At 22, I was conflicted. I wanted to write rather than work.
The logical thing would have been to work at writing but doing the later required doing the former and therein lay my conflict.
I mentioned this to a friend, who suggested I take a summer off from unemployment to mull it over. His family owned a farm in the wooded valleys of western Wisconsin and I was welcome to live there – on one condition.
The condition weighed over 200 pounds, had soft brown eyes and drooled. It bore the name of Barnabas. My friend, a well-to-do medical student, wanted to rid himself of the beast because he had shacked up with a well-to-do law student in an apartment spacious enough for two but not spacious enough for a Saint Bernard who slobbered.
The farm had no house nor barn; just an old granary with a moss covered roof and siding stained silver with age. Whoever built the structure knew nothing of soil nor footings and soon after construction, the granary lurched on its foundation. It then spent the next century threatening to cast itself off the hillside and tumble down onto County QQ, a road that wound through the valley below.
To give the building at least some incentive to live, I made it my home.
Without employment nor stable housing, my position was tenuous but life in western Wisconsin was all I aspired it to be: idle and idyllic.
I still cannot say whether that summer was wasted. Neither Barnabas nor I made progress in life, but I read a great deal and Barnabas slept a great deal.
What we did do, when not reading or sleeping, was to spend our days on the hillside monitoring the progress of summer storms, or laying in the tall grass under the fading light of evening to watch fireflies sparkle in the ditches. Our sole industry was to capture pleasant memories and in hindsight that should have been enough.
I had my books and typewriter while Barnabas had a south facing slope for mornings and a cool stream for hot afternoons. So we had what we needed and should not have yearned for more but we were young and for the young there must always be more.
It all came undone on a day late in September as we were driving back from town. The soy fields in the valley had turned from yellow to rust, dry corn rattled in the wind and sumacs on the hillsides flared with the first red of autumn.
Ahead of us, a sun bleached 41′ Chevy pickup strained slowly up the long hill that led to our drive.
I knew who was driving the truck, but never met him. His name was Gene and he lived north on County Road QQ in a small metal roofed house hidden in a thick grove of walnut trees.
Gene was a unique Wisconsin blend of redneck and hippie. He wore his hair down to his belt and accentuated his magnificent beer belly with a sports jacket several sizes too small. He had little use for shirts or shoes but despite his strong fashion statements, he was shy, maybe even standoffish. Which, if rumors were to be believed, was attributed to his growing something other than the vegetables in the deep valleys that forked off of County QQ.
Like most rural Wisconsinites, he loved his truck but truth be told there was nothing to love about it – the thing reeked which was pure misery for anyone trailing behind.
So there I was following him slowly up a long hill, choking on his fumes, when SPLAT, a wad of spit hit my windshield, then SPLAT – another.
I flicked my wipers.
Again SPLAT, .. SPLAT .. SPLAT.
I thought it damned unfriendly for Gene’s passenger, who I couldn’t see through the cloud of exhaust, to be treating us so rudely.
We climbed slowly up the hill, enduring a steady stream of abuse. Finally, at the crest when I could see far enough ahead to pass, I dropped down a gear and gunned the engine to shoot around the old truck.
In passing, I raised a hand to give his passenger a vigorous one finger salute but to my surprise and embarrassment I noticed who his passenger was. She rode with her head out the window and her big drooling jowls flap in the breeze. Apparently, I was not the only local hippie to be paired up with a Saint Bernard. Instead of flipping the bird, I waved him into our driveway.
Gene was equally pleased to see Barnabus and swung his truck onto the rutted drive leading back to the granary.
Just before our yard, a creek cut across the road. As he slowed to ford it, his dog lunged through the passenger window and shot off across a hay field with Barnabas in hot pursuit.
I yelled – but Gene waved me off and said “let ’em go”, then he produced a cooler full of cold Leinenkugels, our native brew.
I needed no more convincing.
About eight Leinies later, the dogs bobbed back across the field. Bridget, Gene’s dog, had the lead. I had never seen anything that big move that fast, except maybe for Barnabas who loped after her with a look that spoke of only one thing.
