Happy Birthday Paladin!

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Our Handsome Birthday Boy

Today is my big buddy boy’s 11th birthday.  Of course the number of years is a vet’s best guess, and the date is one that I arbitrarily picked as being appropriate for a big Irish lad.  But we are celebrating his 11th birthday today nonetheless.

All dogs are of course special, but Pal is especially so.  Now before I get ahead of myself, let us go back to the beginning – a place that many good stories start from.

Back then, my father and I were volunteering as foster parents for an Irish Setter rescue organization.  Our family’s association with Irish Setters goes back many years, as described in some detail in my post “The Saga of Cement Sue”.  Dad & I had fostered 9 dogs in the space of 2 years.  Then I got the call to pick up number 10.  The story I was told was that this big red boy had walked up to the Humane Society in Kankakee, IL.  The staff at the shelter had watched him walk down the road with a Collie at his side.  The two walked straight up to the front door of the shelter, and sat down politely to wait.  The staff found ID tags on the Collie and contacted the owner saying “we have your dogs here.”  The owner responded that he only had one dog, a Collie and didn’t know anything about an Irish Setter.  Based on his condition, the vet at the shelter estimated that this big boy had been on his own for about six months.  The shelter got in touch with our rescue group.  Arrangements were made for a volunteer to pick him up from the shelter and transport him north to New Buffalo, MI where I would pick him up and take him to our home for fostering.

When the volunteers arrived at our rendezvous point they came in one of those really big crew cab pick-up trucks.  This big 90 pound dog in the back of the cab looked quite frightened at the prospects of leaping to the ground from such a height.  I reached in and picked up the big lug in my arms and set him gently on the ground.  His big brown eyes communicated to me as clearly as could be “Thank you, that was a scary prospect.”

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Look at those ears!

At this point I got my first good luck at this handsome lad.  He had such a noble countenance, with big brown eyes that you could swim in, and such long graceful ears.  He was simply the most handsome Irish Setter that I had ever seen.

As was my usual practice when transporting a foster dog home, we drove immediately to the closest fast food outlet, in this case a McDonald’s franchise, for a treat before starting the drive home.  When we arrived at the Magic Window, I got my first view of this master flirt in action.  He immediately went head and shoulders out the window, with no shame about standing on me to accomplish his goal.  The girl working the window was immediately taken with him and started petting him and whispering sweet nothings to him.  As we drove away, breaking the poor girl’s heart, I handed him a cheeseburger.  Again those communicative eyes spoke plainly and said “Thank you, this is the most wonderful, magical thing ever!”

On the drive back to Spring Lake I decided to name him after the hero of my late grandfather’s favorite TV show “Have Gun Will Travel”.  And so this boy became Paladin.

When we got home, Pal & Sue greeted each other, and Sue in her magical way let him know that this was her house and that she was the alpha dog.  Pal seemed OK with that, and performed a quick scout of the house.  He returned to stand in front of the living room sofa and look up and down the length of the couch.  Then he looked over at Dad.  Back to up and down the couch, and then back to Dad.  My father said “You can get up there if you want.” and Pal was instantly up on the couch and settled in like he belonged.

I was head over heels in love with this boy, but trying to be a good foster parent, I worked towards the goal of getting him adopted out to the right family.  Then one day Dad said, “We should keep this boy, he is on the same schedule as me – breakfast, then a nap, lunch, then a nap, supper, then a nap, bedtime snack, and then off to bed.”  And that was all it took, Pal was home.

Over the next few weeks, we learned how smart Pal was – he can open door knobs, that he was a total garbage hound – able to retrieve food scraps from any receptacle, and that he was a superb lady’s man – he would push his head into their legs, then roll his head up so that he was looking in their eyes and they would totally melt.  We also became aware of what a gentle giant he was, able to maneuver around Dad, without toppling him or his walker over.

While Pal was King of the Couch at home, we soon learned that at the Dog Park he was the Park Policeman.  Pal will not tolerate aggressive behavior in his vicinity.  If two dogs are behaving aggressively in the slightest degree, Pal will insert himself between them.  If that doesn’t settle the situation, Pal will rest his head on the aggressor’s back.  And if that doesn’t settle it, then Pal will push the aggressor over on to his back.  He may be the gentlest giant ever, but when his dander is up, you don’t mess with Big Pal.

Pal was a happy boy, and very content in his home.  But changes were in the wind.  In my initial conversation with Linda about moving to Durham, the first question I asked her was “Do you have a couch for Pal?”  Of course she had multiple couches for Pal, and she understood why that would be such a high priority to me.

