Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boo! Or Reflections on the Season

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Birthdays, July 4, Memorial days - Bah Humbug, one and all. But Halloween! Now that is a holiday I can sink my teeth into. I think it is the fact that people get creative for Halloween. Children become super heros or princesses for the day. Adults turn into vacuum cleaners, hot dogs, lamps or the villainous, underworld figure - Dick Cheney.

It was a coincidence but I got my first Newfoundland on Halloween. That would have been 28 years ago. I was living in Kansas at the time and had, years before, decided that I was going to have a Newfoundland. I owned a small house next to a doctor's office, and one day the local police came to my office to ask if I'd heard anything during the night. Seems doctor's offices are often the target of people breaking in looking for drugs and someone had broken in the night before.

That did it! Time for a "guard" dog. I went down to the local 7-11, bought a newspaper and saw an ad for Newfy puppies. One call and I had arranged to meet this family who lived in Western Kansas and were driving 6 pups to the eastern side of the state to sell them that weekend.

My father was a private pilot so he rented a small plane and flew me to a little Kansas town with a grass runway. We landed at the appointed time, and shortly thereafter, a station wagon pulled up and out poured 2 adults, 5 kids and 6 16 week old Newf puppies! We visited a bit, I handed them a check for $150, grabbed the closest puppy to me at the moment, and off we went.

The nightmare really started for that poor puppy then. Talk about Halloween! She was pulled away from the only life she had ever known, handed over to strangers, dumped into a cardboard box, and propelled into the sky. If that wasn't bad enough, the crazy lady who had just adopted her had her sit on her front porch with her that night and, rather than snuggling with fuzzy liter-mates, poor Tara was forced to gaze on monsters and ghosts, witches and mummies. She must have thought she'd been sent straight to hell! Thank goodness the ASPCA wasn't around that night! In spite of a somewhat frightening beginning, Tara and I shared 12 more Halloweens together.

Today, Arayo and I spent the day looking for goblins and New England Halloween trappings. People in this part of the world aren't too into decorating for the season, but the bite in the air is becoming more pronounced and the trees are becoming more skeletal each day. I suppose that is scary enough.

Photos: And, to celebrate the season, fall colors over a cemetery. (I expect goblins to be dancing under the tree tonight!) Arayo poses as a wicked witch - scary huh?

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Walls Do Speak

I sometimes wonder what my homes have seen. During college, I lived in the upstairs apartment of a house that had been remodeled because the previous renter had died in a fire in what was to become my bedroom.

Another home was haunted. Lights that I'd never turned on would flip on in the middle of the night by themselves. Doors would open, things would move around. The woman I bought the home from believed me when I told her the stories. The house had been built for her mother (called Mongey by her grandchildren) who was a real character. She'd run off and joined the circus when she was younger and even as an old lady enjoyed things like palm reading.

I knew it was Mongey who was haunting the house. In fact, I had been renting the house but the horrid wallpaper with enormous floral patterns was making me nuts, so, in order to strip off the paper, I had to buy the home. I figured that Mongey was hanging around to see what I was doing and once the remodel was complete, she moved on. I kept the home as a rental for 20 years and no one complained of Mongey after the remodeling ended.

Chris Robb bought her 150 year old Isleboro Maine home some 30 years ago when she first visited the island. At the time she lived in the midwest, but fell for this darling farmhouse and had to have it. During the years, she has slowly made improvements - putting in a real kitchen and bathrooms, and removing linoleum which had been glued to the old parquet floors (their existence was a total surprise, though they were so ruined by the glue that they weren't restorable).

She saved for the day she could replace old wiring and plumbing. As often happens when walls are removed, "things" presented themselves that had been buried for years. For Chris, the house gifted her a story of its past in the form of a bundle of letters.

Still in their original envelopes and dated 1903 - 1911, the letters were written by a teenage girl to her boyfriend who was working at sea. They told of her life on the island, of working in a local laundry, of walking in winds so high that her skirts flew over her head. They hinted at possible scandalous events.

Did the boy hide the letters for safe keeping so they would not be found by his parents? Were they forgotten, or did they slip to a place that left them unretrievable? Some research revealed that the couple did eventually marry and the boy's grave located.

Chris isn't finished with this story, yet. She is playing with the idea of transcribing and publishing the letters.

If your walls could speak, what would they reveal?

Photos: Chris Robb's home on Isleboro Maine presented her stories from the grave. Her Newfoundland, 9 Volt, guards his front door.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Watching for John Travolta

He's here somewhere, I'm just sure he is! John Travolta has a home on this tiny island and Arayo wants to see him. I could care less, but she's interested. Arayo has only seen one other movie star and that is my "home" island's own Russell Johnson. Better known as "The Professor" from the old sitcom Gilligan's Island, Russell may have been my first crush. He was handsome, intelligent, level-headed, and basically kept the small group of castaways alive during their stay on their small and usually deserted island. What's not for a 9 year old to love?

