come stroll among the wildflowers

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.