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Pal loves kissing his Mamma!

It shouldn’t have surprised me how much Pal loves his new home.  He has his new Mamma, Linda.  His greatest pleasure is walking up on her as she sits at her computer and kissing her face for as long as she will tolerate it.  And it isn’t just at her desk – he’ll happily kiss on her no matter where she is, even in the water at the beach.

I’m sorry big buddy, but I don’t know how to convey in words how special you are.  I am just so glad that you chose to be a big part of my family – and I hope that you know how much both Linda & I love you.  Happy Birthday Pal!

The Saga of Cement Sue

my christmas gift

This is the special wonderful gift that my Linda gave me

I’ve often waxed poetic (or at least posted prose) about my love, Linda Herman.  I’ve worn out my list of adjectives trying to describe how wonderful she is, and how good she is for me.  This Christmas, she demonstrated her love with the best material gift I have ever received.

What could this gift be?  It is a two-foot high concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Yes, you all know that I love Irish Setters, but that wouldn’t make this the best gift ever.  So what would?  I hope you have a few minutes as this is a convoluted answer.

The story starts with my great-grandfather Hall.  I don’t know much about the man, I don’t even know his name.  The generation before me simply referred to him as “Grandpa Hall.”  By the time I was aware enough to ask his name, my father no longer remembered it.

My great-grandfather's property in Spring Lake

My great-grandfather’s property in Spring Lake

Here is what I do know about the man.  He owned a farm in Spring Lake, MI bordered on the south by modern-day M-104, on the west by Fruitport Road, on the north by the railroad tracks, and on the east by the swamp.  On this farm he raised pigs, which he smoked and sold as bacon & ham in the surrounding communities.

The other, more interesting thing, that he did on his property was breed and train what he called “Irish Bird Dogs.”  We would know them today as Irish Setters & Irish Red & White Setters.  Even then they were trying to breed the white out so that they could develop into the red dogs that we know today.

Great-grandfather Hall always kept three dogs for breeding – a male named Patrick and two bitches named Molly & Sue.  When one passed on, or retired from breeding, he would replace it with another dog with the same name.  So he always had Patrick, Sue, & Molly.  This allowed him to sell to returning satisfied clients another dog with the same parents as their previous dog.  And disgruntled customers could be offered a dog from the other mother.

John & I with Jojo

My brother John & I with our dog Jojo.

grampa and dog

My grandfather with a Sue or a Molly

This practice of Patrick, Sue, & Molly was carried on by my grandfather, Melvin Bristol Hall.  He didn’t do the dogs as a full time profession like his father did, but he kept the Patrick, Sue, & Molly tradition alive.

Now my father, Melvin Edward Hall, didn’t breed dogs.  We always had at least one dog in the house, most of them Irish Setters.  But in my little atomic family, my mother claimed naming rights for all pets.  So we had Duke, Jojo, Koof, Kerry, & Scarlet.

Then in 1992, Dad retired from teaching.  It turns out that there was an Irish Setter breeder near Coldwater, MI who had a bitch that was descended from one of my great-grandfather’s lines.  And he presented the dog to my father as a retirement gift.

This was one of the rare occasions where my father stood up to my mother.  He explained to her that the dog was a gift to him, the dog was part of his family history, and he would be naming her Molly!  My mother didn’t speak to him for weeks afterword.

grandma and a dog

My Grandmother Irene Vos Hall with a Sue or a Molly

My uncle Ken Hall (Mel’s younger brother) had a much more entertaining response.  Uncle Ken located a concrete, life-sized, concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Since Mel had a Molly, Ken brought him a Sue – Cement Sue (you have to say it like Jed Clampett – See-Ment Sue).  And from that point on, we had Cement Sue stationed in our back yard.

The years were not kind to Cement Sue, as she stood sentry day and night in all kinds of weather.  She may have lost pieces of concrete, leaving just bits of rebar hanging out.  But she was always there, and Dad & I made a habit of saying hello to Cement Sue every time we came or went through the back door.  As time went by Dad did indeed add a Sue to go along with his Molly.  After many good years with Mel, Molly final had to go to the Rainbow Bridge.  Fortunately, he still had his Sue, who stayed by his side until his death – and Cement Sue was still on station in the backyard.

ken hall & family

My Uncle Ken and his family

Mel & Molly

Dad with a Molly from his grandfather’s line

When the bittersweet time came for me to leave 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, MI to join my lovely Linda in Durham, NC I discovered a sad, sorry truth.  Cement Sue was so damaged, and so sunken into the very ground of the backyard that it would be impossible to move her.  So with a very heavy heart, I left her behind at 712 Winter St.

