I asked her what she wanted to do this evening for her birthday.
She thought for a second and asked, “Anything? Whatever I want?”
“Of course,” I said. “You only turn seven once.”
Then she told me quietly, what she wanted to do more than anything else, was to wade up to her chest in the river, and stand there until the sun went down.
Who am I to judge? On my seventh birthday I asked for meatloaf.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
I brought a toy to throw in case she got bored, but she didn’t.
After a while she turned to me and said, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
“Wow,” I said. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I’m a dog, you idiot,” She said. “da Vinci. Read a book.”
We laughed and laughed.
Then we both turned back to the river, and watched until the sky and the water were the same color. And then we went home.
The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.
My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.
It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”
Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.
Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.
Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.
But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.
And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.
My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.
Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.
I don’t have the words. Hell, maybe there are no words strong enough, respectful enough for this. But more likely, the right words have been cheapened over time, overused. Heroes don’t play football. Well, a few did. Saving the World is such an over the top concept it sounds like a video game tagline. The world sometimes seems like an awful place filled with pockets of evil always ready to flare up and get out of control. Yet it never quite does. People of my generation, of all generations since the Greatest one, go to bed at night perhaps worried about the world at large, but the sun always comes up the next morning. Families are still there. Neighbors and friends are still there. I don’t think we can truly imagine what it was like in the months leading up to June 6, 1944. I won’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can tell you that I can’t imagine, and I really try. I can’t imagine being called upon to do even the smallest fraction of what so many in this country did in the war effort. Entire industries put completely on hold, converted to factories to build planes, munitions, vehicles, to sew parachutes, to package meals, countless — truly countless — sacrifices before we even get to the biggest sacrifice of all.
Pearl Harbor lit a fire, yes. But it’s one thing to be for something, or against something. When you are called to act in the face of massive, well-equipped and well-trained evil, how do you summon the courage? I have no earthly idea. But they did. In massive numbers, young men from the United States, Great Britain and Canada summoned more courage than they even knew existed. They stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy years ago today, and many were dead before they even felt sand under foot. Many more fell dead in that sand. But enough survived to fight and crawl and run and scrape and dive and duck and make it. In ten minutes they had witnessed more hell than any man should be forced to bear, but they had work to do. So they kept coming, each landing made easier by the sacrifices of those who landed before. And they took that beach, and then they took the land behind that, and then the land behind that. And that’s how it started.
I shared recently how lucky I am to live in a place that gives me the opportunity to mark important National occasions. One of those places is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the museum’s annex at Dulles Airport, and houses examples of some of the most important aircraft of World War II. They also are currently showing a fantastic film, D-Day: Normandy 1944. It is exceptionally well done, with incredible graphics blended with live action and tells the story of what happened on that day and how it unfolded in a way that’s compelling and easy to understand, but also very informative even for those who have read much on the subject. I learned quite a bit in this 43-minute long feature.
So if you can get out this month to either the Dulles Air and Space Museum or the original one in Washington, DC, I highly recommend seeing this in the Imax format. It’s absolutely appropriate for kids. While I still don’t think it’s possible to wrap your brain around what that beach was like seventy years ago, it’s good to be reminded that real, regular people did astounding, brave things, and in doing so, secured a future so bright and prosperous that those who live in it — through no fault of their own — are incapable of comprehending what it took to get here. Then enjoy the proud history on display in the museum, it is a spacious, well-designed museum you could easily spend half a day in. Flight simulators are there to try (though I haven’t been in one yet), as well as neat kiosks throughout the space where you can see the view from the cockpit of most any plane there.
I started my visit with the on screen telling of our bloody start to the war. And I ended it with the last thing I always stop and gaze upon when I’m here, the B-29 Superfortress that ended it.
God bless the Greatest Generation, and those courageous, terrified young men that took that blood soaked beach, and made everything that followed, to this day, possible.