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.