Thursday, March 31, 2011

If Stones Could Speak

Manhattan, Kansas cemetery

If Stones Could Speak
by Greg Larson

     The cool morning air washed over my face on a Sunday in September as I rode my mountain bike on the brick streets of Manhattan, Kansas.  It was a stressful time in my life.  Having gone through a divorce at the beginning of the millennium, I was spending the weekend with my oldest daughter and her husband.  I decided an early morning ride would be just the prescription to clear my head and allow me to meditate.

     I pedaled up Sunset Avenue to the entry into the cemetery, and began to cruise through the manicured lawn dotted with various sizes of marble tombstones.  The cemetery grounds felt like a safe haven, a place to relax and enjoy the landscape.  I floated past the stones with names and stories long forgotten.

     The sun’s early morning rays filtered through the trees.  I coasted towards the west end of the cemetery, where the edge of the hillside dropped to the valley beyond.  At the last curve, I came to a stop.  Other than the melancholy sounds of the mourning doves, silence blanketed my surroundings.

     Beyond the road, at the edge of a wooded area was a padlocked gate that beckoned.  What was beyond it?  Why was it padlocked?  The padlock made no sense, because the gate was merely a few pieces of welded pipe, with plenty of empty space for me to crawl through with the bike.  I didn’t see a ‘no trespassing’ sign, so I slipped on through to the gravel road on the other side, and pedaled farther into the mystery.

Locked gate and forbidden road
     I soon discovered stacks and piles of stone, timber, and gravel in the overgrown weeds on one side of the road.  It appeared the area was an extension of a city maintenance yard, hidden below the cemetery.  The other side of the road was a densely wooded area with a steep slope down to the west.

     As I rolled through the forbidden area, my eye began to notice some massive blobs in the dense shade of the woods.  Were my eyes playing tricks on me?  Were the ghosts from the cemetery having an early morning meeting?  I stopped and walked to the edge of the woods to take a closer look.

     To my surprise, some old limestone steps created an entry into the sloped, shadowy area.  I accepted their invitation and descended into the shade.  This was my third decompression from the city streets, having already passed through the cemetery, the gated road and now into the woods.  My mind was far from reality.

Stone steps

     That’s when I noticed several massive stone slabs along the hillside.  Who put them here . . . and for what purpose?  As my eyes adjusted to the shade, the forms of giant picnic tables and benches came into focus.  Their massive size and scale seemed odd.  It appeared they were constructed for giants of biblical proportion.

     I sat on one of the benches in the still of the early morning and felt the everyday concerns melt away.  The hidden picnic ground seemed odd in its size and location, totally hidden, as if left in the past, like the stones in the cemetery.

     I pictured the men of the W.P.A. crews who must have created the tables.  They were men with hungry families during the Great Depression.  Desperate for work, they drove 50-100 miles to labor for some cash, and to eat government-issued cheese and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.  Stone was quarried and hauled, then lifted into place to create the park.  Their sweat had built a picnic ground where families could enjoy the sunsets.  The only problem was their supervisor hadn’t been given instructions with the proper scale and size for the benches and tables.

     With a bit of imagination, I could hear a 1939 Chevy pull to a stop on the road.  Doors opened and children shouted and ran down the steps.  Trunk lids slammed shut and parents with picnic baskets and blankets followed into the woods.  They had unfulfilled dreams and desires and worries of war.

     My disappearance into the woods lasted only a few minutes, but the stones had disappeared from public view for a generation.  It was time to leave this odd Stonehenge in the vines, a nice diversion from my reality.  With a sense of renewal and peace, I walked up the steps to the road, carefully navigating around the poison ivy.

     But the stone tables seemed to have a gravitational force on me.  I was slow to get on the bike and begin the journey out of the woods and cemetery.  I thought of my daughters, with their hopes and dreams as I began to pedal towards the city streets.  What lay ahead in their lives?  What memories will they have?  Will their stories be passed on to new generations or will they be locked in stone? Only the future holds the answers.

A table sized for giants

Abandoned picnic grounds

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scottish Royalty

Douglas McAllister Larson

Scottish Royalty
by Greg Larson

     I noticed the sleek dog on the evening news.  A Scottish Deer Hound had won Best in Show at the 135th All Breed Dog Show sponsored by the Westminster Kennel Club.  Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, a bitch with a fine pedigree, was out on the town, dining at the finest restaurants in New York.

     I tried to get the attention of our Cairn Terrier in-residence, Douglas McAllister Larson.

     “Douglas, did you hear that?  One of your relatives just got her fifteen minutes of fame.”

