by Frances Edstrom
The day after my daughter's wedding, some friends were offering pontoon boat rides on the Mississippi to out-of-towners, many of whom would never again see Old Man River.
As people boarded, I asked my brother Michael if he wouldn't like to go. His visits to Winona in more recent years had been for his birthday, November 8, not exactly river weather. His last summer visit would have been in the early ‘80s.
"No thanks," he replied, "I've been on the river before."
It was one of those responses that sticks with me. To me, the river is never the same twice. It is a perpetual motion machine, an agent of incredible change.
Do you remember learning when you were a child that no two snowflakes are alike? "Wow," I thought.
But no two of anything in my experience are exactly alike. Even computers that look exactly alike, and may even have been manufactured, boxed up and sent out within seconds of each other will have their idiosyncrasies.
Two of the things that drew me to John lo those many years ago were a love of the river and love of dogs. He had had much more experience with both, growing up in Winona and having a childhood dog.
For a wedding gift, I gave John the first of a line of hunting dogs that we have owned as a family. There are things that prospective dog owners should know, which of course I didn't.
One is that puppies are cute for the same reason babies are cute: if they weren't you wouldn't keep them around. They are a lot of work, and need constant attention.
We managed to name two of our line of dogs the same names as close neighbors, not deliberately. It makes yelling at the dog a whole new experience.
Strong-willed and/or untrained dogs are enormously destructive. It is my personal opinion that they are the cause of many breakdowns in relationships, even marital. The reason you won't read that in Dear Abby or self-help books is that people are too ashamed to admit an animal can have such power over them.
No two dogs are alike.
Arnie the Black Lab was a hunter/first child to us. Oh, did we love him. Even when he learned to open the fridge and eat our dinner, we still loved him. He died from his gluttonous ways, ingesting a bowl of milk laced with strychnine to kill skunks under a neighbor's trailer. He got the full-dress burial on the hunting grounds.
We got Augie, Arnie's relative, on the rebound after Arnie's demise. We should have been warned by the fact that he was available because he had been brought back to the breeder. Kid biter, adult biter, had to be put down. After him was Louie the Springer Spaniel, loved by the kids (known to one, learning to talk, as Rouie da Ricker), mediocre hunter, lived to a ripe old age when blindness and illness led to his last trip to the vet. There is a novel to be written about Louie's much-delayed funeral.
Then Gloria the Yellow Lab, a blonde joke on four legs. She was such a horrible hunter that we put an ad in the paper and gave her away to people who just wanted a dog. Gloria was a dog. No tears shed at her removal.
Maggie, ah"Maggie. She was the George W. Bush of the group. I wonder how one dog could be so well-loved by some and so well-hated by others. Somehow she became an indoor/outdoor dog. She was a shedder, runner and barker. A bad barker. Born to run. She finally climbed a chain link fence and was hit on Sarnia Street. I hated that dog. And I mean hated. How then, did I find myself driving her to a specialist in Rochester to see if she could be saved? Why was I sobbing uncontrollably as we brought her body home?
Now Ruby the Black Lab. Ruby loved to hunt. Ruby never barked. She was an outdoor dog, and some days I'd just have to go look in the pen to make sure she was still there, she was so silent. She was also grateful, an unusual trait in a dog. Grateful to hunt, retrieve, grateful to run, eat snow, drink from the river. The perfect hunting dog (this is my opinion, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my co-management), because I had no emotional attachment to her. I am not a hunter.
Ignoring my own adage that no two dogs are alike, I said, "You should get a puppy so Ruby can teach it not to bark," as Ruby's muzzle turned gray and she began to take two tries at jumping into the car. She was fourteen. True to her unassuming nature, Ruby slipped away last week, no fanfare, no warning.
John's grief for Ruby is painful to watch, because I don't share this time, and I don't fully understand how her death represents the end of a hunting era for him, and I guess for the river.
His salute to her life:
Upon the death of his faithful dog
She came from a hamlet, DeSoto, Wisconsin
Between the great swamps at Reno and Lansing
On the Mississippi; Ruby, we named her,
Unknowingly, namesake to an elderly neighbor
Proving awkward when, during the course of her training
With threats, imprecations and curses all raining
Down on her head until no one knew which
Ruby I referenced as rotten bitch
A problem resolved as she quickly proved
That hunting dog most sought after and loved
Which, nevermind hand-signals, whistles, and all,
Will always turn and come back when you call
The ducks are all gone now from marshes and fen,
Scarcely a drake, hardly a hen
Where huge rafts used to gabble and quack;
And Ruby, to a place where I can't call her back