Horsing Around

I was in Tallahassee recently, when I noticed several men in business suits wearing cowboy boots.  I guess that’s ok…, but I’m pretty sure that boots were originally intended to be worn while riding a horse. And these guys certainly had not ridden to the capital or anywhere else for that matter.  I suppose if you asked them, they’d tell you the boots were comfortable and that they liked the way they looked.  Well… fair enough. But I think it’s also a way to pay homage to a particular lifestyle or tradition.  This got me thinking about some of the “old Florida traditions” that we hang on to or even romanticize about in connection with raising cattle, which has been a way of life for generations here in Florida.  As far as my family goes, I suspect that the “cracker cowboy” part of our family tradition may have ended with my father… and here’s why.
I know that many of you love horses and that’s just fine by me.  My mother loves horses too.  But me… not so much.  Although I am actually pretty good on horseback and I’ve got a lot of experience with them, those experiences have been laced with some pretty painful incidents.
I’ve been kicked, thrown to the ground, head-butted, bitten, stepped on and scraped off on trees by these… animals.  Don’t get me wrong, they are magnificent and powerful creatures and I really admire their stamina and beauty, but unlike a reliable and blissfully mindless jeep or ATV, they have a mind of their own.  A mind that delights in purposefully and without warning jumping sideways, leaving you like a flipped coin on your head, or on your tail, in the palmettos. They then stay just beyond your reach, pausing now and then to taunt you… leaving you to follow them like some kind of sand spur covered horse stalker.


They also demonstrate this equestrian sense of humor when you’re saddling them.  One of their favorite pranks is to simply stand on one of your feet.  They wait until you’re distracted, adjusting the saddle, then they casually side step pretending not to notice as you flail around, howling and shoving uselessly on their thousand pound bodies.  They will eventually let you go with an amused snort, but only so that they can set you up for their next “bit”.  As you chinch up the saddle (while standing on your one good foot) they swell up their belly so that despite all your tugging and pulling and putting your knee in their girth, the saddle will only get as tight as they want it to be.  The punch line generally comes about 15 minutes into the ride, when the horse exhales and you spin around upside down under his belly.  My dad used to stubbornly ride the horse upside down for a couple of hundred feet. I suppose it was an attempt to prove to the horse that my dad had purposefully swung around in order to inspect the trail conditions… with his face.

To my relief, we sold our last horse a long time ago, but periodically I still somehow get talked into going trail riding.  It’s actually something that many of you may enjoy and it’s a great way to experience Florida. The local outfitters are very competent and unlike me, they manage to keep well trained horses. But as my luck would have it, on my last family trip out west the outfitter had one horse that had ‘behavioral issues’.  As she was carefully matching up horses with riders, I quietly waited with my arms crossed for the inevitable.  “So are any of you experienced riders?”  Silence.  No one ever volunteers for this kind of mission.  Minutes later, I threw my hands in the air, finally surrendering to fate.  “O.k., o.k… go ahead and put me on “Psycho”.  Fifteen minutes later, as I rode upside down hanging from Psycho’s belly, I stubbornly stayed in the saddle, inspecting the trail with my face.


The family tradition lives on.

A Dogs Life

me and willieThe first day of school! All the distant memories associated with sending my kids off to school for twelve years came back to me when two of my employees told me that they were taking the day off so they could see their children off on their first day. I thought it was great that they could take the time to do this, because it was something that back in the 1980’s, I wasn’t able to do. I did however have my best friend Willie, who every school day from elementary through middle school escorted my twin sons Nick and Neil to the bus stop. And at the end of the day, regular as clock work, he would patiently wait by the side of the road so he could walk them safely home. Even though Willie never had any children of his own, he obviously considered Nick, Neil and Megan his kids and loved them unconditionally. He was one of the best friends I will ever have and a credit to his species. Willie was a Golden Retriever.

I know that it sounds a little irresponsible to put a dog in charge of your kids, but this was back in 1980’s in Bonita Springs, when it wasn’t that unusual to see a dog running around, and Willie was smarter than most of the humans around him and way more dependable. After the kids got on the bus, Willie would trot off to work. His day consisted mostly of eating an occasional gopher turtle, crunching cans up into little pieces, checking in on our neighbors and sleeping in the dirt.

When I would come home after work, Willie would run up to the door of the truck and sit looking up at me with those big brown eyes, waiting patiently to report in on his activities that day and to get some well-deserved hugs. Through all the turmoil surrounding that time in my life, he was always there, and we went along pretty much without a hitch until the boys got older and started walking to Bonita Middle School.

