Archive for January, 2008

My dog Sam, Part 7

January 31, 2008

Of course, even under the best of circumstances we were still dirt poor and living under the good graces of the welfare system. Having a dog like Sam did help tip the scales in our favor as far as living on the Sand Road was concerned, but not by much. There were still shoes being bought at the thrift store and commodities being served when the month ran longer than our food stamps lasted, which seemed to always be the cycle. Early on in the month there was to be enough food and in a variety of styles, but that last week prior to our monthly checks arrival it was everybody’s favorite side kick: Slim Pickens.

Late into the summer as school was approaching my older sister decided one morning to walk up to the end of the road to check the mail, expecting among other things, our check. As was his custom by then, Sam accompanied her loosely; in other words… as she walked along the road he was up in the brush, in someone’s yard, falling behind, running ahead or even all together out of sight.

As she walked a couple of stray dogs happened to be coming from an adjoining secondary road and spotted her. My sister noticed them as they approached and cautiously moved up the road towards the dogs knowing that the ones that ran in the pack on Sand Road were mean and not to be trusted. Suddenly they made a run at her. Frozen with fear all she could do was scream out one word. Sam.

In an instant Sam appeared out of a nearby thicket, ran between my sister and those two dogs then stopped. The other dogs stopped and looked at Sam. Sam looked at them. A stand off ensued, an imaginary line was drawn. Sam stood there and stared them down until they decided to quietly move on, leaving my sister and Sam to happily move on towards our payday.

After the decisive battle he had with Frankie, Sam easily moved around with the other dogs in the neighborhood. In fact, on one occasion when Sam turned up “missing” again for a few days, I finally managed to see him out running with several of the local dogs. After I called to him, Sam ran up and allowed me to happily reacquaint myself with him. Having a few moments of petting and receiving my encouraging words, Sam set off to rejoin them. Stopping midway to give me a last look like a kid running off to join his friends in a game of some sort, he turned to run and catch up with the rest. That was the way Sam behaved, loyal to my family and me, but actually belonging to no one.

Sam truly was a godsend, because only God could have brought Sam to us to serve as our guardian angel. That was never more apparent than the week-end before school was set to start. Not only did I have the pleasure of attending my class as one of it’s most shoddily dressed individuals, but I had to ride that retched bus as well. That last week-end of freedom had me fully dreading the walk to my bus stop on Monday morning and facing the kids that made my life miserable each day I rode it.

That Saturday Sam and I were out on the road goofing off. We passed one of the houses that we’d been by dozens of times before, but this day it was different. This time there was a car parked out front with it’s hood up and there were 3 young men working on its engine. I thought little of it as we walked by but one of the guys happened to look up as we did and my heart sank with anxiety. The boy that raised his head up and saw me was the roughest of all the kids that rode our bus and he was their ringleader. He never actually touched me, but he instigated much of my social discomfort and laughed the loudest at my misery. I was sure that when he spotted me with his buddies I was a goner.

Moving as quickly as I could I was all most clear when he called out to me, “Hey, kid!” Stiffly I turned to face him and Sam paused, too. I could hear one of the other guys warn the bus rider to “watch out for that dog” but he came around the car and approached me anyway.

“Hey, kid, you got a cigarette?”

I was much too young to smoke but it embarrassed me to have to say so. My chance to make friends with the toughest kid in the school system had arrived but all I could feebly reply was, “No.”

Sam did a low ‘woof’ and I was petrified. I could just see Sam jumping in and tearing at this guy’s leg with me trying to pry him off while through it all I received death threats to be paid in full the next time I got on that bus.

“That your dog?”

I nodded, too frightened to speak. I glanced over at his friends and they had stopped what they were doing and both come round to the road side. “Watch that dog, Cecil…” came the warning again. Cecil looked back at them for a brief moment then glanced at Sam before turning to face me.

“What’s your dog’s name, kid?”

My throat was dry and raspy, I swallowed hard. “Sam, but he…”

“C’mere Sam! hey, boy! c’mon o’er hereyan see me!” Cecil clapped his hands.

Fear gripped my stomach and churned it with it’s fist. I turned to stop Sam but I was too late. Sam did what he was told and came up to Cecil’s feet then let him reach down and begin petting him. I couldn’t believe he was the same dog. Cecil squatted down and scratched behind Sam’s ear for a moment then brushed his hand down Sam’s shoulder and patted him on the side. Relief flooded my entire body and I managed a weak smile at Cecil. He was grinning ear to ear and making over Sam like he was his own dog. Finally Cecil stood up squarely in front of me. Standing a full head taller than me Cecil was built more like a full grown man than a teenager, he even had beard stubble on his face and chin.

“What’s your name, kid?”

Reluctantly I told him. He nodded, reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette stubbed out about halfway down, he lit it and then offered me a puff, which I took and did my best not to choke on. I handed it back and Cecil grinned as he took it. He reached out and jostled my hair then turned to join his friends.

“Catch ya later, kid.”

With my heart pounding I turned to go up the road with Sam on my heels. After a step or two Cecil called out again.

“Hey, kid!”

I turned back, sure I was going to get a wrench hurled in my direction, or at the very least a barrage of laughter for me nearly wetting my pants.

“Ya got a good dog there, man, take care of em! Okay?”

I smiled back and waved. “Thanks! I will!”

That was the only time I saw a complete stranger have his way with Sam. Even my best friend who lived down the road from me and saw Sam practically on a daily basis could not do what Cecil had just done, approach my dog cold like that. I usually had to ease Sam into allowing any outsider to even touch him, let alone make over him like Cecil had.

Monday morning when I got on the bus a voice called my name from the back, I looked up and saw Cecil beckoning to me. The bus was nearly full by the time it stopped at our road. Every eye was on me as I made the narrow isle to the back of the bus. Cecil motioned to the seat in front of him. All the bad ass kids rode in the back of the bus and Cecil being the baddest took the very back seat for himself. He slapped the kid who had the seat before me in the back of the head and told him to move across the isle so I could sit down in front of him, which I did.

