Walking the Dog
Dec. 26, 2002
Twice in my life I saw snow fall at Christmas. The second time I was thirteen, living in Germany, an army brat, and knew a little more then of the sin in which our race seems to revel—of the petty betrayals among friends, the tawdriness of mind, the backbiting, the bullying (as both victim and perpetrator), the endlessly shifting alliances, those generally squalid, tragic little morality plays of the teenage world which mimic those of the more successfully hidden adult world—and of the suddenly inexorable attraction of girls. They were, of an instant, mesmerizing, and they seemed to know it. I suffered my first jilting, which sank me to the bottom of the sea, but she was soon replaced by another and my heart was high once more, for this is the age when every cognition is accompanied by a physical resonance. One night a friend called while my parents were out and began reading passages over the phone from Lady Chatterly’s Lover (how he’d gotten hold of it I have no idea, for this was long before the time when you could pull pornography off the shelf at your local drugstore), the narrative interrupted by his own gasps of embarrassed laughter. The details were indeed embarrassing, shocking even, and when he went on to explain that this was how my parents had got me into the world, I went into denial and outrage, as if having suffered the blow of a personal insult. But that was how I came to understand the terrific pull the girls exerted upon me, and there is a sense in which I never forgave my friend for making that call. Such innocence enforced by ignorance seems impossible now, I suppose, with attempts to inflict upon our children knowledge of every variety of sordid experience rather commonplace. But there was a time when it was not so, and because it was not, I still saw these low points as anomalies, tiny persecutions from which we escape with brief flights into the desert, only to return, because life was still a story with a happy ending. The catharsis might be painful, the details of the denouement unclear, but an epiphany would be my reward. Love still seemed to lurk beneath the surface of things, and to be the purpose of life, which resembled nothing so much as a poem, a great work scripted by an unseen hand, and being written for each one of us, one at a time. That was the feeling anyway, if the words were not at my disposal. I probably have forgotten more than I remember of those days, but I have not forgotten a certain moment that tried to pull me away from these new distractions. Sometimes the epiphany comes, and we somehow manage to ignore it, push it away, dismiss it as a child’s fancy, or miss it altogether. I tried at all of the above, but in the end failed.
We lived in Pirmasens, at the top of a valley that wound many miles downward toward the city of Kaiserslautern. During our first few days there, while still in the BOQ, an army truck with two soldiers in it went off the ribbon of road that hugged the valley wall, and we could see the fatal trail of smoke rising from the depths. We could not see the valley floor, so lush was the growth of trees. I was in the last month or two of fifth grade, and don’t remember how I took it. Death was something that happened, but not really, I guess, at least not really to me. Many of us never outgrow that feeling. But I do remember that in the excitement of the moment our host family drove us along the valley road to the scene of the accident, where we got a close-up look at that trail of smoke. For the trip back, the man driving had to make a u-turn, accelerating suddenly toward the edge of the abyss before braking to back up. I remember the terror of its yawning approach, and grabbed the back of my father’s seat. “It’s all right,” he laughed, “Captain (whatever his name was) knows what he’s doing.” And he was right, it was. A moment of drama, the first low moment in my new home (I had a new home every few years), and then it was gone. On balance, all was still right with the world. The Germans held an annual car race on that road, the drivers taking the turns as fast as daring would allow, and none ever died during my tenure. But two soldiers in a truck had to go.
Three years later it snowed on Christmas day and for several days after, bringing not quite the same measure of delight as the first time (no time is ever like the first time), but still satisfying my vision of life, my fondest dreams, my sense of the story being written. I had a girlfriend then, Julie, and sometimes on Sunday afternoons I’d see her walking in her white dress up the road toward the PX and the movie theater. I’d race inside, beg my parents for the money, and find her in the dark. We held hands during the movie, then walked home together, parting when we got to my building. I never had the nerve to ask for a kiss. And then one day her family packed up and moved back to the States. It did not hurt to see her go. I thought (the story being written) I might see her again, for that sometimes happens in the Army life.
One night during that winter—it was still the Christmas season—another snow storm having passed over the land and now in diminution, I took the dog for a walk before bedtime, as was my habit and duty, that he might let us sleep through the night. I put on my woolen coat, rubber boots, gloves, and a hat with earflaps. There must have been three feet on the ground. As we left the housing area the road began an immediate descent. A short ways ahead it forked, ascending on the left branch to the NCO quarters atop the other peak of the valley, and on the right, down into the valley itself. The dog, a mixture of Shepherd and Chow, stopped every now and then to lick the snow. Lance was his name, short for Lancelot of the Lakes, as a puppy, of the puddles. We walked on, past the NCO club mostly hidden behind the snowladen trees, their branches bent downward, as though weary of the burden and pining for the earth from which they’d sprung. Lance lifted his leg beside a wooden post bordering the road and yellowed the snow. The posts were connected by a frail metal railing. I had always been struck by how little it would present against the force of a car. Lance stopped and sank to his haunches, panting mildly, his breath forming clouds on the windless air. I waited to see what his pleasure might be. In my head ran the strains of a German carol, “Leise Rieselt der Schnee” (Softly falls the snow). The Vienna Boys Choir, my father’s favorite, had been on the stereo when I left. But only a few flakes fell now; every now and then one lighted on my cheek or an eyelash. I stood between the two peaks of the valley, the children of the sergeants and warrant officers to my left, the officers’ quarters, where I lived, to my right. They were just big apartment buildings along a single strip of road, though the majors and light colonels got duplexes, the full birds their own houses, spared the annoyance of neighbors through the wall. Occasionally a light would go out in one of the big buildings even as I watched.
