You could say Donald McCaig lives a bit of a double life as a writer. While many people know him as a bestselling author of Southern historical fiction (he wrote the award-winning Jacob’s Ladder, as well as the official Gone with the Wind sequel, Rhett Butler’s People), there is a no less devoted audience for his remarkable tales of raising and working with sheepdogs. The University of Virginia Press published A Useful Dog in 2007, and this spring we will be bringing out McCaig’s latest book, Mrs. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies. In the meantime, McCaig has offered us a new piece, about a sheepdog named Fly.
My sister Carol’s husband Steve was diagnosed with lung cancer and subsequently had a mini-stroke, fell and broke his replacement hip. I hadn’t visited Seattle since the 2005 Oregon Finals and was past due.
Against my better judgment I’d take Fly. She’d only just begun to trust me and I couldn’t guess how she’d take busy airport terminals and the black roaring cargo hold. Last time she flew she came out of her crate and nailed her handler’s hubby. How would Fly take a small Seattle house full of strangers, quick-moving dog-ignorant toddlers, not to mention the TSA handlers who must get the dog out of the crate to check for dog crate bombs? Fly doesn’t always want to come out of her crate. She’s bit. Hell, she’s bit me.
So: avoid layovers where a well-intentioned airline worker might let (or drag) Fly out of her crate. Nearest FFM (frequent flyer miles) Delta non-stop was Atlanta, eight hours from home.
Since I didn’t know the Atlanta airport, and some airports don’t have porters or SmartCarts, I packed four crate wheels in my bag and a folding trekking pole/faux crook. Surely you don’t think I’d fly across the country without entering a couple sheepdog trials!
In Atlanta I found a La Quinta where I could leave my car and take their shuttle to the airport next a.m.
Atlanta has porters—WHEW—and grateful Donald followed same to the ticket counter, where Fly’s crate was festooned with animalesque warnings, before rolling to security. Fly jumped out and the TSA guy checking the crate for doggy bombs says how well behaved she was while I’m thinking “You ain’t been bit yet, Buddy.”
Okay. Fly jumps back in, crate is ziptied, porter’s tipped. Going through security, my Stetson gets stuck in the x-ray, which amuses the x-rayers. Ha, ha.
I try to find someplace in the departure lounge where I can’t hear toothy TV hosts telling me (a) what I know or (b) don’t care to. As I board I ask the stewardess to notify me when my dog is loaded. Plane gets ready. Plane cross checks. Stewardess tells me my two dogs are loaded. I say Fly is one dog. She repeats my two dogs are loaded. I hope Fly is one of them.
There are three dogs waiting with the oversized luggage in Seattle. One’s Fly. When Carol and Steve arrive, Fly comes out of her crate wagging. Seems no different than when she went in.
Seattle is green and moldy, with only occasional cars on 39th Avenue where Fly and I walk. Fly sticks her nose to the earth and draws in essence of Pacific Northwest. Pine scented mildew? I call her in when she ventures into somebody’s back yard. Steve uses a walker but is cheerful. Carol’s never been anything but. Their (setter?) mix Sheila doesn’t like having another bitch in their small house but lives with it.
Next afternoon, Steve’s got an appointment with the cancer docs, so I make dinner. Turns out, the news is unexpectedly good—his lung cancer’s in remission. That magic word is all we talk about. When my niece Jennifer comes over with riot kids Lars and Hank, it’s Remissions-R-Us. It’s a word with resonance and persistence. Fly is upstairs in her crate, so the kids go home unbit.
* * *
Next morning, 6 a.m., I set off in Steve’s pickup for the Kirschgessner SDT—one of the Washington Association of Stockdog Handlers (W.A.S.H.) winter trial series—informal, no payback. I’d forgotten to feed Fly, so she gets half my bacon egg & cheese, so we’re both hungry. The GPS delivers us to an old-fashioned Washington homestead—a dugout root cellar, numerous small barns, plenty of firewood, the biggest oldest, well maintained apple trees I’ve ever seen. It’s frosty but the hosts have coffee and “warmies” (little chemical hand warmers) for the handlers. I talk to sheepdoggers I’ve met before: Diane Pagel and that courtly gent who course directs the Finals. I meet local handlers, some I’d heard about, others not. Jack Knox was judging. I hadn’t seen Jack since his fine runs last fall, and when I congratulated him he credited his dog, as Jack is wont to do. At the handler’s meeting Jack lectured us handlers on proper shepherding (as he is wont to do). The sheep were Scottish blackies and cheviot crosses in heavy fleece. The course was short, maybe a 250-yard outrun, with a long drive and very long crossdrive. Split, pen, shed. I didn’t have my trial watch but carried my new foldable crook.