“How’s Sam?” was the first thing Cecil asked, having a cigarette propped behind his ear.

“Good,” I replied, “but I never thought I’d see the day he’d let a stranger pet him.”

Cecil laughed, “You got some mean son-of-a-bitchin’ dog there do ya?”

I squirmed a bit, trying my best to get comfortable. “Most people think so.”

Cecil grinned ear to ear, the way he had when he played with my dog on Saturday.

“I’m surprised you didn’t try to sic ’em on me!”

I looked at Cecil and smiled, “Naw, why would I want to do that?”

He looked at me and thoughtfully nodded.

“Well, I wouldn’t give two cents for any dog that couldn’t pull his own weight. Yessir, I’d say ya got yourself one fine animal there.”

“Thanks, I’d say he took a shine to you, too!” and we both laughed.

From that day on Cecil and I were friends, then no one bothered me on that bus again. And Sam was getting set to pull off his biggest miracle yet…

My dog Sam, Part 6

January 29, 2008

For me it was an amazing springtime on the Sand Road as the vestiges of winter began to fade away.  Though we lived close to town, wildlife flourished in the nearby woods and being near the river meant fishing and swimming as the days stretched into summer.  Sam and I spent many hours wandering to nearby ponds or hiking through far reaching pastures.  But with Sam’s freedom to roam came a notoriety that put us on the outs with several of our neighbors.

Early on Frankie’s owner, the sassy girl from the “lower” road, came to pay us a call with her dad claiming Sam had bit her.  I remember my mom meeting this drunken slob and is daughter at our front porch and him threatening to shoot Sam if he was ever caught on his property.  We figured what probably happened is the girl tried to step in between Sam and Frankie during a fight and got nipped for her trouble.

I’ve only actually seen Sam and Frankie get into a scrap twice.  The first time was on neutral ground shortly after Sam had initially staked his claim to our yard by chasing Frankie down the road.  Frankie appeared one afternoon with another dog, sniffing and marking their territory everywhere they went.  But either Frankie felt secure with another dog running with him or was just suffering from short term memory loss because when he crossed over into our yard with seeming impunity, Sam shot out from under his tree and hurled himself towards them. 

Frankie’s companion heard/saw Sam coming and fled immediately, Frankie started to run but then spun around to face Sam.  The momentum of Sam’s weight and speed flipped Frankie into a backward somersault when they collided.  With Sam following through together they rolled across the grass and into the main road; a snarling mass of teeth, fur and tails.  Back and forth with a viciousness that could only mean absolute power to the victor, Sam and Frankie tore at each other for a full three minutes or more.  I ran after Sam initially thinking I’d try to stop them, but the ferociousness of that dog fight held me at bay.  Realizing that they were in a fight for road superiority I started cheering Sam on.

“Sam!”  I cried, “get ’em Sam!”   …and Sam got ’em. 

Frankie was mad with rage but no match for my dog.  For every move Frankie made Sam countered it with shear power and determination egged on by my shouts of encouragment.  Whirling in a kaleidioscope of dust and canine acrobatics, Frankie and Sam fought like they were in a duel to the death.  Up on his hind legs Sam had a towering advantage over Frankie who while struggling on his back could only make short thrusts with his good hind leg to try and push Sam off of him.   Finally Frankie was forced into submission despite false bravado through his exposed fangs and blood.   It didn’t take him long to realize he was in a losing battle because at a point when Sam seemed to pull back, Frankie scrambled up and hauled ass back down the “lower” road.  Sam stayed behind, standing there triumphantly taking all the praise through words, pats and petting I could muster.  Sam had beaten back the meanest animal on Sand Road and I declared him the best dog in the whole, wide world.

Of course, the fact that the sassy girl’s father made this threat upset my mom.  That anyone would come around and complain to her about anything we kids had been doing would concern her, but with Sam it was different.

Many times my mom would claim that she knew Sam understood her when she talked to him.  He was practically human, she would say, and his actions bore that out.  For instance, most dogs that were in the house and wanted to be let outside would paw at the door or bark, but Sam communicated with telepathy.  He’d go find you and stand staring at you until you got up to see what he wanted.  Then he would lead you to the door and stand there until you opened it for him.  My mom believed in many things that were “out there” beyond the realm of explanation and relative reasoning.  Sam could have been the reincarnation of some earth bound wandering soul for all she knew and it wouldn’t have taken much for her to be convinced of it.

Sam felt he belonged on the furniture, too, and would reluctantly get down when told like you just insulted him.  My older sister would complain about finding Sam upstairs on her bed.  But not only would he be on her bed, but in it; lying on his back with his head on a pillow and a sheet pulled up over him.  When Sam rode in a car, he wanted to be in the front seat with the driver sticking his head out the window.  And when you talked to him, Sam would tilt his head and give you his utmost attention. 

But reports came from up and down the road about Sam’s behavior outside our yard as he became bolder in his escapades.  He didn’t like to be told to leave another  person’s  property and he didn’t take kindly to people trying to chase him away with what ever means they would use.  Residents complained to our friends about him and when he came up missing the first time we figured someone had made good on a promise to do him in.

Sam was gone about two days when we first started to panic.  We all loaded up into the station wagon and drove the length and breadth of the Sand Road, calling out his name and asking people if they’d seen our dog, but nobody had.  Sure that he’d been killed by a passing car I scoured the ditches on both sides of the highway for at least a mile on both sides, but to no avail. 

Then as soon as we figured Sam had been murdered; his body chopped up, set on fire and then buried, somebody got the bright idea to check with the dog pound.  Sam had been picked up, much to our relief.  My mom declared that it’d be the last time she’d “bail him out of jail” and handed over the twenty bucks it took to license him and pay the fine.

But she was as glad as we were that our dog was okay.  Sam rode all the way home with his head in my mom’s lap, looking up at her with big, brown eyes and a wagging tail…

My dog Sam, Part 5

January 27, 2008

I fully expected Sam to push against that screen door like he usually did and make his escape, never to be heard from again.  Or at the very least, I thought he’d start barking and force me to let him back in.  But as I lay there back on my hide-a-bed, Sam began to howl; low, long and loud.  Loud enough for my mom to yell downstairs and tell me to let him back in.  Figuring I had taught him a lesson, I complied.

