Hey, Barnum and Bailey, can you use another clown?
I’m going to put a bar in my car and drive myself to drink.
There’s no use running if you’re on the wrong road.
You can’t make a heel toe the line.
I wouldn’t take you to a dog fight even if I thought you could win.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been so good.
I’ve closed my eyes to the cold hard truth I’m seeing.
You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
—From a 1980 Washingtonian piece about good country music song titles; it put together by Larry Sons and Doug Todd. At the time, Sons was a Dallas advertising executive and Todd was public relations director of the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1982 I asked a very good Washington newspaper journalist if he was interested in writing the Washingtonian’s back page column. He had written some lively center-of-the-book pieces for us and we always wanted that last page in the magazine to be the equivalent of a great dessert after a good meal. As a bonus, he had a wonderful sense of humor; people who can write funny are not easy to find in Washington.
The note I got back from him:
I have been away, to the beach and to work on an out-of-town story, and am just getting to your letter. Your back-page column, which I like a lot, has had a cranky tone, and I always figured it was you making up for being so benign in your public self. I am really pleased to be considered, but I just can’t take it on.
I will be sorry, I know, when I am not young and pretty any more and am not in demand for minor-league television all the time. Happily, a portion of the public cannot tell the minor leagues from the big leagues, and I keep getting chances to make speeches for fees that finally are paying off college loans, deferred tuitions, mortgages, and the first good car I ever owned.
In this flush of disorganized travel and self-importance, I am barely getting any work done for the paper. Fifty-one speeches I did last year (all the same speech, too). So, I can’t do it now but would like to be considered sometime in the future.
He continued to juggle his newspaper job, a weekly talking heads television show, and his many speaking engagements, mostly at colleges, until he comfortably retired. The magazine’s back page now is a First Person piece that allows Washingtonians, not all of them journalists, to tell a good 600-word story about something in their lives.
Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson, longtime Baltimore Sun journalist and frequent contributor to the Washingtonian, writing in the American Scholar:
The long tradition of newspaper people doing their jobs in terrible circumstances
By Ernest B. Furgurson | July 6, 2018
When my son Pat was still waking up after open-heart surgery three years ago, he said, “Call Rob and tell him I’m okay.” Rob wasn’t his father, mother, or sibling. Day by day, he was closer than that. He was Pat’s editor.
On a small newspaper a good editor is much like a minor league coach or the sergeant of an infantry squad, guiding and inspiring an overworked, underpaid, close-knit group that does its job every day and then wakes up the next day to do the job all over again. In Pat’s 19 years at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, the paper’s ownership has changed twice and its staff has been cut again and again. The smaller the crew, the closer the bond.
Then, suddenly, at 2:33 p.m. on June 28, 2018, Pat’s colleagues Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith were gone, murdered not for what they had done but for who they were, newspaper people doing their job.
Pat, returning from a late lunch after a doctor’s appointment, was spared purely by luck. Apparently the murderer swung his shotgun at his victims desk by desk in the newsroom, and Pat’s desk was next. At first police held him and other Capital staffers across the street as they swept the building, even as reporters from networks and other papers swarmed the scene. Then he was out among them, reporting on his fallen friends and for them, too busy for shock. He and his colleagues set up shop with their laptops in the back of his pickup truck, doing their job.
It’s what you do.
As a born newspaperman, I have always been bemused by legends about how worthy papers great and small respond to emergencies. Writing Civil War history, I came to admire the little-remembered Gamaliel Bailey, who edited abolitionist papers in the North before starting another not far from the Capitol in Washington in 1847. His prospectus for The National Era stated that “the great aim of the paper will be a complete discussion of the Question of Slavery … not for the triumph of Party, but for the establishment of Truth.” A year later, a pro-slavery mob attacked his office, imprisoning the editor and his printers for three days. Undeterred, Bailey kept on publishing, and three years later ran a serial by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Stowe met Lincoln a decade later, he is famously said to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Right, but who serialized it?