In my heart, Cement Sue not only meant Molly & Dad but also 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, Uncle Ken & a grandfather & great-grandfather that I never met.  Of course, being so sensitive, loving, caring, and attuned to me – Linda knew all of that.  So she gave me not only a brand new Cement Sue – but also all of those important things left behind when I left Michigan.  I have never received a finer gift with more love behind it.  Thank you Linda – I love you.

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

Happy Father’s Day

Friday was one of the toughest days ever.  On our way to Doggie Fun Land (the dog park in Ferrysburg) Sue got VERY excited in the car.  Now Pal is a great car rider, he just lays down and takes a nap knowing that there will be excitement when we get where we are going.  Sue on the other hand is always excited, and knows that we’d get there faster if I would just let her drive.  But on this occasion Sue was beyond excited – she was nearly out of her mind.

As we turned the corner, I saw why she was in such a state.  We pulled into traffic behind Dad’s old car and the folks who bought it from us.  Sue had heard Dad’s car and KNEW that was where her Daddy was.  Soon, they turned one way while we kept on another way.  The keening sound that Sue made cut through me like a million sharp knives.  I don’t think that anything has ever hurt me so badly as the sound that she made, knowing that she was in pain and wanted to be with her Daddy.  I was so impacted that I had to pull over and gather myself before I could drive any further.

Of course, Sue being a dog, she lives in the moment.  So by the time we got to Doggie Fun Land, she was ready to run and play.  I wish I could have recovered as quickly.

Today, Father’s Day, was the toughest holiday since Dad passed.  It was even tougher than Thanksgiving, Christmas, Dad’s birthday, or mine.  Since my younger brother

John with Barkley and Alexander

John with Barkley and Alexander

John passed away in 2004, Father’s Day has been a special occasion for Dad, Sue, & I.  This year, with just Sue, Pal, and I it seemed a very lonely day.

If you know me, then you know how dearly I loved, and still love, my father.  If you don’t know me, then words can never tell you.

But I want to share these words anyway.  In 2007 I was still working part time at WGHN– and of course I was working on Father’s Day.  Before I left for work that morning, I placed a card and a pile of gifts on the dining room table.  I also left him a note.  The note is reproduced below, without any further comment.

Mel and his first puppy Sue

Mel and his first puppy Sue

Dad,

I know that I’m doing more for Father’s Day this year than what we’ve traditionally done.  Partially that’s because I’m so grateful for all that you’ve done for me, and partially because I’m a little guilty about how little I’ve done for you.  Certainly some of it is a side effect of how scared I was about losing you in February.  But mostly it is just because I love you.

You’ve always seemed superhuman to me.  The strength of your character and the gentleness of your nature still inspire awe in me.  And when I look back from the lofty heights of my 47 years (yes, you should read some sarcasm in that) at how much you had accomplished in life by age 47, and how little I have accomplished, I am humbled.

Probably the single greatest thing that you did for both John and I was that you allowed us the space to be children when we were children and that you allowed us even more space to be our own selves when we became adults.  Recently I’ve thought a lot about that, and how I haven’t really given the same back to you.  I’ve always expected perfection from you.  And while you generally deliver on that score, I let myself become frustrated and even angry when those occasions arise when you are simply a human being.  That isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.  It has been a limiting factor in our tremendous friendship, and I am sorry for all the times that I’ve allowed my attitude to impact our relationship.

I know that you aren’t some comic book superhero who always does right.  I know that you are simply a man who always tries to do right.  And that is a far more precious and valuable thing.  I know that you forgive me for this, you always do – and I appreciate your indulgence more than I’ll ever be able to say or even show.  I will try harder to allow you the space to be your own self, and a human being.  But there will always be a little corner of myself that enjoys pretending that you really are that comic book superhero.

I wrote this all down and stuck it in a card for you to read while I am at work so that we could avoid one of those awkward, mushy moments.  But that doesn’t make it any less real.  Thank you for being my father, I love you.  Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Birthday Dad

Hey Boss,

I just wanted to write you a quick note as the dogs and I wrap up the preparations for your birthday tomorrow. It sounds a bit strange to me to be celebrating your birthday more than four months after your passing, but I decided that it will make me happy to celebrate you – and the special love that we shared.

