By Howard Eskildsen
It wasn’t the first time that our family had experienced a significant loss, but it was the first time that I had to face the full impact of death. At the time, it seemed so strange that it should happen during the Thanksgiving Day celebration. But isn’t that when such things usually happen, when you least expect it?
The day before Thanksgiving, I came home from school early, and Toubo, our white German shepherd named after a TV adventurer, seemed to know that something special was in the autumn air. All the leaves had fallen from the trees, except for a few yellow holdouts on the ash tree by the milk house. A hint of winter’s chill kept the cows huddled closely together in the barnyard, while playful breezes chased the odors of dry grass, leaves and hay across the Nebraska farm site. But Toubo and I knew that there was more in the air than just the season’s smell.
Thanksgiving was our favorite holiday, and my brothers and sister would soon return home for a weekend of feasting, and fun. We would play baseball and would go hiking and hunting by the Platte River on the south edge of the farm. If the weather cooperated, dad would fly the yellow, two-seat Taylorcraft over from the airport, land on the alfalfa field by the house, and we would go for rides. Toubo of course would share in the fun and food, but when we told him, “Let’s to the river,” he would nearly wriggle out of his skin with excitement.
While I waited impatiently for the family to arrive, he curled up for a nap on the lawn. Perhaps he dreamed of hunting by the river as he slept under the giant American elm by the house. Suddenly his eyes popped wide open at the raspy sound of a pheasant crowing in the distance. He started to lay his head down, then perked up his ears and looked towards the gravel road that led to our house between two recently-harvested cornfields. He stood up abruptly and the tip of his tail began to quiver side to side as he spotted a cloud of dust following a car that was headed his way. The quiver progressed to wide wagging until the swaying tail shook his whole body from side to side as the car turned into the lane to the farmhouse. His head and tail shot skyward and he let forth woofs and a howl of delight as the car pulled to a stop.
After greetings were exchanged and the suitcases were unloaded, we got out the baseball gloves and dad hit flies and grounders to us on a bare patch of land near the house. Toubo took his usual position with his head low to the ground, peering intently between the legs of one of the players. His white form flashed towards any balls that got past us like a hunter closing in on the prey. If the ball were in the air as it sizzled by, he would leap upward with jaws agape and seldom missed. The harder they were hit, the better he liked it, though sometimes he shook his head and waggled his jaw to get rid of the sting afterwards. Once in a while a spot of blood stained the ball when he dropped it at our feet, but regardless, he always looked up with an expression that seemed to say: Come on, let’s play ball! Fading light finally put an end to the outdoor games and we all returned to the house.
The cold darkness outside only made the glow from the propane furnace in the living room seem even warmer. There were no central air ducts, so the kitchen and the dining room were the warmest rooms in the house. For supper, we gathered around the large antique table in the dining room and shared the latest gossip. Though I was not yet ten years old, I always enjoyed listening to the stories of the brothers and sister who lived in the “big city” of Lincoln, Nebraska. It was so much different from what I was used to that it might as well be in a different country.
Through all the conversation, Toubo made his bed in front of the furnace, where the flame’s radiance fringed his white fur with a blazing orange color. On other nights after super we would turn off the lights in the living room and watch flickers from the flames dance on the walls and ceiling of the dining room. That night, however, conversation lasted beyond my 8:30 bedtime, so the only lights that went out after supper were mine. Ordinarily Toubo would join me upstairs and sleep on the small rug by my bed, but that night he stayed downstairs with the rest of the family.
Thanksgiving Day dawned with a high gray sky, and crisp cool air that brought out the hunting instincts in my brothers. They had promised to let me go along, but they left at sunup, long before I was out of bed. As I pouted my way through corn flakes and toast, the distant pops from the shotguns only prodded my wounded pride.
After breakfast, I went upstairs and looked out of the window towards the river, but before I could reflect on life’s injustices, the glint of a familiar form caught my eye. Beside the chicken coop, on the edge of the alfalfa field, the dark registration number, NC33932 stood out on the yellow upper wing of the old Taylorcraft.
