a satisfactory answer to my questions about that.
     My other memories of the place include a neighborhood kid with blond hair who came to play on occasion.  We would stretch out on our bellies on the floor and color in a coloring book.  I was frustrated by the fact that he was meticulous and slow, and I was always ready to turn the page before he was.  I also remember a neighborhood theater, The Riveola,  that played westerns.  I was in love with Roy Rogers.  My mom and Aunt Cile took me to see him at Bullocks department store.  We stood in line for hours and finally made it to Roy.  I pitched a huge fit when all I got was a pat on the head.  I wanted to talk about Trigger and Bullet and Dale and invite them all to dinner.
     Aunt Cile, wise, witty, and fun, loved to take us to the beach. Her hubby, Uncle Johnny was her perfect match.  Once while we were bobbing in the surf, a big wave knocked off the top of her twopiece.  Uncle Johnny said, “Lady, if you’re going to drown those puppies, I’ll take the one with the pink nose.”
     Anyway, back to my dog.  (Obviously, I am prone to digression…probably ADD.  My mom did get a note from the kindergarten teacher, brief and to the point: “Your daughter is restless on her rug.” And just last week I returned to the bedroom after brushing my teeth to discover that I had made just half the bed.) The dog was acquired from an ad:  “small mixed-breed puppies to give away.”  My parents have always been naive about animals.  They saw the mother, a small terrier type, but the father was “unknown.”  We named the pup Spike and he promptly grew into the name.  Dollars to donuts the dad was a pit-bull.  Spike had a square head, no neck, a fireplug body, and waddled like a weightlifter.  His coat was a lovely yellow and brown bristly brindle.  He loved me and hated anyone wearing a uniform:  meter readers, cops, and mailmen.  We got warning letters from all three departments.  The mailman was especially testy.  Part of his attitude was probably my fault because I routinely filled the mailbox with snails.