The Great Baltimore Fire began at 10:50 on Sunday morning, February 7, 1904, and in 14 hours would destroy most of downtown. Inside the cast-iron, “fireproof” Baltimore Sun building, reporters, editors, and printers labored on, counting on the structure to withstand the storm. But that night, approaching flames heated the iron walls until they started buckling. Management ordered everyone out, raising protests from the city room, composing room, and press deck, where men (they were all men in those days) were determined to keep working.
Within hours, Sun editors, printers, and the whole operation were aboard a chartered train to Washington, where they took over the shop of the Evening Star, which didn’t publish on Sundays. As the paper’s centennial history boasted, “The Sun, in those days, was not a paper to get excited and descend to indecorum, even in the presence of a fire that was destroying the heart of Baltimore. It got out no extra, but devoted itself to preparing a full report for early next morning, with all names spelled precisely right and no essential fact forgotten. The other papers published extras, but not the imperturbable Sun.”
The Baltimore Sun Media Group now includes the Annapolis Capital.
Forty-four years ago, the weekly Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, was living up to the slogan next to its nameplate: “It Screams!” The paper crusaded so vigorously against abusive coal companies and official sleaze that some of the local powers tried to burn it out of business. The designated arsonist largely botched the job, but when my friend the owner/editor Tom Gish announced that he would publish on schedule the following week, the police chief dropped by and tacked a “condemned” notice to the building.
Somebody asked Tom if that meant he’d have to stop publishing. “No,” he said. “No, you just never quit.” Without hesitating, he and his co-editor wife moved the Eagle to the front porch and all over their house. Family members worked with friends who flew in from afar, reporting, typing, laying out pages, pasting them up, and then driving the whole thing up the road to the next county to be printed. That first homemade issue bore a freshly revised slogan: “It Still Screams,” and the Eagle still does.
Then there are stories like Will Irwin’s performance in the hours when the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire were destroying much of the city and knocking out telegraph lines to the rest of the world. Back east at the New York Sun, Irwin wrote a six-column descriptive account of what must have been happening, block by block, as if he were there in the beloved city where he had once lived. (Will was the uncle of my late and cherished friend Don Irwin, longtime Washington correspondent for the old New York Herald-Tribune and Los Angeles Times. It’s in the blood.)
You can track these tales back centuries, discovering generations of newspaper people doing their jobs in the face of fire and fury. That tradition lured many of them into the business and has held them there despite all. But most of those heroic tales are about material crises or public crimes, and often end with well-earned congratulations. Annapolis and the readers of the Capital are mourning losses more real than buildings, more painful than court cases could ever be. Those who worked beside Rob, Wendi, Gerald, Johnny Mack, and Rebecca lost comrades-in-arms. How could they honor such companions?
That terrible day, a reporter from The New York Times asked Pat if the Capital would publish the next morning.
“Hell, yes,” he said.
Ernest B. Furgurson is a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and has written six books of history and biography, including, most recently, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War
Despite starting in journalism with United Press International—competing with the Associated Press, hating t0 get beat by the AP, fighting for survival against the AP—and being in Washington for 50 years, avidly reading the Washington Post and New York Times, I’ve come around to starting the day by first looking at the AP News app, then checking it four or five times as the day goes on.
The AP site is not very exciting. It’s pretty much just a good, balanced look at the world, an alternative to the celebrity-driven, conflict-driven, clickbait-driven stories that dominate digital journalism and are changing print journalism.
The AP site may be so good and balanced because it’s a news cooperative with members all over the country with 3.200 journalists around the world.
The rest of the news? As more and more of it comes out of New York and Washington, with journalists in those two cities tending to see the world in the same big city way, a case can be made that being spread out geographically helps the AP see things more clearly. While the Times and the Post sometime tell readers “our reporter spent a week in Wisconsin taking an in-depth look at…” the AP has long had bureaus in Milwaukee and Madison with journalists who know the state getting feedback from all over the state.
The problem of big city journalism losing touch with much of the country has been coming. As a magazine editor in Washington, I interviewed and helped mentor probably 600 or 700 interns. Many came from top colleges and saw journalism as more interesting and exciting than business or law.