I went to the front door and peered out through the window.  The screen had been opened and Sam was standing at the top step looking out, but not going any further.  I went to open the door and he came towards me, trembling and wagging his tail.  It was the first time he acted glad to see me.  I attributed it to the cold and his chance to get back inside.  I went out to pull the screen closed and return the spring to where it belonged when I saw what caused Sam to howl.   A pack of dogs, 7 or 8 were roaming around near our yard in the moonlight, Frankie was in amongst them.  There was no mistaking the hitch in his giddyup as he moved amongst the other dogs.  They were up towards the garden and the end of the lane.  Most were still on the road, but Frankie and a couple others had ventured into our yard, sniffing and marking everything with their pee.  Sam didn’t act afraid, he seemed more excited than anything else.  

“C’mon, boy!  back inside!”

Sam came in with me wagging his tail.  I bent down to pet him and he stood there trembling for a moment, allowing me to rub his shoulders and pat him on the head.  He had never allowed me to pet him before and I enthusiastically went from his head and ears, down his shoulders and back. 

“Good boy! good dog, Sam!”

Over and over I praised him as I vigorously spread warmth through his body with my rubbing up and down.  Sam licked at my face and wagged his tail appreciatively.  I stood and moved towards my bed and Sam followed.  I jumped onto the bed and pulled the covers up to my chin while Sam curled up on the floor nearby, close enough that I could reach down and touch him.  He was still trembling, either from the excitement or the cold or both.

“C’mon, Sam!”  I patted the bed.  Sam jumped up and curled in the quarter moon arch my body made, his tail thumping against the mattress.  We slept like that through the night.  

That was how our friendship began, both of us compromising.  I gave up the resentment I felt and he accepted our home as his.  We never did “own” Sam in the sense that he was obligated or belonged to us.  He and I formed a truce, an alliance of sorts.  He adopted the family, each one of us; my sisters, my mother and me.  And he never tried to shag my leg again. 

The fact that Sam tolerated us was obvious early on, because he hated everbody else.  Everybody.  It didn’t matter who they were, how long he knew them or how hard we tried to make him like them.  He didn’t need anyone, not even us… really.

One time the meter man came round to read our meter and Sam threatened him so badly that he slipped to the ground on his face trying to get away.  Sam was so furious that the fall only served to make him angrier, like the poor man had done it on purpose.  Sam lunged within a few feet of the man barking and growling, causing the meter reader to drop his clipboard in the mad scramble to get to his feet and back away to his truck.

My older sister had suitors that came around and (if they didn’t know better) left their cars to come knocking.  It was not uncommon to hear them calling from the hoods or even the roofs of their cars for us to come out and call off our dog because Sam would chase them back. 

Friends we made on the road would be held at bay towards the end of the lane because Sam wouldn’t let them in the yard.  Even my brother-in-law, who was generally well liked and soft spoken, could not make Sam accept him.  When we finally stopped chaining Sam up and let him roam free, our yard was off limits to anyone.  The neighborhood dogs soon learned respect and Frankie, the undisputed king of the road, met his match. 

Sam was chained to that tree every morning but I never saw him strain at the length like some dogs would.  He accepted that he was limited in his movement around the yard and didn’t fight it.  I’d come home from school and release him for a while, allowing him to run around as I wrestled with him.  Sometimes I threw a frisbee or ball for him to chase.  He kept within the confines of the yard at first. Though the world outside beckoned to him and curiosity put him on the property line more than once.  If I called to him he’d run back with a big doggy grin on his face knowing he was pressing the limits of his freedom.

I came out one morning to go to school and Sam was chained beneath his tree by the front porch, happy to see me.  The weather in Iowa is such that if you don’t like it one day all you had to do was wait until the next day and it would change.  So though it was still winter, a warm spell had caused most of the snow to melt and Sam could sleep outside.  I gave him the usual pat on the head and made my way down the lane to catch my bus.

Just as I made it to the road, Frankie was there waiting and he had me cold.  I knew I couldn’t out run him back to my house and there was not a tree near enough for me to climb, besides I didn’t have enough time… my bus was due any moment.  Frankie feigned a lurch towards me and I looked to the ground for something to throw at him.  The ruts in our drive still had frozen ice and snow in them and I bent down thinking I could scoop some up.  I thought I could make a snowball to hurl at this beast from hell.  Just as my hand reached down I was aware that I was not alone.  Still bent over I looked behind me and saw Sam standing there, head lowered, watching Frankie.

Frankie had pulled up and stopped dead in his tracks.  He didn’t bark, he didn’t growl, he just stood there looking at Sam.  I stood up straight and stepped back to where my dog was.

 “Watch him, Sam!” I commanded, but it wasn’t me Sam was obeying.  He was in his own mind set, not paying heed to anything except what lay before him.  He silently gazed at Frankie; out in the open, no longer confined to that tree or hampered by a chain as he was before.  Frankie flinched and Sam leaped at him, sending Frankie yelping down the road with Sam hot on his heels.  I called to Sam and as Frankie headed down the “lower” road he turned and ran back towards me, skipping about and seemingly pleased with himself. 

My heart was racing that morning and I couldn’t praise Sam enough, no dog had ever stood up to Frankie like that.  I had never seen Frankie fear anything; man, animal or machine, Frankie defied them all.  Until that morning, Frankie seemed fearless.  Sam was a godsend, a miracle.    But in all the confusion I’d forgotten about catching my bus. 

“Stay, Sam.”  I walked away.  “Stay, boy.”  Sam began to follow but finally stopped at the point of our lane meeting the road.  I looked back several times as I walked to the bus stop, my heart still pounding from the excitement of seeing Frankie running away from Sam.  He stayed put until I got on board.

