"Hey, do you want to go Booby bye-bye?" Of course he did. Lance scrambled to his feet, I hooked him up to his leash and out the door we went. After rushing through the open gate and down the driveway, we crossed the street and headed into the woods. I let him loose and Lance immediately began doing what dogs do best, sniff everything in sight and, undoubtedly, some things out of sight.
Lance greeted all our walks with such fervor, you’d think each was his first ever. For my dog, exercise was fun to be enjoyed, not endured, and roaming in the woods was never boring. As for me, my mental wheels have a habit of working overtime and our hikes usually helped slow them down. Usually, but not so this day. This would turn out to be a different kind of walk.
It was a perfect day for hiking: midsummer, but warm, not hot. Overhead, small scattered puffs of white floated on a vast sea of blue.
I felt less threatened by Lance whenever we were out walking. This was the kind of dog I thought I’d met in Mount Bethel—seemingly problem-free. During our hikes, my dog came as close to normal as he ever would get, connecting with nature in a most doglike way. Lance didn’t fit in anywhere else. He was neither people nor dog friendly. In the house or around the neighborhood, he could never be trusted. In the woods, however, he appeared the epitome of a well-adjusted canine. Why? Perhaps because he had spent so much of his life outdoors, it provided him a measure of comfort he felt nowhere else. A lot of bad things happened to Lance when he had lived outside in Mount Bethel, but there he was stuck to a run on a property owned by monsters. Now he was outside not by force, but by choice, and no longer being continually subjected to assaults by people and animals. He had more say as to whom or what he would deal with. Things were as they should be in the woods, a world my dog understood. Outside and free, Lance was finally experiencing nature the way he was always meant to.
He bit Clara during a walk on a street in our neighborhood when he had been spooked, but that was the exception that proved the rule. Lance never displayed any inappropriate aggressive tendencies during all the time I spent with him outside in Mount Bethel, while his one visit to our apartment there had been utter chaos. In Canadensis, sharing space with him day in/day out inside a house turned out to be unsettling, to say the least. Meanwhile, outside Lance never threatened me or froze into one of his psychotic trances. I remembered our neighbor John escorting Lance by his collar down the street. I couldn't imagine anyone, myself included, pulling our dog by the collar around the inside of a house. Outdoors, Lance was very much the hunter, but only of wild animals. He showed only a passing interest in the handful of people we ever met on our journeys. In a nutshell, when Lance stepped outside, he went through a metamorphosis—for the better.
We usually walked in forests with unmarked but well-trodden trails. This day was no different. However, as we traveled on, Lance was staying closer to me than usual. When he got ahead of me he lingered, waiting for me to catch up. If I took the lead, he stormed up from behind before there was too much distance between us.
While watching Lance plant his nose on whatever struck his fancy, I thought about the dog we rescued. What a ton of work he turned out to be! The exercise he craved was almost beyond my capacity to provide. However, I was determined to give him all the workouts he could handle, my attempt to, in some small way, offset all those years of inactivity he had suffered. Besides, I used our expeditions to keep my waistline south of the forty-inch mark, so we were doing each other a favor.
When still residing in Mount Bethel, I’d only seen an upside to bringing Lance to Canadensis. Lance was a dog (he had the DNA and teeth to prove it) and ever since I was a kid, I’d been a sucker for dogs. Clara was the same way. No point in trying to explain that feeling. Many will nod their heads in understanding; others won’t. Every humane dog owner feels his or her pet is extraordinary and rightly so. Dogs offer that special something to those ready to receive it.
Lance was an older dog but his seniority was never an issue for us. In fact, having found out he was housed in a body described as dilapidated by medical professionals just made him extra special. He shrugged off his physical ailments. Lance’s message? Don’t let your age or physical condition make you give up on living.