Talking with young journalists about how to get ahead I usually suggested they get some experience at a non-metro newspaper where they could develop their reporting skills and learn how to cover a police beat, a city council meeting, write some obits. You learn to be a good reporter by doing it.
A small paper in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Kansas? No, almost every one of our interns said, we want to be in Washington or New York or Boston or San Francisco or some other big city. We want to be around the kind of people we know and like, the kind of people we went to school with.
So as the country divided between the big cities that wanted Hillary Clinton to be president and the smaller cities and towns that gave Donald Trump enough electoral votes to win, big city journalism seems increasingly out of touch with much of the country.
One of my favorite books is Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis; it’s the life story of Charles Schulz, a shy kid from Minneapolis who created the nation’s most popular comic strip.
Here’s Schulz talking about how to attract readers: “You must give the audience moments. You must give them laughter, you must give them a little poignancy…”
Getting laughter isn’t easy; some writers have the gift but not many. But a writer who does great reporting can create moments of poignancy, moments that get the reader to say wow.
It can be the kind of emotional wow that brings tears to your eyes. Or the kind of cerebral wow that makes the reader think, “Now, I understand.”
It can be a quiet wow. Here’s Michaelis writing about the last strip that Schulz drew before he died:
“The cold of a January day. Peppermint Patty and Marcie, behind the rampart of one snow fort, exchange volleys of snowballs with Charlie Brown and Linus. Snoopy sits behind the lines in Charlie Brown’s camp, pondering a snowball.” The caption: “Suddenly the dog realized that his dad had never taught him how to throw snowballs.”
Michaelis says: “The last strip is not about a father who hasn’t taught his son to play but a father who hadn’t known how to help his son become the artist he yearned to be—a father who couldn’t teach him how to play because he himself could not free himself to play. Carl Schulz always had to be doing something useful. He could not just go out and throw baseballs or snowballs with his son. Drawing, even on a fogged trolley car window, had been the one area in which the son was free to play, to be a child, and to be creative; Peanuts had preserved that sacred grove for fifty years.”
From an Adrienne LaFrance interview in 2013 with reporter and columnist Russell Baker, who since 1985 has lived in Leesburg, Virginia, a town 30 miles west of Washington. Baker started his journalism career at the Baltimore Sun, moved to the New York Times, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Growing Up, and for 12 years hosted the PBS show Masterpiece Theater.
Baker: I have a granddaughter who was assigned The Great Gatsby a few years ago. I think teachers assign it because they love it. I said to my granddaughter. . .‘Do you know what a bootlegger is?’ She hadn’t the faintest notion. I said, ‘How can you read Gatsby if you don’t know what a bootlegger is?’ But it’s a wonderful book, beautifully written. And I grew up in that era. I recently re-read Gatsby just to see how he did it. You learn a lot about writing from Fitzgerald, at least in that book.
LaFrance: What strikes you about the mechanics of it?
Baker: I’ve read it off and on over the years. It’s a short book. It’s an easy book. It’s really not much more than a long story. But this time I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, which is how he handles conversation among a large group of people.
If you’ve ever written any fiction, trying to create a big scene with a lot of people talking, you tend to do it by everybody talking, with a lot of quotation marks, which is extremely dull and wears out quickly. And you can’t get it right.
But he creates the sense of these big parties at Gatsby’s house where hundreds of people show up, and gives you a sense of what everybody’s talking about with a very sparse use of quotation marks. He’s sort of paraphrasing. It’s beautiful to see how he does it. Because you really know what these people’s minds are like in a very short space. It’s a gift to be able to do that, to write that way.
LaFrance: And you’re still writing for the New York Review of Books.
Baker: I do an occasional piece for them, just to keep my hand in. My mind is too slow now to do much. With age, everything slows down, your mind the most disconcerting of all. I don’t write with the glibness and facility that I used to. It’s a labor for me to write now.
LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?
Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.
LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?
Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.
LaFrance: I’m afraid you’re right.
Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.
LaFrance: So much of your writing is woven around acute observations. I’m curious whether there’s been a change over time in the kinds of things you notice. How has the way you observe the world changed?