I don’t know how Sam became unchained that morning, I figured that somehow during the night he got himself free from his collar.  I thought nothing of him being under the tree like he was that morning, the same as every morning.   I left for the bus stop assuming he was secure.  Not only did he rescue me from Frankie but he gained his independence.

From that day forward, we never chained Sam again…    

My dog Sam, Part 4

January 24, 2008

Sam really wasn’t that much to look at, just some mid-sized mongrel dog whose tail slightly bowed in the back. He was mostly white with several large brown spots and touches of black on his nose; medium haired, flop eared and unassuming in stature… of a Heinz 57 variety, might have had some bird dog in his distant genes.

I came home from school one afternoon and my mom had Sam all moved in. I walked up to the front porch and spied him chained to a nearby tree, with an old pan of dog food and a bowl of water.  Neither of them looked to be touched by our new temporary family member.  Sam just laid there on his haunches, the bottom of his head resting squarely on the ground. He looked up at me, obviously disinterested in anything I did.

“How ya doin’, boy?” I asked walking up towards him, Sam didn’t move but offered a low growl. I stopped and looked at him.  I tried to sound sweeter, crouched down and offered my hand. “What’s a matter, boy? Don’t ya like your new home?” Sam didn’t flinch, only growled again. “Great,” I thought, standing back up,” just what we needed… some mixed breed with an attitude.”

“Suit yourself.”

I walked around and went inside the house. Mom asked if I’d seen the dog and I grunted a response. She started going on about how smart he was but I didn’t stick around to hear the rest. I made a beeline for the T.V. and plopped myself down. After a few minutes I went to a window and looked outside, Sam’s back was to me. He hadn’t moved an inch.

Later that afternoon I went back outside. Sam’s position was virtually unchanged, the food and water still appeared untouched.  I tried a new approach. I stepped off the porch allowing the screen door to close behind me and then sat down on the steps. Sam was facing off to my right but I caught his eyes roll in my direction momentarily.

“How ya doin’, boy?” Nothing. “Hey, hey Sam! how ya doin’ boy?” Nothing. Sam was a statue, I picked up a twig and tossed it at him. Sam’s ear closest to where the twig struck perked up but dropped immediately. “Hey Sam! c’mon boy! here Sam! c’mon, c’mon Sam!” It was almost as if Sam was in mourning.  I whistled and began patting my leg.  The only response I got from him was a low growl similar to what I heard before. I started to look around for another twig to throw at him.  I whistled again, “c’mon, boy!” Just then I noticed some motion out in our yard and saw Frankie moving about.  He was heading in our direction, perhaps having heard me whistle and call to Sam.

It wasn’t uncommon for Frankie to do his rounds in the early evening. Usually he had another dog or two to accompany him, and they frolicked through the neighborhood oblivious to fence or boundary. But this night he was alone. Frankie came within a few feet of us and stopped, like he just realized I was there and then he spotted Sam.

Frankie let out a quick, short bark and watched for Sam’s reaction, which was nil. Emboldened, Frankie came closer and started sniffing the ground. Sam’s eyes rolled back over towards me but he did not move or utter a sound. Frankie snorted and came closer. Sam could have jumped up and taken a bite out of him in a second but he didn’t move, he lay perfectly still and only watched Frankie. I sat there both mortified and dumbfounded. Frankie practically pranced around in front of Sam, sniffing the ground and snorting.

Finally he made it to the base of the tree Sam was chained to, hiked up his stub and peed. He looked up as if to challenge me, but all I could do was watch him. Dropping his leg, Frankie went over to Sam’s pan of dog food and scarfed it all down in rapid gulps. He lapped at the water bowl, turned to look at me again then stepped in the bowl, trying to knock it over and splashing water with the effort. Frankie stood and stared at me for several more moments, then turned and moved a few feet away. He started to whirl around, like he was chasing his tail without a care in the world.  Then Frankie ran back towards the main road, leaving me to ponder what had just happened.

Finally, Sam raised his head to turn and look at me.

“Perfect.” I growled at him.  “Just what we need here, some chicken shit dog.”  I got up and went inside.

With winter in full force, mom would have me put Sam on the front porch to keep the wind off of him.  Iowa winters can be brutal sometimes.  They have this thing called wind chill.  The actual temperature might be 10-15 degrees below zero but the blowing wind made it feel like 40 below, thus “wind chill factor.”  Once Sam was on the porch the chain had to be removed so the only thing keeping him in was the screen door, which had a hook and eye lock.  Sam repeatedly tried to push the door open and escape those first few nights, but the base of the screen door had a wood panel in it so he couldn’t push through the screen and the lock seemed to hold well enough.  Eventually Sam would tire and lay down on the blanket we provided for him.

But early on my mom decided that Sam should be brought inside.  Although he was out of the wind, there was virtually no insulation on the porch and the upper level screen just allowed the cold to saturate the small area like an ice box.  Sam would lay trembling forlornly into the night.  So if the mercury dropped below freezing, my soft hearted mother would tell me to let him in.

With everyone else sleeping upstairs. I would be alone downstairs on the hide-a-bed and Sam was designated to the floor.  But right away the first night he was inside Sam jumped on my bed and began humping me as soon as the light went out.  Each time I would kick him off and within minutes he’d be back on, amorously attached to my leg.  Finally my kicking and punching would convince him that the feeling wasn’t mutual and he’d calm down and go to sleep.

We had Sam a couple of weeks and it seemed as if he would never come around to accepting us.  Each day I’d chain him to that tree as I headed off to school and in the afternoon I’d come home to a mutt that refused to be my pet.  And usually at night Sam would be brought inside. 

One night I had enough.  The light went off and Sam began his ritual of jumping up on my bed with lovin’ on his mind.  I was tired of this dog by then.  Tired of him not responding to me and moping around like some love sick puppy.  I got out of bed and put him outside on the frigid porch.  Sam looked up at me and began his trembling but I wasn’t moved with any pity,  I had had it with this animal.  I went over to the screen, detached the spring that automatically pulled the door closed and lifted the hook off it’s hitch.