However, after moving to Canadensis, we found we had more than just an older dog on our hands. We had a mentally damaged dog that demanded a saint’s patience. We doubted we’d ever be totally comfortable around him in the house, because his best behavior was interspersed with aggressive outbursts. In addition, due to his volatile nature, a relentless effort had to be made to keep him away from everyone else in the world, which, in turn, isolated Clara and me. This wasn't what we had bargained for, yet we still kept him.
Why did we continue living with such a troubled—and troublesome—animal? By the time I met Lance, he had been fighting for his life for more than a decade. When we’d considered having Lance euthanized, Clara and I both knew that neither of us had the heart to proceed. We hadn’t rescued Lance just to become his executioners, but rather to add some sweetness to the bitter existence he’d endured for so long.
This dog carried a legacy that was dark and brutal, yet full of courage and resilience. He lived a far more tragic life than any dog should, but kept working with what was left of himself. Typically, a dog enduring Lance’s kind of life dies at the hands of his owners, other abusers or natural predators, is euthanized, or withers away at the end of a run. By continuing to exist, he had beaten all the odds. Clara and I felt compelled to make it a bit easier for Lance to keep beating those odds, even if he didn’t always show gratitude for our efforts.
My dog and I were walking side by side now. I knew that would only last until something more interesting caught his attention.
Lance was never a part of the “Do as I say, not as I do” crowd. He taught by example, by deeds not words. For ten long years, he must have either hung on to the dream that things might get better or assumed, quite understandably, that they never would. With or without hope of a better day, he kept seeing it through. Giving up was never on his list of options. After each attack Lance licked his wounds, got back on his feet, and readied himself for the next assault.
Stick it out, even if it seems certain that tough times are going to continue. If you’re dealt a bad hand, at least go down fighting. That’s the indispensable lesson Lance taught me and he did it without saying a word. A valuable lesson learned is no less so because a dog happens to be the teacher. What? Am I calling a dog inspirational, a psychotic dog that attacked, no less? Yes. I am unashamedly humbled by this living creature that suffered such nightmarish torture for so long and yet was still standing. His bones had been broken, but his will to live had never been destroyed. How could I have given up on a dog that hadn’t given up on himself?
I parked myself on a rock lying alongside a small stream. Lance gave a stab at wading, but the water was a bit too shallow for his taste, so he crossed over to the other side and began investigating the foliage.
There was something else, a deeper, more personal and bittersweet part to our connection, having as much to do with me as it did with my dog. A collection of dark memories that I usually managed to keep buried had reared its ugly head, demanding my attention.
I suffered a few nicks and dents as a kid. I learned early on that there was little I could do to guarantee my safety. My sister says she first saw me get hit by my father when I was about four years old. I remember him slamming me against a wall on my fifth birthday. Things went downhill from there.
Quickly growing into a child with an adult-sized chip on my shoulder, I decided that if I could get hit for doing nothing, I might as well get hit for doing something. I became a troublemaker, hanging out with an older crowd and committing criminal acts. Some of my actions put lives, including my own, in danger. There were never any fatalities, no thanks to me. Many times I didn't get caught, but many times I did. A parade of policemen, neighbors, store owners, and strangers—all with complaints about me—began showing up at our front door. My father knew exactly what to do after they had left.
Though my young age saved me from legal consequences reserved for adults, at one point, I was placed on juvenile probation. My father constantly threatened to ship me off to what was called a reform school back in those days, telling me that would “whip” me into shape.
During one police visit, my mother burst out crying and I started crying right along with her. Why did I keep hurting her? Why did I keep doing the next wrong thing? None of the law-breaking was enjoyable and it only made my own situation worse.
After getting caught, I'd quarantine myself in my bedroom, sometimes for several days; I was safer keeping out of my father’s sight. When my self-imposed exile was over, I'd wear a look of shame for a few days, partly because it was expected of me, partly because I myself felt something was wrong with me, to my core.