Well, Russell is now 85 and still clicking - though, at a much slower pace than he was 50 years ago. His step is slower, his back a bit bent. Frankly, he doesn't look like he feels too well, and most people who see him wouldn't realize it is him, but if you look closely you can tell.

So, while I've explained to Arayo the significance of the cute little old man in the Post Office or Grocery Store, she isn't really impressed. But, she would like to see John Travolta - though I'm not sure why. He's never appealed much to me. You wouldn't find him keeping a small group alive on a deserted island, but, when I was in Italy in the late 70's people would ask where I was from and when I'd respond "America", the Italians would smile broadly and respond "America is Good! John Travolta!"

Islands have their own quirks. Especially small islands with few full-time inhabitants. I ran up against the noted coldness to outsiders when purchasing groceries at the tiny store up the street. Three times I attempted to smile and say a pleasant "Hello, Have a Nice Day" to the stern woman at the cash register, but she was not going to be suckered into a response. Though, locals who entered the store received a "Hi Betty. How are you today?"

When driving, however, the situation is the opposite. Drivers in 9 out of 10 cars you pass will give "the wave". I don't notice a lot of smiles from the drivers, but as soon as they see you coming, the hand flips off the steering wheel into a definite wave. When I asked my host, Chris, about this, she said it was a big thing here. At one time, they even put a sign up as you drove off the ferry stating that they wave on Isleboro, but locals complained that visitors might think they HAD to wave and they didn't want that, so the sign was removed.

The island is an interesting place. Beautiful but not for everyone. There are no movie theaters, no dance halls, no public swimming pool and from fall to the beginning of summer, there are no restaurants. Just two teeny tiny grocery stores, a play ground and ball field for the kids, and a small library. Leaving the island for a night on the town isn't encouraged as the 27 - 28 car ferry makes its last sailing at 5 pm.

But where does John Travolta live? Big secret! Chris said she may have stumbled onto his property once. She was on a road which was obviously not taking her where she wanted to go, and as she drove along the lane looking for a place wide enough to turn around she was met by a guard who "suggested" she was in the wrong place and the appropriate action on her part was to head back the way she had come. She doesn't know for sure if that was the Travolta property or one belonging to someone else, but she suspected she'd stumbled onto his land.

So, while Arayo would love to see John Travolta, we aren't taking any unmarked side roads.

Photos: Fall a beautiful time to visit Isleboro Maine!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Fall Drive

The road stretches before us as we head towards Maine. Leaves, in dull shades of orange and gold, slowly release their grasp on branches and float softly to the ground. The colors are a slight disappointment, as the rains, the cold and wind have combined to tone the traditionally vivid Vermont countryside to an understated version of the season.

Into upper New Hampshire and across southern Maine, nature has stepped forward with more self assurance. The trees wear their colors in a fresh, bold pallet.

Arayo and I drive the winding side roads, accompanied by the music of Cheryl Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist I've been introduced to. Her ballads of love, loss, Fall in New England, and funny tunes bemoaning cell phones and air travel are the perfect backdrop for our journey and I'm so thankful to have found her!

We head to the coast, and eventually to a small island that lays 20 minutes to the east of the mainland. Islesboro, with areas named Pripet and Dark Harbor, was originally called Pitaubegwimenahanuk by the Penobscot Indians. Some name changes are definitely an improvement.

Following the Civil War, the island was discovered by the wealthy who were looking for a cooler place to spend their summers and giant homes were built along the shoreline.

These "Single Family Summer Cottages" are in use a couple months of the year and have been owned by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta.

Arayo and I plan to spend some time here watching for the rich and famous.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Watched in the Night

They peer down on me. As the dim light of the exit sign, glowing in the darkened building like a red-eyed cyclops, marks my quiet movements, they watch. The crimson light reflected by hundreds of eyeglasses through which the walls glower.

Tonight finds us sleeping on the floor of the local optometrist's office and every direction I turn, the walls scrutinize, study and ogle.

Arayo has become far too attractive to my host's 180 pound male St. Bernard. An "intact" girl, we deal with this once every six months or so. As we are not typically around that many other dogs, her seasonal cycle doesn't alter our lifestyle - or those we encounter - but my host's home has become a bit too crowded for a Newfoundland who has suddenly become a brat and a flirt, and a pushy Saint who knows his size and strength.

So, we spend our days, visiting, traveling, enjoying the New England colors, and at night we settle down in this unusual setting.