“Want to go for an airplane ride?” Dad’s cheerful voice echoed up the stairway.
I said nothing but flew down the stairs with the usual crash landing at the bottom. I got my hat and coat and crawled into the right seat of the plane while dad cracked the throttle and warned me not to touch the switches. The needle on the big round tachometer in the center of the instrument panel pointed at zero.
Dad pulled the propeller through a couple of times by hand and then reached in through the door on the left side of the plane and turned the magneto switch on. “Don’t touch that throttle!” he commanded as he walked to the front of the Taylorcraft. He pulled the propeller through one more time and it coughed, sputtered and then throbbed smoothly as needle on the tachometer jumped to life. While dad got in and pulled the safety belt around both of us; the aroma of aviation fuel mixed with oil and airplane dope danced through the cockpit.
Dad taxied the plane to the end of the field and swung it around smartly the opposite direction. We paused to look for Toubo, but he was away with Bruce and Bernie hunting, so we didn’t have to worry about him chasing after the airplane. The engine roared as dad eased the throttle forward all the way to the stop, and the plane jolted across the field and finally bounced skyward. We soon spotted the two grinning hunters holding up some quail, and of course, Toubo was right beside them.
We flew over the woods in the old riverbed, then over the flat farmland and were back on the ground again by the time when the hunters returned with their game. They promised to take me hunting later in the afternoon and said that I could use the single-shot .410 shotgun if it was all right with mom. She sighed and then agreed, but the look of apprehension on her face revealed her misgivings about the idea. She knew, of course, that I would likely miss anything that I aimed at, but what if I hit something that I wasn’t aiming at? With Thanksgiving dinner at hand, however, there was no time for fretting, so we gathered round for the main event of the day.
The table was set within the warmth of the dining room with the usual rounds of turkey, dressing, cranberries, and other holiday delights. Before we could waddle away from the table, we had one or two servings of fresh pumpkin pie. As usual, I was anxious to get on with the day, although the adults lingered around the table.
After dinner, the ladies cleaned the kitchen while the guys retreated to the cool living room to try and find a football game on one of the three channels that we could get on our old television. After a few minutes of football, I scampered outside and sat in the airplane for a while, and later, found the shotgun and practiced holding and aiming it.
The afternoon light softened as it does so early in the late autumn. My oldest brother decided to take his bride for a ride in the T-craft before we went hunting. I watched from a safe distance with the empty shotgun over my shoulder, while my other brother pulled the propeller through and the engine coughed to life. The plane traveled to the end of the field, turned into the wind, then raced across the field with the engine roaring. In the excitement of the moment, we forgot to hold onto Toubo’s collar to keep him from chasing it. We watched in horror as his white form shot across the field directly into the path of the airplane.
Toubo’s tail spun around in circles as he tried to avoid the whirling propeller. Though my brother pulled hard on the controls, the airplane didn’t have enough speed to lift off the ground. Somehow Toubo ducked to one side of the propeller, but the dark left tire struck him squarely in the mid-torso and sent him twisting and rolling for several feet through the stubble in the field. As we rushed towards him, he raised his head and tried to drag his body toward us with his front legs, but his hind feet would not move. Finally, surrounded by the sympathetic friends, he stopped struggling and laid his head on his paws as the life slowly faded from his eyes.
He was buried under a tall cottonwood in the woods near the river that he so dearly loved. His collar hanging from a dry stick of wood served as a memorial as did bits of white hair that remained for weeks in the rug by my bed.
The shock of the day dampened the spirits for the rest of the weekend and beyond, but to my surprise, life went on. Winter gradually turned to spring and grief slowly faded as the white hairs he had shed on the small rug by my bed disappeared. Now and then we would reminisce about the white form that used to follow us around the farm, and the joys of his memory grew brighter while the sadness of the tragedy faded.
The next Thanksgiving much was said as the family visited the grave of our companion, but it was more in gratitude for the memories than in mourning. The memorial by his grave had tumbled to the ground, reclaimed by the river that he had so dearly loved, and I did not put it back up again. It was time to let go, for he had taught me how to be thankful not only for what I have, but also for what I once had