Saturday, December 08, 2018

Heaven’s Christmas Dog

Military families are little different from other families with a single exception. Promotions and new assignments of the parents usually mean relocation for everyone.  The family uproots to new schools and new friends, a disquieting if expected part of military life.

When his dad announced they would be moving to Erie, Pennsylvania, the family broke out a map. The oldest son thought a couple teen years in the world of American Bandstand might be fun. Besides, leaving assigned homework projects, social gaffes, and the occasional transgression behind meant a fresh start. Of course, Christmas would be a motel room again, but everyone had done at least one motel birthday, Christmas, or Thanksgiving.

The guy who convinced the government camels made sense in the USA was the same who declared Route 66 to be America's highway. The oldest son of three siblings took the station wagon's rear-facing seat with Quileen, the Pekinese who'd replaced the deceased family dog. Together, they read Tom Sawyer and ignored the countryside.

The ferocity of the Albuquerque snowstorm surprised everyone. By noon, the falling snow emptied the streets and left behind a flaky white utopia. The motel room became a war zone with cabin fever ragging.  Life’s lessons about cold and wet formed parental meat and potatoes so after an hour, huddling semi-hypothermic kids met no more protests. The same bologna and cheese made sandwiches for dinner. Stores remained closed and of course, such fare fit the family's budget.

When the first snowplow made the Sandia Crest, a neighboring stranger told of another storm poised to move in. His dad decided not to wait the extra day and be late reporting. Marines were never late.
The oldest son would be responsible for the dog and carrying out luggage. They loaded and waited while grey sky yielded new flakes. Other cars waited, more pent-up bulls than family steeds. When the snow plow finally passed, each fell into line and became one of many as the frozen sky darkened.
When the oldest son snuggled for warmth, he realized the dog wasn’t by his side. He glanced around. No dog. He carefully moved bags. Ever alert, his Dad’s eyes followed in the rearview mirror.

“Where’s the dog?” The car went quiet, the question a cleave in his heart.

“I must have left her,” the son said, his mouth dry.


His dad spoke. “Everyone look around. Check the floor.”

No dog.

The snowplow pushed a one way, single lane up the mountain. No U-turns. No slowing. No turning off. The line of cars behind depended on the taillights ahead with little visability. Quiet screamed in the oldest son's ears. The middle seat sniffled.

His mom said, “I checked both rooms. The dog was not inside.” His dad said nothing. “What are we going to do?”

His voice lowered. “What we have to do.”

The air supply ran low in the back of the station wagon. Dark skies chose that moment to open. Heavy wet flakes whipped back over the windshield, only to disappear disappeared into the headlights behind. The oldest son nearly as tall as his father, often fancied himself an equal. On this night, tears threatened.

When the snowplow pulled into the Howard Johnson, another picked up the lead and continued the march up the mountain. His dad stopped in front of the restaurant’s frosted glass.

“I’ll call the motel,” he said. “Maybe they have her.”

The last of the conga line moved east. The oldest son prayed unable to consider what the alternative might mean. All watched their Dad feed the payphone, dial, and glance toward them. The wind flapped his pant cuffs in driving snow. He hung up, then dug for more change.

When his dad finally dropped into the driver's seat, he looked in the rearview mirror. “The motel doesn’t have the dog.”

A cry rose from the middle seats.

A veined hand raised for silence. “The dog's not in the room and not outside. I called the pound. They don’t have her. We’ve lost a day already. Christmas Eve is tonight. What else would you have me do?”

The son couldn’t answer. His dad opened the car door and trotted into the restaurant. In a minute, he returned and drove the car in a half circle. They waited as the wipers failed to keep the windshield clear. A snow plow’s yellow rotators began and huge tires crunched to the highway. The family wagon pulled behind and made the turn. Another traveler joined as sheets of snowflakes careened. The trio moved down the mountain.

An hour came and left. They inched through drifts. The unplowed city streets proved worse.

His Dad flashed the headlights as they reached the motel lot. A gloved hand emerged and waved. The family wagon stopped in the empty street.

“Just you,” his dad said into the mirror. “Go have your own look. Make it fast. It's now or never.”

The son waded through hip-deep snow calling for an ankle-high dog. He ignored the freezing air and yelled. The motel owner looked out but didn't open the door.  The station wagon reversed course on the white street. No one emerged to help. A gut-deep shiver began. The horn honked. Dread overwhelmed him and he headed once more for their old motel room. A little dog sat at the door wagging an ice-encrusted tail. Dark eyes asked the question and never left the boy’s face.

The family drove through the remainder of the night, retracing the path up the mountain behind yet another plow. His dad said nothing. As the gray dawn crested the plains ahead, the last of the bologna made its way around.

The son trembled to imagined life if they'd lost Quileen. In two more years, he would find out. But for now, on that longest and happiest Christmas’ eve, the universe was once again whole, and a lesson imparted that would forever shape a young life.

Oliver F. Chase


Mary Morgan said...

What a heartfelt story... Beautiful!

Barbara Bettis said...

What a lovely, wonderful story! Thank you.

ELF said...

Wonderful emotionalism, thanks for a great snapshot of this family's life.

Diane Scott Lewis said...

I was afraid they wouldn't find the dog, so glad they did. Such emotion.

Laura Strickland said...

Lovely story of a moment that shaped a life. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Kristal Harris said...

What a sweet story. Love animals and I would go back no matter what for my dogs. Thank you for sharing!

Tena said...

Aww bless that dogs heart. He waited where he knew they'd come back for him. Lesson learned for the son. Thanks for sharing.

dlucas said...

Phew! Thankfully the little dog with his icy tail was reunited with his family! Thank you for sharing. Happy holidays!