“There, you horny bastard, nothing holdin’ you back now.”

I went back inside and closed the front door. 

My dog Sam, part 3

January 23, 2008

That first summer on Sand Road brought a lot of changes for me. Self awareness not withstanding, I ventured away on my own spending time out of my yard and exploring what lay beyond the road. Sometimes I’d hike to my grandmother’s house just for something to do, that is… if our grass didn’t need mowing. My grandfather didn’t need to know I was idling my time away.

My grandparents lived a couple of miles south of us in the same section of town categorized as the Sand Road. It was one of the reasons we moved there in the first place, so my mom could be close to her mother. Up a hill beyond the highway sat the Showers Estate and it was the proverbial landlord owning all he surveyed below. Ours was one of the few 2 story houses in the area and had nothing behind us but a cornfield. We looked directly across and up to the Showers mansion. Built in the 1800’s, it was an amazing structure of brick and open gables. The house was tucked up off the highway with woods in front of it and a barn with several out buildings in the rear. Depending on the season, it would be a partially hidden castle in the summer then became a giant exposed monolith during the winter months. We lived in the section known as the Showers Edition and felt like serfs left scurrying about under the watchful eyes and in servitude of the king.

Occasionally I would be out on the road and run into Frankie again, which usually meant pelting him with stones to keep him at a distance, if I saw him coming. Sometimes he’d catch me unawares and I’d have to out run him back to my house or end up climbing a tree to avoid him. That meant Frankie could hang out down below indefinitely. One late afternoon Frankie treed me and I sat there until twilight started to fade in and the lightning bugs came out. Frankie’s master, the sassy girl from the “lower” road finally came calling for him. When she found me hiding in the tree, she bawled me out for keeping her dog away from home. After several minutes of telling Frankie to “sic ’em” and making him bark his fool head off, she called him away and he followed her back down the “lower” road. When I was certain they were far enough and wouldn’t do an about face and come after me, I climbed down and went home.

Other dogs marked their territory and let you know if you were coming too close by barking at you, but Frankie was a nomad and didn’t adhere to normal dog behavior. He considered all of Sand Road his territory. He’d trot into another dog’s yard with that stubby leg of his and chase the other dog around. Growing tired of that game, Frankie would lay in their spot under a shade tree, mangle their chew toys and even eat their food. It all belonged to him. And it didn’t matter what the size of the other dog was, Frankie’s sheer madness pound for pound made him more than his match in a fight. I watched as Frankie went for another dog’s testicles once and saw fear I have never witnessed in another animal before.

As school started in the fall the house started to take shape. Along with our old beater, a couple of junk cars managed to find a home in our yard as well. The grass grew tall around their frames making them look like elaborate automobile planters. My mom had a garden tilled in the front yard which produced tomatoes, carrots and potatoes along with a failed crop of sweet corn. And since I weaned off mowing the grass early on, our yard resembled a faltering wheat field.

I hated the walk to our bus stop. All the kids from the neighborhood would be dotting the road from my lane all the way up to the blacktop and if I was running late they’d call out for me to run, which I of course… did. Our bus driver would yell at me that he wouldn’t wait if I was late again but deep down inside I think he enjoyed seeing me run and showed up early just for that purpose.

The bad kids sat in the back of the bus, the good kids (or those that got on board early enough) sat towards the front and I sat wherever I could find a seat. In those days there wasn’t much else to do as you rode to school but pick on the littler kids. While I was in sixth grade and bigger than some of the passengers but not as large as the high school kids I was a perfect victim for them to show how tough they were. Usually they grabbed my books or pencils and flung them out the window. One time one of my shoes became the item of choice and after a few minutes of playing keep away it was tossed outside never to be seen again.

Though my mom bought our shoes from the thrift store, I knew our welfare check didn’t grow on trees. Going home with one shoe was the ultimate embarrassment, I usually got one pair to last me the entire school year and this meant we had to go find me another bargain somewhere. I remember once she found me a stylish pair of shoes for a quarter.

Then one day our lives on the Sand Road changed. One of my cousins came to our house and talked my mom into taking his dog, sight unseen. I don’t remember what he said to convince her that we needed a dog, least of all his, but my mother agreed to take him on a temporary basis until a permanent home could be found. We had had dogs in the past, but for the most part none of them stuck around for one reason or another. We would move away and abandon them or they would run away and abandon us. Up to this point I don’t recall any dog making that big of an impact on the family, they were just animals that ate table scraps, generally stayed outdoors and barked at the moon.

It was coming on to December by then, our first winter in the gray house. This dog, Sam, was already fully grown so we got gypped out of raising and naming him. Needless to say his arrival caused little interest in me or fanfare from the rest of my sisters.

But my mother took to Sam immediately…

My dog Sam, Part 2

January 21, 2008

I was just about to finish my stint in the 5th grade when we moved to the Sand Road. Being originally from Iowa City put me right back in the same school I had attended in 1st grade with some of the same kids I knew from before. But it was hardly a homecoming for me, living on that end of town had astigmatisms that I was never as painfully aware of when I was younger.

We rode a bus to school and were mixed in with the high school students. The walk up the lane from my house to the main road was several hundred feet. The walk from there to the bus stop about an eighth mile further. Our bus stop was at the end of the road as it met the black top. A bunch of multi-colored mailboxes of different shapes and sizes numbering at least 50 or more lined either side up until the turn off. They were left standing at ease like a rag tag company of worn out soldiers. As the Sand Road approached it raised up abruptly to match the highway’s grade. In the winter time not only was it near impossible to reach the highway because of the ice and snow, but the mailboxes hampered the view as well. Many times residents gunned the engine of their cars to make the steep climb only to slide back because of oncoming traffic or lack of momentum. It was all very comical to watch.

There is a definite class distinction between the poor. Some folks may be as poor as church mice, but at least they had a congregation. Others had their illusions of grandeur, feeling like they may be in a rut like the rest of us but knew they had better traction. Some of us just spun our wheels trying to make the grade off the Sand Road.