The physical hurt I dealt with pales in comparison to what Lance endured. Furthermore, unlike me, he could not emancipate himself at any age. That said, there nevertheless existed a commonality between Lance and me. We both got off to a rough start in life. In Mount Bethel, Lance could not trust his keepers nor do anything to prevent being physically harmed, a situation so like mine as a child. Lance, stuck on his run, must have panicked when any of the Schmidts approached him, just as I instinctively cringed every time my father's car pulled into the driveway. On numerous occasions Lance broke loose and showed up, first at Anna’s place and then mine, only to be brought back to his tormentors. As a kid, I ran away from home and, just like Lance’s efforts, mine were futile. Lance wasted away for years at the end of a run, while I squandered a large part of my childhood trying to find solace by hiding in the woods. Lance had a negative reputation in Mount Bethel and reinforced it in Canadensis; growing up I was the most despised kid in my neighborhood. After attacking Clara or me, Lance imposed a time out on himself and, after several hours, he'd reappear, keeping his distance and wearing a guilty look. His self-imposed isolation and troubled confusion brought on by his inappropriate behavior, mirrored mine as a child.
Most of my childhood memories are nothing for me to get nostalgic about. I’m sure Lance felt the same way about his life in Mount Bethel. I’d never want to revisit my childhood, and I’m just as certain that Lance wouldn’t have wanted to turn the clock back and be forced to relive his early years.
By my mid-teens, the tables had turned. I now physically dwarfed my father. One day, we almost came to blows. It was time to get out. At age eighteen, I left the house and never looked back. I had escaped the storm, but not its aftermath. I’d developed a distrust and uneasiness around people, especially myself. Love was just another word in the dictionary, one that had no meaning in my life.
From the day I left home, my criminal behavior began to wane. However, I became a loner. Extremely self-conscious and suspicious, I felt inadequate and was constantly on high alert around people, wary of their intentions. I paid a steep price for being so distant. Similarly, by the time Lance finally escaped the Schmidt property, fearing for his life and distrusting people had become a second nature he couldn’t escape. I have, at times, lashed out verbally because of my deep-seated defensiveness and resentments; because of his, Lance also attacked with his mouth. If he was bitter and distrustful of people, I certainly understood that. He had grown up an outcast, I a misfit.
I feel cheated. Having lived a twisted childhood, the belief has haunted me my entire life that I am not—and will never be—the “someone” I was born to be. Similarly, Lance was nature’s creation, but by the time the Schmidts were through with him, he’d become something nature had never intended. Who’s to say Lance didn’t feel cheated too?
Some might say I’m comparing myself, a human, to Lance, who was “only” a dog. In fact, a neighbor tried to convince me that a dog, because it’s an animal, can’t become psychologically damaged by neglect and abuse like a person would, and, therefore, Lance’s instability had been born, not beaten, into him. Really? The terms various professionals used to describe Lance were chronically anxious, schizophrenic, phobic, and paranoiac, all conditions suffered by millions of humans and so often brought on by trauma. Thanks to an iron constitution, Lance may have survived the physical abuse, but he didn’t escape psychologically unscathed. Did he have residual damage from the life he had lived? You bet. But I do from mine too, so how could I have questioned his?
Was Lance responsible for his bad behavior? Was I for mine as a kid? Let others decide. All I know for sure is that Lance had his blemishes, but so do I. As unnerving as his behavior was, the more I’d lived with Lance, the more I asked myself, why would I, of all people, expect him to be any different? Although man and dog, we were kindred spirits. Kicking Lance to the curb would’ve been be like kicking myself to the curb.
We were back on the dirt path, heading back home.
As a young boy, I escaped into the deep woods every opportunity I got. As scary as the forest could at times be, I took my chances wandering in it alone, or with my dog, to avoid being trapped in my house. In my adulthood, there would be consequences for having grown up seeking shelter so often in such unhealthy isolation, but at the time, it brought me such precious, if only momentary, refuge. After spending so many years chained to a run and under constant assault, I bet anything Lance experienced a similar rush of freedom and safety that first time I let him loose in the woods years ago and every time thereafter.
