What is that intriguing little horseless carriage in the photo? Its been erronously said to be a common tricycle. Not so. It is the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. This marvel is the world’s first production automobile, the first vehicle designed to be propelled by an internal combustion engine.
Bertha Benz, wife, mother, and lively mind, financed the motorwagen’s development process. She also was determined that it would be noticed by the wider world. She gathered her two teenaged boys and drove it on the first long distance road trip. Imagine heading out onto wagon ruts, determined to reach her childhood home. The motorwagen did not have gears that could propel it up hills so the boys would get off and push it. The carburetor clogged; Bertha cleaned it up with her hat pin. She used a garter to insulate wire and she fueled it with ligroin, a substance bought from a local pharmacy. The brakes wore down so she rolled up to a shoemaker. She asked him to nail leather on the brake blocks, thus inventing brake linings.
I examine the black spoked wheels of the mini motorwagen. The metal against my fingertips brings memories. First I see in my mind my brother Frank’s sporty little Spyder automobile. Just out of high school, he packed a bag, grabbed his Newfoundland dog and headed cross country. That black dog barely fit into the front seat! First south then East, through the Cascade mountains, then Eastern Washington’s dryer sagebrush country and into the colder Tamarack and pine country of Idaho and its steep mountain pass, rolling toward Montana. The pair’s destination was Saint Paul, Minnesota. Before brother reached Mom and I, one of the Spyder’s steel spoked wheels blew. Small town Montana did not have English car parts on their shelves so they spent three days waiting for a new tire to arrive.
What is it about being freed from high school classrooms and halls? Around that time I struggled through my final year. A young co-worker came home with my Mom one afternoon. We got to talking and between us dreamed up an excursion. A bicycle excursion. First of all, neither of us had a bicycle that was more than just a muscle and pedal machine- no speeds to assist us on strenuous hills. Something in the both of us needed to head out, to be free of older, demanding adults. Mom’s co-worker, Mary, agreed to hop onto a one speed, not that sturdy bike. I had a newer, sturdier bike- again, one speed. What did we agree to do on that afternoon? That the following Saturday, even if there were rain, hail, and tornadoes, we’d head to Stillwater, Wisconsin. That destination was a thirty mile distant spot on the map. We’d heard that our route would be back roads threading through farm country. We’d studied a map. Of course we hadn’t seen mention of long, leg crunching hills on the paper. Stillwater is a town on the Saint Croix river. We did make that journey. At one point we steered around a turtle. We ate squashed sandwiches and stopped at a farmhouse, bravely inquiring whether we could have a drink of water. That farm’s driveway was long, the question only asked due to our deep need. We made it back to my St. Paul home after dark. By then we were dampened by an evening shower. Exhausted but delighted with our crazy journey, we slept well that night.
Yes, one small model rains memories on my head. The old Dodge pickup that brothers drove to the county dump, the red Farmall tractor that Dad cut hay with, the dirt bikes, even the banana seat Schwinn that first taught me the thrill of wind in my snarled hair. Propulsion, human ingenuity, the wonder of mechanical parts fitting together perfectly. I hear the tick tick of Bertha Benz’s combustion engine, I hear it brought to me via our modern wizard, the computer.
We were in what passed for downtown. So far we’d been lucky with the snowfall. Little had been felt this year before New Years day which it was right now, that generally meant we’d have our major dumps in January and Feb. For now though, It looked like just another chilly day, rife for walking.
We’d set off from our rather modest house; a repo purchased for sixty thou, to this meagre remains of a business district. Objective? Have something hot and oily at the local Thai restaurant. We’d walked because the air was brisk and we feared the dulling effects of loitering around in stagnant air, or over-reliance on the Toyota Echo for mobility.
Standing now in front of Thai Cuisine, Eleanor read “Closed for New Year. Please have a safe and warm meal with family and friends.”
“Goddamnit!” I expostulated. “I know they’re closed for Oriental New Year. You’d think they could be open for our holiday!” I’d clamped my cane under my arm, preparatory to opening the restaurant’s door but now deployed it for further walking.
“Well,” Eleanor said “I don’t want to eat at Lynn’s. That place turns everything into a greaseball!”
Grease balls just now were sounding to me much better than total starvation, but my belly sometimes can be melodramatic. It was then that she noticed the dog.