Baker: I don’t think my view of the world has changed much since I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I look at things very critically. I’m one of those awful people who’s looking for flaws. Everybody has flaws. This son of a bitch, he spots them right away. It’s an untrusting eye looking at the world. You try to make an argument to me, I immediately will spot the flaw in it. I loved covering politics because politicians are always telling you what they’re doing, and it’s easy to spot.
LaFrance: It seems like you still keep a close eye on politics.
Baker: I do. It’s got to be a habit with me. I spent so much of my life covering politics and I still read the papers closely every day. I get the Times and the Post and various other little papers. I’m always reading politics. It’s just a habit, really. But what else is there to do in Leesburg?
Later in the interview:
Baker: The Baltimore Sun was a really good paper. They put a lot of money into journalism. Good foreign correspondents. I got a couple of years in London as a correspondent. I really learned the trade in Baltimore. It took me 30 years at the Times to learn what I learned at the Sun in maybe a year.
LaFrance: But New York is New York.
Baker: Yes. I really like New York. I think New York is the only real city. I’ve been in a lot of cities. I like London. Paris is Paris. But New York? You can’t beat New York. I just felt that I couldn’t handle it financially. It’s a place for extremely rich people. I lived in Washington for 20 years and I never felt there was any place there. It was just a job.
LaFrance: It’s hard to imagine feeling at home in Washington.
Baker: Yeah. But I knew everybody. I certainly was very successful there. You work all the time in Washington but you don’t have the feel for it the way you get the feel for a city like Baltimore, which is an interesting city — a full city but on a small scale. You can see how a city works. There are all these communities interacting.
In Washington, you get no sense of that, of being in a city. I loved Baltimore. I still love Baltimore. When I go to Baltimore, I feel like I have so much past associated with it. It’s like home, as close to a home place as I’ve ever had.
The rescue of a Thai soccer team stranded deep in a flooded cave brings back memories of writing about a West Virginia coal mine disaster—often called “The Miracle at Hominy Falls.”
A half century ago, in West Virginia, nearly a mile inside Saxsewell Mine No. 8, coal miners inadvertently cut through a wall into an underground lake. The gush of water quickly flooded the mine. Of the 25 trapped miners, 15 were hauled to safety relatively quickly. The bodies of four others were recovered, leaving the bodies of the other six to be retrieved after the water was pumped out.
Then the amazing happened. Ten days after the mine was flooded and enough water had been evacuated, the six miners were found—alive—where they had huddled in a bubble of air.
At the time, in 1968, I had left UPI to work for Senator Charles Percy of Illinois for a year and a half. Christian Life, a magazine near Chicago, contacted me to go to Hominy Falls and talk with the survivors. (The article, “They Met God in a Mine Disaster,” was in the magazine’s August 1968 issue.) The investigation into the disaster had been completed and an official report filed. My mission was to talk to the survivors about how they had survived.
The first challenge was to find Hominy Falls, a tiny hamlet tucked among the hills and hollows of the ruggedly beautiful Appalachia.
The six lost miners—four young fathers, another young man, and their leader, John Moore, a grandfather—had packed their lunches and gone into the Gauley’s Saxewell 8 as they did every day. The morning of the disaster, the main belt carried them a thousand feet into the mine and then they crawled onto other belts to take them almost a mile to their work site. Then disaster.
“Oh my God, it’s water,” shouted Joe Fitzwater. “God told me to get my dinner bucket,” said Larry Lynch, the youngest and only one who wasn’t a father.
The miners realized they couldn’t escape. The flooding shorted out the belts’ motors and sealed off their escape. As water filled the low spots they found themselves in a bubble. Though the bubble was below the level of the water around them, Moore believes the water burst in so fast it formed a sort of air pocket.
The lunch buckets of Lynch and Joe Scarbro’s lunch provided their only food. “You take a sandwich and tear it into six pieces and there’s not much left,” said Fitzwater. They slept back to back, or belly to belly, never for more than a few hours at a time. They awakened together. Lynch wolfed down the candy bar they had, he confessed later.
