Monday, February 27, 2012

Fending off the black dogs

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The park’s name escapes me now — I could not even find its name on Google Maps  —  but its eastern edge butted up against Deerfield Drive, just south of Clearview Avenue on the West Side of Fort Collins, Colo. Our apartment building was several blocks further east, and I often would walk to the park with my oldest son, who was about 4 or 5 years old on this particular occasion.

Walks to the park with Brian were one of the respites I truly enjoyed at that time of my life. I was working long hours in Cheyenne, which was 50 miles or so north, which also meant two hours of commuting time each day. Consequently, Brian did not have much of a father for the four years we lived in Fort Collins — I’d get home at 2 or 3 in the morning, later if it was snowing or foggy. Each day’s routine was to wake up, shave, brush my teeth, shower, get dressed and eat lunch before heading off to work. Sometimes I would awaken early enough to take a walk to the park with him; more often, it seemed, our walks were on the weekends.

Brian always looked forward to our strolls, as did I. The park was a magnet for Canada geese — usually hundreds, sometimes thousands would waddle through the park, feasting on the grass that stayed green even during much of the winter months. In their wake they left green globs of “goose grease,” which meant no picnics on a blanket in the summertime.

Still, it was a gorgeous park — there was a small lake where we would practice skipping stones. The playground had the usual assortment of swings, but it also had a wooden miniature façade of an old Western town, replete with jail. On occasion, Sheriff Brian would incarcerate me there for crimes against humanity. I frequently made good my jailbreak by climbing up onto the deck that passed for the roof of the town, although he’d usually capture me at some point.

There also was a softball field, tennis courts and a basketball court on the west side of the park.

But the geese often were Brian’s focus as we would walk along the asphalt trail that meandered through the park, and when we got within perhaps 100 feet of the flock, he would charge, sometimes accompanied by our little black dog, Coco. This would trigger a thunderous flapping of wings and a cacophony of panicked honks as the birds took flight to escape his half-hearted assault. My how he giggled. Often as I watched, I smiled and wondered what would happen should he ever get his little hands on one of those geese. But they never would allow us to find out.

My son could do this repeatedly, day after day, without growing weary of the exercise. I would amble along, trailing behind his eager charge and watch as the gaggle of geese flew past me, sometimes just a few feet off the ground. Their passing always reminded me of nature films — National Geographic or perhaps Discovery Channel had stunning close-up footage of geese in flight.

On this particular day, however, Brian would chase no geese. Our play time together would be cut short jarringly in a moment at which I came face to face with the knowledge that I might not be able to protect my son from every danger. It also was the first time in my life I wished like hell I had a gun with me, even though I never had had a desire to own one before this.

It was chilly enough to wear coats as we stepped outside to halcyon skies that afternoon in early spring. A couple of blocks from our apartment, we entered the park and began our walk in earnest. But perhaps less than a hundred feet into the park, I saw across the field from us a man with two large black dogs — one a Doberman, the other a Rottweiler. I called to Brian to slow down because it appeared the dogs were not leashed.

As I stepped up alongside my son, they charged.

The man walking the dogs continued to follow the asphalt path that veered to the northern edge of the park, away from us. The dogs, however, ran headlong across the field, taking the most direct route toward my son and I. They were barking and growling and snarling as they charged.

I knew running would be a mistake. Had there been just one dog, I’d have placed myself between it and Brian. But I could not protect him like that if both dogs attacked. I could see no other option, so I picked up my son and held him directly over my head, as if I were giving him an airplane ride. I wondered how long I could keep him safe before they dragged me to the ground.

The dogs stopped perhaps 6 feet away, snarling and slavering, lips curled up to bare their frighteningly long canines. Sometimes they lunged without actually moving forward. Fear aside, the Doberman was one of the largest of its breed I had ever seen in my life; of course, Rottweilers always look huge.

I kept absolutely still, knowing I was utterly helpless and praying for God’s protection for my son.

Their owner continued to walk, unhurriedly, along the path, still hundreds of feet away, but now I could hear him calling out, “They won’t hurt you.”

“I can’t tell that by looking at ’em,” I called back, trying hard to keep my own anger and fear out of my voice. The dogs continued to bark and snarl. My arms were tiring, and I could not comprehend why this man would not hurry. If his dogs lunged and dragged me down, he would have little time to step in to stop them.

A part of me wondered if I could wrap my body into a ball around Brian to protect him should they attack. Another part of me feared for my wife and her reaction if Brian and I were hurt.

But eventually — I’m sure that while it seemed to have lasted a lifetime, the entire episode went all of a couple of minutes —the dogs stopped their snarling and returned to their master. I remember hugging Brian dearly, a lump in my throat at the thought he might have been hurt had I been unable to protect him.

As I took my son across the field in a direction away from those black dogs, their owner called out sheepishly, “They would never hurt anyone.”

“They should be on a leash,” was the only response I could muster.

As he left the park with his dogs, Brian and I continued our walk in the opposite direction. He seemed thoroughly unshaken — perhaps he thought my holding him over my head for those tense minutes was just a game. My heart continued to pound for some time after this misadventure, and for the duration of our stroll, my eyes scanned the eastern end of the park repeatedly, concerned that the dog walker might make his way back in our direction.

I never saw him again.

These days, the black dogs that harry me are of a different variety. They do not snap, snarl or slaver, but they do lunge in unexpectedly from time to time, trying to trip me as I struggle to shoulder different burdens, ones for which I have no fondness: underemployment, self-doubt, a badly damaged relationship, above all the fear that I have failed my wife, my family and myself.

These black dogs are in some ways more daunting to me. They generate less fear but more dread. Throughout much of my life, I have felt confident in myself, in my faith, in my knowledge and in my skills. That’s certainly less true today than it was nearly 15 months ago, when I was laid off.

But I cling to hope borne of my faith in God, and to the knowledge that I must persevere even when I am most weary. The race is not over yet, and so much is riding on it. Quitting is not an option. Let the black dogs be damned.