“Oh baby,” Eleanor said. “Did you get lost?” The dog walked up to me, bumped against my knees, presented a rather large head to my hand. Feeling the top of the head I finger-traced the shark ridge atop and the bifurcation leading to each eye ridge. Lab or at least a mix. I patted the proffered brow. “Hi Sweetie,” I said. A long tongue came out, lolloping my hand.
“She’s so sweet,” Eleanor echoed what I was thinking. “Somebody must care about her.” I felt the head shaking to accompany the wagging of a very long tail.
“So,” I said “We’re not getting dinner here. What else is in walking distance?”
“That Mexican place,” Eleanor said. “And that other Chinese restaurant across the street that always takes about a hundred years and serves you only one thing at a time.”
“Dubious,” I decided. “Our friend here,” I patted the dog atop her shark-fin ridge, “Needs to eat too.” The dog seemed to nod as I said this.
Some folks don’t appear to know this but when confronted by a stray dog on New Year’s Day it’s really bad luck not to feed it. Bad luck accrues to anyone who is unkind or stingy to any animal any day of the year of course, but the new year definitely magnifies things, kind of double-dutch Karma if you can handle that.
“I guess we could make it to Jack in the box,” Eleanor suggested. “We could get a plain burger for her, maybe a bag of fries.”
“Suits,” I said. “I think there’s a Congressional mandate that JITB is open for on all federal holidays.”
“I feel sorry for those workers, though,” Eleanor said.
I did too but not quite as bad as I felt for my depleted belly.
Reaching the Jack in the Box drive-in, Eleanor started reading off the choices on the billboard as soon as we got into perusing range. “Chicken nuggets,” she sang out. The dog was walking along sort of pressed to my right knee. I felt this sidewise waggle.
“She’s shaking her head no,” I announced.
Eleanor laughed. “Well how about a Jumbo Jack?” she said. The dog seemed to be describing yes on my pant-leg. “I think we’re getting warmed,” I said. “She seems to approve.” I thought about it a moment then inquired, “How do we know she’s a she anyhow?”
“She looks like a girl,” Eleanor decreed. The dog nodded her head.
“You’re not supposed to walk up to the drive-in,” the barely legal Jack’s crew-member gargled through the speaker. “You gotta come in.”
“I’m not allowed to drive,” I told her. “Besides, I’ve got a dog.”
She seemed to take a while processing this.
“Hello?” I said.
“Order please?” she said.
As it turned out, we all got Jumbo jacks and two orders of fries to share. It was walking weather but not at all sitting weather so we decided to find a dumpster to stand beside and eat standing up. We carefully spread our friend’s portions including ample fries atop the bag on the cement. Dogs eat incredibly fast and this one was no exception. She was done much sooner than we.
“Well, good-bye, friendly dog,” I said, folding up my wrapper and sliding it into my side of the dumpster. We took turns patting that Labrador head.
“Go find your mama and daddy,” Eleanor coaxed as we turned toward home. Like suction cups on a sink mirror though, The Dog kept contact with my right leg and followed us.
You need to go home,” Eleanor repeated with some urgency in her voice. No response from our new friend and continuing companion.
We increased our pace but of course nobody can outrun a dog and she kept right along, jowl against my jeans.
“Where do you live?” Eleanor tried again, her voice gone plaintive.
“I could ask the same of you,” the dog said without rancour.
“Are you shitting around with me?” Eleanor demanded, looking me-ward.
“Wouldn’t even consider it,” I protested. “It was you, wasn’t it, Girl?”
“Let’s get home,” the dog said. “I’m tired of this cold cement and I’m only about half full.” With an intro like that, who could do other than invite our friend home?
“Something I’ve always wanted to know,” I asked. “Do dogs have names for themselves? I mean do you just soak up whatever we humans hand you or is there some other name we never know about?”
“Names,” said the dog “are as much a matter of odour as they are sounds. We don’t use a special bark for one another say. We pretty much just know one another. The name thing is totally a human deal.”
“Well,” I said, “would it be too forward to ask what name you might have? I mean, were you given a name by anyone else–some human?”
“You could sniff my butt if you’re really interested in my identity,” the dog said, sounding matter-of-fact about it.
“Oh,” I said, “maybe later.”
“Yeah,” said the dog. “so far as the human moniker thing goes, I got one of those hung on me a while back. It’s Leah.”
“Leah?” Eleanor said then. “That’s a nice name.”