But, it is another welcome departure from the norm. We take advantage of this opportunity and spend a while, trying on the latest styles. Is the round Harry Potter look for me, or the heavy black frame, suited for a librarian? The men's department has wire aviator glasses, a pair for the Microsoft geek and a small wire set reminding me of Ben Franklin. I settle on an oval pair in violet and orange. They are happy and different.

I contemplate my response, should the local police decide to pay a visit. With guns drawn, would they beat down the door and demand Arayo and I give ourselves up? "Put down those glasses and step outside!" they might demand. I decide that tonight would be a better night to sleep in proper pajamas rather than just my favorite old frayed t-shirt.

In case the glare of the faceless glasses are joined by the scowls of the local law.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tears on Dog Mountain

A teardrop slides down his face. A dignified man wearing a suit and tie, he holds a leash with a small brown and white mutt at the end. And he cries. On this beautiful hillside in Vermont, surrounded by fall colors, a small chapel and six other dogs of various sizes and breeds, the beauty and the serenity can't stop the tears.

The man wasn't created to depict such sadness. He is a statue, crafted and placed in this setting to highlight the bond we have with our four-legged friends. But, today, at the Chapel on Dog Mountain, the heavens have a different message for us. Today, as gentle rain falls, the man weeps. Most people passing by are unaware of the pain of this man, but for those who take the time and look deeper, we are reminded of the complexities and frailties that connect so many of us.

For, it was only nine months ago that the creator of Dog Mountain, the man who crafted the Chapel and the artwork, took his life.

Stephen Huneck's life was full of promise, of talent, of hardship and compassion. A solitary man for much of his life, he knew poverty and overcame unbelievable challenges. Following a fall that resulted in a coma and a subsequent condition in which he had to relearn everything from walking to writing, Stephen vowed to build a memorial where people could celebrate their connection with their dogs. Today, visitors from around the world visit the tiny building. They sit on pews which are supported by beautifully carved canine ushers. Light filters through stained glass windows, each depicting a dog and proclaiming the lessons they teach us; trust, friendship, love, joy, play, loyalty. And, covering the walls, are thousands of notes and photos of animals who have touched the lives of those who have visited.

But, Stephen didn't stop there. On his property he built a playground where people can enhance the bond with their current pets. There are trails for walking, ponds for swimming, an agility course to play on. Twice a year he, his wife and staff held Dog Parties, attended by hundreds of dogs and their owners.

With several books and a thriving business selling sculptures, wood cuts, furniture, shirts and cards, most featuring dogs, Stephen appeared to have overcome the challenges life had sent his way. But, Stephen also shouldered responsibility. He had staff and families depending on him. With the downturn in the economy, he was forced to look seriously at cutting staff in order to pay his own bills.

On January 7, the responsibilities became too difficult and he put a gun to his head.

Today, as the man in front of the chapel cries, visitors stop at a new remembrance wall and view notes and photos of Stephen Huneck. And ponder not only the bond we have with our animals, but the ever fragile connection we have with this life and with others who share this planet.

One of Stephen's woodcut prints depicts a labrador retriever. It is swimming in rough waters and tows a boat named "Friendship" in which three other labs ride. Stephen apparently felt his swim was too long, the waves and the currents too high. Somehow, the world missed the signs that this man of talent and compassion was in need of a lifeline.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The trim white-haired woman faces the 500 pound wild animal. With paws that could filet her with ease and jaws that could render her faceless, the woman gently puts half a peppermint between her teeth and bends towards the enormous creature. With equal tenderness, the black bear brings his face to hers and accepts the treat. "Now, go into your den," she demands, and the bear turns and goes inside his house.

Found 23 years ago roaming the roads, the young bear was brought to Ron and Gail Rogerson who own Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford Nova Scotia. "People were trying to run him down on their ATV's and had killed his sibling. It was obvious he wasn't going to survive on his own in the wild so we took him in," Gail said.

Another smaller bear was found after he was hit on the road. He was so weak that a woman was able to pick him up and carry him. He, too, was brought to the Rogerson's. It was touch and go with that one for quite a while, but he made it. But rather than welcome company, Smokey, the original bear, didn't appreciate the addition of another bear in his space. "He stayed at far end of pen and wouldn't come near him for days."

Once a bear is used to people it can't be released into the wild. It becomes trusting of humans and is an easy mark for bear hunters.

I visit with Gail as she leans over to hug one of their sleek massive jaguars when suddenly she is pounced on from the rear by the other cat. Huge paws wrap around her shoulders and the cat buries its big head in her neck. Gail staggers forward and catches herself on the fence, then laughs and shrugs off the feline. "You prankster," she scolds. "You got my clean shirt all dirty!"