     Douglas, perched upside down on the edge of his favorite upholstered chair, didn’t move a muscle.  He was not impressed.  Yes, McAllister is his middle name, but I’ve convinced my granddaughter that his real middle name is Drinkwater.  She is easily entertained by watching Douglas lap the water out of his bowl.

     He’s a big dog in a small package, with a blue-collar attitude and no lack of self esteem.  He is fiercely loyal to Gretta and me, but he has an air of aloofness, and he doesn’t beg for attention.

     Although the Cairn breed of Terrier wasn’t recognized by the major kennel clubs until 1912, they were bred on the Isle of Skye for centuries, along with the Scottish and West Highland Terriers.  The landowners used them for chasing out foxes, badgers, and rodents from the rock crevices and mounds of earth.

     Douglas believes he’s earned the right to be king of our household, working 24/7 to secure the property from any evil that lurks on the perimeter.  Squirrels, birds, rodents, plastic bags, and kites are on the top of his enemies’ list.  He’s especially vigilant when I grill meat on the barbeque.

     “Douglas,” I said, still trying to get his attention, “I noticed the Deer Hound was eating filet mignon at one of those New York restaurants.”

     I detected a hint of jealousy as he moved his head ever so slightly.  It’s because he has been threatening a hunger strike for the past couple of years.  At his mealtime ritual, he stops after a couple of steps and stares at the food bowl, and then looks up at Gretta and me as if to say, “Do I really have to eat this crap?”

     He continues to stage closer to the bowl, and eventually Pavlov’s theory becomes reality as Douglas finally starts crunching on the dry dog food.

     “Little guy, this food is supposed to be good for you,” Gretta tells him.  “It’s specially made to keep you fit and trim.”

     I inspected the bag of scientifically formulated dog food, and read some key information: “Precisely balanced nutrition for your dog’s special needs…Clinically proven antioxidants for a healthy immune system.”

     “You’d think this food would keep his allergies in check,” said Gretta.  Recently Douglas’ eyelids reddened and swelled without warning.  Gretta took him to the vet and to an eye-doctor specialist, and returned with a cadre of eye drops and pills.

     “I just don’t understand why the poor little guy has these allergies and conditions,” bemoaned Gretta.

     “Dogs are inherently unsanitary,” I responded.  “Have you noticed the places he sticks his nose when we take him for a walk?  Why, he’s killed squirrels, birds, and mice in our backyard.  Stuff happens.  I’m the one who gets to bag it up…what’s left of it.”

     Gretta looked at Douglas and continued to chorus, “Poor little guy.”


     The phone rang one day while Gretta was out running errands.


     “Mr. Larson?” asked the caller.


     “This is Dr. Johnson’s office,” she stated.  “We’re calling about Douglas.”

     Douglas was sleeping in his usual chair.  I couldn’t imagine why the vet was calling.

     “Is there something wrong?” I asked.

     “Dr. Johnson had a consultation with Douglas’ eye doctor, and they’ve concluded that Douglas should go on a special diet to see if it will clear up his allergies.  They want to start him on venison or duck formula for his nutrition.”

     I should be so lucky.  Fresh game sounds pretty fancy for a dog.  Where do they hunt these deer and fowl?  Sounds expensive.

     She continued, “If you and your wife are okay with the decision, we can have the new dog food ready to pick up tomorrow.”

     “My wife is out at the moment, but I’m sure she’ll want Douglas to try it out,” I responded.

     Douglas has won the hunger war. He’ll get new food, fit for a king.

     The next day, Gretta brought the new bag of special food into the house.

     “Douglas,” she said, “You have something new to eat…duck and potatoes!”

     She began to mix the new and the old food, following the veterinarian’s instructions to slowly convert Douglas to the new diet.  Otherwise, it would be too rich for him to digest.  Yeah, right.

     Douglas’ ears and tail were on high alert as he smelled the new formule pomme de terre et canard.  I actually detected a smile on his face, with his moist tongue anticipating the gourmet meal.

     There was no hesitation as he went for the bowl.  The food disappeared quickly.  He looked up to us wishing he could have more.

      "You’ll have to wait ‘til tomorrow,” said Gretta.  “But we can give you some pieces for a treat.”  She waited until he sat in his special place by the cabinets and gave him a piece of the new food.  He ate it like candy…something he would never do with his old food.

     I tried one of the little nuggets out of the bag.  It was gamey and had a bad aftertaste.  Based on Douglas’ love for the new food, I suspected the formula was designed more for his taste than mine.

     After eating his meal, he went to the front door to look out on the sidewalk action, school kids and dogs on leashes…anything that moved.

     “Douglas,” I said, “You are really lucky to live like a king.”

     He looked at me as if to say, “I’m not like a king. I AM king!”

Douglas sleeping on his throne.