A garage we used to stand in while waiting for the bus was open at one end. We stood there mainly to keep us from the howling winds of winter, but some of the kids smoked and wanted to hide that independent feeling from their parents should they happen by. It was there that I learned my place amongst the financially challenged elite. Constantly harassed by snowballs or smouldering cigarette butts that were flicked at me, even spat upon on occasion, I stood outside most of the time at first.

Our first summer in the gray house came only weeks after we moved there. I had time to adjust to the surroundings and learned the lay of the land. The Sand Road had deep, rough pockets that looked as if they had been created by rounds of mortar shells. To avoid the rocky bumps people would swing off to the side in order to go around the worst of it. Late spring and early summer saw tons of rain in Iowa that filled the ditches and formed huge puddles in the road that resembled small lakes. Drivers that tried to go around then found themselves sunk in ruts because of all the mud and wet sand. It was not uncommon to find a car abandoned because it was either stuck in the mud or left spinning in the ice.

That first summer I was still working to accept my circumstances and living conditions. One day for lack of anything else to do I grabbed a fishing pole and cast my line in the largest of the “lakes” in protest and stood there for awhile. I knew I wouldn’t get a bite, but it was the only way I could think of to vent my frustration of a life without hope. It was then that I had my first run in with Frankie.

I’d seen this mutt before, 3 legged, mid-sized and mean. I never found out how Frankie lost his leg but I figured he was probably just ornery enough to gnaw it off for spite. Frankie ruled the road. There was a pack of about a dozen dogs that roamed the neighborhood at will, usually at night. But sometimes you’d catch two or three of them out in the day time. Most of the dogs had owners, Frankie belonged to a sassy little girl that lived down on the “lower” section whose dad was an alcoholic and drove on the road like he was in a demolition derby.

Many of the dogs that ran around Sand Road were bigger than Frankie, but what Frankie lacked in size he made up for with sheer madness. That day as I stood there with my fishing pole looking like a work of art a car came up from the “lower” road with Frankie nipping at it’s tires. Even the water that slushed from the drivers methodical lurch up and down the dips and swells didn’t deter Frankie. He half swam, half flew and completely engaged that car up to the point of where I stood.

Then suddenly, as if switched over in a railway junction, Frankie came at me. Growling, sputtering and coughing Frankie lunged at me before I had time to react. He leaped up out of the water and snagged my paint leg just below the knee and nearly knocked me over. I whacked his head with my pole which was just enough for him to drop down then jump back up for another bite, this time he got flesh. Frankie’s teeth ripped through my jeans and chomped the inside of my thigh. Screaming in shock and agony I kicked with my other leg, raising my knee to his shoulder then spun free of his grip. Dropping my pole, I raced for my yard with Frankie doing the dance of the devil dog and snapping at my heels.

Our front porch was enclosed with screen windows at about waist height. I zig zagged across our yard yelling my fool head off trying to shake this crazed canine off of my tail. Leaping over the lawn mower I dashed up the porch stairs, flung open the screen door and scrambled inside. Immediately I clamped the screen door tightly against Frankie’s protruding head and neck, which was all that followed me inside. Even with me there holding that screen door on him Frankie was not to be denied. His two front paws scratched at the screen while he squatted back on his stub and one good haunch, snarling and barking at me. I tried kicking at his face for a moment but that only enraged him further. Finally I thought of synchronizing my foot with my hands and pushed against his face as I allowed the door to open just enough to force his head out. Afterwards I pulled the hook down on the lock and stood there triumphantly taunting Frankie until I grew tired of the game and went inside to tend to my leg.

I had won our first battle. Frankie and I became bitter enemies during the months that followed…

My dog Sam, part 1

January 20, 2008

Sometimes God steps in for little boys, I know He did in my case…

There isn’t much joy in life when you are a poor kid raised on welfare without your father. We moved around a lot when I was younger, sometimes I would go to two or three different schools in a single year. It seemed just as things were settling down and I’d start to make new friends that I’d come home to the announcement, “We’re moving!” and the process of uprooting my fragile security would start all over again.

I remember when I was about 8 years old one of the houses we lived in out in the country had open pastures next door to us. I spent time meandering around that entire property and particularly the hilly field that livestock roamed with impunity. It was there one day, laying on my back and gazing up at the clouds for what seemed hours that I came to the realization that I was poor and had no chance of recovery. I recall feeling the earth rotating while watching birds soar overhead, witnessing the serenity of cotton candy cumulus rolling past… and me, earthbound to an existence that I soon became embittered with.

We don’t get to choose where we live and what circumstances we are born into. It seemed cruel to me to be put in such a position of humility and want. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, what great offense had I caused to make me as miserable as I was? There seemed to be no equalizer for me, no way out and very little hope for the future.

My mother tried, but always seemed to meet the wrong men with the end result meaning more children and deeper poverty for the family. We’d end up sleeping on the floor at my grandmother’s house or sometimes over at my aunt’s. I was too young to understand the context of our troubles, but I did know that we dodged landlords repeatedly in those days. Many times my older sister and I would go to the door to tell a bill collector our mother wasn’t home when she really was… we knew and they knew it, too.

We’d go to social services to get powdered milk and peanut butter; commodities, they were called. We used food stamps at the local grocery and my mother got a monthly check from the government. You could always tell what time of the month it was at our house. Mom watched the calendar like a parson watches his flock each time the new month finally rolled around.

One day we moved again. This time we were to be in a house provided for us by my grandfather that we were supposed to pay rent on. It was a two story white house that had nearly lost all of it’s peeling paint, leaving exposed clapboards to the elements. I remember when we pulled up into the dirt driveway and first layed eyes on it how we all groaned. It was tucked back off the main road, a road that led to a rural community of sorts that had small houses, mobile homes and shanties lining the banks of the Iowa River. An area known as the Sand Road.

