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.

Alone Under the October Moon

“Come on Joe… Let’s go camping this weekend,” I pleaded over the phone in my preadolescent voice. But Joe couldn’t. He was in trouble from our last camping trip. I was determined to go anyway, so I went downstairs into our family’s hardware store and asked my Dad if he would drop me off with my camping gear east of town and pick me up in the morning. He didn’t look up as he worked with a torch, rosining a new tip onto a fishing pole. “By yourself?” he asked, a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Yep!” I said proudly. He nodded at the truck outside. “Alright… load it up!”

As we drove through the woods that evening I kept waiting for some advice, parental or otherwise, like “Don’t get eaten by a panther!” or “Don’t set yourself on fire!” That’s why my buddy Joe was in trouble. He had a habit of over tending a campfire by casually kicking the logs around with his bare foot. So when he returned home last weekend with one leg of his pants burned off, his mom seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. Anyway… Dad didn’t say a word as I unloaded my camping gear next to a dry creek bed. He didn’t even shut the truck off! “See you in the morning!” he said and then… he drove away.

I looked around and immediately felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. It was the first time I had ever been truly alone. It was just me, versus my busy little imagination. (Whoa… I’ve got to shake this feeling off. It’s OK… I’ll feel better if I get busy.) So I began setting up the tent, and starting a fire under the watchful eye of a huge yellow October moon rising in the east.

Before long it was dark, my belly was full of fried Spam and I was trying to keep myself busy, poking at the fire with a stick while I sat on the ground, my chin propped up on my knees. It was unpleasantly quiet and as I sat listening to my ears ring, my bored ten-year-old imagination decided to run amok. (I wonder what time it is? How in the heck did I get sand in my… Are those eyes over there?) “SNAP”! I froze. I couldn’t see past the light of the fire, so I crept off to the side to take a peek. The moon made everything look… suspicious. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my heart beating. (It’s nothing… Just quit thinking… Quit thinking? How do you do that? I’ll just go to sleep.)

I climbed into the tent, zipped it up and lay there watching the spooky shadows of the fire dancing on the walls. The more I tried to calm down and distract my thoughts, the more anxious and alert I became. (Maybe there’s something wrong with me… no, I’m fine… but what if I‘m not?) I didn’t know it at the time, but I had worked my way into a full-blown panic attack. Fortunately I was still capable of making a calm, rational decision. “I’M GETTIN’ THE HECK OUTTA’ HERE!” Even though I was certain it was around three a.m., I decided to put out the fire and walk… well actually, run like a wild man towards Jones Mobile Village, where I could find a phone. When I finally burst out of the woods, I saw that the lights were on in the Jones’s mobile home. Surprisingly, when I knocked, Mrs. Jones opened the door immediately. “Ben Jr.?” I was out of breath but puffed out a “Yes ma’am.” She clutched the neck of her housecoat. “What in the world are you doing out here?” I skipped the details, “Can I use your phone?”

To my surprise, when I spoke to my dad on the phone he didn’t say much of anything. And on the ride back to the house he didn’t ask any questions… He didn’t even tease me! But the strangest thing was that when I got home… It was only 8:30 pm! I had only been in the woods for three hours!

My parents never said anything about my humbling experience under that October moon. They didn’t have to. Snug in my bed that night, I listened to the comforting sounds of family and home I had taken for granted, and that just a few minutes ago had seemed so far away… the television, my parents voices, dishes clinking, the humming of a fan… my dad burping loudly from the couch to the delight of my little brother who giggled from his bedroom. I smiled, closed my eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Where every parent has gone before

My 34-year-old son Nick called me yesterday from his home in Orlando. “Hey buddy… what’s up!” I said juggling my phone between the side of my face and my shoulder while looking through paper work. He mumbled a half-hearted greeting back that let me know something was very wrong. I took the phone in my hand. “What’s the matter son?” His son Gavin had broken his arm while playing and as a result Nick’s parental confidence had eroded. “Dad, I just keep thinking about all the things you went through with Neil and me when we were kids. You were always calm and in control like “Captain Kirk.” I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed being “Captain Kirk” for about two seconds, but then I proceeded to tell him what it was really like for me as a young parent and how I had experienced the same feelings he was feeling. I had for many years raised my sons on my own… and there were many times when I did not feel or act like the model parent, much less a Starship Captain.