They talked about their families. Faced with what seemed almost certain death, the miners prayed. “We all got to praying,” said Eugene Martin. “I cried, And that sort of relieved me a lot.” One said that at the beginning that Lynch “was the only Christian among us. But six Christians came out of there.”
Rescuers had pumped water—an estimated 33 million gallons—from the underground lake and they prepared plastic bags for what they thought would be six bodies. Inside the bubble, Lynch and his crew noticed the water level was gradually dropping but not enough for them to escape. On day 10, they heard the rescue workers. “We hollered and they came a-running!”
Among the things that stand out in my mind from writing that story were the beauty of the Appalachian countryside, yet the isolation that nature imposed on all those hollows. And the miners’ knees that looked the size of their rear ends from all that kneeling day after day.
Wes Pippert covered state capitals, Congress, and the White House. He spent nearly 30 years with United Press International, serving first in the Bismarck and Pierre capital bureaus in the Dakotas and then in Chicago before coming to Washington, D.C. in 1966. He covered three presidential campaigns, the Carter White House, was UPI’s principal on the Watergate story, and his final UPI assignment was as Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem. Then from 1989 to 2012, he directed the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Program.
washingtonpost.com has posted an timely piece headlined “Trump advisers face taunts from hecklers around D.C.” The start of the story, by Paul Schwartzman and Josh Dawsey:
Just after arriving in Washington to work for President Trump, Kellyanne Conway found herself in a downtown supermarket, where a man rushing by with his shopping cart sneered, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Go look in the mirror!”
“Mirrors are in aisle 9 — I’ll go get one now,” Conway recalled replying. She brushed off the dart with the swagger of someone raised in the ever-attitudinal trenches of South Jersey.“What am I gonna do? Fall apart in the canned vegetable aisle?”
For any new presidential team, the challenges of adapting to Washington include navigating a capital with its own unceasing rhythms and high-pitched atmospherics, not to mention a maze of madness-inducing traffic circles.
Yet for employees of Donald J. Trump — the most singularly combative president of the modern era, a man who exists in his own tweet-driven ecosystem — the challenges are magnified exponentially, particularly in a predominantly Democratic city where he won only 4 percent of the vote.
The story goes on to point out that “Get out of my town” incidents are increasing, with a teacher at Sidwell Friends, the private school attended by the Obama children, confronting then-EPA head Scott Pruitt in a DC restaurant and telling him to leave town.
Here’s an About Editing and Writing post from the week President Trump was inaugurated that captured some of the media’s somewhat unhinged reaction to Trump’s arrival. Unhinged because I think the media heavyweights, centered in DC and New York City, had all along assumed Trump had no chance to defeat Hillary Clinton and they couldn’t believe the American people in 31 states had been that dumb.
When I talked with my Wisconsin nieces about why Donald Trump won the state, the first impression was that they disliked Hillary Clinton more than Trump. It seemed it wasn’t so much that they hated Hillary personally; more they were tired of the Clintons and all their money and talk. Trump was new and wasn’t part of the Washington crowd.
And they didn’t care what the media said about how terrible Trump was; they think of the media as mostly a bunch of talkers. And they probably wouldn’t disagree with what Steve Bannon said to the New York Times:“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
How did the media react? Google “Bannon media shut up” and you get:
Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’ — New York Times
Steve Bannon: Media should “keep its mouth shut” — CNN
Bannon: Media should “keep its mouth shut” —The Hill
Google “Bannon media listen more” and you get:
Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’ — New York Times
Gannon Tells Press to ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’ — New York Magazine
Trump Stategist Steve Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep its Mouth Shut’ – CNBC
Jim Warren’s reaction to Bannon in his Poynter media column: “Keep our mouths shut? Fat chance, say media leaders.”
You have to Google a long time before you find any of the mainstream press talking about listening more.
How did we get here? Here’s a note I sent some journalist pals earlier this week:
I drifted into journalism in 1960 because it didn’t seem as boring as most jobs. You never knew what the day would bring. I didn’t get much sense that other journalists wanted to change the world; we just reported on the people trying to change the world.
Covering the civil right revolution brought more sense of journalism as a way to right wrongs, change the world. The heroes of journalism helped bring down segregation and lessen discrimination.