The Sand Road was south of the tracks both literally and figuratively. Many of the folks living there were down on their luck, poor and uneducated. Since it was on the outskirts of town it was considered to be in the country. There were cornfields and pastures all around with the Iowa River forming a boundary lined with trees that sat low below the upper bank where our house was situated. The main road dipped down a bit as it passed our place to a lower section where the river bank wasn’t near as high. Thus the terms “upper road” and “lower road.” We lived on the “upper road,” and it was the closest thing to status our family had ever seen up to that point. A two lane blacktop stretched straight as an arrow for a couple of miles several hundred yards from our house and we actually sat just outside of the city limits. But it was a rural community all the same; with old junk cars and trash barrels for burning, clothes lines, gardens, some flower beds, large propane gas tanks, yard ornaments and the occasional outhouse. And the dogs that ran free.

My grandfather was a carpenter. I remember him taking a file to sharpen his hand saws and several bits for the braces he used for drilling. In those days power tools weren’t as common as they are now, air and battery tools were decades away. If my grandfather hung a door he hand planed it then used trim nails and a hammer to secure it. There was no such thing as a pre-hung door, each hinge had to be carved out by hand and fitted just so.

Our house became a week-end project for him, each and every week-end for a while, sometimes week days if his work was slow. He re-roofed the house and we all worked at painting it battleship gray, a color of paint that was no doubt on sale. Several places needed new windows and eventually he added a second bathroom downstairs on what was originally an enclosed back porch. Though the house was a two story it only had two bedrooms upstairs with the original bathroom. The ceilings partially followed the roof line before they flattened in the middle. Downstairs was the main house with a fairly large kitchen, dining room with a narrow, winding and enclosed stairwell leading upstairs, and a living room that was made into a third bedroom/T.V. room. There also was a wet basement that housed the furnace. I slept downstairs on a hide-a-bed.

We had a large yard with a free standing garage out back that was old and dilapidated, having a dirt floor it was hardly fit for storage. Mowing that yard became my job, which I hated. If ever a yard needed a riding mower that one did. But the best I could hope for was a gasoline powered push mower that my grandfather supplied. That yard took hours to mow and when my grandfather showed up with the mower I dreamed up all kinds of excuses not to mow; feigning illness, predicting rain or leaping into another project… anything to keep me from mowing that retched grass. Sometimes my craftiness worked, but usually if I delayed mowing the grass grew tall and the work was harder than if I would have just kept up with it.

But a 10 year old always learns things the hard way.

An Evaluation of the Bush Administration (2000-2008)

January 18, 2008

So… King George tells the Saudis that eight years is enough and it is time to start producing more oil… now? The economy is hurting from high gas prices… only now? He gets around to it… just now? Yikes, this dude is not in touch with the American people if he thinks now things are getting dicey. He is definitely not good for America if he thinks only now is it a good time to use his influence for the benefit of the American consumer. I mean, gee… is that all it took? Make a suggestion and all is well? What was he waiting for? Eight is definitely enough… eight years of a crummy president, that is.

Oh… I nearly forgot. The oil industry pulls the strings… record profits for shareholders while the working class struggles. Oil hit a hundred bucks a barrel recently and gas prices set a new record. Oil prices fell to $91 a barrel, almost 10 percent, did gasoline fall proportionately? 30-40 cents a gallon? No way! Higher gas prices effect everything. Shipping, travel, consumer goods, the work force and the economy. But where is our champion? Who has been watching out for us?

What do we expect from a guy that pulls a C average in college? Genius? not hardly. Just ‘stay the course’ …but not all of us play golf, Mr. President.

Remember this is the guy that claimed to illegal aliens, “You gotta job? you gotta place to stay!” People that opposed that didn’t know what was ‘good’ for America. Well, guess what? It didn’t take long for the economy to tank, but why should George worry? He’ll be on his book tour in less than a year pullin’ down a quarter million bucks per speech. That sounds real good for America… and he wonders what kind of legacy he’ll leave behind. How about a less than 25% approval rating? … about what Richard Nixon had when he left office. How about the mess he’ll leave for somebody else to clean up?

I’ve been told that illegals coming to the United States can collect up to $2400 a month in social services. A person that pays into Social Security for 40 years gets around $1100… does that seem fair? Why not flip that around? Why is it our coffers are dwindling when a few years ago there was a surplus?

The Iraqi War… we only know what they tell us about that, but somewhere somebody is making some dough. We may never know the truth about that but a friend of mine told me once that Saddam Hussein (remember him?) once threatened to shift from the American dollar to the Euro as a standard for oil prices per barrel. We declared war a short time later. Blood for oil…

Georgie claimed that embryonic stem cell research was immoral and wouldn’t fund it with federal dollars, but he didn’t ask the millions of people who might benefit from it one day. He didn’t think it was ‘good’ for America. Now the health department warns us about going to other countries and being treated by inferior stem cell technology? People that find hope elsewhere are willing to try anything, and who could blame them? Our government seems more interested in helping everybody except it’s citizens. We boast that we have the best facilities and the greatest minds at work but we won’t do what other nations will? When and how did we become the moral compass to the rest of the world?

You know, during the past 8 years we have succumbed to more political propaganda than any other time in recent memory. If you criticized this administration you were labeled unpatriotic; not ‘good’ for America by not supporting the troops. People that opposed government policy were opening an outlet for terrorism, or worse yet… a liberal.

History will look back at this time and be dumbfounded. Have we progressed as a nation? Hmm… let us see… other nations distrust us, our credibility leaves a lot to be desired, our dollar is weaker than it has been in decades, our debt is owned by a foreign entity, we are over run by people who live outside our laws, the economy sucks, the security level is still orange and the future will be decided by the lessor of two evils this coming election simply for a ‘change’. (which any change for changes sake is not good.)

This administration 1) ignored warnings of impending disaster weeks before 9/11… 2) blundered into a war that we cannot win while the supposed positive effects that were going to come into play have evaporated with higher oil prices (which was to be averted, right? that’s why we were going there in the first place) 3) ignored the victims of Hurricane Katrina who are still struggling years later to the mockery of our relief system 4) devalued the dollar and blown our debt to it’s highest level ever 5) sunk the U.S. into a recession that we have not yet bottomed out of 6) lost our credibility with our allies 7) emboldened our enemies and lastly… disenfranchised the public and sent confidence in government to pitiful levels.