"Always hold your ground with a cat," Gail explains. "I've had times when one panther will jump up to hug me from the front, another from the rear and I'm a panther sandwich, but if I don't fall to the ground, I'm okay." Instinct kicks in when someone goes to the ground and the cats will come in for the pounce.

"Face a wild cat, don't show fear and slowly move away from it. A scared cat is the most dangerous." She points to a big orange and white tiger and explains that of the 16 cats that they have, he is the most dangerous. Gail goes into its pen to clean and feed him but never trusts him. "You sense he is nervous. You can see it in his eyes."

The Rogersons have always had exotic animals. Fancy birds, goats and such. "We were letting school groups come out to see the animals," says Ron. "1,800 kids would tour through here, then the kids would come back out and bring their parents. We had to either stop allowing groups to come or open a zoo and start charging, so they applied for a license and opened as a licensed zoo in 1984.." They began phasing out the livestock and brought in tigers, monkeys and such.

Though the couple now has a staff of 20 to help with the zoo, feeding of the more dangerous animals still falls on Ron and Gail, who have established a trust of the animals they care for. Gail feeds and cleans up after the bears and cats while Ron handles the primates. "When Ron goes in to feed the gibbons, he wears a hat. I wear a helmet," Gail explains. Gibbons mate for life and are very jealous. Once, Gail went into the gibbon pen and approached the male. The female came up and with her strong arm slapped Gail across the face.

"We don't have gorillas, orangutans and chimps," says Ron. "Chimps are awful. They share a common ancestor with humans and are jerks. By the time a chimp is 12 it is like a psychotic person, plus you need special fencing and houses for them because they can get out of anything. You can't trust them."

Owning and running a zoo was never a plan for the Rogersons but with their knowledge of wild animals they have found their calling rehabilitating wounded animals who come to them and releasing them back to the wild when possible. Others remain with them and are cared for while introducing and teaching children of the area those creatures we share the planet with.

Photos: The zoo's most dangerous cat sits atop a platform and surveys his domain. Gail Rogerson interacts with one of the spotted leopards at the Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford Nova Scotia.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Trip On Medical Hold

After housesitting for a friend and her Newfoundland Dog near Boston last week, we were ready to move on when Arayo lost the ability to stand, sit, twirl..... Walking was painful. Getting her down a long steep flight of stairs was a challenge. Her tail didn't have the same enthusiasm it typically has.

She saw a vet on Monday who seemed to have a need for a new swimming pool or convertible for his kids and offered up several thousand dollars worth of tests he could do. I suggested we start with the most likely and work our way down. Maybe fund a day at the spa for his wife......

Arayo was tested for Lymes and other tick diseases and that proved false. Damn! She was given an injection for pain and inflammation, as his next thought was arthritis of some sort. While there, they also treated her for a major hotspot that was on her back.

While the vet said there was no way that the hotspot and mobility issues were connected, others differ with him, given the size and placement of this injury. Right now she is resting peacefully and, when movement is called for, running up and down the stairs like her old self.

We move on to visit friends in New Hampshire, then to Vermont, and hope that we have seen the last of Arayo's pain. Please send good healing thoughts our way when you have a chance.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Arayo Brings A Special Smile in Newfoundland

I pulled up beside it and drew Arayo from her place in the back of the car so she could stretch her legs while I pumped gas. A big man was standing by the door, a kind of sentry, keeping guard over the one inside.

I struggled to get the fuel pump to properly accept the pass code for my debit card, and a woman popped out of the station and began the exclamations and adoration I was so used to hearing from the Newfoundland people. "Oh, a Newfoundland Dog! Isn't he beautiful? He or she? Oh, she is so beautiful! You don't see many of these dogs around here!"

As she made over Arayo, I noticed she was directing her comments more towards the secured vehicle next to me. "Look! Let her see! Isn't it a beautiful Newfoundland Dog? Look over here!"

I peered into the back of the vehicle. The ambulance I thought was empty and just stopping for fuel was transporting a lovely young woman with long brown hair. From her stretcher against the far wall of the rolling mini hospital, she strained her head to turn around and look out the side door at Arayo and a smile stretched across her face, lighting the darkness of the foreboding facility.

Unable to enter the ambulance, I held Arayo where she could see her until they were ready to continue their journey. The smile never left her face.

After they departed, I finished pumping my gas and headed towards the highway again. Just as I was ready to pull into traffic, a siren screamed. We waited for the ambulance that rushed past us, headed back towards the city.

I'll never know if this was the same or a different ambulance, but we hope it wasn't our new friend. That she is home and well tonight and that more smiles await her than those of a chance encounter with a visiting Newfoundland dog at a gas station.

Photo: Arayo relaxes in the grass at my favorite spot in Newfoundland, near Elliston Newfoundland.