Saturday, December 22, 2007

June Bugs

So I called my 85-year-old mother yesterday to see how she was. “I’m fine,” she said, “just as happy as a June bug.” I smiled. I hadn’t heard that country expression in over 40 years.

Explanation of the idiom - When June visits the hill country of Eastern Tennessee the sweet scent of early summer strikes some kind of chord within the "Phyllophaga" a genus of the beetle family, AKA “June Bug”. They cover the lawns and fields like an undulating bug blanket, hovering above things that are ripe and sweet. They love overripe fruit, particularly apples. Their name, "Phyllophage", actually means "loves figs".

This little six-legger is emerald green and about the size of a dime. He can fly, yes, but seems to accomplish this task reluctantly and with considerable effort.. He buzzes about about slowly, like a C-5 cargo plane loaded with tanks.

WARNING: This next paragraph is off limits for animal rights activists who think insects should be afforded the same status as mammals. As kids we would go out with a jar and capture a few “June Bugs”. Then we would tie a string to one of their back legs and fly them like living kites. (OK, ok... I said we were kids, didn't we? It's not like we were dragging puppies around.) The fun was to watch these green little guys buzz around like drunken pilots. I remember that just the right size of string had to be used. Too fine a thread could sever a leg. Too thick and heavy a string would slow the them down. It had to be extra-light cotton kite string.

When we had about a 8 or 10 of the little critters aloft we would tie the strings to a bush and watch them tangle their lines. Sometimes we would tie them to a piece or notebook paper and release them as a squadron. Yeah, I know. It really wasn't such a nice thing to do to a bug, was it? But those were the halcyon days of summer in the 1950's, when clouds were white crayon smudges against an azure sky, afternoons were eons and, for two weeks anyway, "June bugs" ruled..

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Last night was cold diamonds on black velvet. There was Orion in his warrior pose, sword hung rakishly from his famous belt. Ursa Major is shy this time of year and doesn't appear until well after midnight. By the way, Ursa much prefers his hipper moniker, "The Big Dipper".
What makes this constellation so very useful is the fact that the outside wall of the Big Dipper's pan always points to Polaris, the North Star.... the only star that doesn't move as the night slides by. Reassuringly on the job, the North Star was where it always is -- due north, pointing the way for sailors and other sojourners.
The water beyond the pilings where "Sails Call" is moored is dark, shivering in a north breeze. As I lie in the cockpit star gazing with binoculars, I can't help but wonder what it would be like to strike out, get outside the sight of land and sail under that twinkling canopy to Bermuda. Never happen.
Too cold, I open the companionway and step down into the warmth of the salon. Three stations to choose from on television. Outside, the current of the Intracoastal Waterway drifts slowly toward Beaufort Inlet on a falling tide and the universe is spinning as it should. We are the one's who are spinning, really, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sumo 1993 - 2007

Tomorrow, our dog Sumo will be put to sleep. I may put it off until Wednesday, but it has to be done this week. It’s just time. She won’t eat. Not even the soft expensive stuff. She has been getting weaker for a few months now. This week her back legs simply went out from under her and she couldn’t get back up. There was a time when she would bound up the stairs and follow you into the TV room. Now she can barely negotiate the three shallow steps that lead from the front porch to the lawn. I suppose your legs wouldn’t work very well either if you were 100 years old. That’s how old 14 is in dog years.

I won’t shed tears. I know that. I didn't even cry at my own father's funeral. Don't ask me why. But I will be sad. She has become part of the family. I remember the day we got her. She was a little black fur ball, mixed Labrador Retriever and Chow, that our son, Matt, who always had a soft spot for animals, had brought home as a “gift” for the family.

“No animals,” I told him. “Final answer!” I reminded him of our recent experience with “Radar” the rabbit. That little critter had chewed on every electrical wire in the house. When any appliance would malfunction, all you had to do was run your finger along the cord until you came to a section of exposed copper wire where the rodent's razor sharp incisors had gnawed through the insulation. (They tell me that rabbits do get addicted to the little jolt of electricity that punks them when they bite into electrical wires. I believe this because an unplugged wire will not be touched by them while the one plugged in will get it every time).

“He can stay the night, but you can take him back tomorrow,” I said. “It’s a SHE,” he said. “Whatever,” I said.

That night, as I lay on the couch, dozing in front of the television… I felt the tread of puppy feet on my stomach. Then the little fuzzball spayed herself on my chest and closed her eyes as if to help me nap. A few strokes of her thick fur and I admit I was a tad smitten.

When she was a puppy, she looked for all the world like a black bear cub. Her big thing was see a crack in the door and bolt for freedom. She was a flash of black fur, hurtling across an open field, galloping for the great beyond. It would take hours of combing the neighborhood, calling her name (which she completely ignored), asking strangers if they had seen her. Finally we would find her, resting on someone’s lawn, her black tongue lolling to one side. Or she would be back at the house, on the front porch, staring up at the door. Today, I left the front gate open while I went to the mailbox and she didn't even notice.

As Sumo grew, it became apparent that her demeanor would be placid and docile. On walks through the neighborhood, she would guppy up to other dogs, expecting a warm reception. When they growled or barked at her, she would run in terror for the safety of the space between my feet. Smaller dogs would send her leaping into my arms. She was no guard dog. But if someone came on the property, Sumo would bark once. That’s it….just one loud, throaty “Rowlf!” After that you were on your own. I didn’t mind. I could never stand yappy dogs.

You know, except for the possible exception of Dr. Jack Kervorkian, we think it immoral to euthanize humans. This despite the fact that it may actually be a kindness in some cases. But we have no problem excercising our sovereignty over animals in this regard. I mean, after all, we buy them. We separate them from their siblings and their mother and we presume to own them. Their servitude is to give us loyalty and love. And this they do in a fashion that is superior, or so it often seems, to the capacity of most humans. Of course, Sumo excelled at this.

One week I had the flu. Toward the end of the ordeal, I was feeling bored and decided to teach her a trick. Let me just say this about Sumo’s intellect. She is not the sharpest sled dog in the Yukon. She knew the command, “Sit”. She had some retriever blood in her, but I think not much. All I could get out of her was a blank stare when I tried to get her to perform that maneuver. Besides, confined to the house I had little space in which to toss a stick.

So I invented a completely new trick. I trained Sumo to “go around”. The house we lived in then had a wall between the kitchen and the living room. I held a doggie treat just out of muzzle reach and, in an authoritative voice, I commanded “Go around!.” Blank stare. I uttered the command again and again, running around the room divider myself until she finally followed me. “Good dog!” (pat pat, scratch scratch). I fed her 10 dog biscuits before she finally figured out that to claim the prize, all she had to do was trot around the room divider. She never forgot the trick. I think that if I got her tired old bones into the kitchen and told her to “Go around”, she would find something to circumnavigate and slowly, with measured steps, make a circle around it and come back to me for some form of approval. Never thought I would say it. But I will miss you, old girl. You were a good, good dog.