They thundered through the yard and banked off the side of a decaying hay wagon then careened through the relics of the old barn before bounding up the ramp into the granary.
A moment later, the first major appliance hit the floor.
The hollow wallop of sheet metal and skittering of ice-cubes announced the demise of my refrigerator.
Next, a sudden silence marked the destruction of my stereo then a puff of feathers erupted through the front window signifying the progress of the dogs from my make-shift living room to my make-shift bedroom.
Gene and I both hit the plank leading into the granary at the same instant.
It was then I realized something I had not contemplated before.
Barnabas and I survived the summer in the granary by limiting the stress on the decaying structure to the static weight of appliances plus the respectful movements of 400 pounds of dog and man. As Gene and I charged into the old granary, I suddenly considered the effect of double that, complicated by the frenzy of love-struck Saint Bernard’s.
I think the granary was thinking that too, for from deep within its foundation, a rotted timber moaned. The moan intensified into a groan – which escalated into a screech which begot a crash. Then another timber moaned, popped and cracked, followed by a domino effect of snapping joists.
The floor rose like the deck of a sinking ship and amid a horrendous tearing of ancient lumber, the granary slowly twisted on its foundation and staggered precipitously toward the bluff.
Gene didn’t need to be told what was happening. He dove in the general direction of the exit, as did I, and we both flew out the door with 400 pounds of dogs clawing a path over our backs.
We landed in a churning scrum of dog and man as the granary tilted into its death roll and tumbled, roiling in a cloud of dust, all the way down the slope onto County Road QQ below.
That was that. My conflict was resolved.
With no place to live and winter coming on, I left for the city.
Barnabas stayed on with Gene and Bridget and lived a good life until he died of a heart-attack shortly after becoming a grandfather.
As for me, I took to the road and hitch-hiked for a couple of years. I saw most of the U.S., much of Mexico and a whole lot of Europe before coming home to get a job.
The job didn’t work out, so I got another and another until finally I had a career, a name-plate on my office door and a pension.
Over time, I learned to work and became quite good at it. I also learned to work at writing and one day hope to become good at that too.
But still – I wonder how it all would have turned out had I stayed to write among the deep valleys of Western Wisconsin in a granary that every day threatened to throw itself off a bluff and roll all the way to County Road QQ below.
44 thoughts on “Barnabas: A Humorous Tale about Dogs and Writing”
Trust me, you already are a good writer! As for how your life would have turned out if you had stayed in the grainery, we’ll never know. So often our lives are shaped by strange events, and two St. Bernard’s literally chasing you out of house and home is one of the strangest!
If I have learned anything about writing, it is to find stories that write themselves. That way, I can sit back and relax while the story does all the work. 🙂
You are a good writer. This piece should be in a magazine. Not just a personal blog post.
Perhaps… but I am still learning to work at writing. One of these days, I will have to learn to work at getting published. 🙂
What a blissful time you and Barnabas had, until it all literally went downhill. You transported me there with your vivid descriptions. Well done!
It was a fun story to write and unlike most of my stories, this one was true…. Well, somewhat true.
All humorists write ‘somewhat true’ stories, Greg. 😉
Great story. And it sounds as though you got everything out of it, really – a splendid summer, an interesting ending(!), dog friendship and then some superb travelling. Oh, and you appear to have learned how to write, too.
I wish I had learned to write sooner – but that would have required learning to work at it, something I am still working on. 🙂
We all are – I hope! It’s one of those things where there is always something more to learn.
Every now and then you break out one of these epic stories, and a man and his dog makes it even more special. Who’d get excited about a man and his granary?
Truly, but let’s not forget the appliances that gave their last measure to the telling of this story. 🙂
A great yarn. I am thinking the dogs may have done you a favor. Better that the ‘house’ come down under dog power during the day than wind power at night.
