Lessons From a Brown-Eyed Beagle Mutt

All throughout our lives there are teachers. Hopefully, we’re not so asleep in our lives that we miss the lessons as they’re taught. Teachers come in all forms. Some have two legs, some have four. Life lessons are everywhere. Their messages can be powerful enough to linger in our memories forever and guide us as we walk our life’s journey. They can mold us and shape our destiny. The true teachers will live in our souls forever and we will thank them, the teachers of good and the teachers of evil. And each will be as important as the other.

Rusty was my first four-legged teacher. He was an unremarkable-looking mutt with scruffy brown fur and long floppy beagle ears. His one remarkable feature was the power of his soft brown eyes. I was a little girl. I would float away in the beauty of Rusty’s charismatic eyes. Looking into Rusty’s eyes, I knew I was looking into his soul. He was my first experience with the beauty and power of unconditional love. Rusty loved me for no explainable reason. And he loved me madly.

We were always together. He would follow me on all my little-girl adventures, and he was in on all of them. I would talk to him endlessly when we were alone together and he would wag his tail and smile his beagle smile. We were kindred spirits, stronger together than we were apart. He filled my heart with love.

I grew up on a pioneer family farm in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. The house I grew up in was an impressive two-story log structure built by my father’s pioneer ancestors from logs hewn from trees cut from the land on which the house was built. The logs were chinked with mud from the earth surrounding it. Ours was a farming community with many old family farms side-by-side with histories similar to ours. Of course, all the neighbors knew one another, and like any community, there were upstanding citizens as well as some folks of questionable character. Ira (not his real name) was of the latter variety. 

Ira was an old man who spent way too much time eye-balling the women of the neighborhood. He was a sexual predator in the making whom most of the local housewives avoided. My mother was one of those ladies. When I became a woman, Mom told me of an incident when Ira followed her into our barn, pinned her back to the wall, and attempted to assault her. She managed to wriggle free. But, she would never be the same. She never told my father about the incident. She was afraid he would kill Ira and end up going to prison for it. Mom was not the only woman in the neighborhood to experience Ira’s unsolicited advances. Unfortunately, Ira was well-thought-of in farming circles. He owned a lot of land, raised beautiful bountiful crops, had a wife that everyone knew and admired, and he had children. He never missed church services and he always helped neighboring farmers in crisis. Ira was an enigma. He projected goodness. But, he had an evil side.

Like many of the farmers in our area, Ira would pass our house on his tractor on his way to tending to his crops. We lived on a busy asphalt state highway and tractors were a common sight, coming and going from field to field, farm to farm. Ira passed our house often. Mom made a point of keeping the screened door latched as he passed. She was stuck in the country with two small children and she was alone much of the time. My father was a man of many trades and talents and his skills were always in demand. In addition to being a fulltime farmer, he was much in demand as a master plumber, electrician, and heating and cooling expert. He was gone a lot.

I remember the day so well because it was so beautiful outside. I had been able to play outdoors all morning with Rusty. Everything around us was green and lush. The air smelled like the arrival of spring. Ground was being broken for crops. The rich aroma of turned earth lingered in the air. I was a little girl very much aware of the beauty of my surroundings and I was very happy that day.

As Rusty and I were playing in the front yard, Ira’s tractor came rumbling around the hilly curve in the highway that led to a straight stretch of asphalt right in front of our house. The house was fairly close to the road so we were always aware of vehicles coming. Ira drove too fast, always. Mom was always on alert for him, for fear that my little brother or I would actually be blown over by the wind gust from his passing vehicles. Mom was standing in the door looking through the screen when Ira’s tractor got closer. When she realized who was coming, she stepped out into the yard to guard her two small children.

Rusty was a perfect dog, for the most part. But, like most dogs, Rusty had his issues. He absolutely hated those roaring tractors as they rattled by. He simply had to chase them. He would run into the highway and align himself with those big back wheels and he would run alongside them, barking wildly, until they passed. All the farmers knew him, and they would smile as they drove by. A good man knows that every dog has a quirky side. So, our wonderful farmer-neighbors tolerated Rusty’s penchant for tractor-chasing with understanding smiles on their faces and waves to my mother as they passed by. 

Ira’s tractor was coming, and Rusty headed out. My mother was unable to restrain him. When Rusty was on a tractor mission, he went temporarily deaf. Mom could yell at him till the cows came home and he couldn’t even hear her. As far as Rusty was concerned, the tractor issue simply had to be addressed and he was like a crazy dog when the noise grew nearer.

As Ira reached the edge of our yard, Rusty swung out into the road and, true to form, aligned himself with the huge back wheel of that big Farmall. Ira was pulling a plow which made the arrival of the noisy contraption even more disturbing to Rusty. Rusty was in it to kill it.