I looked down and tried to follow the road into the valley, but lost it in the sea of white, gradually shading into a whorl of dark grey. In spring, shepherds, unimpressed with the advent of the Americans, still drove their sheep along the grassy tops as they had for generations, right through our backyards. We kids loved it, especially the little black dogs keeping the herd in check. Our parents were not fond of the smell, for the grazing process took days, the shepherds camping out behind our buildings. In summer I’d explore the valley with friends. Wild blackberries grew along the paths, and we found that people lived beneath the forest canopy, tilling gardens. Strawberries seemed to be the main crop, and sometimes we stole some. We found still ponds that we hadn’t seen the last time, and once a cave with a waterfall pouring over its mouth. We stuck our faces into it, and drank. The climb down and back up seemed adventurous and heroic. It would have been easy to have gotten lost, but one of our friends was a German boy, Gerhard, who knew the way. One day we found green pieces of metal we thought might have belonged to the fallen army truck, but we weren’t sure. We stared at them a long time, and left them where they lay.
I shook the leash, but Lance seemed content, and so we stayed awhile. I thought of the girl Julie, and how she had made me feel. There had come another girl after her, Anne, who liked to talk with me between classes. A friend, Lester Noble, a handsome kid and popular with the girls, told me she was the cutest girl in the class, so I had encouraged her attentions. But recently I had become suddenly and inexplicably tired of her. She was no longer attractive, though I didn’t know why. And one day when she came up to talk, I said something rude that drove her away, which was, of course, my aim. I can still remember the tone I used without remembering what was said—a tone of mockery and disdain that asked of her: Why are you talking to me? I was proud at the time of having the courage to deliver rejection so mercilessly, but have been somewhat haunted in later years by how it must have hurt her. I still remember the look in her eyes, the shock of reality changing in instant. How ridiculous. We were thirteen. We get over things, forget them. What difference could it possibly have made in the long run? And yet she returns now and then… Others do as well, like my good friend John Naumann, whom I slapped in the face just to prove to him what we both already knew, that I could kick his ass. I don’t remember the excuse I had fabricated to make this betrayal seem so necessary, only that we were outdoors playing, and that I had humiliated him in front of others. Nor do I remember what he said before holding up his hands and walking away. We were never friends again, and he had been a good one. But I do know now that we carry these things forever, and so do our victims.
The strains of the lingering snow carol faded, then vanished as though chased away. No cars were on the road. Lights continued to flicker out in the buildings. The air was still, but the low clouds moved overhead with a strange swiftness, a solid but soft mass of alternating white and brooding grey. The valley’s depths, smothered in white, were obscure. It appeared shallow; with a few steps I might walk across it. There was not a sound in the world, as it took to its sleep. When the clouds seem close, they’re always higher than we think, but now they seemed to press down upon me. The whole firmament—the lovely snowbound trees, the clouds above and the valley floor below, the buildings of home dark but for a few sentinel lights, the very air I breathed—leaned in close. There was a presence behind the silence. It felt familiar, and wanted me to know its name. I lifted my eyes to the clouds and listened. It was simply there, just beyond the horizon where language lives, and I listened. And then it was gone. Momentarily stunned, I felt it recede, like a hand withdrawn.
I shook the leash again. This time Lance lifted his hindquarters and we headed home. I pushed the moment away in later years, choosing my own way, not that of the Presence. I lived life as I would, pausing every now and then to think about Things, but usually to no fixed end. I forgot about it for long periods of time, which is to say it never left me, coming to mind at the oddest moments. What was it? Sometimes it seemed like that “peace which passeth all understanding”, at others like a sensation born of a contented, warmly secure, and satiated life. A child’s fancy after all? Many see in Nature evidence of God’s glory. Can its valleys swallow soldiers while its snow-laden clouds caress a child’s soul? In yet later years, I began to understand why people of serious moment, and not just saints, seek silence. But those years were a long way off, with much disruption between. How often does the author of the story try to show his hand, but, as though sensing the intrusion, we look the other way, as when in a crowd we spy someone we know but wish to avoid? It is the way of grace—is it not?—to stay in touch, and not leave us to the peace of the world.