“A family I was with for a while had a female child named Rachel and there seemed to be something really humorous about me being named Leah while she was Rachel.” Leah said. “Some sorts of humour deal I’ll probably never get.”
“So,” Eleanor took over again, “You’ve had a home?”
“Yes, several,” Leah,” said. “In each case it didn’t really work out.”
“Work out?” Eleanor repeated, “Were they cruel to you, poor thing?”
“Not cruel necessarily,” Leah said. “Just inattentive, more than anything else.” She was silent for a few beats then “You know,” she said, I’ve been looking for you two for quite a while now.”
“You have?” I asked. “How come?”
“Several reasons,” Leah said. “You’ve got all the right visuals, you’ve got on what look like secondhand clothes, neither of you smell all of cosmetics and the like. You’re walking while everyone else is driving. Mostly though, we’re talking. I guess I’ve never really gotten over that hurdle before.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I can see that’d be a problem.”
“Rather,” Leah said. “The first person I tried it with dove head-first into a bottle then kept me up all night jabbering about not much of anything at all. Next morning he gave me a steak bone and showed me out the door. Next one, a woman thought she was having a psychotic melt-down and called for an ambulance. I ended up in a van destined for the local animal shelter. I was a bit of a while escaping from that. The two of you just stand here talking with a dog like nothing’s particularly unusual.”
“Yeah?” Leah inquired, “but do you spend any time listening to what they have to say back?”
“Mmm,” I said, “I guess we would if they said anything. I assume we’ve been proving that point for the last five minutes or so.”
In a seeming change of subject Leah said “To be really sure, I need to have a look around your home. I perceive we’re close.”
“To be sure of what?” I demanded, “and how would you know where we live. Have you been shadowing us?”
“You walk a lot,” Leah explained. “Your scents are all over the place.”
“So,” Eleanor said “are you planning to stay a while or what?”
“We’ll see,” Leah said. “First though we’ll talk some more.”
Coming to the edere of our rather generous yard, only 60 feet along the front sidewalk, owerging rearward to nearly twice that; “Hey a ball!” Leah bark-shouted. Leaving my side, she was back in a moment with a ball meant for horses but managed handily by Sally our Blue Heeler. Leah dropped it against my shoe. “Toss this for it me a few times will you?” she asked.
I obliged, lofting the thing by its carry handle across the yard. Panting and growling playfully Leah intercepted the ball on the fly, bringing it back to fall at my feet. After a half dozen cycles Leah let go of the bully-ball. “Thanks,” she said, “Couldn’t resist that. Guess it’s in the genes, sort of like F-ing up the ecosphere is in yours?”
“Say what?” Eleanor and I said together.
“Do you know how many trees we’ve planted, how many low on the food chain meals we’ve eaten, how many times we’ve turned the thermostat down, refused to use an air conditioner? We compost, recycle, as you pointed out we wear hand me over clothes!” Eleanor ran out of steam, stood spluttering.
“Yeah,” I said, “What she said.”
“I know, I know,” Leah raised a paw, letting it fall on my knee. Your hearts are in the right place. That’s why I’m talking to you, not your neighbour over there,” she nosed left, “with the ride-on lawnmower or your other neighbour,” she nosed right, “with cement over most of his yard.”
From inside Sally was setting off her customary flurry of barking. She’d have been out here with us hadn’t we planned to go to a sit-down restaurant dinner. “Sounds like somebody I should meet,” Leah said.
“Sally,” I said. “Well come on in and get acquainted.”
Leah bowed slightly. “Charmed I’m sure,” she said. We had the expected log-jam in the open doorway, Sally and Leah sniffing each other, engaging in mock combat.
“Girls!” Eleanor barked in her turn. “In or out!” The two dogs melted away into the living room, sprawling companionably on the rug.
“Sally,” I said. “Can you talk too?”
Sally made a low rumbling noise. “She says she generally doesn’t have anything to say,” Leah explained. “Besides it’s so much cuter to do the charades thing to let you know what she wants.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve heard that line before.” I bent way down, patting Sally’s head, feeling a little self-conscious in doing so. Was I being patronizing, or did Leah expect a pat too?
“Now” I asked, “what’s this about us ruining the environment. By the way, do you want anything more to eat?”
After Sally and our guest had shared some kibble (buffalo and sweet potato with blueberry) out of separate dishes and water out of a common bowl, Leah belched, excused herself. Sally belched, not nearly so loud, looked to us for affirmation, said nothing. “It’s the carbon you know,” Leah declared.
