Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sic ‘Em, Pal!

Sic ‘Em, Pal!
The rattle from beneath the clump of sagebrush startled he pony and she jumped forward. My long adolescent legs tangled on a large stone and my butt hit the ground, hard. The pony scrambled forward and away as I climbed awkwardly to my feet. The 12 ear old dog dancing excitedly beside me barked in concern as I brushed the alkali dust from my eyes. How would I ever get the pony back? In frustration and panic I demanded a skill of the dog that she had never possessed, “Sic em, Pal”
To my horror the dog immediately snarled and ran after the pony. Growls and angry barking astonished me, as I had never heard anything like it from Pal in the 10 years of my life. Now I wouldn’t have to explain a missing pony. Instead, I would have to explain why the pony had been killed, on my orders, by the world’s friendliest red farm dog. Once again, I wished I could be anyone but me.
At ten, I was awkward and un-popular in school. During 4th grade, I had gone from 5 foot even, to five foot 9 inches and my ankles twisted nearly every step I took as the cartilage had not had a chance to fill in with bone yet. Now at the start of fifth grade my height and flaming red hair made it impossible to be as invisible as I wished to be. An only child until just before I started school, in a family with great-Grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, grandparents and parents, I got along well with adults, but I very clearly remember my mom telling me to “go outside and play,” and me, standing frozen on the back stoop, with no idea of what that meant. The children at the grade school seemed like graceful, but mean, alien creatures with whom I could never say or do the right thing. I hid by writing imaginary stories and letting my long hair obscure the face I bent over the notebook.
I was only truly happy away from school, and the best was the weekends when we drove to the ranch 30 miles away where my Mom had grown up just North of Meeteetse, Wyoming. Her cousins and Aunt still lived and worked hard on the old homestead. Summers were hot and dry and the air smelled of sagebrush and Alkali.
There were often chores to be done before the family gathered for one of the enormous, meals that barely kept skin and bones on the hard working ranchers. I knew that the work needed to be done but every weekend I begged to be allowed to ride Echoes of Pandora, the beautiful Morgan mare, who owned my heart. Rarely, there would be a free moment and then my cousin would saddle her and pull me up behind him and for a while I could be in heaven.
This day the men, my cousin, Dad, and Grandpa, were out setting irrigation lines in the fields. Without the constant monitoring of water, nothing but greasewood, cactus and sage would grow here. The women, Grandma, Little Grandma, Aunt Clara and Mom were in the steaming hot kitchen, snapping aprons full of green beans and packing them into quart Ball canning jars. I had helped for most of the afternoon, and finally been told that I could go out and ride the Shetland pony, princess, if I also gave rides to my younger brothers and cousins.
I was surprised when not one of the children wanted to come with me. They were playing on a big dirt hill, pushing bright yellow Tonka Trucks and tractors, across the ground and the vocal energy that they put into the sound effects roared across the prairie. Of the two dogs at the ranch, even Lady, the collie refused to come out from her patch of shade where she lay watching the Tonka Truck Rodeo rather that choosing to accompany me, but the large red dog, Pal hoisted herself to her feet and followed along gamely.
Princess, with her coat of cinnamon sugar, was a sweet, gentle animal that even a town girl, like me could hardly have trouble with. At least, I’m sure that is what the adults had been thinking. She was so short and round bellied and I was so long and gangly that my toes nearly dragged across the earth with each step. In spite of the stories I wrote, the sketches I covered my walls with, and the dreams of my heart – I was not a graceful rider.
We turned of the graveled track, with Pal following faithfully at our side. The faithful, red, dog had appeared on the ranch, footsore and matted coat, but obviously not much more than a year old, eleven years before and been there for my entire life. Ranching country was, unfortunately, often the dumping ground for large, young dogs just past puppy cuteness, once families realize how large and difficult they can be. My cousin assumed the dog, which showed up at feeding time one night, and stayed was another drop off. Pal had never been trained, but was a friendly, even-tempered dog who stayed close to the kids and the collie, happy to roam the ranch and wander along looking for jackrabbits and white-tailed deer among the willows and cottonwoods which lined the banks of the Greybull River.
Vivid, clownish Magpie’s flashed across the waxy blue sky. Their bold black-and-white flight captured my eyes for a moment. A hot breeze skittered past, pushing a small dust devil across the land. Suddenly a rattle near the ground startled Princess. A snake would make the better story perhaps, and be quite unsurprising here, but I saw a piece of yellowed newspaper tangled in the brush, rattling as the breeze stirred it.
Princess jerked forward then scrambled nearly sideways as she tried to bolt. Her short legged, stoutness made her nearly waddle. Still my dangling toes tangled with a boulder and I fell backward.
My jean clad, rump landed unhurt, but my mind exploded in a dozen panicked thoughts at once. How would I ever re-capture the pony? If I lost her, I would never be allowed near Echo. There are rattlesnakes around here!
I jumped to my feet and pointed after the fleeing Shetland, “Sic em, Pal!” It was an outburst from my frustration and impotence with no expectation, but then the Old Dog Did! She exploded after the pony, growling and getting around in front of her, planting her feet and going nose to nose. She forced the frightened animal to stop, and stand, sides heaving until she calmed and I could grab the reins.
Afraid to get back on, I led the pony back to the corral and brushed her down with shaking hands, giving her water and apple slices, while Pal gulped noisily from a water bucket. Finally I turned in amazement to the red dog. She grinned up at me as I patted her head nervously. Suddenly the faithful shadow was a mysterious stranger full of unknown danger.
Hesitantly, I thought of every command I knew, and tried them. Even though she had been around our family for eleven years and never been given a command, she executed them all perfectly. She sat, spoke, rolled over, shook my hand, begged and played dead. Her tail wagged and her eyes sparkled as if she was delighted that someone was finally playing with her.
After I put her through her paces for the amazed adults, and told the embarrassing story of my fall and the command to “sic-‘em,” the discussion turned to where Pal had really come from. Obviously, such a well trained dog, had not just been an abandoned, unwanted, overgrown puppy. All our assumptions were wrong and someone must have ached over the loss, but after all this time, the mystery remains unsolved.
But the mystery stayed with me and continues to influence my daily decisions as a teacher. Yes, the girl who hated school, grew-up and never left the classroom. I know that if a dog can remember lessons learned after not using them for a decade, then the students, I teach every day, may carry the smallest interaction with them for the rest of their life. I am reminded to make impact on their life be one of kindness and love and optimism. Pal showed me that learning may not be visible in any outward way, and yet, still be carried inside for life.
I also look at these children, some seeming unloved, abandoned almost feral. Then I remember that this assumption would be the most wrong of all. At the start of every life there was a creator, who loved each child, and gave them a mind capable of learning, and loving, and laughing. Where their paths intersect with mine, I pray my own version of the Hippocratic oath – Let me help them, let me teach them, and when I cannot reach them, at least let me do no harm until they move on to one who can teach them and guide them.
And Echo? Yes, I got to tide her at times. She was steady, gentle and never gave me a story as exciting as my afternoon with the pony. She did give me one thing I use on a daily basis, her name. I use “echo” or “pandorasecho” as my on-line nickname, because there are so many memories of family and happiness – but most of all, because I remember that the echo left behind in the box Pandora opened, was HOPE.

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