Anyway—Fly’s outrun was fine, lift fine, but she didn’t hold pressure on the fetch and missed the panels. Silly drive and cross-drive—missed both panels; she refused my whistles and I didn’t want to go to voice. Inbye, we easily got our split and I had them in the pen but pressed too hard and they broke out again. I’d rather our mistake were mine. When I came off, Carol and Steve were there with their friends Jim and Dorothy Dechane. They admired Fly and informed her she’d done good and Fly agreed. We had lunch at the Dechanes’. Jim had been Steve’s boss at the Seattle PD. Jim’s now an apiarist. We talked about bees and geezer ailments. Remission is a powerful word.
That evening my niece Katie visited with boyfriend Steve and toddler Kayden. Steve, who’d worked on Alaskan fishing boats in deadly weather, was a little nervous with retired-cop father and visiting uncle/writer. Kayden zoomed around singing. Fly stayed upstairs in her crate.
Next a.m., I remember to feed Fly, so the breakfast sandwich is mine, mine, mine. Off I-5, I see signs for Centralia Washington, where in 1919 American Leqion strikebreakers attacked an IWW picnic. Nine dead.
The trial is in a field behind the Roy (pop 300?) rodeo grounds. Fairly big field but very icy—the right-hand outrun is a no-go sheet of ice and there’s so much ice on the fetchline, the hosts have set up a dogleg nearly perpendicular to the usual fetch line.
I don’t think so. Maybe if I could send right and down Fly properly, I could convince Fly this is A WEIRD DRIVE, but I can’t send over no-go ice. Still, I must make an attempt. The judge would be right to DQ anyone who didn’t try.
Not to worry. Nobody else is coming anywhere near that dogleg fetch panel.
Fly’s sheep fetch straight and hit ice. One goes down and I hold my breath until she finds her feet and comes on. Four horn hair sheep—Kathadin? St Croix?—they’ve been much dogged, so the pen’s a gimme but the shed isn’t. When they try to come ’round the wrong side of the post, I whack the ground with my folding crook, which promptly folds. The sheep are ASTONISHED. How can I threaten them with a noodle? To sheep, apparently a noodle’s as good as a crook, and they go ‘round properly. Fly is only taking her whistles half the time, so I change to whistle/voice. At the cross-drive panels we have one of those panel moments when I need frantic last minute fixes, but Fly takes my fast commands willingly and they go through. Nice line from panel to pen, Fly’s too far back so I put them in and bang the pen shut. In the shedding ring they split a couple times 2/2 before we get our single and I’m sucking for air like a deflated balloon. Since we’re the first to get our shed we get applauded.
When I come off, Niece Jenny, her toddlers, and husband Andy have arrived. Toddlers less riotous away from Grandma’s house. Fly meets the toddlers and it goes well, but Fly’s a bit too interested: Maybe she wants to start a daycare center?
A handler recommends a local café, where we take a table in the banquet room. The Seahawks have an important game and the TV is in the banquet room, so pretty soon patrons, cooks, busboys, and waitresses come in to gasp, groan, and cheer. Andy’s eyes flicker away from my wonderful stories of sheepdog trials.
That night we go out to Rays Boathouse, where splendid salmon is garnished with chopped Brussels sprouts, onion, and fennel. We drink a little too much wine and reminisce about family.
2:45 a.m., rise and pack. Fly knows I’m leaving and is underfoot. 3:45 the car service picks us up in a big town car. Fly sprawls across the plush leather seat for a belly scratch.
At the airport, a young country couple—she’s pregnant—take turns wiggling fingers inside their dog’s crate. She tells me, “This is my second airplane flight.” I say the dog will be okay, that Delta has done right by my dogs. “He’s one year old,” she says. “We love him.”