One such time was when I took my ten-year-old twin boys on a two-week trip out west to Yosemite and Yellowstone by myself. Despite the fact that all of us acted ten years old as we stood too close to 4,000 foot cliffs, scrambled on gigantic rocks, slid down waterfalls, posed next to irritated buffalos, ignored roped off areas and warning signs about bears or the “Danger of Death” due to (whatever) and drove down countless narrow winding roads, while video taping… we all survived. Not a scratch. And then, when we finally arrived home from the airport, late at night and exhausted, I put my sleepy sons safely in their bunk beds, tucked them in, turned to leave the bedroom, and “CRASH!” The bunk bed collapsed. As I sorted through the twisted rubble we were all laughing hysterically until I discovered that my son Neil’s leg had been split wide open by the bed frame. It was a hideous wound. I immediately grabbed the 8” gash and held it together and poor Neil immediately freaked out. On the way to the hospital, Neil continued to inisist that he was on deaths door while his brother Nick kept poking his head over the seat, excited about the opportunity to see inside his brother’s leg. “Neil. Neil. NEIL! Let me see it!!” As I drove way too fast, all the way to the Downtown Naples hospital, I swung my arm around blindly behind me in an attempt to keep Nick in the back seat, alternating between telling Nick to “SHUT UP!” and Neil to “Stop looking at it! Just hold the two sides together… you’ll be fine. And stop saying that… you’re not going to die!” “Nick… SIT DOWN!” Five hours and twenty-eight stitches later, we were “safely” back home again, together on the floor in sleeping bags. Although I didn’t panic during the ordeal, for years afterward I was haunted by guilt because all I could remember feeling was irritation and exhaustion.

But every parent/child incident offers new opportunities to experience the full range of human emotions. When my son Nick was five-years-old, he was sitting on my bed when suddenly; he leaned back and fell off. I was about 10 feet away at the time when he luckily landed on his shoulders and neck and then somersaulted back upright. I kneeled down next to him and he looked at me with a wide eyes. “Whoa!” I said to him chuckling. “That was quite the trick… Are you OK?” Then… he collapsed. As I scooped him up, his body was as limp as a rag doll. My parent’s brain immediately translated this into… HE’S DEAD!! So, instinct took over and I began to revive him with “Captain Kirk CPR” which apparently involves shaking your child violently and screaming his name in terror like a little girl. “NICKY!!!!!” Despite the whiplash and a thorough brain sloshing, he instantly woke up. Luckily, a friend of mine was there to drive us to the hospital; me clutching my now confused son tightly in my arms the entire way, babbling “It’s OK, It’s OK…!” At the hospital that night, our family doctor looked at my son very briefly and then turned his attention to the person who really needed acute medical care… me. Not my finest hour… or was it?

For my son, I summed it up like this… “I know that you feel that you’re going “Where no man has gone before,” but you’re going “Where every parent has gone before.” Everyone feels doubt and fear. But Captain Kirk never gives up. He just loves his crew and does the best that he can… so will you.”

Just Do the Dishes

When my sons were pre teens, one of their chores was to do the dishes.  Apparently this was torture to them, because they would do just about anything to avoid it.  Nick and Neil are identical twins, actual mirror images of each other.  But, being mirror images they often have opposing views… and by often I mean always.  Even though they are inseparable, they have debated and argued for about 34 years now.  Of course like most parents, when the kids were young, I wasn’t really that interested in settling sibling rivalries… I wanted quiet… and for them to do the dishes.  My reasoning was simple.  I provided and cooked the food, so it was only fair that the two of them should do this one simple task.  “Look… I don’t care how you figure it out, or who does what.  It’s your job to come to an understanding and get this done!”  Unfortunately, that would have taken the willingness to compromise, not to mention the ability to recognize that it was in everybody’s best interest that they do so.  Oh, and they would have to shut up long enough to actually do some work. Continue reading

Philosophy of the Closed Mouth

There is no more valuable or more humbling art, than the art of knowing when to say nothing.  Unfortunately this is not a skill that seems to be embraced by our society.  I understand that we all have the right to express ourselves but I think most everyone would agree, that there is just too much talking going on in the world right now and not a whole lot being said.  News commentators, analysts, political pundits, weathermen and yes… politicians, seem to go on and on, like we’re being paid by the word and not for the content. Continue reading