Reflections as I climb down from the soapbox

I’ve written for public consumption for 60 years. I started with the Gazette when I was 17, hired by iconic publisher Ned Easton and editor Ed Roney in 1952 while I was still a student at Stillwater High School. I’ve maintained a keen awareness of the community’s significant developments since leaving my family home on the North Hill in 1953 to enter military service.

When one is compelled by forces unknown, or chooses this mode of self-expression, you go forth on the public stage knowing with every word you lay yourself on the line. One must anticipate pro and con feedback. My advice for anyone considering this path: develop a thick skin and don’t let whatever comes back — positive or negative — go to your head. Ultimately, what’s rewarding is someone is interested enough to read and respond to your “stuff.”

Commentaries on the proposed new St. Croix River — Stillwater Bridge (see Viewpoint columns of July 28, 2011, Sept. 1, 2011, Jan. 12, 2012, and July 5, 2012) have prompted interesting feedback.  Many comments were addressed to me personally and had little to do with the substantive, factual issues at hand. Here are excerpted examples:

“I wince every time I read your articles in the “Gazette” on local issues since you don’t live on North Owen Street anymore. The city has changed and you haven’t kept up with it.”

            “I resent the criticism of MnDOT’s proposal by someone living in a cabin on the Clam River in Polk County, Wis., and an architect from Marine (on St. Croix).”

            “I feel that you are adding to the growth of urban sprawl by where you live in rural Polk County, Wis. . . . until you live in Stillwater; I feel there is no need to continue correspondence.”

My response, (I always answer correspondence,) is encourage the writer(s) to make their views public in a letter to the editor and engage in an open discourse, absent personal innuendo, that might be of interest to the community at large. They rarely have the courage to do that since their names will appear in print.

So much for “shoot the messenger” clap trap. I don’t take feedback lightly. No matter what’s said, I’m moved as a matter of conscience to reflect upon what I’ve written and its impact on others, for better or worse. Such is the case as I go forth.

With that in mind, maybe it’s time take a break from windmill tilting, step off the soap box and share something entirely apart from the controversial matters usually the subject of my monthly diatribes: My deep affection for animals of all kinds, especially dogs and the precious role they play in our lives verses the pernicious dysfunction of the human species.

Years have passed, but this one I’ll never forget. We had something special.

He was my constant companion for almost 12 years, our fortunes intertwined. He trusted in me. And I loved him.

The big Weimaraner was aging and in poor health, and he died on the veterinarian’s operating table. We did all we could, but his strong heart was no match for the tumors that ravaged his hulking frame. Finally, we had to let him slip away under anesthesia.

So, my friend, Mark, is gone. He was my dog, although I never considered him mine in the sense of being a possession. You see, Mark and I had something special, something that grew and deepened as he shared the tumultuous years of my life.

In the cool evening last night, when I finished covering his grave, I ran the country roads by the lake. I ran until it hurt so I might blot out the anguish. Later, as I lay alone in the old house, I felt his familiar, silent presence lingering near my bed. I did not have to rise during the night to let him out as I had always done, but I awakened just the same. When I rose in the morning and went into the den, his favorite sleeping place near the old oak table was empty, and I realized again that he was gone. Today the sense of loss is deep and numbing and the memories of a dozen years flood back to clutch at my throat.

I recalled the sun-dappled green of the lawn near the bayou in Florida where, as a gangling pup, he would playfully lie in wait to tackle and gently maul my young sons. As the sun went down, we would run together along the trails near the bay, through groves of Spanish moss draped live oak trees, and he always stayed with me.

He matured quickly and his loyalty deepened. We began to understand one another without words. When I had to leave my family on a special military-CIA assignment, he became the silent guardian at the threshold.

Later, when I was flying my own charter airplane, he went everywhere with me. We flew fisherman to Canada and boar hunters to the Deep South. We flew the Caribbean islands together.

The years slipped by. With both of us tired of the race and disillusioned, we went to the farm to hear the Lake Elmo airport. He became the lord of a 10-acre kingdom, and I discovered I could converse with him and he could comprehend my nonverbal energies and moods.

Despite his size and strength, his powerful shoulders and huge paws, Mark never hurt anyone. He could defend himself well, but there was no meanness in him and he did not seek fights.

Assuming the airs of a pedigreed show dog as we stayed in the plush Manhattan hotels when I was promoting my book, and other times, impossibly shrinking his large frame and too-long legs as I smuggled him in and out of hotels and motels where pets were forbidden. But once safely in the room, he would take to the comfortable appointments and soft beds, asserting himself as an honored guest. Never questioning, he stayed with me during my phases of literary frustration and disappointments.

Again back at the farm in Minnesota, Mark so often was the one reason for me to come home in the evening. He was always there, waiting to greet me. In the days and nights of loneliness, he would come to sit beside me, his muzzle warmly on my lap, or sometimes we would curl up together in front of the blazing fireplace. He remained a warm and faithful friend amidst the insensitivity and indifference I found in others around me.

Yet, he was always the protector. We will never know how many unseen intruders his bark may have frightened or how many would-be prowlers his presence intimidated. Still, sometimes he was so dependent it scared me. Like when a thunderstorm was overhead and he’d try to squirm his big, unwieldy frame into a small, safe corner between our bed and the wall.

The den was his resting place, the room with all the mementos of our years of adventure and travel together.  He would sleep on his back, legs in the air, huge paws hanging limply and, in his old age, he would snore and dream and relive what we had shared.

I knew time was running out for him. I tried to prepare myself, but dreaded the day I would lose him. He was in pain. This spring, when I raked the yard and mounded great piles of leaves, he followed me as I worked. Sinking his big form into the softness of the leaves, stretching lazily snoozing in the warm spring sunlight. I knew he was grateful and it gave me pleasure. We worked alone, as we always did, and it was a good time for both of us because I think we both realized all we ever had was one another. Desperately maybe, I tried to postpone the inevitable…  Last week I bought an extra 50 pounds of dog food. I had never done that before.

Yesterday Mark and I came back home together for the final time. Even in the stillness of death there was strength and spirit in the proud Weimaraner head and massive ghost-gray form. I laid him to rest in a quiet corner of the yard, under a young willow tree. My life would never be the same without him.

Yes, he was only a dog. Taken for granted most of the time, often ignored and always just part of my scene.  But yet, as I ran last night, the hurt of Mark’s passing began to give way to a deeper understanding about his presence in my life, and now, his loss.

Tilting with life’s great windmills, I had so often overlooked the smaller blessings that God had given me. Mark was one of these gifts. And, in my sorrow, I stopped and gave thanks. My friend was gone but he had left me with a new appreciation for life.

As I said, Mark and I … we had something special.


Brad Ayers