Oktoberfest, 2019

There is a moment captured in the video of the final match of the 2019 Lovettsville Oktoberfest Wienerdog Races. I am in the video, but walking away and unaware of what’s happening behind me. In the foreground, my friend Jason had started to follow me to the finish line where we were to await our dogs. In a few moments, either Jason’s dog Huck or my Winslow would be crowned the 2019 Champion. But just as Jason turned to leave the starting box area, he turned back and quickly kissed Winslow on the head. For good luck, or thanks, or affection, or respect, I couldn’t say. But to me that single frame of video, more than any other image, encapsulates the specialness of this friendship, and of this day.

To try to put it all into words, though, if you’ll indulge me, we’ll have to go back a few years. 

Jason and I knew we were kindred spirits months before we met for the first time at these same Oktoberfest races three years ago. Our friend Dan Reilly connected us because we are both fond of the outdoors, passionate about beer, and flat out obsessed with our dogs. Jason planned to enter his dachshunds in the upcoming races, so we got to know each other mostly through trading online barbs and lofty brags in the weeks leading up to the races. When the day came, Jason and I met for the first time, while our dogs met in the first round. Winslow beat Huck that day, but what began there was the furthest thing from a rivalry. It was a friendship, first and foremost, but it was also a cooperative effort – a mission, really – to elevate the level of jubilant celebration of these dogs, and the shameless promotion of their races to a ludicrously grand scale. 

Jason and I talk training strategies and methods all year long. And when summer begins to fade and the town’s attention turns toward Oktoberfest and the great celebration of the most glorious time of year, we are in daily contact about the races. We each had a new and different training strategy this year and we were both hopeful they might pay off on race day. But in a 16-dog, single-elimination bracket, anything can happen. While Huck advanced easily in his first round, Winslow forgot both his manners and his purpose in his first race, scrapping with his opponent but ultimately advancing after officials called for a restart. There were some noteworthy performances in the first round including a solid run from multiple 2nd place finisher Georgia, a fast and focused run from five-time reigning champ Kaiser, and an absolutely blistering run from a dog named Ringo.

In the second round, the ‘Elite Eight,’ Winslow regained his focus, remembered his training, and beat a beautiful dog named Pumpernickel. Kaiser, who hadn’t just won it all the last five years, but dominated, advanced handily over our friend Heather’s dog Maverick, who genuinely is just happy to be there being cheered. I was nervous for Jason and Huck, who were now facing a very fast Ringo. It was a close race called in favor of Huck by the referee at the finish line. It was challenged, but after a few anxious minutes the photo finish was reviewed and the ruling was confirmed, Huck advanced, and the Final Four was set: Kaiser and Huck. Winslow and Georgia.

In the first semifinal, Kaiser, the larger dog of the two, led Huck by a head within a single stride of the start. Huck pulled even by the halfway point, though, and both dogs were running flat out. In a performance that reminds me now of Seabiscuit’s gutsy 1938 match race win over War Admiral, Huck simply refused to be beat. His strides got longer. He picked up speed. And at the finish line, once again it was too close to call. The crowd – ten or twenty people deep surrounding the entire course – seemed to hold its collective breath in the moment between the finish and the indication from the referee pointing the flag in the direction of the winning lane. He raised the flag, I pleaded to myself from the starting box, “Please please please,” and when the flag pointed to Huck’s lane, the crowd absolutely erupted. People on the town green at the opposite end of the festival had to have known something special had happened. This wasn’t just a cheer, this was a Tiger draining an eagle putt on Amen Corner to take the Masters lead on Sunday cheer. And with Huck’s second straight upheld photo finish review, Kaiser’s dynasty had fallen.

In the excitement of the moment I almost forgot that Winslow had to race next, but after hearty congratulations were issued to our friends, we settled down for our semifinal against Georgia, who happens to be the dog who knocked Winslow out in the third-round last year. When the lever dropped and the starting gates opened, Winslow fell behind almost immediately. But he closed the gap and crossed the line in yet another too close to call finish. The referee gave it to Winslow, but believe me, I was nervous about the replay. Alas, the photo finish showed that Winslow had indeed edged Georgia by a few inches.

Preparations for the race for third place between Georgia and Kaiser were getting underway as I walked back to the staging area. There was a surreal moment on my way past the board. My heart was still racing but I couldn’t say if it was from Winslow’s race or if I was still excited from Huck’s win over Kaiser. Regardless, I stopped to catch my breath and looked up at the board, realizing for the first time that Huck and Winslow were in the finals together. What happened in the current race didn’t matter. The field of competitors was cleared. The stage was set. There were only two.

I found Jason behind the starting tower, hugged him and said, “Our wildest dreams are coming true.” And if that seems like hyperbole, you don’t know us. Sure, we know it’s not the Masters or the Super Bowl, but it’s OUR Masters. It’s OUR Super Bowl. We both planned more details than anyone other than our wives would believe to prepare and give our dogs the best chance for success. We wanted to do well, obviously. Everyone does. But what we wanted more than anything was for one of us to win it all. And it was going to happen. And I genuinely didn’t even care which one of us it was. Not even a little bit. 