The boys were at the age when they were a little embarrassed to have a parent or guardian, especially a four legged, slobbering, hairy one, walk them to the door of the school. So every morning they would try to fool Willie into neglecting his job. But Willie saw through every plan, every bowl of yummy treats, and would end up catching the boys before they got to Old 41, about three blocks away. This was a dog that I swear, without formal training, could understand English. So when the boys were yelling “Go home Willie!!” He knew exactly what they meant. But he also knew what his job was… to take care of his kids. Once they were safely inside, he would hang around for a bit to make sure they stayed there, and then run home, carefully looking both ways when he crossed Old 41.

But the older the boys got the more they would try to get Willie to stay home. Apparently, this caused Willie to react like most parents would. He got a little needy and embarrassingly protective. Soon it wasn’t enough to just drop them off at school. He figured out their class schedule and began stalking them! The boys would be sitting in a classroom and suddenly one of their classmates would yell out “Hey, there’s Willie!” and the entire class would start laughing. Nick and Neil would be mortified because there he would be, sitting there at the window watching his kids carefully. It was endearing and a little creepy at the same time. The teachers and principal never complained or called the dogcatcher. Like everyone else, they had gotten to know, love and trust Willie.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the boys soon started high school and since Cypress Lake High School was a little out of his range, Willie’s paternal attention was redirected to my daughter Megan. He watched over her for the next several years, as he and I both grew older and grayer. Then, way too soon, Willie passed away.

Dogs have been watching over humans for thousands of years, but no matter how dear they are to us, they are only here for a brief time. For a while, I felt it wasn’t fair that fate had taken him from us and left us on our own. But then Molly, Murphy, Winston and now our lovable dear friend Yogi picked up where Willie left off, somehow finding their way into our lives to watch over us. I think George Carlin was right… in many ways “Life is a series of dogs!” If it is, then life is truly good.

Payment due on the Fourth of July

Yogi hates the Fourth of July. Now, don’t judge! He’s not unpatriotic, he’s an all American dog… he just hates fireworks. And since people in Bonita are always looking for an excuse to shoot fireworks I suppose I can safely add New Years, Christmas, Easter, your mom’s birthday and National Cheetos Appreciation Day to his list as well.

Unlike some dogs, he doesn’t appear to be afraid of fireworks, they just seem to make him angry. So on these special days, but particularly the 4th and for about a week leading up to the 4th, he spends most of the evening running laps around the house from window to window, across the couch, over and on top of my face and stomach and then out into the yard through the ever thickening smoke and then back again, looking for whoever is responsible for ruining his evening. I don’t personally participate in setting off fireworks anymore… but I think he suspects that somehow I may have had something to do with the creation of this custom in our city. He might be right.

As kids growing up in Bonita we had access to maybe three firecrackers each. So if all 20 of us got together, the thrill would only last for a few seconds. Occasionally, somebody would produce one of the legendary and deadly Cherry Bombs or M-80’s. Just before they would light one they would always announce, “This is like a quarter stick of dynamite!” After it went off and your ears quit ringing, firecrackers (and everything else for that matter) would never sound the same. This is where the story gets a little dicey, because after witnessing a couple of these mini explosions, my friend Steve and I were convinced that we could improve on the M-80 design. After all, we were almost 12 years old, and would build it in secret without the permission or the knowledge of our parents, so what could possibly go wrong?

For the sake of everyone who would rather not blow them self up like an idiot I will not divulge the details of our creation and will also add… DON’T DO ANYTHING LIKE THIS EVER! IT’S STUPID AND INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS! But when the 4th of July finally rolled around that hot summer, Steve and I took our newly designed M-8000, which was the same size as a box of kitchen matches, down the railroad tracks, across the trestle to the old railroad yard. Ironically it is the same exact place that the city, under direction of the MAYOR (me) and City Council, currently sets off its annual fireworks! Coincidence? Maybe…

After we set the M-8000 carefully on the railroad track we finally became a bit apprehensive about lighting the half-inch long fuse. So after a long volley of “You light it!” “NO, YOU light it!” we set up two sparklers so that they would have to burn down before lighting the fuse. We lit the sparklers, ran like hell to a place about a hundred yards away, laid down on the tracks and waited.