“You mean greenhouse effect?” Eleanor inquired, “all that?”
“All that,” Leah agreed. “So much of that stuff in the air that you could build many buildings out of it each year. Eleven hundred billion tons per year.”
“So,” Eleanor said, “We go to hybrid cars. We put solar cells on the roof. We minimize our carbon footprint any way we can.”
“Not enough though,” our guest growled.
“Well what else is there,” I snapped, back getting a bit pissed at this superior pooch.
“New ways of thinking,” the dog said. “Live in greenhouses in which you reclaim water, releasing latent heat, pulling CO2 out of the air you breathe. All sorts of complicated chemistry to make the air clean again. Mostly though, band together with likeminded people!”
“You’re an alien aren’t you?” Eleanor accused.
“No more than you are,” Leah reposted.
“But why are you telling us all this stuff?” Eleanor plead. “We already know what’s wrong. We’re saving up to do what we can for the environment. We’re getting a Prius next year. What else can we do?”
“There’s a number on my collar,” Leah declared. She got up came over to where I was standing. “Here, feel.” I touched the modest band of leather and it’s appended tag, feeling rather intrusive though I’d been given permission. There were engravings in the leather, vertical strokes and what might be arrows downward pointing.
“A phone number?” Eleanor wondered bending next to me to examine the markings. “It’s all in roman numerals.”
“Right,” Leah said. “You recognized the eights didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” She said. Then to me, “see, VIII VIII, VIII–”
Once started it was easy to follow, “V,V,V,,” I took over. “I, I, IV.”
“See?” Leah put in. “Most people would just blow it off as some sort of artwork.”
“So we’re to call this number?” my wife asked, rising again.
“If you want to find other imaginative folks,” Leah told her, “People with the imagination to talk to a dog.”
Leah dropped then into dog conversational mode. She and Sally demanded outside, went sniffing about the yard, playing tug of war with Sally’s rope. After sharing silence with one another for quite a while I called the number.
A neutral gender voice asked me if we owned our home, yes. Did either of us have a technical degree? Yes. How did we find out about this number? Yeah, I told the truth.
Now we’re involved with a not quite secret but shadowy project, globe-spanning, with support from off-planet but locally administered. We’ve bought into a sort of Habitat For Humanity on steroids, building houses which help clean the air, recycling food, water, materials. In the high mountains of Ecuador a catapult is being constructed to fling rock into space where processing facilities will refine silicon for printing solar cells. We’ve found all sorts of uses for pure carbon and economic incentives for mining it out of the atmosphere. We pretty much ignore the governments, especially our own. Most of our representatives are more focussed on staying in office than working global change and how could it be otherwise?
As Arthur C. Clarke said, projects of this magnitude need to be funded by the century not by the fiscal year.
Once things got started, and that was long before we joined, a critical mass was reached then the process snowballed.
When The Donald and his ducklings, notice us now and then and quack about just why we think we’re so smart, we tell them, “Next time a dog talks to you, listen why don’t you?”
Sharp shinned weeds dangle possibles against my low shoes coyote scat neighbors with wasp bitten pears the feral fruit constellations fallen to earth another Samhain pooling close time pieces tick and tack my sweater my misshapen collar bone a remembrance gathered and got: breathe it in and slowly pause it along the channel.
If you want to read a rather spine chilling tale that has twists up until the end, check out this new and improved offering from Glynda.
A blind University student, doing a Gender Studies program, decides to see how life looks through a woman’s eyes. So he takes on a new persona and boards a Greyhound, bound for a conference in Seattle. On the way, he meets a new friend… who is not all that she seems, but is also more!
Find out what happens next in the first installment of the Chris McSweeney Carlson series.
Do you find yourself yearning for polite discourse instead of heated battle when the subject of politics comes up? Do you remember when we could discuss things as ideas instead of simplistic views of good versus evil? When people of different political leanings could actually be friends?
Prepare yourself, then, for a refreshing journey to yesteryear.
“Green Pastures of Plenty,” by Dave Plassman, is not your usual partisan harangue. It is a breath of fresh air, a short but to the point exploration of the fundamental issues we all face in common. The goal is to find a “radically centrist” viewpoint and a rational way to arrive at solutions that benefit everyone. This fine little book is available on Amazon, reasonably priced in electronic and print forms, and is one that truly deserves to be spread far and wide.
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