Oh, I could go on and on… but what really is the point? Nothing changes, people get angry but nothing changes. Even your vote doesn’t count in the end. I guess it must not be ‘good’ for America…

Ask yourself this simple question: Are things better for me now than they were 8 years ago?

I’d be interested in knowing your answer.


… so you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star?

January 15, 2008


So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?

Well listen now, hear what I say.


take some time

and learn how to play.


And when your hair swung right,

and your pants get tight

it’s gonna be alright.


Well, then it’s time to go downtown

to the agent man,  he won’t let you down.

Sell your soul to some company

who are waiting there to sell plastic ware.

And in a week or two if you make the charts

the girls will tear you apart.


It’s the price you pay for riches and fame,

was it all a strange game?

You’re a little insane

the money that came, and the public acclaim,

don’t forget what you are,

You’re a rock ‘n’ roll star.

La la la la la la…

… the Byrds, circa 1967


Okay… I’ve been around the block party a time or two. Seen ’em come and go, and come again! One hit wonders, flash in the pans, pop sensations, rebels, boy bands, trend setters, rock geniuses, stage suits and socks on their… ah-hem! (shall we just say ‘private parts?’ … which was pretty ballsy, I have to admit.)

Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets… and what is really cool is the fact that it crosses over from generation to generation. The message is the same… express yourself and revel in the freedom to do so. Grab an air guitar and get down… get funky, get rhythm, get with it, get happy, get back! get it on! …get it together.

To me a guitar is the main stay instrument for rock and roll. When my daughter told me Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was dissing the need for the electric guitar for modern rock, I kinda dissed Radiohead. When Kid A came out, I listened to it once then gave it away (to my daughter) and thought “What happened?” I love Radiohead. OK Computer, Pablo Honey, My Iron Lung (U.K. EP) and my favorite, The Bends, are great efforts that I never tire of. But they lost me on Kid A which was followed by Amnesiac, and that CD was a real downer and (pardon the pun) forgettable.

The cool thing is that we can all be experts and still have our own taste. Rock is all encompassing, it opens it’s arms wide and welcomes all of us. It is universal, at least… for us earthlings. Maybe Kid A was extraterrestrial driven.

I wonder what aliens from another galaxy would think of rock ‘n’ roll? Think early 50’s black and white films of sock hops and hot rod convertibles. Mr. Spock with a duck tail, cuffed jeans and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve.  Obi Wan Kenobi at Woodstock (the first one) putting on a trippy light show with his sabre, teaching the zen of the force to acid freaks. Or ET as a head banger, text messaging home with his I-phone. Would the music speak to them in the same manner as it does humans? Rock ambassadors of the world unite!

Now a days the industry is in a tail spin, trying to regroup and capture the audience it had in it’s glory days back before the Internet brought a new way of distributing and producing music. But though the message remains virtually the same, it’s delivery has become more diverse. No more the cruel victim of the puppet masters… expression moves without filters, marketeers or censors. Rock has matured and skipped the middle man. Musicians are managing to find their audience and receive royalties from their efforts without giving up a major slice of the pie, which is cool. It always seemed a shame to me that the music that was “stickin’ it to the man” was actually lining his pockets.

But on the flip side, some of the restrictions placed on artists was not necessarily a bad thing, for it’s time. Think of Elvis without his pelvis on the T.V. screen. Or Bob Dylan refusing to change a lyric on the Ed Sullivan Show. Or the Rolling Stones complying, for that matter. Or the Doors saying they would then renegin’ live and being banned from the program for life. You gotta wonder if it was really detrimental to the music or a infringement on the artist’s freedom of expression.

I believe in the right to express oneself as long as it doesn’t infringe on the next persons right not to have to hear it. I support freedom of speech which is freedom of movement from one idea to the next. In this case a rock progression, if you will.

But now the gloves are off… most anything goes. Songs about rape and murder, songs about torture, songs about Devil worship… is this the evolution of rock? Sometimes I feel like there is no place else left to go, that the shock value has run it’s course. Like a kid that gets away from his parents and can now say the “f” word with impunity in order to feel all grown up.  No wonder sales are down, where is the lifting spirit that used to make us soar?

A little bit of restraint is a good thing, a little bit of respect for an audience is a good thing, a little bit of self control is a good thing. The genie is out of the bottle… who can put it back in? Well… we can, the listeners. The people that buy the music.

So there is the rub. Rock rebellion has to be fed by cash. We all may march to a different drummer, but the beat remains the same… your cash ain’t nuthin’ but trash, but it sure comes in handy.

Interestingly enough, Radiohead recently released a new CD, In Rainbows, which was actually downloadable (?) and offered on a contribution basis. No muss, no fuss. No label, no middle man, virtually a glimpse into the future of music production. Of course, not every band is Radiohead. A struggling group just starting out couldn’t afford to go to the expense to offer their work in such a fashion, but that day may be coming soon.

I argued once about lyrical content, saying that John Lennon wouldn’t stretch rock’s credibility the way it has been now. My brilliant and beautiful counterpart said that John was a genius and that wasn’t a fair analogy. But I wonder if genius does not beget genius.  True genius makes us sit up and take notice, it wakes us in the middle of the night because we figured out the message and now we are definitely more hip than we were before we finally heard the lyricists subtle refrain… “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…” 

I think a sly fox gets away with far more than a barking dog… which is what makes rock and roll fun. The message was supposed to be hidden, because not everyone was going to get it.

So I’ve listened to In Rainbows and I like it. Perhaps there is hope for me. I loaded it on my nano and shuffled it in with my other Radiohead CDs. I even borrowed a copy of Kid A and put it in there, too.

It deserved a second chance because it comes from good stock…

Long live rock.

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The Byrds – So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

January 15, 2008

byrds so you want to be a rock n’roll star live 1973

it’s good advice…