Thursday, August 27, 2015

It's a Dog's Life

There's Skaggs...gray muzzled and shaggy, slow to rise, memorialized forever on a snowy trail in the Missouri woods by my mother's paintbrush.  And Nip and Tuck, gargantuan leaping licking Labs, terrifyingly huge as they clawed the back door of our 1960s Dodge Darts.  In their puppyish exuberance, they could and would knock over small children. These were the first dogs I remember, the dogs that met us in the driveway of Granny and Grandpa's country home.

Patty was Uncle Dean's dog, a speckled Pointer who patrolled her yard tirelessly, eyeing us like possible prey with her watchful restless golden eye.  I knew nothing of hunting dogs, but read Dean's library of hunting and fishing books voraciously, developing a healthy respect for the diligence and instincts of bird dogs.
We were petless when we moved from Chicago to the farm in Calloway county until Grafin came along.  She was just a pup, part collie and whatever else.  She had tender liquid brown eyes and an amazing fur coat.  When happy, she was all pink tongue and wag.  Laura and I showered her with attention, but, like kids will, she flourished under the rules and discipline of my father, sitting, staying and coming when called.  All dogs loved my mother, sensing, no doubt, the inner sweetness of spirit she possesses.  Unlike the neighbor's fierce and frightening German Shepherds, Grafin was a gentle spirit, a companionable presence, a welcoming committee to visitors.  She was the farm dog from  my high school years, college, and a move to a new farm yard and garden in Moniteau county.  There, thinner under all that fur and white up to her eyes, she would still bestir herself to come up to the car and meet two more young girls, Lee and Ann.  Some time before she passed, my folks brought two new puppies into the fold, Maggie and Maud.  One of our very favorite photos shows a very young Lee in a summery outfit of t shirt and Pampers, bending down to give Maudie a smooch.  I don't think I am stretching when I describe Maud's expression as beatific.
By that time, our family had a dog of our very own.  Our first doggie was an adoptee we saw on the evening newscast in Columbia while we were just married and still in college.  We weren't looking for a dog, but the puppies described as part Doberman and part German Shepherd somehow grabbed our attention and Juno, just a little thing, nearly all black with a tail that threatened to absolutely wag the dog, stole our hearts.  Every weekend that spring, she traveled back and forth from Columbia to northwest Missouri where we worked on our little rental house instead of farming that rainy rainy spring.  She curled up quietly on the floor behind the driver's seat and spent most of the trip snoozing.  The neighbor's dog would terrorize her if we left her tied up at the duplex in Columbia, so, she joined up indoors during the week, always a lady. Soon, she had no need for that dispensation, growing long tan legs and the stature of her forebears.

Juno thought of herself as a farmhand, not a farm dog.  She left with Blake every morning, whether that meant riding alongside him in the pickup or atop the tool box in the back.  Most days she'd run in front of whatever implement he was driving....a tractor cultivating corn or disking stalk ground.  Harvest time would find her waiting patiently in the truck cab or even the cab of the tractor running the unloading auger.  The best days in dog-dom were spent tirelessly chasing whatever critters were scared up by the combine....rabbits, mice, pheasants, or those little whirring gray birds you only see after dark in the combine lights.  We'd always wonder if she'd take a day off after those long evenings, but first thing in the morning, Juno would be ready and waiting to leap up into the cab when Blake opened the door.

Our farm attracted dogs like a picnic does ants.  Word somehow got out on the canine network that any abandoned, lost, or dumped dog with a friendly aspect and a sad story would be fed and patted and not run off by the dogs already in residence.  A family of four...and then five...soon had a commensurate number of dogs swarming the front door when they heard us stirring, meeting the bus when kids got on in the morning and off in the afternoon.  Dogs with all matter of idiosyncrasies and foibles called our wide open spaces home....Tommy and Holly drove me to distraction as puppies, un-digging new roses, shrubs, and perennials with which I attempted to civilize the barren yard.  I could only hope Lee and Ann did not understand the epithets I screamed at the uncomprehending puppies as I chased them through the yard with some desiccated plant body.  Frisky was a beautiful black dog, sleek and affectionate, but with an insatiable desire to drag clothes off the line.  Mister was another stranger that made himself at home off the street: he was too well mannered to jump on us, but the kids loved to lift his paws so he would 'dance' with them.  Bob was big all over, with a giant head and soulful eyes.  He was smart, friendly, and knew enough tricks that we were certain someone would come looking for him. To our combined delight and concern, Bob outdid himself at the 4th of July, pursuing lighted fireworks of all sizes and ferocity and attempting to fetch them.  When other dogs were AWOL under the porch, we had no choice but to confine Bob for his own safety.

