CHAPTER 12 - PENNED UP
There are things that are as simple and perfect in their execution as they are in their planning. Tasks that, in retrospect, you can hold up for inspection as if they were a piece of blown glass, clear, perfect and pristine in form, perfectly shaped, without flaw.
This dog pen was not one of them.
Barkley was long past having “accidents” in the house but for the occasional “I ate too fast. . . urp!” barfing. But he was enough of a "what's this, let me chew on it and see!" when he wanted attention that I needed a place he could safely hang out, rather than run loose while I cleaned or rearranged furniture.
But I did not want him to run loose in the basement either as I had some household items stored there, that could be mistaken for a chew toy. “Gee Mom, I know it looked like a lamp shade to you, but I swear, I saw one of these at the pet mart.”
I’d gotten the water cleaned up from the flooding down here after the massive rains and a bigger, better sump pump put in. The front yard landscaping was also upgraded to help keep water away from the house. There should not be any further flooding issues and I was confident Barkley would be content down here for short periods of time.
So I got some wood, some chicken wire, and some cement blocks, attempting to build a large "run" in the basement. There he could run and play safely where it was dry and comfortable in temperature.
The chicken wire was being, shall we say, recalcitrant, and I wished I had some help. But I needed to get this done. I had a work assignment that was going to take me out of town for several weeks, and I did not want the live-in dog sitter to worry about Barkley eating her stuff during the day. With my flight the next day, I was hoping I'd not have to ask for help. As adults, sometimes it’s hard to ask for help that is easy to seek as a child.
In my childhood days, there was usually someone helping me in my youthful adventures; and it was in the form of a tall, lanky redhead, otherwise known as Big Bro.
He and I were not all that far apart in age. The difference was enough that the divide that is adulthood came early, but not enough that we were anything but inseparable as children. For unlike many of my friends, who merely tolerated their siblings, we were the best of friends, coming into this home from a shadowed past, one that I do not remember myself, but from which our final displacement from this earth would ever truly dispossess us of.
Our adoptive parents were strict, and we knew that disobedience would merit punishment. Some forms of it, like a declaration of liberty, were worth it. Taking the TV apart when we were in grade school was almost worth it even though we found out that moms will freak out when their children play with large explosive tubes. We won't mention switching the dual controls on Mom and Dad's electric blanket (“I'm hot! Dang it! I'm freezing! Why am I hot! Are you hot?”)
Our parents encouraged us to explore and think for ourselves, opening our minds up to everything they could. TV was a treat, not a babysitter. Books were plentiful, and the library was often a stop on a bicycle that had a basket that could carry ten books home. There were no expensive vacations and resorts. There were museums and historic buildings, old trains and mighty dams that spanned rivers full of steelhead trout, creatures always searching, even as they yearned to be home. So with that, we had our hand in many an exercise in the laws of physics versus childhood, such as:
(1) The Mattel Thingmaker should have been named "stupid should burn" even as the stink bugs make great ammo.
(2) The child’s wood burning tool does not do a good tattoo on a doll's arm (we’d not as yet grasped Polymers, Thermosetting and Thermoplastic and their resultant melting points).
(3) Potato guns were designed for real potatoes; Mr. Potato Head is just going to lose his hat and Midge, brave redhead that she was, is going to lose a limb even with G.I. Joe's big bazooka scotch- taped to her side. And, finally
(4) The superman cape from Halloween does not enable one to fly.
But the limits we stretched were also physical, racing our bikes up and down the block, no helmets or knee pads, as fast as we could make those bikes go. We'd launch an assault up into the embankments of distant foothills, breathing harder and harder, gulping air in and pushing it back out, like some tiny steam engine, until there was no breath left, the last bit escaping the lungs as our hearts surged upward. We went until we could not, salty liquid bursting out from pores and tear ducts, the sweat of freedom that finally stopped us at the summit as we captured up our breath again. Then we'd ride our bikes down the hill again, shouting into the wind and never feeling tired.
Every place was our playground. We played spy and pirate, explorer and soldier; sometimes interchanging the roles as only children can. We were Roger Ramjet on the tail of N.A.S.T.Y. (National Association of Spies, Traitors and Yahoos). We were Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin; we were Lewis and Clark. We crossed undammed ponds, slippery rocks and slippery slopes, the creeks of the woods being our oceans to brave. We shot fake weapons in fake battles, helping our mortally wounded past enemy lines. We would lift them up, scraped knees the only mark of our fallen, keeping them alive even as we knew they were already gone, remembering and forgetting there in that same instant that we could not save them.
There were nights under the stars in the backyard, looking for satellites tracking across the sky. There were lines of gossamer spider web cast from a cherry rod out into the lake, as we floated on inner tubes drifting into our teens. On such days we discussed everything from history to funny cars, to how I hoped we'd never die old and unwanted in the nursing home where I volunteered after school. What could be worse than ending our days in a small room, surrendering to that tiled space, all of our wants and needs and even independence? What could be more fearful than lying in bed alone as from the hallways came no visitors, but only a dulled, rattling saber of loneliness and distress. No, that would not be for us; rather we would go out in a quick burst of honor, the brief fatal blaze of a fine blade, setting us free from our pain and suffering.
As I worked down in my basement, getting the ramparts of Barkley's confinement put into place, I dreaded having to leave him with someone else to care for him here, for the better part of a month, on a job assignment far away. I realized how much he'd grown; almost adult sized, but for a thin shadow that is the form of his recent youth.
Big Bro and I weren't much different, growing up tall and lean, and oh, too quickly. There was the discovery of cars, of the opposite sex, of the wonderful merits of coffee, mornings sitting with brew too hot to drink or even to hold in our hand, claiming that implicit, infinite quality of heat impervious even to its own dissipation, as were we, there on the edge of adulthood.
Then, before you know it, he was gone, off to the Navy, to the adventures we both yearned to experience. I never wanted to be the one left behind, but I was. As he drove away in the blue panel van, in which echoed the sound of so much laughter as we learned to drive, learned our limits, and the speed at which one could lose everything, the tears came as only undammed water can flow.
Now so many years later, our lives curved back into themselves, caught up in the obligations and outcomes that adulthood brings and, whether consciously or not, in the words and affairs of the world that are as undeniable as they are inescapable. The antics of children had seemed so small in the light of my life now, but in looking at the growing form of this dog, I realize they are not. For in those memories, of discovery, of risk, of devotion, we set a fixed distance between the boundaries of the outside world and ourselves. We hold ourselves, if only for this moment, separate from time.
Barkley picked up my hammer in his mouth and started running around the basement with it, pleased with his new toy, even as he struggled to hold its weight. I thought of the past, of bikes and trails and the sound that a piping hot stink bug makes when you hit your target right between the shoulder blades.
I am going to miss Barkley very much when I'm gone, but tonight, I think I'll call Big Bro. He and I have not talked much lately, with careers that fill our time. But I will call him tonight. Across a thousand miles, I will not ask for his help, only his prayers, as I set out on a solitary journey that's getting harder and harder to make, now that I have a little four-legged one waiting for me.