By the end of 1959 the decision had been made to come home to Virginia. In early 1957 we had packed up the car and, with my grandmother in tow, drove across the continent to our new home in Los Angeles. My father had taken a job as a machinist at the Marquardt plant, where they used to make ramjet engines. Although the money was good and my parents had many friends, my father - an ever restless and dissatisfied soul - began to fret about my sister and I growing up in an urban world. With no points of reference to our Virginia roots, save for our beloved cousins who lived two blocks away, my father thought it best that we come back. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
Our plans to retrace our steps to Virginia assumed a new urgency in early 1960. Grandmother Sullivan had taken ill and her prospects were not good. The house in California had not yet sold, but my father wanted to see his mother one more time and to help his father deal with her imminent departure from this life. And so, leaving my mother behind in February that year to see to the sale of our house and to organize the transportation of us and our worldly goods, he drove home to Stafford at breakneck speed, hoping he would get there before his mother died. He did not. He later realized that she died while he was being issued a speeding ticket in Georgia.
Meanwhile, in all the hurly-burly of selling the house in California and packing our things, our little dog (whose name I no longer remember) was given to some nice people, since it was not possible to bring him with us when we made the trip in April. Many years later my mother told me how guilty she and the old man felt about doing that. Truth be told, I do not recall being irreparably harmed by his loss. But it did explain what happened soon after we were all reunited at the old Sullivan place.
One day, near my birthday in April 1960, my father came home and said he had something for me. He opened the door of the car and out jumped a tawny pup licking, barking and twirling about in frenzied excitement. I did not realize it fully then, but have since come to realize that as one of the best days I have ever lived.
My Grandfather Sullivan's house was located on Route 3 across the road from the two room Little Falls School, where my father attended as a boy and where I would go until the autumn of 1960. The house sat on a little knoll facing the school and a retaining wall ran down the driveway and partly across the front yard. Each afternoon Queenie - we named her that the day she came to us - sat on the little rise near the retaining wall and waited for me to cross the road and come home from school. Our routine was the same each afternoon. I would place my books on the retaining wall and grab Queenie in my arms, and together we would tumble down the little hill. On our way down she would tear at my shirt with her paws (My poor mother. We had no money for new clothes.) and bite my hands in mock anger. I still have the scars. Then she would bound up the hill and wait for me so that we could do it again.
By the fall of 1960 we moved to a house in Spotsylvania located at the end of Bernstein Drive near Five Mile Fork (Dr. Bernstein lived on that road then and treated our bumps and bruises). While we rented that house, my father and my uncle Rolf built the house we lived in until 1970. During this time Queenie became pregnant and my sister and I excitedly awaited the arrival of her puppies. When that time drew nigh, Queenie disappeared. I was concerned about this, as you can imagine, and asked my father what had happened, He explained to me that mama dogs would go hide some place safe to have their pups.
And so it was. A few days after she disappeared I could hear some grunting and crying under the tool shed near the house. Queenie had burrowed under the shed. The hole was just large enough for me to wriggle through and once I got under there I handed out, one by one, eight puppies.
Three of these would not make it and we gave away another four. A sturdy male, King, stayed with us when we moved to our new house on Old Plank Road in September 1961. And what a handful King turned out to be during his short time with us.
Our clothes line stood between the rear of our house and the barn. One wintry Sunday morning before church my mother had washed some laundry and hung it out to dry in the frigid air under an overcast and leaden sky. We left for church (Tabernacle Methodist, just a half mile west of our house) at ten and were home within minutes after the benediction and doxology at noon. By then it had begun to snow. The scene which met our disbelieving eyes as we pulled up the driveway elicited from my mother oaths and imprecations not heretofore heard by my sister or me. King and Queenie had snatched the laundry from the line and were gaily capering about in the snowy mud, the once clean clothes trailing behind them in their clenched teeth.
Bear in mind that before King came along, Queenie had been the ideal dog, even in my parents' eyes. But his rambunctiousness rubbed off on her and she followed his lead in mayhem and misdeeds.