The Championship, we learned, would be decided by the best of three races with a lane change after the first race. Jason, his wife Suzy, my wife Sandy and I all exchanged good luck hugs, and the girls put Huck and Winslow in their starting boxes. I stood and looked through the plexiglass panel at Winslow. He looked back at me. My heart was full. He has done everything I’ve ever asked of him. I turned and walked slowly to meet Jason at the finish line, stretching out each second, just trying to bask in it all a while longer.

When the gates opened, Winslow was looking right at me, running right to me. But I knew this was Huck’s day. Huck had hit his stride and seemed like he was getting faster with each race. He crossed the finish line comfortably ahead of Winslow, and we gathered the pair up and brought them back to the start. We switched lanes, I handed Winslow to Sandy and turned around. This is when Jason leaned over unbeknownst to me and gave Winslow a kiss on his head. I said earlier I couldn’t say if he did it for good luck or out of thanks or affection or respect. Looking back now, putting myself in the moment again, I think it was all those things, and I love Jason for that gesture.

The gates opened one last time and my heart dog ran to me with both our hearts pounding. He crossed the line and I joyfully scooped up the first runner up in the 2019 Lovettsville Oktoberfest Wienerdog Races. I have never been more proud of him, or more thrilled for our friends and their wonderful, winning, thoroughbred of a wienerdog, Huck. It was simply the best thing that could have happened.

Life has never felt more like Oktoberfest than it did that night. We drank like Germans and smiled like idiots and I carried Winslow around all night, a fourteen-pound feather. His feet finally touched the ground around midnight. Mine took considerably longer. 

 


Kindreds.

I went out early to beat the heat, and basically had the river all to myself. I let the current take me downstream at her pace, only making little directional adjustments here and there. I fished a little to pass the time but lost interest with the distraction of the weighty, wooden box in front of me. So two or three miles past our house, I opened the box and removed the bag of ashes. I also opened a beer, because Winnie genuinely loved beer. And one of the countless great things about dogs is, they don’t have a stigma about cracking a cold one at 8:20 a.m. They are good like that. 

When the moment felt right, I tipped the ashes out of the bag and watched the river take them away in a white cloud. I like to think that I have a fairly good grasp on my feelings, but I was stunned by the immediate, intense, visceral wave of absolute grief at the sight of it. The ashes quickly dissipated into a featureless haze in the water behind me, like the reflection of a cloud missing its counterpart in the pure blue sky above. Fitting somehow, I thought, as I watched until distance and time and water all blended it to nothing. I shared my breakfast beer with the river and drifted downstream. I reserved a bit of the ashes for a keepsake project, and stopped to collect some smooth river rocks my friend is going to polish for me so I can arrange it all in a glass globe or bottle. 

Later in the day, the weight of it all still very much on my mind, I stopped in for a beer at Idiom Brewing. I sampled a few hazy IPAs, selected one without paying attention to the name, and scanned the bar for a seat. The small L-shaped bar had one open spot at the far end. When I walked around the corner of the bar, I saw the space between the last occupied seat and the empty stool next to it was filled with a large dog lying quietly on the floor. 

I asked the man, “Does your dog mind if I sit here?” 

“Not at all,” he said with a smile. Then looked down, “Winnie, move out of the way.”

“Umm, I’m sorry, your dog’s name is Winnie?” 

“Yeah, she’s really friendly.” Which I already knew because she was now sitting up, literally *smiling* at me. I told him briefly about my day so far, and why I must appear as if I’m about to cry at the mere mention of the name of his dog. He introduced himself as Sean. I set my beer down and asked him what he was drinking. 

“It’s called Kindred Spirits, it’s really good,” he said.

“That’s what you’ve got,” a voice from behind the bar said.

“What?”

The bartender pointed to our beers. “That’s what you’re drinking.” 

And that’s how it came to be that I was at a brewery drinking a beer called Kindred Spirits with a stranger and a dog named Winnie on the afternoon of the day I spread the ashes of my canine soulmate named Winnie in the river. When those beers were empty I bought another round of Kindreds, and Sean and I raised our glasses to Winnies past and present. 

I told the bartender I would need a four pack of Kindred to go, and asked if I could buy the glass. She said, sure, I’ll get you a clean one. I stopped her. I don’t know how the universe works, or how and why inexplicable connections happen. But I was connected to the moment in a weirdly powerful way. “Actually I know it’s weird, but I kind of want *this* one,” I said, handing her the glass I’d been drinking from. She saw me pondering explaining it and stopped me, “Of course,” she said cheerfully, and cleaned and wrapped the glass and put everything in the cooler for when I left. 

Emotionally exhausted, I said goodbye to Sean and Winnie, and went to pay my tab. But the universe had one last bit of kismet in store. As my transaction was processing, my eyes wandered to the wall above the row of taps. There rested a little plaque in the shape of a dog bone that read, “I ❤ Winnie.”

