Family Love by Carolyn Muir Helfenstein
Family Love and a Dog named Bruce
Let’s get the cows!
That’s all Bruce would need to hear and out the laneway to the back pasture field he'd race, knowing he had only a limited amount of time to enjoy sniffing out mice and moles in the fence rows before his work began. He kept his eyes and ears on Harry. Bruce was an Australian Shepherd farm dog.
“OK Bruce. Get the cows!" Bruce responded and Harry needed only to wait. Like a bullet released by the pull of a trigger, Bruce would begin what came so naturally to him. Taking a wide swath to the left, around our herd of Holsteins he began his routine. These cows knew exactly what was about to happen, but they pretended to ignore him.
It was as if Bruce were drawing a huge string around the entire herd, pulling it tighter and tighter. Back and forth he'd weave a pattern, to the left and then to the right, snipping at the heels of any cow that dared not move along with the rest of the herd. Like liquid black and white, the wary Holsteins would finally begin the inevitable plodding journey to the barn. It was milking time.
Bruce had arrived at our farm as a Christmas present, an unforgettable day. Harry was sitting in the family room of our farm house in his very own lumpy chair that I'd reupholstered with my awkward, unskilled city-raised fingers, year before. Our hundred-year-old yellow brick farmhouse had been our home since 1963.
And on that wintery day just one day before Christmas in 1975, our three children, our eleven-year-old twins Suzanne and Robert, and David, age five had a surprise for their dad.
“Dad, Merry Christmas!" Their combined voices reverberated throughout the old house. Our twins decided David should be the one to carry the surprise into the room where their dad was sitting. The twins lifted the wiggling puppy from David’s outstretched arms, and like passing a basket of freshly laid eggs, the two together placed the fluffy ball of grey, bronze and black on their father’s lap.
“Dad, we got you a puppy for Christmas!” David got right to the nubbins of the matter.
Harry laughed, his face a mirror of utter surprise, his huge, rough hands holding the puppy, his index finger scratching the seven-week-old ball of fur behind the ear, an action that must have felt to the puppy somewhat like his own mother licking him with her all-knowing tongue, to calm his thumping heart. “Well, little fella, you and I are going to be buddies, are we?”
“Yes, yes he’s yours!” Again, David speaking up.
“Do you like him, Dad?”
“He’s beautiful, Suz. I should know what breed he is...?”
“Dad, he’s an Australian Shepherd. They're great cattle dogs. This dog will work. You won’t have to get the cattle any more.” That was Rob adding the details.
“Dad, what will you call him? He’s your dog.” Suzanne adored her father and seemed always able to read his mind. By now all three children were cuddled around Harry getting as close as a family can get. What a scene. I leaned against the doorway into the family room where the staircase led upstairs to our bedrooms. I sighed. My heart filled with family love knowing this would be a Christmas scene cherished forever. I hugged myself with the joy of it. Oddly enough no camera appeared to capture the moment, however my mind's eyes had, and will have forever. An old red leather chair, their dad, and his children; and his puppy.
Christmas doesn’t get much better than that.
“Hmmm, let me see, a name for this puppy. Hmmm. Well, I’ll tell you.” He looked at his three children.
“When I was a little boy in England, your age, David, I had a dog named Bruce.” The puppy looked up at Harry and the children were quick to pick up on that.
“Dad, did you see that? Did you see that? He likes the name.” Suzanne said.
“I agree,” added Rob. “Hi Bruce.” The puppy looked at Rob.
David clapped. “Smart dog!”
“Dad, maybe I should take Bruce outside for a minute.” Suzanne, always the practical one, scooped up the puppy and with Rob and David in close pursuit, she led the little parade out the back door and gently placed the puppy on the snow. Before many minutes, the excited puppy left a yellow mark on the blanket of snow that now covered the landscape. Bruce County could almost always provide snow by Christmas Day. All three piped up, “Good dog, Bruce.” The training had begun.
We soon recognized when Bruce was happy. His long tongue would be hanging out, his ears would be on the alert, and he would be on the move. Aussies are busy creatures. He was never really trained, he just knew.