Minutes ticked by. “Man! Sparklers burn really slow!” I said as I let my forehead rest on the railroad tie. Steve rose up a bit and squinted. “It’s just getting to the fuse!” We covered our ears and grimaced as the sparkling stopped. Nothing. We waited. Finally we both stood up, staring into the blackness. Steve whispered to me. “I don’t think that….” and then a blinding flash of light and an earth shattering BOOM! Suddenly we were sitting back on the ground again covered in gravel and dirt. My ears were ringing and I could barely see as I brushed the dirt off. Then I turned to Steve. “HOLY MOLY that was…. Steve… STEVE!” Steve had noticed all the lights coming on in the Liles Hotel and was already making his way over the river and trestle towards home. Then I heard voices from across the tracks. “Time to go!” I said out loud and off I ran never to dabble in the idiotic art of amateur fireworks design again.

So this 4th of July, I suspect you will find my wife and I sitting in our safe, comfortable lawn chairs at beautiful Riverside Park watching the City’s spectacular fireworks show go off behind the very same Liles Hotel. Then, I will go home, stretch out on the couch and let our dog Yogi trample me for hours… fair payment due for a past indiscretion.

Old Dogs

Our dogs Molly and Winston have become old dogs. Molly is graying, overweight and cranky. She waddles around the house like an oversized stuffed pepper, eating anything she can find. Around 7 pm she stares at my wife and me until one of us picks her up and puts her on the couch so she can watch The Wheel. When she gets tired of our company we set her back on the floor and she slowly walks into the bedroom so she can sleep alone. Our once trim, athletic Jack Russell now seems chronically tired and a little depressed.

Our rescue Winston has become the Old Eccentric Uncle of the house. He is still trim, but he’s stinky, deaf, near blind, and more than a little forgetful. His Terrier courage seems to have left him as he now startles easily and yips at the slightest touch. Quite often at dusk he stands motionless in the front yard, gazing intently for hours towards the western horizon. Lori thinks he’s waiting for his previous owner to come back for him… romantically looking off into the distance for the return of a lost love. But, since I too am becoming an old dog, I know that puzzled look on his face. He just can’t remember why he went outside. Just put a set of car keys in one paw and a grocery bag in the other and he’s me… trying to figure out where he parked at Publix.

The dogs and I occasionally forget that we aren’t young dogs anymore. But, we can’t help it. There are powerful instincts at work here… to chase the rabbit, to lift the refrigerator, to fight the pit bull, to do a handstand on the pool deck… to feel the thrill of getting away with something reckless again. Oh, we old dogs can still accomplish some young dog stunts, but in the end, there is almost always a price to pay.

Last week in Georgia, Winston, inspired by the mountain air, began running around the pond like a young pup. He was going full speed, ears flopping in the wind, tongue hanging out, smiling a big doggy smile. You could almost hear him yelling FREEDOM as he rounded the corner, trying to leap onto the dock. Unfortunately his vision isn’t what it was and he jumped five feet to soon, causing him to plow face first into the side of the dock. After he ricocheted off of the dock he fell into the water, yipping and flailing around, trying to keep from drowning. I know it sounds horrible, but the water was only three inches deep. So as soon as he finally stood up and realized he was relatively unharmed, he skulked over and hid behind the air conditioner for the rest of the morning, his confidence and pride shaken for days.

Molly, on the other hand, no longer runs much. Mostly because she’s shaped like a melon and the slightest bump or rise in the ground causes her skinny little front legs to collapse and her chin to skid on the ground. But also because she’s content to take it easy as she wades around in the pond or rides with me on the four- wheeler. That is, until she sees a soccer ball. Instantly (albeit briefly) she becomes a young super dog again… obsessively barking while she chases and herds the ball like a world champion soccer player, punching it like a seal with her snout. She used to carry on like that for hours, but now she will suddenly stop after a few minutes and walk back to the air conditioning of the house, her Kibble and her blanket. She has become a dog quite aware of and content with her limitations.

As for myself, after 45 years in the construction trade I still cannot resist the temptation to grab the sledgehammer out of the hands of a twenty-year-old and show him how it’s done. Although it feels good to be the big dog, rather quickly my body gives me a painful and not so subtle hint and I casually hand off the 16-pound hammer back to the rookie along with a firm pat on his back. On the drive back to the office I assess the damage I’ve done to myself, stretching out the familiar spasms in my shoulder and lower back while burying my face in the air conditioning.