Watergate made heroes out of Woodward and Bernstein. More young journalists wanted to be like them: Make someone resign, become rich and famous.
Henry Fairlie wrote a Washingtonian piece in 1984 about how journalists were getting rich. Get on television talk shows, get big checks by making speeches. Journalists increasingly could make big money and do just enough reporting to get by. One very good writer in the early 1980s told me he wasn’t going to spend two weeks on a story for $2,000 when he could make that much giving a 60-minute speech. And he didn’t have to write a new speech each time.
Oz Elliott, the former Newsweek editor, then teaching at the Columbia J School, told me that he wasn’t happy that journalists had discovered that selling attitude was a lot easier than reporting.
Then the Internet: To be seen as successful you had to build your brand. Journalists were judged by how many followers on Twitter. That encouraged journalists to be more public, more clever, more opinionated.
There’s a lot now written about how distrust of the media has grown. Is that because journalists talk too much, are too full of themselves, and are no longer seen as just reporting the news as we did in the old days?
Steve Bannon said, to mostly deaf ears, journalists should listen more. Some of us think there’s something to be said for that.
I still get requests to be sent a story I wrote 18 years ago about deciding what to do when your dog—sometimes not an old one—may require so much vet care that you ask yourself: How much is too much? Is it time to say goodbye?
A Dog’s Life: How Do You Decide How Much Friendliness and Loyalty Are Worth?
When your dog or cat is old, the decision is easier. Your pet has had many happy years but now is sick and doesn’t have much quality of life left. So you and the veterinarian decide it’s time to put your faithful friend to sleep. If kids are involved, there can be protestations, tears, and explanations of life and death.
Four years ago, our vet came to our Bethesda backyard so I could hold our 13-year-old Golden retriever, Lindy, as he got the injection. He went peacefully, his suffering was over. My daughters and I scratched his name and the date on a stone and put it in his favorite place in the yard.
This fall it was harder. Three years ago, we had adopted another golden retriever, a puppy we name Andy. Another wonderful dog—friendly to everyone, a pal to the kids, a good watchdog.
Last summer he began to have periods when he wouldn’t eat and several times he went to a corner of the yard to hide. Each time we’d take him to the vet where he’d stay a few days and be fed intravenously and examined.
And given medicine. He would come home, be okay for a while, and go back into another downhill slide. I knew the bills weren’t going to be small, but I wasn’t about to say we couldn’t spend another $500 to bring Andy back.
In the fall, Andy became so weak he couldn’t walk. Back to the vet, who said he couldn’t figure out what was causing the sickness. The next day, a Friday, a hopeful phone call—“We think it’s Addison’s disease,” an adrenaline insufficiency. The vet said he’d run one more test, and if Addison’s was the problem Andy most likely could be made healthy.
On Monday, the bad news: it wasn’t Addison’s disease. Andy was very weak and the vet didn’t know what to do. He said there was an animal hospital in nearby Gaithersburg that specialized in critical care and he suggested we take the dog there.
That Monday evening my wife picked up Andy from the vet in DC and drove him to Gaithersburg. She was told that the care would cost about $250 a day and the vet would call me the next morning.
Tuesday, the phone call from the hospital came: “We are not certain what the problem is—it could be cancer of the lymph system or a parathyroid problem.”
“What kind of shape is Andy in?”
“Not good. He’s almost in kidney failure, and he can’t walk and won’t eat.”
“What are the chances he can be brought back to health so he can lead a decent life?”
The moment of truth. The vet was describing more tests, possible chemotherapy. I was thinking about loyalty, about the kids, and about money.
I couldn’t bring myself to talk dollars with the vet, to put a price tag on Andy’s life. And I didn’t want to take a family vote. How could the kids decide something like that? Besides, I knew how they would vote.
I told the vet it was time to put Andy down and I’d be out after work to be with him.
I called Jean, my wife, who didn’t protest. At 5:30 we headed up to Gaithersburg. At the front desk, the attendant smiled and asked, “Are you here to pick up your dog?”
“No, we’re just here to see him.”
