"And there’s nothing short a’ dying, that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of the sleeping city sidewalk…"
I sat close enough to Kristofferson to count the crow’s feet in his temples, as he winced to retrieve the next verse first written on a bar napkin 50 years ago, or for the pain. The cracked leather of his boots belied the weather in his throaty off-key whisper. A founding father of the Holy Trinity of songwriters, he is known for his poetry and patriotism, rather than perfect pitch.
"…and Sunday morning coming down." I was relieved as I looked down the row, my own emotion validated as Scott bent the index finger of his right hand to squeegee a tear down his cheek.
5:30 Monday morning, the sun will be peeking through the box elder fence line on the east end of Schultz’s alfalfa field, like a kid through the railing on Christmas morning. The luckiest herd of Herefords in Jefferson County will be sleeping, swooshing flies, ruminating and fertilizing five acres of 4th crop stubble.
Minutes before dawn, and hours before rain that’s not been seen in two weeks, the concentric golden rays diffract the valley fog that hangs in Mud Lake Marsh. The first sign of human life will be Marilyn Trieloff. If there’s a flicker of light and a leaf on her lawn, she’ll be urgently scampering, in her ¾-length windbreaker tied at the waist, picking it up. Just past the first of September, three strands of Christmas lights, a Jack-O-Lantern and “Happy Halloween” flicker through the curtains in her living room window.
I’ll block the rising sun with my palm, roll down the passenger side and mute Eddie Arnold to study Hwy 89 South, then turn to my left to give a muted morning wave at Tom Mitchell. He’ll mouth a “Mornin’ Doc” through the windshield and motion me on so he can make the wide turn out of Vita Plus onto 89, headed to Fall River with the first load of feed for the day, or the last of the night.
Casey at a fast trot, and Mojo a slow gallop, will be frantically trying to stay ahead of Laurie Otto taking two sidewalk sections per stride. Their morning “constitutional” is but a warm-up in her life which makes a cross-fit routine seem like a shuffle-board game.
In the absence of an oncoming car, I hug the centerline to avoid the hot-patched pot holes, and hope. "We can begin to measure the true value of society when old men plant trees they will never rest in the shade of.” In a year and a half the road will be re-paved. I pray every day we can manage to make room for two lanes, parking, and bicycles without cutting down the trees.
Unless in pursuit of a dystocia, or a down cow, if there is an opportunity to route myself down Main Street, I’ll take it. If not, I’ll make one. I can’t say Lake Mills is the hometown I’ve always dreamed of, but it is the way I’ve always wanted to feel. It’s all about the people, the lake and the farms, but every time I pass through town I celebrate the oak and maple canopy like God’s own hardwood gauntlet.
Demonstrating that some people retire and others re-purpose, the ageless former school principal Boyd Forest will be riding or running his morning commute across the lake to his son’s excavating business.
The overhead door of Steve’s Car and Truck Service will throw a rectangle of light into the street, and the backup warning “beep beep beep” will echo between the State Farm building and Blue Moon Pizza, as Jr clears the flatbed and wrecker out of the shop. Like a one-man pit crew at Daytona, he’ll have the floor swept and the first O-L-F vacuumed and stickered by 6:00.
Kenny Setz will shuffle under the canopy from the laundry mat searching for the Wisconsin State Journal, the right leg of his jeans cinched by a reflective Velcro strap, a military helmet to the top of his glasses, and a pack on his back with a protruding cardboard tube. “The Natural” pedals furiously up the pedestrian side of Main Street with the focus of Gino Bartali delivering identification documents to Jews in WWII.
As I approach downtown, I will slow to search the shadows. Somewhere on the east side of the 100, 200 or 300 block there’ll be an ageless fixture of South Main Street in camo fatigues and an old-school nylon Badger Hockey jacket, walking his dog, Rocky.
April 22, 2002 is a day that will live in infamy. Brett Favre was in the middle of his 16-year tenure with the Packers, and Dr. Stork still felt legit paying for a haircut. It was on that day Rocky Kruse burst through our doors like a 14.8lb coal-black, quadrupedal Bam-Bam with ADD and a quart of Mountain Dew. On the other end of the leash were Paul and Wanda Kruse.
At the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, we schedule first puppy visits for at least 40 minutes, if not a full hour. It is imperative to ensure that families get a proper start in housetraining, socializing and caring for their new addition. That they are terminally cute, fun to play with, and make us smile all day is a fortunate perk of the profession.
Rocky’s first puppy visit was on the two-month anniversary of his birth.
In her assessment, Dr. Leyla Wirth noted, “been with owners for 2 weeks, first puppy, no murmurs, arrhythmias, or hernia, and both testes are descended.”
A month later, he returned for his booster immunizations and she noted, “extremely active puppy, recommend regular exercise and extensive socialization.” In later visits Dr. Stork would write, “extremely sweet, insanely energetic.” Dr. James loved to collect puppy kisses, “nice pup, rambunctious.”
Our staff’s collective behavioral IQ was not quite prepared for Rocky. It was years before our current staff behaviourist, Mittsy Voiles, would migrate from the “Land Down Under”. In hindsight, Dr. James Herriot and the pioneering behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar could have devoted their careers solely to the care of Rocky. Like a freight train, Rocky’s path was his own, and not to be altered.
We were all just along for the ride.
“Recommend regular exercise and extensive socialization,” said Dr. Wirth.
Unless there was several inches of firm ice on the lake, Rocky could not be kept out of it. Sentry Steve and others have speculated for years that the pyramidal piles of stones on the bottom of Rock Lake are effigy mounds created by Native American civilizations. Alternate and equally credible theories are that they are a product of Rocky’s maniacal games of fetching, diving and retrieving from the Glacial Drumlin bike trail at the railroad trestle. His canines and molars were worn flat to the gums as evidence.
Unlike the Captain and Tennille, Rocky’s relationship with muskrats was anything but warm and fuzzy. In 2006, we were evaluating him for a possible ear infection and ensuring that a few war-wounds were healing. Paul noted that he was falling behind on walks. On her list of differential diagnoses, Dr. Clark included early onset arthritis. Her notation was to the effect of, “suspect degenerative joint disease but difficult to assess due to Rocky’s active demeanor.”
Owing in some part to his life-long mission that cartographers re-arrange the topo map of the lake, Rocky was a frequent flier at the clinic. His appointments were always a two-fer: “ear infection and radiographs; ate a fish head and lead sinkers," or “ear infection and evaluate woodchuck wounds.”
For the first years, Paul hung on for dear life, and then they walked side by side. Nine years and a month after Dr. Clark made the first notation, with a torn ligament and too many fatty tumors to count, Rocky labored across Water Street. Paul took a sip from his travel mug, and I eased the truck next to the curb in front of the Lakers, offered a feeble wave and cringed.
An hour later, Claire relayed the call I had been dreading for years.
I credit/blame Marilyn Claas for my alarm being set for 4:38. It is thanks to Rocky and Paul that I never hit “snooze”.
It is an accumulation of small pleasures that get us through the greatest of challenges. Raising my hand and nodding at Paul and Rocky was as grounding and gratifying as a wave from Vernon Strasburg baling hay.
Monday morning, for the first time in 13 years, they won’t be there.
With all due respect to Mr. Kristofferson, there is something half as lonely as a Sunday morning coming down.