Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baptism...Or How Bob Rescued Cinnamon, Won Her Heart and Kept His Wife From Killing Him All in One Day

I grew up with dogs, and have seen them do a lot of oddball things. But the first time Cinnamon (also known as SweetyPuss, My Little Girl, and Bad Dog! Bad Dog! ) saw snow, she did something I had actually never seen a dog do before. We were on our way to Mazama, a little town in the North Cascades where Highway 202 ends in the winter time after the pass is slammed shut by a dam of  winter snow. We had stopped at Sleeping Lady for dinner, and I had just opened the car door, when a brown and white blur shoved past me going Mach II with her hair on fire with a long red leash whipping behind her like an angry snake. She made a beeline straight for the nearest snowbank, stuck her head in all the way past her eyeballs up to the base of her ears and then just stood perfectly still, with only her ears sticking out of the snow. Startled, I remember wondering if dogs get headaches. Then she suddenly jerked her head out, looked around, ran straight to another snow bank and did the same thing again. And again. I didn't know Cinnamon very well then. Of course, now I realize that this was a sign. She didn't have headaches. She was nuts.

Now this happens sometimes when you adopt an adult dog. You don't know them, they don't know you, but you're glued together for life, and occasionally one or both of you turns out to be crazy. This time, I swear, it's her.

The fact that I'm a dog person didn't mean much to Bob when we met. Bob didn't have much experience with dogs. He is a classic cat person. He secretly figured that when the last member of my pack of geriatric border collies "went to heaven," I'd be happy in a one-cat family. So when Mac died after sharing my life for 17 years, and Bob caught me late at night cruising photographs of rescue dogs on Border Collie Match.Com, he was truly caught off guard. After the third or fourth night in a row, he finally sighed and said something like, "Ok, but it better be a pretty PATHETIC story," clearly not anticipating just how pathetic some of these dogs could be.

A few searches later, and I had found her. She had been abandoned in a small town in rural Utah, and was wandering the streets in ragged condition at about 6 months of age. They caught her easily...the first couple of times. She escaped twice from her first "forever family," the second time while "Mom" was doing a little "time out" at the local jail for drug possession. She escaped again from an animal control officer, and was ultimately recaptured, largely because the shotgun blast she had taken to her hindquarters sometime after her escape had rendered her left hind leg useless, slowing her down to something less than warp speed. I first saw her at the back of a pack of howling rescue dogs, running back and forth on three good legs, not making a single sound. Her fur was orange from malnutrition, a set of "dew" claws stuck straight out on her back legs like an extra set of thumbs, and her eyes were a startling golden brown. When her rescuer handed me her lead, she bolted away from me so quickly that she nearly decapitated herself when she hit the end of the leash. The wild look on her face transformed to complete shock when she spotted Sandy, and she promptly wet herself. Wow, I thought instantly, I'm in love.

On the day I brought her home, she cowered in the back of the car and cried softly for over one hundred miles. Back home, after two packages of wieners and three viewings of Ocean's Eleven (she loves George Clooney, as it turns out) we were buds. At the end of the day, she jumped up on the couch, rolled on her back and let me rub her belly with a big, heavy sigh.

We named her Cinnamon for her brown color. We discovered that she snores when she sleeps on her back, and has very frequent, smelly farts if she eats apples. She's really smart. She quickly learned to accept a leash and to poop outside. She stopped trying to eat the cat after only one or two days. She can sit, lie down and shake hands, and knows right from left. But she was convinced that something scary lived underneath the cold air return grate in the living room, and she refused to eat from a metal bowl. She stopped dead in the street to watch airplanes in the sky. She had to be taught how to make dog toys squeak. And she had some sort of problem with Bob. She would hide behind me and peak at him around my legs. She would run away and hide under the bed. Bob had to avoid direct eye contact or she would pee on the floor. After five weeks, things were not getting better. Run, hide, peak out from behind me, spot Sandy, pee on the floor.

In December we planned a winter break at a rental cabin in Mazama. We couldn't bear to put Cinnamon in a kennel, so she came along. The cabin sat in the middle of a meadow on the Methow River, deep in snow and isolated, except for the occasional sound of voices of cross-country skiers passing on the trails nearby. Bob and I settled into a routine of soaking in the hottub, walking the dog in the snow, reading books, more soaking in the hottub, sudoku, sipping red wine, cooking and then soaking in the hot tub. Cinnamon settled into her routine of poop walks, on-leash frisbee, gnawing on a fancy new giant red lobster squeak toy, chewing up a pair of the owner's slippers, and diving under the bed whenever snow slid off the roof or Bob got up out of a chair--both of which happened fairly often. Outside, the snow fell relentlessly, sifting around the doors and the steps and covering our tracks. In the evenings the deer moved like ghosts through the field outside, chest-high in snow.

Although we were out in the middle of nowhere, I still suggested that we keep Cinnamon on leash both indoors and out, because a) she didn't come when she was called, probably because b) she didn't understand that Cinnamon was her name yet and c) for whatever reason, Bob still scared the crap out of her. When Bob said he didn't think she'd run away, I mentioned that losing the dog would be the least of his worries--mending his wife's broken heart would be the real challenge. I got the "Husband Smile" in response, so I was pretty sure he wasn't listening.

On the morning that Cinnamon went missing from her walk with Sandy, I had just settled by the fire to read a book.