As my mother, my little brother, and I watched, Ira swerved the tractor severely to the left of the center line, clipping Rusty under the plow and cutting him with the blades. I will hear Rusty’s last yelps of agony till the day I die. Ira continued on, never dropping his speed, looking my mother in the eye as he passed. Rusty dragged himself to the other side of the highway where he died a bloody death there in the grass.

I look back on the task that my poor mother had to do that afternoon, and I don’t know how she stood it. She got my brother’s Western Flyer little red wagon, and with two whimpering little children tagging along beside her, she retrieved Rusty’s mangled bloodied body from the roadside and brought him home to be buried. She never told Dad who did it. She just told him that Rusty was killed by a car and she didn’t know who was driving it. She would tell me years later that she might have prevented a murder by not telling the truth. And, she knew without a doubt that killing Rusty intentionally was retribution for her fighting off Ira’s advances in the barn that day.

That day was a turning point for me. I learned my first cruel lesson about the loss of a beloved dog. It made me realize that nothing lasts forever. My little-girl heart was broken so badly that Mom had to sleep with me that night. I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t stop seeing Rusty falling under those blades.

But, I think the best lesson I learned that day was also the hardest one. I was slapped in the face with the realization that evil does exist in the world and not all people are good. Ira taught me that. And I thank him for it. I am a smarter adult for having experienced his cruelty as a child. I also learned what kind of person I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be like Ira. Early in life, I made a promise to myself that I would never knowingly hurt another human being. Because, in my little-girl mind, being like Ira was the worst thing you could possibly be. I’ve stuck with that thought and it’s working for me.

 

How do you like me now, Mr. Jones?

His name wasn’t really Mr. Jones. He’s been dead for many years but the things he taught me sustain me still today. If you’re lucky, there is one educator in your life who has affected the way you live your life in a very positive and special way. My Mr. Jones gave me the greatest gift that an educator can give his student. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself and my talent as a writer, and his influence is evident in everything I do today.

I was a writer from the time I could hold a pencil. My first love was poetry. As a little girl I read and wrote poetry before I delved into prose. It was not unusual for me to think in rhythm and rhyme and verse and meter. As a teenager I became enamored of the 1960’s poet Rod McKuen, a contemporary of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. With money earned from babysitting, I bought all McKuen’s books and records and I developed a hippie’s heart. Rod McKuen’s work was the catalyst for many a teenaged girl’s fantasies of love, longing, and romance. I would hide out in my dorm room and stare out the window at the squirrels scampering across the campus below and, with Rod McKuen’s sensual voice coming from the stereo, I would dream every girl’s dream of love waiting.

I was one month shy of seven years old when I started first grade. So, all throughout my schooldays I would be a year older than my classmates. I was always the tallest. I spent most of my time with adults, so I talked like a miniature adult most of my childhood. I could hold mature conversation with any adult when I was just a little girl. Many adults found it fascinating. Some thought it a bit odd and disconcerting. But, to me and my family, it was just the way I was.

And puberty came to visit me a year before the rest of the people in my class. I had a woman’s figure when the rest of the girls in my class were in their training bras. I skipped right past the training bra and, accompanied by my mom, I left the Sears & Roebuck Store’s Ladies’ Lingerie Department wearing a size 36-D. Life would be awkward for me from then on. Boys stopped looking me in the eye. To me, they were silly and immature. Even then, I gravitated to men instead of boys. I would wear one of my dad’s tight sleeveless white tank t-shirts under my bulky shirts and sweaters in an attempt to mash my breasts down to a more inconspicuous size. I felt like a freak amongst the girls in my class. My self-confidence hit an all-time low. Teenage girls only want to fit in. And, in so many ways, I never did. I blame the age difference for the way I felt. I created problems in my mind where there were none. I never understood those years until I became an adult and had the opportunity to look back and assess them. In school I had been a drama-queen who’d blown everything out of proportion, including my own so-called ‘problems.’ I was prone to depression. I never knew where I belonged. Teenage girls are riddled with angst and any woman who says they aren’t obviously slept through those years or she’s erased them from her memory bank altogether.

In eighth grade, Mr. Jones came into my life. He was the junior high principal who also taught an English class. My interests in poetry and writing had peaked, and he gave his students freedom to express themselves in the assignments he would give us. He was controversial amongst some people in our conservative rural community. He introduced us to books that some of the parents believed to be too sophisticated for junior-high level reading. I didn’t care. I devoured everything he assigned to us and loved it all. I wrote my heart out with his encouragement and I soon became someone he would single out when books were being discussed or our creative writing assignments were being read. I would find myself reading aloud in class at his invitation and it made me feel special and part of something I could relate to.

One day he asked me if I would like to spend some of my study hall periods in his office discussing literature and writing skills on a regular basis. He said I was a special talent and he wanted me to succeed with my writing and he was willing to help me. My heart skipped a beat from being singled out by this scholarly man. Of course I said I would.   