The downside of a  farm dog's life is its danger.  The listing of beloved animals that fell prey to trailer and truck tires by accident or sheer wanton stupidity is long and sad and reads like the lyrics of a Lyle Lovett song:

Now there was great Uncle Julius
And there was Aunt Annie Mueller
And Mary and granddaddy Paul
And there was Hanna and Ella
And Alvin and Alec and he owned his own funeral hall

And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song
But I feel them watching and I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along

Indeed, our doggy friends come and go, sometimes a brief time, others living out their long warm days under the elms by the back door.  They are as much a part of our landscape as the wind. 

A farm without dogs is missing a piece of its soul......

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"What Remains After One Has Forgotten What One Has Learned in School"

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. 
 ~Albert Einstein

The dews of  August bend the soybeans over and change the grass from green to silver.  The sun has not yet awakened the cicadas of whatever cycle we are in, so the morning is still enough that I hear the bus coming from two miles off...even before the dust cloud is visible. It may still be summer, but today is the first day of school.
Inside our farm house, it is anything but quiet.  The sink is full of breakfast dishes and Blake has stuck around to enjoy a second cup of coffee and see the kids off before heading off to work.  There are backpacks on the floor and hair being fixed in front of the mirror in the bathroom.  There are new shirts on their backs and new tennis shoes on their feet.  I grab my camera for the first day of school picture.  This is tradition:  it will take its place in the scrapbooks that constitute our family history whether someone's eyes are closed, their mouth open, or the dogs disrupt the whole process.  
Like so much of memory, this vision is a composite.  The little yellow Westboro bus first came to pick up Lee in 1984. A half day of kindergarten was deemed sufficient back then, but even though her sister would be home for lunch, Annie's mornings dragged on.  She was ready to get on that bus and go to kindergarten, too.
Miss Walter was the kindest, gentlest introduction to public school that one could ever imagine.  All three kids seemed to find a home in the cavernous room next to the school library, even Ann, whose childhood psychosis with regard to show and tell was only partially overcome in the last week of kindergarten.  At that time, Miss Walter reported to us her success in "showing", if not "telling" about whatever she had taken to school that week.  Never a big deal...just a smile about this particular unexplained foible at the end of each quarterly teacher's conference.

My grade school alma mater was Orland Park School, south of Chicago about 30 miles. The playground there in the 1960s was a wonder of height and speed and danger, just like the one at Westboro R-4.  Back in the day, slides were steep and merry-go-rounds encouraged speed and risk and Lord only knows how many knocked out teeth and concussions.  Westboro is the only place I've ever seen the thing my kids called 'the Tangler', but it must have been both hazardous and durable. The swingset at Orland was so tall that persistent pumping would allow a kid to reach the overhanging branches of the full grown oaks nearby.  We never jumped from the swings at that playground because it was graveled, but out at Orland Center, the ground cover was grass and jumping from the swings was never discouraged by adult supervision because there was none until the bell rang to go indoors. We all adored our principal, Mr. Callahan. He was broad shouldered and always surrounded by yelling laughing kids that he would hoist and flip over his shoulder back to the ground.

The recent release of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie reminds me that all the boys played Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin the year I was in 4th grade.
There were 'good' teachers and 'bad' teachers; I differentiated between the two by the level of chaos and disorder in the room.  My second grade teacher was a tiny frantic young woman who hadn't a clue how to make peace with the swarming mass of baby boomers in her stuffy classroom, even though her successor, my third grade teacher, a stout scowling woman with a swarthy complexion, a moustache, and a bass voice, controlled the same group with sarcasm and the use of surnames.  My hapless fourth grade teacher never finished a lesson and retired after our class passed through to fifth grade.

But Mrs. Broderick, our fifth grade teacher, ran a tight ship.  She knew who was trouble before we sat down the first day and segregated them in the far row next to the windows. She assigned projects for every unit; I wrote reports about Antietam and constructed dioramas of Plains Indian villages and George Washington's camp at Valley Forge.  Our class field trip was to Stateville Prison in Joliet.  After school hours.  At night.  We had a sizable contingent of parent chaperones. Object lesson?  Pre-emptive strike? From this distance in time, I can only presume. Mrs. Broderick was calm, collected, unflappable, steely and if I personally admired her, we all obeyed her.

But the disorder of the '60s was as close as sixth grade. Maps of North and South Vietnam were taped in the hallway. Mr. Swanson showed our class Russian propaganda films every week and taught us the Cyrillic alphabet, let us "learn" math on our own in the coat closet, and watch the World Series during class on the school's black and white television.  He was laconic, 6'6", and cursed with a dreadful complexion. We rode roughshod over any class structure and wrote 100 sentences about how we would not be mean to our teacher for our transgressions.

