In your thirteenth year,
you will leave us,
all with shredded hearts,
all of us forlorn,
that we will not see your majesty
outlast another winter.
The dog comes with the man. The man’s name is Bill, and he is broad-shouldered and handsome and kind. The dog’s name is Scout, but Bill calls him “Bobalou” or “The Bobalou” or “Bob” or “The Bobber.” Bobalou’s ivory coat is soft, like velvet, and his eyes are shiny and bright. He’s got a suede-colored nose with a freckle on one side, and his teeth are falling out.
Bill sometimes calls him “The Toothless Wonder.” When I meet Bobalou, he comes right over to me, happily wiggles his backside, lies down, rolls over, and lets me pet his belly. I ask, “How old is he?” and Bill says that he’s already in double-digits.
Big dogs don’t live long enough. But the dog loves the man so much, Bobalou makes it through several more winters, an old age for a Labrador Retriever.
We watched you parade
through the snowfall –
more Morgan Horse than dog –
reveling in the cold chill,
embracing the early December wind,
loving the Illinois winter
as no human ever could.
Bobalou loved the first snowfall of the season. He would race outside to plunge through the white banks, delighting in the six-armed crystal stars falling from the sky. He thrilled in charging across the yard, chest plowing into the crests, snow clinging to his whiskers like ocean foam.
He particularly enjoyed prancing down Stonegate Road, before the plows had touched down, leaving his paw print impressions in the fresh snow, grateful that he had lived into another December.
Despite being an old dog, he never seemed to tire of the winter. The more snow, the better. Bobalou’s celebration of each inaugural snowfall taught me to welcome the winter, to appreciate it as a season of renewal, to breathe in that cold, familiar midwestern chill as if it were a regenerative elixir.
Even though toothless,
you chased the ragged tennis ball,
refusing to fully return;
instead, halting, and lying down,
the ball strategically balanced
between your outstretched paws:
you guarding it,
pretending not to care,
and knowing that one of us
would come to you to
wrestle the frayed orb away.
This you enjoyed far better
than the role of retriever,
being more Chicago Bear
Retrievers are supposed to retrieve, right? Well, not The Bobalou. His favorite game was making us chase him.
We would throw an old tennis ball to him in the spring and summer in the backyard, and he would gallop toward it ambitiously until he reached it. But, instead of returning, he would decisively plop down with the ball stationed between his outstretched paws, grinning, as if thinking, “Go ahead, try to take it away from me!”
This was perhaps one of his favorite games. If one of us mere humans attempted to retrieve the ball from him, he would jump up into a crouched position with his hind legs planted into the ground, sink what few teeth he had left into the ball, and try to clutch onto it, shaking his hoary head with animated fury, resisting the human’s attempt to steal it from him.
Once the ball was wrested free from his clenched jaw, he would flex his haunches with a football player’s gusto as if he was readying himself for another play. For an old dog, he would never give up his joy of living each moment like he was a puppy.
Your life with us knew no cage,
and you jumped into the Fox,
hastened to its murky current,
your white head bobbing up and down
like a buoy,
and you swam in the fen,
and in the pond,
and in the lake;
but it was that midwestern river
which charmed you the most,
and to which you always returned.
The Bobalou lived in an early 20th century cottage that had once served as the gatekeeper’s quarters for the John D. Hertz Estate. Hertz was an entrepreneur and a thoroughbred racehorse owner and his formerly-private estate is now known as Trout Valley. Trout Valley is a village in northern Illinois, with residences, rolling hills, abundant wildlife, a riding stable and trout ponds.
The cottage is only a short-distance from the Fox River, and it is there that Bobalou enjoyed showing off his swimming prowess.He looked like a polar bear when he swam, his big block head bobbing up and down in the lazy river, his giant webbed paws pushing his body through the low waves. And, when he was water-bound, he actually retrieved, unlike his refusal to do so on land.
Toss a fallen branch into the depths, and there he went, his big heart booming with pride, his eyes laser-focused on the object, and, once he would get his jaws around it, he’d gladly charge back up the banks of the river where his humans stood, waiting. Proudly, he’d drop the prize at our feet, just before he vigorously shook, dousing us with cold river-water. And then he’d twirl around, laughing, his brown eyes shining, waiting for one of us to toss it back into the river for him.
In the autumn
we walked through
the mysterious valley
in the quick darkness of October,
within the shadow of a great buck,
the frenetic pattern of bats,
the Meskwaki, present but unseen.
The Native American people, the Meskwaki (also spelled Mesquaki) hunted and fished in the Fox River Valley long before John D. Hertz came here, at a time when silence, wildlife and personal space were abundant. Although the 21st century has brought increasing vehicular traffic and population to the surrounding area, there remains a respectful, abiding reticence to this place.
There is also an aura of mystery here, particularly at dusk when the bats come out, and the coyotes can be heard howling across what used to be miles of prairie.
Trout Valley is perhaps most stunning in the autumn. Its hills flaunt a rutilant splendor offset by the solid verdancy of pines. It is common to see red-tail hawks soaring above the valley or deer strolling through yards at dusk.
There was an old man with a black lab whom Bill and I encountered while walking Bobalou in the valley one October afternoon. We all talked about how splendid the day was. The man said he had traveled all over the world, for his job and for pleasure, but there was no place more beautiful than Trout Valley in the fall.
Bobalou relished the autumn in the valley, just as he did all the seasons, but particularly because it signaled that winter was coming.
Local lore, though dubious, has it that
Count Fleet is buried here.
Sometimes I would hesitate with you
by that champion’s mythical grave at night,
wondering if the giant athlete was
really not sleeping after all,
such, that perhaps, it was not the shadow
of a stag that watched over us,
but something far more magnificent-
something my human heart forever
holds and hopes for you.
Count Fleet, owned by John D. Hertz, was the winner of the U.S. Triple Crown. The colt was the 1943 Horse of the Year. The colt’s sire, Reigh Count, the 1928 Kentucky Derby winner, was also owned by Hertz.
While there is a local myth that either Count Fleet, or his sire, Reigh Count, is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Trout Valley, the champion racehorses are purportedly buried in Kentucky at another piece of property formerly owned by Hertz, and where each of their respective gravesites are marked.
The Bobalou died several years ago following a bout of canine nasal cancer. His death still brings a pain to the heart, and his life, a smile to the face.
On certain nights, when Bill and I sit around the fire outside, there still is a jolt of surprise, and then familiarity, when a fox prances out from the shadows of the cedars. The wild canine moves lightly over the fresh-cut lawn just like the big dog did over a blanket of fresh snowfall.
It is the unknown, the wonderment, that dwells here in Trout Valley. This is a dreamy place of wooded lots and legends: a place a happy yellow dog once danced upon the snow.
Donna Kathryn Kelly
Donna Kathryn Kelly practiced law for many years in the Illinois criminal justice system. After spending the first decade of her legal career as a criminal defense attorney, Kelly worked as a felony prosecutor in McHenry County, Illinois. Kelly is the author of the crime novel, COP EYES, a murder mystery concerning a northwest suburban Chicagoland area public defender, Cheney Manning, whose police officer husband is shot and killed in the line of duty. COP EYES is available for purchase on Amazon.com.