Bad decisions are often easy to identify in hindsight--take for example that time in 1994 when I decided to pet a drugged-out 500-lb gorilla I was anesthetizing in a local zoo hospital. The instant that humongous hand closed in a lightening-quick grab around mine and I felt the bones in my fingers start to rearrange painfully in its grip, I realized two things; that this animal was both phenomenally strong and unbelievably quick, and that I had just made a potentially fatal error. Lucky for me, IV drugs work really fast, even on gorillas.

So the second I saw from the corner of my eye a familiar brown and white blur porpoising her way all alone in great snow-showering leaps across the snow drifts in a straight run for the river and the highway beyond, I knew that "somebody" had goofed up.

A lot of cursing ensued. And an explosive scramble for boots and coat and hat and gloves. By the time I hit the snow, Bob was already 50 yards ahead of me at a dead run. Or "dead plow," anyway. Neither of us was moving very fast through thigh-high drifts. It took a several minutes to reach the river, where I caught up to Bob, and then nearly keeled over from the effort.

Here, the silence of the snowfields was replaced by the dull low roar of the river, flowing in a lazy "s" below the high bank where we were standing. A couple of downed lodgepole pines lay across the water to the west, to the east the bank flattened out and ran along side the river. But where was Cinnamon? We searched around frantically, calling her name, as if that would do any good. We found a set of tracks that went off to the east, curved around and ended at the water. A large piece of snowbank appeared to be freshly broken at the water's edge, with no tracks leading away. My heart sank. Nothing could survive long in the ice cold water.

Bob and I looked at each other in despair, and then something moved on the bank across the river. Standing on the opposite side, completely drenched and wild-eyed, was our dog. We called, we clapped, we whistled, we tried to "good dog" her into coming back across and all the while she ran back and forth on the opposite bank, whining. No way was she getting in the water again. After a while, she began to look longingly behind her to the woods, and that's when Sandy decided to try to wade across to get her.

He slid down the twelve or so feet of bank to the edge of the water and walked out near a shallow area where the dog had apparently crossed. Sandy was wearing high boots and wasn't worried about getting his feet wet, but as it turned out, what we both took for snow at the river's edge was actually a thin layer of snow-covered ice camouflaging about 4 and a half feet of fast-moving water. One small step--and I could see the shock on Bob's face as he went in unexpectedly up to his armpits. The bank was sheer with nothing obvious to grab onto. I had the shock of knowing at once that the dog was now a lost cause, because the real question had suddenly become whether Bob would still be alive in another 10 minutes. I did something for which Bob never entirely forgave me. I stood absolutely still and waited.

It's my day job to manage emergencies. Ninety-eight percent boredom, two percent sheer terror. That's how people describe what I do for a living. And during the two percent part, panic is definitely not on your side. I took a deep breath and glanced back to the house, making terrible calculations. Three or four minutes for me to get to the house. A 911 call to bring help from the nearest town--twenty minutes away. That would take another four or five minutes. Did the cabin owners have a rope, chain, or anything around with which I could pull Sandy from the river? Where would it be? In the garage? Where was the garage key? It would be at least ten minutes to go and come back, and then only if I was fast and lucky and did everything right on the first try. I thought back to the day my older brother fell into the creek in the middle of winter when we were teenagers. He had been walking on a wet bank and fell into only about 3 feet of water, getting tangled in some submerged barbed wire when he slipped. Dad and I heard him yell as he went in. Some boys on the neighboring farm heard him too, and came running fast across the fields. When we got to him, only his nose and mouth were sticking out above water. He had been submerged for less than 5 minutes, and was so cold he could barely move. It took two grown men to pull him out of the water, and then he had barely survived. How in the world was I going to get Bob out of the water by myself?

I waited as Bob reached for the bank. One try, I thought. He gets exactly one try and I'm gone, I'm running for help. I watched. Seconds passed. He reached for a branch dangling from the bank, pulled on it, and then another. Then, a miracle happened and he hoisted himself up and out of the water. I looked across the river--Cinnamon was heading for the woods. We had lost her. And Bob wasn't completely out of danger yet--in those wet clothes, he could rapidly become hypothermic, and we were still a long way from the cabin.

I started to walk toward Bob, but he shot me a sharp look and marched right on past me and down river to where the trees had fallen over the water. I caught a glimpse of him as he crossed the river. He reached the other side and called Cinnamon's name. And that is when the second miracle happened.

She turned and she came to him. Her head was low, and her tail was wagging a little. He clipped the leash on her collar and lead her back to the fallen trees. When she refused to cross the river he hoisted all 40 lbs of her up under one arm and carried her across the river. And instead of struggling, she let him. I was going to get to keep them both after all.

Bob didn't say much on the way back to the cabin, other than that he wasn't cold at all, and what the heck did I think I was doing, just standing there like that on the bank not saying a word? When we got back to the cabin, I made him strip and get in the hottub. After about ten minutes, when he complained that the hot tub must be malfunctioning because it wasn't very warm, I just smiled and made him stay in until he was no longer hypothermic. The thermometer in the tub read 104 degrees.

So that is the story of how Bob saved Cinnamon and won her heart. From that time on, she stopped peeing on the floor, and no longer dove under the bed whenever he moved. After a few months, she started talking and "roos" whenever she's happy or excited. And she flies into a frenzy of joy whenever Bob comes home, because like me she knows it's a miracle to get to see someone you love one more time.

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