We are going to start the day with a trip to Doggie Fun Land in Ferrysburg.  After dropping the dogs at home, I’ll pop over to Orchard Market to pick-up a big old porterhouse steak and some of those little cupcakes that you always enjoyed.  I debated about baking a cake for you, as I did every year, but I’ve been doing really well with my blood sugar lately and I don’t want to mess that up.

In the afternoon, Pal has an appointment at Harborfront Hospital for Animals.  He just turned nine this month and he’s due for his annual physical.  It just seemed appropriate on your birthday to take an old man to an appointment with a doctor.  Paladin graciously offered to fill in for you.

After his visit, we’ll stop in at the City Farmer to pick up a box of peanut butter bones for the dogs.  They are still Sue’s favorite food to play with, and she teases Pal and I mercilessly when she has one in her mouth.

Then it will be home to make dinner.  I’ll grill up the steak just the way you liked it – marinated in Worcestershire sauce and seasoned with salt and pepper.  I’m going to split it three ways with Sue and Pal.  I’m also going to share the cupcakes with them.  You should see Sue and Pal on a sugar buzz!  When I came home from your memorial service, I put the leftover cake on the kitchen counter while I changed.  When I came back into the kitchen, there were two happy looking dogs laying on the kitchen floor with some cardboard and plastic wrap between them.  About half an hour later, the two of them were running around the house like young pups – playing with all of the toys, teasing each other, barking at each other, and just having a great time.

After they eat their 9:30 treats, the three of us will snuggle in together on Pal’s couch for our moment of Irish Setter Zen.  And we will sing happy birthday to you.

It won’t be the party that we’ve thrown for you the last several years.  I haven’t invited anybody over, I didn’t buy balloons, or any of that party stuff.

It is still pretty lonely in the house without you, but as I promised you, Sue, Pal and I are taking care of each other.

Happy Birthday Dad!  We will always celebrate your memory.

Every Day Is Like Christmas

Our Charlie Brown Christmas TreeThis is our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. I bought this just before Christmas last year.  It just seemed to fit our lives, our Christmas decorations, our living room, and our lives.

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965 – I was four years old.  I can’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve watched it every year since.

A Charlie Brown Christmas blu-rayWatching Dad’s reaction to the tree, I bought him a copy on blu-ray for Christmas last year.  We’ve probably watched it a dozen times since then.  There is just something about this classic that makes you feel good – even if it isn’t Christmas time.

When it came time to take down the Christmas decorations last season, Dad and I decided that the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree should stay up year-round.  So it became the centerpiece decoration in our living room.

Sue wearing a Christmas Wreath

Sweet Sue

With every thing that is going on with our lives and Dad’s health – we decided that we should stop for a moment each day and remember the great gifts that we have.  We have each other.  We have a roof over our heads and enough food to eat.  Dad has a tremendous insurance plan that covers whatever medical care he needs.  We have Sue – the love of Dad’s life and a tremendous blessing all by herself.

At the time, we were also fostering dogs for a rescue group – so we were sharing our gifts every day with those less fortunate.  We’ve since adopted Paladin, which put us at the limit for animals in the Village of Spring Lake and removed us from the fostering business – but we are overjoyed to be able to share our blessings every day with the most recent addition to our family.

At our house, everyday is Christmas Day – and we have the Christmas Tree to prove it!

Last June the doctor sat Dad & I down.  With a look of deep seriousness on his face he gazed deeply into Dad’s eyes and said “I very much doubt that you will live to see Christmas.”  I tried my best not to look at Dad, but I couldn’t help myself.  I looked over at him and we both started giggling like school girls.  The moment could not be contained, and soon we were both roaring with laughter!  The poor confused doctor said “That certainly is not the reaction I expected.”

As Dad & I wiped the tears of laughter away, Dad stated simply, between chuckles, “EVERY day is Christmas at our house!”

So, if you come to visit us – or even if you only visit through reading this blog – remember that EVERY day can be Christmas if you want it to be.  And please take a moment to appreciate the gifts that you have, and share them with others.

A Comfort To Dogs

This photo was taken a month before my brother John’s untimely death in January 2004.  As his wife Karla stated in his obituary, he was “a comfort to dogs.”  Pictured here snoozing with John are Barkley & Alexander.

I like to think that this is exactly what John is doing at this very moment – sharing love with and being a comfort to dogs.