I was giving Lance the long-over-due chance to live a dog’s life, but I owed Lance a debt of gratitude, too. He may have had his shortcomings elsewhere, but, thanks to him, out in the woods, I felt like a kid with his dog, enveloped in that same protection nature had provided me so many years ago. Whatever I was doing for this dog, he was doing just as much for me.
Though we grew up fighting on different battlefields, Lance and I were comrades-in-arms. Every time the two of us entered the forest, we gave each other a chance to feel young again. But, unlike years ago, now when a walk ended, I wasn’t reluctantly returning to my childhood house of horrors and Lance wasn't getting dumped back onto the Schmidt property to resume his desperate struggle to survive. We both had something to be grateful for.
Due to his well-earned reputation as a troublemaker, Arthur has become a persona non grata in his neighborhood. As a result, he often faced the task of entertaining himself when not in school.
Five houses sat on Lowell Place, including the Berndt residence. The road was subject to virtually no through traffic. One weekday afternoon in late June, 1955 Arthur was outside sitting in the middle of the road in front of his house, sorting baseball cards. Arthur called to his German shepherd Rex, who was lying comfortably on the front lawn and reluctant to respond. Not taking his dog’s rebuff personally, Arthur continued arranging his cards into two piles—those he’d keep in his room and those that would be relegated to serving as noisemakers on his bicycle. Like other children his age, Arthur loved to attach baseball cards to his bike, utilizing clothespins, so that they flapped against the tire’s spokes when pedaling the bike. Arthur was the judge and jury charged with selecting the cards that would be doomed to die a slow death on his bicycle, while sparing others such a dark fate. Brooklyn Dodger players were protected merchandise. Lesser known players on other teams and, of course, any hated Yankees were to be ridden to death. Arthur was so engrossed in his work, he was taken by surprise when a speeding car approached and came to a screeching halt just a few feet behind him. Arthur turned around and saw the front end of a huge Cadillac staring him in the face.
The driver stuck his head out of the window and threatened, “Get the hell out of the road, German boy!” Arthur remained seated, not certain what was happening or what to do. Mr. Baldwin, a resident of Suassa Park that Arthur recognized but didn’t know by name, revved his car’s engine. “I told you—get the hell out of the road!”
Arthur, leaving his baseball cards behind, walked to the side of the road, turned around and stood looking at the car’s driver. Mr. Baldwin slammed his car in reverse, turned the steering wheel counter-clockwise and gunned his car forward, again heading directly towards Arthur. At the last minute, he yanked the wheel clockwise and stopped his car alongside the youngster.
Mr. Baldwin draped his arm on the outside of the driver’s door, leaned his head out the car window, and said, “Listen, you piece-of-shit Kraut. I killed a few of your kind in the war. One more wouldn’t matter, especially a troublemaker like you.”
Arthur grabbed the first rock he found and hurled it at the car. “Go away!” The rock hit Mr. Baldwin on his elbow. “Why, you little punk!”
Rex was now taking an interest in the activities and trotted over to his young master. Before things could escalate further, the unfriendly neighbor drove away, purposely running over the youngster’s baseball cards.
Marguerite, Arthur’s mother, came to the front screen door and yelled, “What’s going on, Art?”
“Some bad man said bad stuff.”
“Do you know who it was?”
“Why would he pick on you?” Spotting the baseball cards scattered on the road, Marguerite continued. “I’ve told you not to play in the road. How many times is it now?” Without waiting for her son to respond she added, “Pick all those cards up and come inside.”
Under the watchful eye of his mother, Arthur dutifully did as he was told. Some of the cards had been scuffed and bent by Mr. Baldwin’s car.
“Ma, look at what he did to my cards!”
“I’m sure he didn’t run over them on purpose. That’s what happens when you have your valuables on the street like that. Finish up out there. I want you to wash the dishes. I have a surprise for you. I’m making a pineapple upside down cake. Your favorite!”
Picturing a huge slice of his favorite cake, the youngster quickly shoved aside any thoughts of his most recent near-death experience…at least for the time being.