A porter comes and as we roll down the cavernous departure lounge, the dog’s shrill barks draw eyes and some unnecessary remarks. I tell the girl that terriers bark. It’s what they do. Aha, that’s why the wiggling fingers—to distract the dog.
At security they pluck the terrier out of the crate and coo while the TSA guy peers under their crate towel. Fly comes out off leash and waits. The porter informs the couple that gratuities are accepted. The flustered girl blurts, “But we don’t have any money!” When I hand over a couple fives the porter, who is nearly as embarrassed as the girl, says, “This’ll cover both.”
Next day 4:30 am, pouring rain, on I-77 in Atlanta, my right windshield wiper collides with my left wiper and they hug. Froze. Blind, I set the blinkers and ease onto the shoulder. I carry a toolkit, but it’s too wet and black for auto mechanics. I get out, get soaked, and disentangle the wipers. Back inside, I whisper a prayer and turn them back on. Although the passenger wiper doesn’t work, the driver’s wiper does, so I drive home. It stops raining six hours later.
When she jumps out on the farm, Fly is delirious with joy. In her seven years she’s had six owners, six homes, six packs, six familiar places. When she left home she never knew if she was coming back. She’s worked a hill lambing, she’s faced down stroppy rams and ewes with newborns. She’s worked in snow and ice. She’s been a tool, sometimes treasured, sometimes beaten—for what she never knew.
A couple days later I went to the UVA Press, who will publish Mr. & Mrs. Dog (Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies) this March. The Seattle trip has almost decided me to try Fly as my “literary dog” for interviews, readings, and book signings. The literary dog is TV camera bait and gives people who attend these events someone interesting to talk to. Being “literary dog” is no treat. Days of fast travel, odd-tasting water, a zillion strangers, cameras in one’s face, slippery floors, inadequate exercise, and where’s the sheep, the grass, the woods, my pack?
Sheepdogs can and do turn down the job. When Silk 2 took her first look at three hundred people in an auditorium she scrambled inside the speaker’s podium atop the sound system, and as I babbled about sheepdogs, of Silk my readers saw only the very tip of her tail.
The Press offices are a house on the edge of campus, and when we came in, Fly vanished down the hall and I heard surprised human cries. She checked out offices and located those who had dog treats on their persons. My editor, Boyd Zenner, has Rottweilers, and when Fly greeted her Boyd took Fly’s head in her hands and pulled her ears and ignored her growls and put her hand in Fly’s mouth and they had a grand time doing what I usually forbid.
Trust is a two-way street.
When Fly joined our pack two years ago, she was the strangest sheepdog I’ve ever met. She’d run back to the house, she bit people—including me—and the fine trial dog who’d worked a Scottish hill lambing wouldn’t work sheep. Even when she decided—and it was her decision—to trust her new life; even after she became the best farm dog I’ve ever owned, she refused to do her best at sheepdog trials. Now, she’s decided to give them another chance. We weren’t right at either Washington trial, but she stayed with me when things got tough and got around the Roy Trial. We’ve got further but we’re closer than we were.
I’m not a dog trainer. I don’t teach my dogs to down and stay and come and don’t poop or pee in the house. My pack expects those manners and it doesn’t take most dogs long to learn them. I never taught Fly to lie quietly at my feet while Emily, the Publicity Manager, and I were planning Mr. & Mrs. Dog’s book tour.
Fly has learned to trust me. Now, I must learn to trust her—trust that the dog who has bitten won’t bite again—even when a civilian does something weird. I must trust that if I continue to hone our sheepdog skills, she will give everything she has at trials. Saying “Away to me” isn’t the same as “Away to me maybe-you-will-maybe-you-won’t.”
What a long strange trip she’s been.
My thanks to Lynne Green, Judy Norris and W.A.S.H for two thoroughly enjoyable trials. Thanks to Diane Pagel for introducing me to new handlers and some fine dogs (many out of her Tess). Thanks to all of you for welcoming my family who commented afterwards how friendly everybody’d been.
See you on down the road.
Donald McCaig’s Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies will be published in March.