I once owned a basset hound named Socrates, also a champion at drool. The sight of cheese snacks at cocktail hour would fill his jowls with drool. His solution: vigorously shake his head. Both walls of our apartment, my first wife and me, and any guests we had would be slimed. –Curt
While some maintain that Saint Bernards are the champions of drool, I would suggest that bassets are worthy competitors. 🙂
The share in having very large jowls! I’ve been slimed by a St. Bernard as well. But what I mainly remember about the St. Bernard was its tendency to take my hand in its mouth and bite down with just enough pressure to remind me to keep petting. 🙂
Ah the slobbery dogs. My grandma had a black lab with drool that you wouldn’t believe (or you might, considering that summer spent with Barnabas!)
Oh, having a few black labs, I would definitely believe any tale of dog drool. 🙂
Nothing better than youthful ignorance, dogs and illicit crops. Nice story.
I remember telling someone’s parent as I was graduating high school that I wanted to be a writer, in response to their melodramatic “What do you plan to do with the rest of your life?” question. I’m still working on it, too.
When I told my brother that I wanted to be writer, he told me to get into computers. I did and I am glad I did. 🙂
This story proves, beyond a doubt, that you are already good at writing. Believe me. You are. I felt like I was right there with you and Gene and your St. Bernards and your Leines. And I could picture that granary. And you used time appropriate phrases like “shacked up” (haven’t heard that in awhile)…
You are a writer, Greg, and a damn good one.
Sometimes I feel like a guy who wants to run marathons but can only sprint the 100 yd dash. 😦
Except for the guy part, of course! Haha!
So glad the love birds made it out safely. Oh, and you humans, too. We are blessed with three dogs, one of which is a St. Bernard/border collie mix. Not quite as slobbery as yours. I’m enjoying your pet stories. Look forward to following you in the future.
I adore stories about dogs and yours is a riveting, wonderful tale about the friendship between dog and man. I had a slobbering dog too!
Slobbering dogs are the best. Slobber is a requirement for any dog that wants to hang out with me.
Great story. For some time I thought it was real. Boy, I sure do miss those fireflys.
It was real. Fireflies, dog drool and all.
See. I told you. Even my comments have them. Darn them goblins.
Well, my friend, this has some mighty fine writing. You could turn this into a novel, you know. call it “A Man and His Saint Bernard”. It would be about you and Barnie roaming the west. Years ago I thought I would like to get a Saint Bernard till I found out about the drool. Now you make me think I might have made a mistake. As far as the errors are concerned’ I didn’t notice. I do it all the time. Write my post’ read over it several times thinking I’ve got all the suckers. Then I post them and there they are. Just wondering if they aren’t wordress goblins who sneak in put them in. Anyway good story.
“Then I post them and there they are.”
It is frustrating, isn’t it? The most method I have found for catching errors is to read my paragraphs backwards. starting with the last and reading to the first. It eliminates context and makes the sentences stand out. I wish I had done it on this piece before I had to rush in and make corrections.
Never thought of that. Thanks.
You can always be relied on to brighten a gray day. Wonderful tale (with tails on).
Thanks Sheila. Barnabas is one of my favorite tails, uh tales that is.
My cousin Arnette had a St. Bernard named Andy. Me too on the slobber, but they are sweet dogs. He slept a lot too.
Barnabas died of a heart-attack. Apparently that is not unusual with Saint Bernards Still, I would love to have one.
Yeah, I can still remember the slobber. 🙂
You’re a great writer, Greg, but I’m not jealous of that, I’m jealous of the view of your backyard!
We are lucky to have found this place. The only problem is that we are having a hard time getting internet access. I have a line on a 68′ free-standing tower that I hope to have up soon. Once it is erected, I should be able to pick up a micro-wave beam off a bin-site about five miles away.
Absolutely loved the story. Loved Barnabas, too. Don’t know how your writing could have been improved if you’d taken another road, but it’s sure good reading today.
Perhaps if I had started writing earlier, I would have become better at editing. Gosh, I spotted a lot of errors in this. 😦
Greg, I love your writing. This is such a great venue for you to publish. Keep ‘me coming please!!
Hey, thanks John. You haven’t seen our new place. The photo above is of our backyard.
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