Andy was in a cage, being fed intravenously, and he didn’t wag his tail.
We were told to go into the examining room. The staff put a blanket on the floor and Andy was carried in. We petted him and and talked to him for about 15 minutes, then told the attendant we were ready.
The vet was gentle and comforting. She injected a clear liquid into the IV tube on the back of Andy’s neck. A peaceful death.
Several days later came the hospital bill for $1,065.62. I didn’t understand most of the tests or terminology, but I paid it without comment.
The kids took it okay. We would put another stone in the backyard. The vet said she’d do an autopsy and call us with the results. I’m not sure I wanted to know whether it was something that could have given Andy another six months or year if I’d been willing to spend another two or three thousand dollars.
What’s a dog’s life worth? I still go to sleep thinking about him.
In 2015 I wrote another Washingtonian story abou dogs:
One winter day in 1983, I ran into a Bethesda neighbor, who said his golden retriever had just had puppies and why didn’t I bring our two little girls over to see them. Why not, I thought. The next afternoon, I took Annie, six, and Jeannie, two, across the street.
What was I thinking? They were going to see darling little bundles of golden fur, pick them up and cuddle them, then quietly go home?
We made one of the puppies a Christmas-morning surprise. As the kids unwrapped a box, they found a happy dog we named Lindy, a new friend who would love them no matter what.
Three decades and three golden retrievers later, our house is much quieter. The girls have grown up and moved away. Lindy lived 12 good years. We cried when Andy battled what appeared to be cancer and had to be put down way too young. Then we had old pal Danny—he almost made it to 15 and died peacefully at home in August. Annie and Jeannie both came home that day.
Danny graces Washingtonian’s March 2000 cover as a puppy.
Now on cold mornings I think, good, I can fix a cup of coffee and relax in the kitchen with the paper. No more checking to see if I have enough plastic bags to clean up after what dogs do. When my wife goes to work, I can read and write without being pestered to open the back door and toss a tennis ball. It’s the first time in 32 years we haven’t had a dog.
I do kind of miss the neighbors. Walking the dog morning and night kept me in touch with most everyone on our street, how they and their kids were doing, what was going on, when they were going to be away and didn’t want newspapers left in the yard or boxes sitting overnight by the front door.
And I got to know just about everyone who walked a dog through the neighborhood. Dog walkers almost always say hello to one another as their dogs say hello. Often that leads to conversations about where you got your dog, which may lead to where you’re from, where you went to school, and so on. “What do you do?”—asked so often in downtown DC—rarely comes up.
Once the dog and I were at the park, we’d go out on an open field with a big view of the sky. We sometimes could see the moon in the morning, the changing cloud formations, the birds. We’d see deer, lots of squirrels, and, last summer, a surprising number of rabbits. Those little bunnies moved so slowly—I wondered how many would live to next spring.
We’d see planes from National Airport gaining altitude and heading west. Danny would bark at the noise in the sky, and I’d remember the honeymoon in Barbados and other memorable plane trips. We’d see a helicopter and wonder if it was the President going to Camp David. All those people and planes—a daily reminder that it’s a big world and you’re a small part of it. It was easy to let my mind wander—it’s amazing how much better you think when you’re not sitting at a computer.
The truth was that even on cold, rainy mornings it felt good to walk the dog. Lindy, Andy, and Danny all greeted the day with enthusiasm. Come on, let’s have some fun. Nice days or bad, I could handle it—I’m not a fair-weather friend.
Will we start again with another puppy? Probably not. As much as we loved raising our dogs and as much as they helped make us a happy family, it’s now a little late for all that. Still, not all dogs out there looking for homes are puppies. Maybe there’s an old rescue looking for a friend. We could go on long walks together, rain or shine.
2018 update: We have our fourth Golden Retriever—he was named Cruiser when we adopted him and we kept the name. I now don’t get up in the morning to go to work but Cruiser is a faithful wake-up call not long after the sun rises. We walk to a nearby park morning and night and still visit with the dogs and dog owners we meet. Our two daughters are now married with children and each has a dog, one also has a cat. They do help bring a family together.