Tuesday, July 27, 2010


It was a long drive from Lowry, the yellowed-grass and nearly treeless former military base where I work, down Quebec, which can't seem to decide if it wants to be one lane or two, to the endless stretch of Hampden, which crosses over the wide lanes of I-25, down the hill to the golf course and on and on until it reaches Santa Fe, the final industrial-zoned stretch of road before I'm home. It is a grueling drive and not scenic at all. Rather I'm often choked by the diesel fumes belched out by the endless convoy of garbage trucks on their way to the landfill. The sky had turned into one long, asphalt-colored mass overhead, devoid of streaks or formations, and the first warm drops of rain were beginning to strike the windshield by the time I arrived, not enough to merit leaving the wipers on but just so much that they streaked and smeared without wiping clean away. The short walk from the car, parked under the Linden tree, which has already begun to shed it's yellowed leaves, up the thirty-seven steps to my front door, seemed impossibly long.

Until I looked up and spotted a familiar face in the darkened window, a pink tongue lolling out of a grinning mouth, ears perked up and alert.

Duncan was waiting for me, joyous and dancing. Before slipping the key into the lock and turning the knob I stood and listened to his feet on the tile, counted the erratic  rhythm of his tail beating between the door and the wall, was grateful for the sound of him before my fingers had even touched the pointed top of his lovely head, felt the wetness and soft pressure of his mouth on my wrist as he pulled me inside.

I am home, I thought. I am home where I am safe. And loved.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Double Two

The family was playing catch in the park. They, and the friends who'd joined them, were young, perhaps only in their mid-20's. It was a perfect day with temperatures in the low 70's. The sky to the north and west was threatening to cloud over but the air was warm and without a breeze. The men and their young sons had their shirts off while they tossed the ball. The grass was green all around them and because the sun was so bright the shadows of the trees were crisp and dark. The smell of hamburgers drifted across the soccer field from the grill where the two women––no more than girls, really––tended to lunch, spreading the buns and jars of condiments on the picnic table, checking the patties, chatting softly amongst themselves over the portable CD player they'd brought. Two daughters, uninterested in the baseball or the cooking were wandering across the field gathering sticks from the grass. The blond girl was taller and older than her companion, a child not yet four, who wore shorts and a diaper. When they spotted Duncan and me trotting along the edge of the hillside overlooking the big willow they stumbled toward us in that way children have when they run and their legs are still not quite yet used to it.

Duncan did not want to tend to business. Most walks he'll go as soon as I simply show him the bright green plastic bag with the words "Poopy Pouch" printed across the front beneath a cartoon of a squatting dog. Once he sees that he'll begin sniffing until he finds his spot and then, after I turn my back, will take care of things. But today he did not want to. He looked at me with the kind of vacancy most people reserve for foreigners and merely trotted along. "Duncan, go!" I urged him. "When you go we'll take a long walk down Leawood and hunt for bunnies." His ears perked at their mention but he soon lost interest. So we wandered here and there, up to the skate park and finally down to the long grass and reeds that grow around the willow. I figured the privacy might be beneficial but he didn't care and pulled me up the hillside. After wandering back and forth for a few minutes he seemed to have found what he was looking, that perfect place in the long, cool grass. It was when he started to squat that the little girls spotted us.

They squealed and ran straight toward us. "Puppypuppypuppypuppy," the little one chanted as she climbed the hill on her fat, unsteady legs. Duncan stood up quickly, as though caught in the act and wagged his tail as they approached. I sighed and put a smile on my face, giving him the hand signal to sit and wait.

They paused a few feet away. "Can we pet your dog?" the older one asked. Once I gave them permission they stepped forward and began stroking Duncan's back and shoulders, running their little fingers over his ears and across his nose. The stains on their faces and hands told me they'd been eating ice cream. Duncan began lapping at them, moving back and forth between the two until they giggled loudly.

"What is his name?" the blond asked.

"Duncan," I told her.

"Duncan," she said as though feeling the word in her mouth for the first time. "That's an awkward name," she frowned. "Are you walking Duncan?"

"I sure am," I said. "I'm trying to get him to go potty."

The older one nodded thoughtfully. The little one stepped up. "Doesn't he like to potty?" she asked.

"Sometimes he does but I think he's shy."

She nodded. "I'm not shy," she said thoughtfully. And then, a moment later added "And I like to potty." Then, without hesitation, she arched her back, farted loudly and promptly filled her diaper, grinning wildly at me as she went.

That was all the approval Duncan needed. He immediately squatted and did the same.

It's a glamorous life I lead.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love––the deepest kind of love. (Wilson Rawls)

Mrs. Coons,

I was terrified of you throughout most of the third grade and as the end of the year approached I'd find myself whispering into my pillow, hoping God would hear me, or under my breath as I entered the building at the start of the school day, passing your classroom across from the library, praying that my name would not be on your fourth grade roster at the start of the next school year. And who could blame me? You were a stern figure with a tight and set face, a mop of dark hair cut short and curling in the remnants of a beehive. Your posture was purely military, straight and rigid with your fists clenched as tight as baseballs at your side. No one wanted to be in your class because the older kids whispered rumors to us on the playground, telling us how strict and unyielding you were, what a monster you could be when angered or provoked.