 I do remember the Russian words for 'window' and 'goodbye'.

My point? That children remember the teachers of their formative years far longer than anyone expects, for good and for ill. That order and structure...and chaos and confusion.... may leave a greater impression on kids not yet in their double digits than the thirst for knowledge.

And that the antidote to all that structure?  To be permitted run faster, swing higher, and kick harder when it's time for recess....

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


When summer opens, I see how fast it matures, and fear it will be short; but after the heats of July and August, I am reconciled, like one who has had his swing, to the cool of autumn.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every year, August lashes out in volcanic fury, rising with the din of morning traffic, its great metallic wings smashing against the ground, heating the air with ever-increasing intensity.
Henry Rollins

"All in all, it was a never-to-be-forgotten summer — one of those summers which come seldom into any life, but leave a rich heritage of beautiful memories in their going — one of those summers which, in a fortunate combination of delightful weather, delightful friends and delightful doing, come as near to perfection as anything can come in this world."
― L.M. MontgomeryAnne's House of Dreams

Where do you come down on August?  Thumbs up or thumbs down? Does turning the page fill you with foreboding? Or regret?  Do the days of August flutter away into the haze as the Monarch butterflies migrate?  Or do you feel trapped, cramped, imprisoned by heat, humidity, insects, or regret for the promises of summertime unfulfilled? Is Nature's bounty a cornucopia of tasty treats to be savored fresh today and preserved for the cold days tomorrow?  Or do you avert your eyes from the jungle of foxtail, bindweed,  grasshoppers and assorted crawly beasties that used to be characterized as a garden? Do you anticipate the broadcast of your favorite baseball team...or have pre-season football rankings captured your allegiance?

Like Janus, August is two faced, a time of beginnings and transitions, of doors and gateways,of change. August has one foot in the door of summer and one on the steps of fall. 

A quick trip through Augusts past confirms these dual personalities:

August is a month of fairs....4H and FFA, hogs and sweat, mud and sand and ribbons.

Following the fairs..and the conclusion of projects four-legged and not, August is a time for vacations, for seeing America, for keeping cool, for catching up with friends and family far away, for one last hurrah before school bells ring.

It is the month of sons and daughters go back to college...or leave home for the first time.

August is a month of storms.  When we first came back to farm, we'd watch the weather map anxiously, waiting  for a Gulf Coast hurricane to come up from the south, break the July drought, and give our soybeans a good soaking.  More recently, August has blown in violently with destructive winds  flattening the ripening corn and turning the mum patch into a tedious game of 5000 pot pickup. August giveth and August taketh away. August can be synonymous with catastrophe.

But August can be a time to gather as well.  To dig and dry the onions when the ground softens.  To take advantage of all the ways that tomatoes can be canned. To choose the magic moment for picking grapes for jam that glows in a jar like the visual essence of summer. For eating apples off the tree while we water, grabbing a half dozen to bake the first new crop apple loaves, setting aside a half bushel in the 60 year old frosty refrigerator to use til the winter apples come in.

 August is a month of cakes and celebrations If  we all lived closer together, we would barely finish one round of desserts before we would blow out the candles on another one with three birthdays in ten days. Levi's birthday starts the birthday fortnight, a continuing feast of thanks for  him, for Ben on the 15th and for Matt on the 20th.  August: a month of new lives and new beginnings in our family.

If you are country people like we are, August brings  a new school year.  The kids have gotten their letters in the mail assigning them to their new classes in their new grade. The school supplies await in plastic bags and almost everyone needs new tennis shoes and jeans.  Aaron and Matt start EA football practice and Lee will drive Gabe over to Burlington Junction to learn the ropes of flag football.  Abbie and Lizzie sign up for the fall's dance classes with Miss Annie.  Josh will start back to Honeytree.  No more kids' laughter at the pool, no more wet towels and swimsuits for the puppies to chew through at the farm. Summer may not end with the advent of school, but the swimming season does.

And, finally, way at the end of August,  we raise our glass for one more celebration.  Some years we mark it; some years it gets no more than a passing mention.  But years ago, when we believed we were grownups, Blake and I wed, and somehow, through all the years, we have held tightly to that partnership, that bond, as we raised our children, struggled with our business, enjoyed the ups and endured the downs of both, and gloried in the happiness and blessings we did not earn.  August may show us its happy face or its scowl from one year to the next, but on the 27th, we breathe a sigh of relief and say, Thanks! Made it another year!

Bring on September!