RURAL AMERICA – Many people seem to know Ruby, but I met her for the first time just last week. While waiting in a shop to chat with a guy about my lawn mower I was crouched down, looking at a riding mower that was for sale, and I could sense a nearby presence. A foot away, to my left, a set of sad, brown eyes quietly pondered my existence, something I do regularly. It was an old shaggy dog named Ruby, come over to check on the old guy visiting a business owned by her keeper, a ‘small engine’ shop, to which I take my lawnmowers when they need maintenance.
High schools once offered a class in small engine repair, and it may still be an elective. I don’t know. However, I do know this: to my great shame I used to see those classes as somehow beneath me, as courses for those who would spend a lifetime with grease under their fingernails, and that wasn’t going to be me. Fifty years ago, I helped my father remove an auto engine and replace it with another and my involvement surprised my mother. Much as she loved and encouraged me, she also had a way of reminding me that I was nothing special: “I didn’t think you ever got your hands dirty.”
It was a warning shot, and I’ve tried to hold it close ever since. I own my arrogance. I was dead wrong. The person who can dismantle a machine, diagnose a problem, reassemble the parts, and return it to useful life has their own kind of genius, one which I envy. We pay athletes millions of dollars a year to entertain us, while those who keep the machinery of the world in good running order go begging. Makes no sense to me. I could go on, but I’ll shut up now.
Anyway, Ruby was simply curious about the stranger who wandered into her shop, and once she realized I was harmless, and possibly good for a dog biscuit, she stood next to me when I rose up, leaning gently against my leg. This was totally unexpected; affection, trust, and devotion from a newly met old dog. Then her keeper said what I had already guessed, “I don’t expect she’ll make it through the summer.”
Perhaps I make entirely too much of brief encounters with people and animals, as I have neither wise nor clever offerings about the meaning of such things. People and pets come and go, and we keep them tucked away in our hearts, coaxing them out every once in a while, when we need them most.
Recently I attended a big-band concert performed by the still incredible Count Basie Orchestra. When I was a young man I met and photographed Count Basie so, when I saw that his orchestra was showing up forty miles away, I had to be there. A friend joined me and next to her was an empty seat.
When the performance was over, she said, “That was a beautiful concert. My father sat down next to me.” All very matter of fact, not ‘the ghost of my father was here,’ not ‘it felt like my father was with me,’ not ‘my father would have loved this.’ He was there with her, and I was sentient enough to not say a word. I have no doubt that her father savored every bit of the concert, and especially enjoyed being at the side of his beautiful daughter. And I also have no doubt that, when another summer has come and gone, every once in a while, I will feel an old dog named Ruby leaning softly against my leg.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press
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