As Bruce settled in as a member of our family, we learned that he hated thunder and lightening, in fact he would crawl into the darkest hole to avoid it, or find one of us for protection. We all remembered the stormy afternoon in particular, when Bruce found himself locked out of the barn as the sky blackened and the wind moaned through the trees. Farm dust swirled around him and must have blocked his vision and that would have frightened him. He knew Harry had disappeared down the farm laneway in the family van. We could only guess later that Bruce must have sniffed at the split wooden door, the only way into the barn, hoping miraculously it would open for him. That split door, as old as the barn itself, probably built by the Ballagh family of Belmore some 50 years before, would not keep Bruce from his hiding place.
It was Suzanne who happened to look out the window. She ran to the door. “Bruce, come in, you look terrible; poor dog. Why aren’t you in the barn?” Another boom shook the earth. “Bruce. I know. A storm, come on in." She put her farm jacket over him and went back to her homework but not until she'd found a leftover hot dog in the refrigerator, a treat that he gobbled down gratefully. He must have sensed that at last he was safe from the dreaded thunder and lightening. Suzanne never thought to look out toward the barn, so she didn't know the story about Bruce's attempt to get in with the cattle, a sure place to find safety.
When Harry returned from town, the storm had moved on and the sun was peeking out from behind the receding storm clouds. He backed the family van right up to the split door. He was glad to be home and looked forward to the cup of tea he knew I'd have brewing. It was then he found himself staring at what appeared to be an attack on the split door by something as strong as a bear. The bottom foot or so of the wooden door had been ripped away.
Entering the kitchen and seeing Suzanne's jacket resting on Bruce, Harry guessed he was looking at the culprit. “Bruce, old buddy, that was terrible thunder, wasn’t it?” Harry scratched his sad-looking dog behind the ear, and then sat down at the familiar pleasure this kitchen table and chair always brought, his cup of tea already waiting for him.
Suz appeared. "Dad, I saw Bruce standing out in the rain. You know how he hates thunder. He looked sick. I had to let him in. He's been lying in that corner ever since. Poor dog, but I'm sure he's not sick.”
Meanwhile, Bruce, his chin on his paws, his eyes focused only on Harry, was a picture of abject misery and if a dog could produce tears, this dog of ours was indeed next to tears.
"Hi Kiddo," Harry looked at me, his cup in hand and knowingly I refilled it. He smiled, a twinkle of thanks in his eye.
"Guess what? Something attacked the old split door to the barn while I was away. There’s hole in it big enough for a raccoon to get in, but I can't imagine a raccoon being stuck in that little passageway of ours with three doors to choose from." Harry was referring to the fact the little entrance way opened up into the milk house, the cattle barn and then of course the outside by way of the old split door.
We all turned to Bruce. Their dad was sure of the culprit now.
Bruce stayed put, flat out on the new kitchen tiled floor, his chin still remaining on his front paws; but he had begun his favorite method of pleading forgiveness. We all recognized this routine of his and we muffled our laughter. Bruce would lift one eyebrow as his eyes turned to Harry and then next, he'd lift the other eyebrow and his brown eyes would look to me, pleading for understanding. Again and again those eyebrows rose and fell and we all thought he was the cleverest dog in the world!
We understood his dilemma. He'd scratched his way through the old wood of the door into the passageway, every crash and bang of the thunder and the lightening making him more and more frantic, making him scratch harder and harder, only to find the inner doors were locked. Checking Bruce's paws for proof, Rob discovered that two of the nails on each front paw were broken off and that horrified the whole family. "Dad, Bruce must have squeezed back through the hole he'd made to make a dash for the house."
Bruce became so much a part of our family history that when our children grew up and went off to college, the stories about Bruce went with them. When the city friends came for a farm weekend, the first questions were, “Where’s Bruce?”
“Bruce loves to play football,” Rob would warn the friends with a grin, “Once he catches the football, he never, ever, gives it back.”
“Hup, ten, fourteen, twenty three, go!” All the complicated routines of a major league football game, all said in jest and the half-boys, half-men would weave in and out across the horse field. Suzanne, now a very athletic university student was often as not the captain for one team and a lead player, and Bruce was always in hot pursuit, hoping to nab the ball from whatever team had it. Of course, that meant the two teams would make a great fuss of chasing Bruce around and around the field, his quick feet and keen eyes allowing him to be just far enough ahead of the desperate runners that they would fall on the grass exhausted. Then Bruce would simply drop the ball and return to the players, nosing their faces and giving the giggling teens sticky licks on their cheeks. I often saw those happy college visitors lie on their backs out there in that field, exhausted from play, looking up at the blue sky and the sun, no doubt wondering if life could get any better than living on a farm.