When I limp home that night I do so with a smile, because I am no longer discouraged by the limitations of my age and the mileage on my body. I’m proud to have earned them… and to curl up on the couch with some kibble and a blanket next to Molly and Winston.

For the Love of Cheetos

Every morning I wake up and let our dogs Molly and Winston outside. Not because I want to… but because they MAKE me! As I try to wring out an extra 15 minutes of sleep… Molly sits there next to the bed… staring at me, growling. Then, every minute or so, she’ll jump up and punch me, kangaroo style with both her little Jack Russell hooves. Like any responsible pet owner I try to wave her away, my face still buried in the pillow. It finally takes Winston (a.k.a. Mr. Buzzard Breath), to wake me up. One lick on my face and a strong exhale from him and I’m awake… and nauseous.

As soon as my feet hit the floor both dogs become the happiest creatures on the planet… smiling little doggie smiles, spinning around in circles, running at full speed through the house. No, not because they have to go outside… but because they get two dog biscuits when they come back inside. Personally, I just don’t get. Dog biscuits are hard, dry as dust and taste like they’re made out of dried mud and straw. (Yes, I tried one.)

But to our dogs, biscuits are ambrosia! They love and crave them beyond all reason, and without knowing or caring what they’re made of. As they come barreling in the house after their frantic “tour” of the backyard, they spin, jump, beg, walk on their front legs, do card tricks, ride unicycles… whatever it takes to get a biscuit from me. Once they snap the precious cardboard flavored “bone” out of my fingers they rush off to opposite sides of the house so they can crunch up their rock hard cookies in private, all the while making little yummy noises of delight. It actually makes me a little envious. What must it be like to love and crave a treat that much? Especially one that’s not exactly “food.” You guessed it… this is where the Cheetos come in.

I suppose we all have our own “dog biscuit,” and yesterday, as I stood alone in the supermarket checkout line, I realized what mine was. Cheetos… the crunchy kind. I casually looked around. There were no witness’. I snagged a bag off of the rack and quickly laid them down between the salad mix and almond milk. Once I was safely in the car I ripped open the bag and wolfed down crunchy, salt loaded handfuls of the florescent orange, extruded then fried…I don’t know… Corn guts? Whatever! I really didn’t care… They’re delicious! As I upended the bag and poured the tasty last crumbs into my mouth, I made a little “dog yummy sound” and then felt a twinge of guilt. I knew they weren’t good for me and that if my wife found out that I had eaten an entire bag of Cheetos… I was in big trouble. I stuffed the empty bag under the car seat and began licking my paws like a cat while driving down the road. I know… it’s disgusting behavior… but I also know that some of you understand and know it was the right thing to do!

Pulling into our driveway, I quickly checked my clothes for orange crumbs, grabbed an armload of bags and then headed inside. “Hi Honey!” I said, plopping the grocery bags up on the counter. My wife Lori stopped doing her bookwork and looked at me over her glasses. “So, did you enjoy your Cheetos?” My mouth dropped open. (I mean really! How does she do that?) I started to protest, but then I realized that I was sporting bright orange fingers and lips.

Now, I can argue the merits of a case with the best of them, but trying to justify eating an entire bag of dog biscuits… I mean… Cheetos, is apparently beyond my capacity, so all that would come out of my throat was a choked and feeble “errr…Ahhhh.” Of course our dogs… “Mans Best Friends”… were sitting there next to Lori (traitors!) with their smiley dog faces, anxiously waiting to see how I would earn my Cheetos.

Since I am no longer capable of walking on my hands without serious injury to myself or the furniture, I am happy to report that the dogs and I have come to an agreement.

We shook paws on it and then celebrated by sharing a biscuit… the crunchy kind.

Dog to the Rescue

If you watch the news or read the paper it’s quite easy to become discouraged about how people treat each other.  Compassion, understanding and tolerance seem to be in short supply.  But someone always seems to come along just in time to restore my faith in the human heart.

My wife and I are “Dog People”.  We don’t really own a dog; we just share a home with an 11-year-old Jack Russell Terrier named Molly.  Now, we love Molly very much, but she does have a few quirks.  She will go from calm, sweet and loving to spinning around in one place for no apparent reason, to staring at the last known location of a lizard for hours, then straight to her “Sling-Blade” character who will attack a dog the size of a horse or the top of our friend Cheryl’s head (sorry again Cheryl).  So, naturally my wife Lori and I wanted another dog… not a different one mind you…ANOTHER one. Continue reading