For several weeks while the rest of the kids were doing kid stuff, I would sit in his office and we would discuss literature like adults. We would conjugate verbs and discuss the power of adjectives and he would talk to me about keeping my sentences tight, lean, and powerful. He introduced me to Shakespeare, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and D.H. Lawrence. He gave me individual writing assignments that no one else was given. And, he told me that he expected me to seek a future in writing professionally. I promised him that I would. To a girl like me, this was nirvana. He lit a fire in me that would smolder all throughout my life. My self-confidence grew to a point where I no longer cared about what my contemporaries thought of me. I began to stand a little taller when I walked through the halls at school. I stood a little straighter. And I began to embrace the person that I was. I looked straight ahead instead of looking at the floor. And, I knew without a doubt that someday I would be a writer. Mr. Jones had made me believe that I could be. And his opinion had come to mean so much. He believed in me. And that gave me permission to believe in myself.

I would speak rapturously about my sessions with Mr. Jones when I was sitting around the dinner table with my family. My mother was extremely proud of my relationship with him. When I was bragging about Mr. Jones’ latest literary discussion, my dad was more apt to look down at his pork chop and attack it quite severely with a very sharp knife.

My parting with Mr. Jones was abrupt and very uncomfortable. I would carry it as a burden on my heart and a breach of my trust for years afterward. He and I were deep into a discussion about poetry. I had discovered Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, and I was chattering away about the beauty of some of the phrases that she’d used when Mr. Jones rolled his chair around to sit beside me. Before that day, he had always sat across the desk from me. His flushed face was close enough to mine that I could smell the combination of Sen-Sen, alcohol, and stale cigarettes on his breath. It had long been rumored that he had a drinking problem.

He put one arm around my neck and began fondling my breasts with his other hand. He tried to kiss me. I left abruptly and I never went back. I never told anyone. He would soon take a leave of absence and I would go on to high school. I wouldn’t see him again for many years.

I became a nurse after years of hard work and sacrifice. I put myself through nurses training and took a job at an area county hospital. I had paid my own way through school by taking out loans and working weekends and holidays to make ends met. I was a single working woman with my own apartment and I knew where every nickel came from. I had achieved a lot and I was proud of my accomplishments. I was strong and self-sufficient and I had proven myself worthy. I had a bright future ahead of me even though I had put all my writing dreams away. Writing never seemed like a logical thing for me to do. What I wanted to do more than anything in life was to be able to take care of myself. And, I was on my way to doing just that. 

I went to work one day to discover that Mr. Jones was a patient on my floor. I was ecstatic. I was adult enough to have forgiven the past and I chose to remember only the good things that Mr. Jones had shared with me. I have a keen understanding of human nature and I know that none of us is perfect. I judge no one. Mr. Jones was no exception. While taking report on my patients, I was having lovely flashbacks of our long talks in his office. And I was looking forward to talking to him as an adult. I asked the charge nurse to assign him to my team of patients.

I was proud to be decked out in my snow-white uniform, my shiny white shoes, and my perfectly-starched nurse’s cap. I entered his room with a smile and was alarmed at how old and frail he appeared. He was quite ill. I reached for his hand and reminded him who I was. And, just as I always did all those years before, I was waiting excitedly to hear what he had to say.

He looked at me with a sort of sadness in his eyes and said, “Well — I didn’t expect to see you here. I always thought you would go on to college and make something of yourself.”

Even as a writer with an above-average command of the English language, I can’t seem to put into words how much his words hurt me. They temporarily took my breath away. I went to the nurses’ lounge and indulged myself in a crying jag. I had assumed that when he first saw me, he would see what I saw in the mirror; a confident young woman with a bright future and a determination to succeed. But, he saw a disappointment. A failure. I hadn’t lived up to his expectations. 

I gave him gentle nursing care for the entire shift, chatting with him and making him as comfortable as I could. I turned him over to another nurse for the rest of his hospitalization. He died shortly after. And I carried a sort of deep inner sorrow within my heart from that day forward that I had let my writing fall away and disappear from my life. Because, the truth was, I hadn’t only disappointed Mr. Jones by letting it disappear. I had disappointed myself.

Today I’m a published author. I look to the future and am blinded by the opportunities out there at the end of my rainbow. I never stop writing these days. My nursing career was long and rewarding. But, now it’s time for me to make Mr. Jones and myself proud. I am going to harvest the writing potential he saw in me. And, despite my ugly memories of our two tumultuous partings, I still love him. He planted a seed that has finally germinated into a long-awaited full-blown writing career. I know I’ll never write The Great American Novel the way he had hoped. I’m sixty-four years old now and time is against me. But, the core of what I do everyday with my writing is still a reflection of all the things he taught me. I hope that, somehow, he is able to see me now and know that all is forgiven. He’s still my inspiration and my muse and I hope I’m making him proud. That confident eighth grade girl who lingered on his words still lives right here in this woman’s heart. And she’s still listening.

 

“It’s nice sometimes to open up the heart a little and let some hurt come in. It proves you’re still alive.”~Rod McKuen, from Listen to the Warm