Then there was this. King and Queenie began to harass Andrew Seay's cattle, which pastured in Mrs. Zechiel's field across the road from us (today this field is occupied by the Royal Oaks subdivision adjacent to Zoan Church). I remember seeing our dogs chase those beeves and nip at their hindquarters. After one such incident Queenie came home rather bruised and lame. We surmised that she had been stepped on or kicked by one of her victims. This was during cold weather, and for some time Queenie stayed on "her spot" by the kitchen door, where the pipes carrying hot water to the registers passed through the concrete floor. In due course she recovered and was her old self again. Below, Queenie and a friend are resting on her spot.
Not long after that King disappeared. His absence was of greater concern to my sister and me than to our parents. One day, as our school bus passed the house that once stood near the future entrance of Royal Oaks, we saw King chained to a stake in the yard. Our pleas to our parents for action were met with a benign indifference and soon thereafter the people who had occupied the house moved away, taking King with them.
Whatever grief Anne and I felt was shallow and short lived. We still had Queenie. In terms of understanding human speech, Queenie had quite a vocabulary. My mother used to cook breakfast for Anne and me while we were still sleeping. When it was time for us to get up she would say to Queenie "Go get the children." She would trot upstairs and go to each of our bedsides and lick our faces until we got up. If, on the other hand, it was necessary for only one of us to get up, Mom would say to Queenie "Go get Pat" and she would trot upstairs to my room and lick me awake. She would leave Anne alone.
As most young girls would do, my sister would dress up Queenie in baby clothes, including a little infant cap. These indignities Queenie would forebear with canine stoicism. Whatever Anne would do was fine with her.
Each afternoon Queenie would be waiting on the hillside as our bus came down Old Plank Road. For a time we believed that she did this because she could hear the bus coming. But I learned that her abilities were more subtle than we suspected.
When I was in the fifth grade I was visited with a case of measles. My grandmother stayed with me while I recuperated; at this time Anne was still going to school as usual. Queenie spent the days with me as I languished on the couch with my fever, my red spots and a taste of pennies in my mouth. Each afternoon, several minutes before the usual arrival time of the bus, Queenie became restless and walked to the kitchen door and whined until I let her out. She would then make her way to the hillside and patiently wait for the bus. She, and I suppose all dogs, have within them a highly accurate sense of time that keeps in synch with the rhythm of the day's events. For the rest of her life she was always waiting for us on that hill when we came home from school.
Queenie experienced the gamut of the same emotions that we felt, including embarrassment. She was not allowed on the upholstery and during the day she cheerfully abided by this rule of the house. However, each morning after my father turned off the alarm and walked down to the kitchen, there would be a warm depression on the couch covered in the tawny hairs of a dog whose name will not be mentioned here. Queenie would then stretch and yawn as if she was just woken up. If there were Oscars awarded to dogs...One morning my father woke up before the alarm sounded and stealthily crept down the stairs. There, still sleeping on the couch was a certain tawny haired dog. Queenie awoke with a start and slinked off the couch to her spot. She would not look at my father. Two hours later, when Anne and I got up, she still felt the shame of being caught and averted her eyes when we looked at her. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for her.
That night she was back on the couch.
Queenie was our furry sister. She did everything with Anne and me. She would go sledding with us. She would watch us play softball. Queenie would "defend" me when I would wrestle with my cousins or the neighbor boys. Unfortunately for them Queenie always took my side in these scuffles. Queenie used to place her chin on our laps and patiently wait for us to finish our cereal in the morning so that she could have the sugary milk in the bottom of the bowl.
|Joel, Queenie and myself|
The abandoned tracks of the old PF&P railroad ran through the woods alongside our property. There used to be a clearing in the woods near the tracks where Queenie and I would go on sunny afternoons and sit at the base of an oak tree there. Sometimes we would just quietly sit there for a time, listening to the birds and cicadas. Sometimes I would talk to her about my teenaged troubles and I could tell by the caring look of her brown eyes that she understood.
In the summer of 1970, shortly before I left for college, a day came when Queenie acted sore and bruised and would not move. It was like the time years before when she had gotten too close to the cattle she and King used to chase. But this time it was different. She would not eat or drink, even though we brought her dishes to where she lay. We kept waiting for her to get better.
I am an old man now. Queenie was the only dog I ever had; she spoiled me for any other dog I could have had. Forty four years after my father buried her in the woods behind our house, Queenie sometimes visits me at night when I am dreaming.
She is still sitting on the hillside, waiting for me.