But then it happened. That fall, as my mother held my hand outside the building where the classroom assignments were taped to the brick, we read my name on your roster and I thought I was going to vomit. I remember trembling and trying so hard just to walk as we took Casey to her first grade class before turning and moving down the long hallway to your room. It was with fearful steps that I crossed your threshold and scanned the desks for my name before taking my seat. I remembered Jimmy Little on his first day of third grade, entering Mrs. Ashton's classroom, crying hysterically and vomiting all over the oblong carpet at the front of the room. The moment it happened I knew that we would forever remember Jimmy, taller than the rest of us, yellow-haired and impossibly thin, like a piece of straw. He was forever set in our minds, retching and sputtering, tears streaming down his face, flailing and screaming. And years later, when he played football for the rival high school, I kept that image in my mind and told the few football player friends I had that beneath it all he was just a frightened, puking child. I refused to be a Jimmy Little, refused to spill my guts on the floor or even let my mother know how terrified I was. I watched her slip away and turned to the friends from the previous year who'd also had the misfortune to be assigned to you.

Of course you were everything that had been reported to us by the survivors of your classroom, but you were also so much more and I had no idea that to this day you would become the teacher I most miss, the one I still yearn to find and thank. That was the year Paul Hunt, the chubby kid from Manitoba, was my best friend, the year I had an insane crush on Marlies Rowe, the pretty red-headed girl, the year I learned the difference between there, their and they're, the year I first read Where the Red Fern Grows, and the year I learned to write.

We had weekly writing assignments and while my classmates––Todd Bell, who would go on to become the all-state wrestling champ, Brandon Carter, a talented artist who would squander it on drugs and booze by the 8th grade, and David Davis, who we knew was gay before we knew what gay was––dreaded the chore, I loved it and they loved my love of it. At the end of the week we had to read our stories aloud standing at our desks, but you always asked the class whose story they wanted to hear first. Mine, inevitably, was always chosen. I remember writing about an Excedrin headache even though I didn't know what one was. At Thanksgiving there was a story about Squanto and the pilgrims that had the class laughing. At Christmas before you got sick and left us I read a story about two toothbrushes falling in love and though I had grown use to the approval of my classmates it was your smile and laughter I most sought.

And then you were gone. You explained that you were sick and would be taking some time away from us. Mrs. Hegstead, the daughter of my neighbor, took over the class for the rest of the year, and although she was warm and wonderful, short and pink-cheeked, fun in every way, she was not you. In desperation I remember hunting for your name in the phone book and being shocked to find it. I called you to read you a story, apologized for disturbing you but you assured me I could call and read to you any time I liked. And so I did, checking in with you every few weeks, feeling more and more at ease with each conversation. I read and reread Where the Red Fern Grows because it was your favorite book. And at the end of the year, when you came to our party and told us you'd be moving to Boulder, Colorado to live with your son, I was heartbroken that I would not see you again. But as the final bell rang and the classroom emptied, you slipped me a card with a note that read, "Curt, you must promise me you will never stop writing, that you will always strive to bring a smile to the faces of others as you have done with your classmates and with me." I have it still. Thirty years later.

Today, walking Duncan in the warm rain, the sky dark but somehow golden above us, I saw a solitary figure on the far side of the park, a woman with a dark maroon coat and a concrete posture, standing and watching Roo run through the drops before throwing himself for a roll in the wet grass. I tensed and thought of you, filling up with the kind of love that only the fondest of memories can bring. And then almost immediately I knew it wasn't you, couldn't be, because certainly after all this time you wouldn't be here any more. But those memories were pleasant and warm and I thought of all the things I'd tell you if I could, that I still write every day, that that book you read to us––all except the last chapter which you asked me to read because Billy burying Old Dan and Little Ann always made you cry––shaped my life, and that his love for his dogs has carried over into my own life and had a profound impact on me. I wanted you to know that without your presence that year, and your encouragement, I would not be the person I am.

Thank you, Margo Coons, for helping shape the man I have become and the love I have for this dog who calls me his own.

It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years.
Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new,
just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face.
(Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows)

Monday, July 12, 2010

"This is the Place to Go Now"

A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and such a speed... It feels an impulsion... this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond the horizon. (Richard Bach)

Last night, after the afternoon rain that put an early end to the annual Colorado Irish Festival at the park, Duncan and I ventured out in the cool evening for our walk. Duncan was distracted by the smell of all the dropped treats, and I was distracted by him, keeping my eye on him to make sure he didn't get into anything he shouldn't. The air smelled, as it has for weeks, of Linden blossoms, and tasted luscious on the tongue with each breath I took. The grass, still damp, was cold on my open toes, but tickled as I passed through it. Duncan convinced me to tromp with him through the puddles and we were so focused on what was happening at our feet that neither of us noticed what was happening in the skies above until after I got home and sat down at my desk.

We stood in the window for a very long time, watching the sun do what it does best with the clouds, play and caress, tousle and agitate. I could hardly breath as I realized that I am fortunate to have such a view and that such things should never be taken for granted.

Bigger than mountains and cities, fierce and full of rapture, they sat there unseen by so many passing directly beneath them, as unappreciated as the air we breath. And yet we'd be lost and forsaken without them.

I am grateful for this life of mine, as difficult as it can be, and grateful for this good, red dog walking at my side. Duncan and these colors and this sky are enough to sustain me for all the days to come.

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone,
but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. (Martin Luther)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Down to the River

I have never been much of a churchgoer but I do believe that we take the voice of The Universe with us wherever we go. And so on a hot July morning Duncan and I attended the church of our choice, a beautiful spot down at the river where we were able to celebrate in our own unique fashion.