I knew how much Bruce meant to our children and was not surprised that they became storytellers of the finest order. The object of their affection, of course, was Bruce.
For example: “Yes, that was the house plant Bruce chomped on, Mom’s special house plant! It caused his face to blow up like a balloon. Allergic reaction,” they’d add with the wisdom of a farm vet. Another time: “That’s the field where he and our Old English Sheepdog, Pepsi, hunted groundhogs together; that’s where he placed the groundhog bodies, and yes over there, in the curve of the creek? That's where Bruce almost died.” Everyone would just look serious. Our three knew how to catch the attention of their listeners. And it was a black day for all of us. I found myself telling the same story on many occasions:
It was Rob who came running into the kitchen that morning to tell me.
“Mom, Mom, Bruce is in trouble, he's going to die!" he said. It was a school day in March when the ice on our creek that ran by the barn and house was just beginning to break up. "He’s on the ice, well really, he is in the creek! He’s hanging on to the ice but he can’t get out! I’ve told Dad and he warned us not to try to get him; but Bruce is going to drown. He’s going to die!”
“Where is Suzanne?” I demanded.
“She’s out there. I don’t know what she’s going to do. I think she went to get Bruce, but I don't know!” Rob now had two to worry about, a sister and Bruce.
I knew Suzanne would disobey her father and go to the rescue. That girl saw things in a straight line and at the end of the line that very morning, was her Bruce! Rob left again. I was out the door in a flash. David followed. His jacket was wide open as per usual.
By now, however, their Dad had left the cows and was carrying a long ladder across the barnyard. Suzanne ran to me and I hugged her. We all could see Bruce, well, we could see his head and his two front paws; and we could hear him barking. He was in the middle of the creek. The water under the ice was running high so there was no way he could touch bottom. It was obvious to us he could not attain purchase on the ice to haul himself out. Our three were frantic, but seeing their Dad rushing across the soggy, flooded field despite the weight of the heavy ladder, gave them courage that he would save Bruce. Of course he would save Bruce. He was Dad.
Far off, down at the corner, the big yellow school bus came into view. It was the one our three took to the nearby school. The kids looked at their dad now struggling as he drew closer and closer to Bruce. The bus was steadily making its way to our stop. Next it would be at the end of our laneway. The children began the journey to the bus stop refusing to take their eyes off their dog. Bruce had stopped barking by this time. Our children could see their Harry placing the ladder across the creek. Then their hero began the crawl out to the spot where he could latch on to the slippery fur of Bruce’s back. By now the bus was at our mailbox. It had stopped.
The bus driver held steady not moving the bus one foot forward until Harry had grabbed the dog, pulled with all his might, no doubt pleading with Bruce not to wiggle, and with one powerful heave, had Bruce on safe ground. The bus started up, the driver tooted the horn, and our three, heads and arms out the windows yelled at the top of their lungs, “Thanks Dad! Thanks!”
Harry lifted Bruce into his arms and the three of us raced back to the house as fast as we could despite the clumps of thick grass sticking up through the heavy wet snow and creek water that had flooded the entire field. Truth be, it was Harry and I who raced, Bruce hardly moved; the shock of the entire horrible experience was beginning now to take hold.
In the house Bruce did not argue in the least when Harry and I dried him off vigorously with a ready supply of old towels and wrapped him in a big blanket, all the time telling him what a great dog he was. It took several more blankets and more fresh towels, before he began to relax. Harry looked at me knowingly. I phoned the school to tell the principal that I had good news for our three children. The principal, understanding the importance of a farm dog to farm children and the danger of spring floods, told each class that Bruce was recuperating.
Bruce stayed in the house all day and when David, Rob and Suzanne burst through the kitchen door at 4:15 pm, there was Bruce smiling at them, tongue out, both eyes shining, eyebrows twitching as he looked from one to the other. Bruce, our farm dog. A special breed.
I often recall those stories; I can see those precious moments of living on a farm and I know today our grandchildren are told those same stories and to them a farm is a very special place. And I sense no story is more exciting that the one where they get to say, "Get the cows, Bruce!"