And I always will.


Finn. 1/11/2008 ~ 8/29/2022

Dear Finn,


Remember the first time we met? I had seen your photo months before in a show dog newsletter, looking tall and fit and proud and kind. Then at that dog show in Michigan I spotted you easily in the parking lot, a head taller than every other Wirehaired Vizsla on the property. I knelt in front of you, held your face in my hands and said, “My God you are magnificent.” The second time we met, in a little park in Champagne, Illinois three years later, you looked at me with fondness and recognition. That’s how it felt, anyway. I know now that is simply how you looked at everyone you ever met. But on that meeting, after a quick private walk around the swing set and a quiet exchange of promises between us, your title was signed over to me, and you were mine.


I’ll never forget that first night with you in a hotel halfway home. I had changed your name, and called you Finn. In all our time together, in fact, I never once spoke your previous name aloud in your presence. I wanted a fresh start. But I did wonder if you wondered, as I repeatedly called you the wrong name, if maybe I had accidentally picked up the wrong dog. But you adjusted to your new name, your new life and your new home as beautifully and simply as you adjusted to that night in the hotel room. I left you there for a half hour to pick us up a pizza and a six pack. I was worried you might be barking the whole time I was gone, but when I returned you were sitting on the bed, calm as could be, patiently waiting for me. We ate pizza and watched TV and I told you I would take good care of you. Then you slept on the bed, almost certainly for the first time in your life.


When we got back to Virginia you met Winnie for the first time. I don’t remember the moment, but it was unremarkable. There has never been any drama with you, buddy. And in almost twelve years together, you and Winnie never had a single harsh word between you. You also never played together, which seems odd, but you both understood the assignment: You were a team. I called you ‘Team Orange,’ and you coexisted flawlessly together, albeit often in an old married couple kind of way. 


Remember when I wondered, not knowing your background when I got you as a three year old, if maybe you could hunt? It’s certainly in your bloodline, I know that with certainty. But then we tried you on some birds and I figured maybe it skips a generation. No matter, buddy, I’ve never been disappointed in you a day in your life. We’d try something else. Everything else. Hiking, fishing, kayaking, camping, you loved all of it. You and Winnie got me moving, got me exploring and photographing and writing about nature. You literally changed my life in that very important regard.


Remember that Mud Run 5K we ran together at that festival in Richmond? God that was fun. The whole time I was running I watched you trot next to me and thought about how there had never been anything I’ve asked you to do that you pushed back on. We finished the race and wandered around the festival drinking beer and answering questions about you. Dozens of people were enthralled by the look of you, but it was more than that. They were drawn to you. People’s reaction to you at that festival was the catalyst that began your therapy dog career, a facet of dog ownership I had never explored before you.


Nursing homes and the VA Hospital became your official therapy assignments, and I’ve never been more proud of anything in my entire life than when I was watching you bring comfort to people who so desperately needed it. Once you got a taste for the work, you did it everywhere. To everyone. A visit to a brewery would result in five or six new “clients” of yours, folks just soothed by placing their hand on your head and looking at you.

 
Remember when you started losing your hearing? When you could no longer hear my voice from far away you would watch me for hand signals and come when I waved you in from the yard. Later your eyesight started to fail, but these are all part of the lucky, wonderful life with an older dog. Nevertheless, that’s when I retired you from official therapy work. Though you continued ‘freelancing’ at every opportunity.


Remember when your hind end starting to get weak? You needed help getting in and out of the truck. In fact, lots of things were getting more difficult for you, but we figured it out. You couldn’t do stairs so we’d walk around the gentle slope of the back yard to get to the basement office so you could hang with me all day. You’d use the ramp I built for Winslow to get up and down from the porch to the yard. And we gave you supplements and medicine to keep you from being in pain. 


You and Winnie and I grew old together. When the day came that I knew we had to say goodbye to Winnie, the doctor came to the house. We put all the other dogs in another room, not wanting to complicate what came next. Except you, buddy. I know you don’t remember this part because you were asleep in a dog bed a couple feet away the whole time, but we were all glad you were there. I needed you there.


Remember the other day, when you lost your appetite and your energy? You still ate treats so I wasn’t panicked just yet. But the next morning, before that vet appointment, Mommy paused on her way out the door for work and lovingly put her hand on your head. This was not part of her routine, so I noted the gesture but pushed it away in my mind. Later, before we left, you wandered around the driveway to find new places to pee and I think you got a bit disoriented. You had the dog yard memorized, but out here, you lost your way a bit. I walked closer, and you know that fondness and recognition I mentioned earlier? Well I saw it in your face, but you couldn’t hear my voice. Your cloudy eyes couldn’t focus on my face. This time you just sensed me near, and smiled in your way. I touched your ear and you followed me to the truck and I lifted you in.


Remember how kind Dr. Carson was? But the news he brought was not kind. The words, the marks on the bloodwork printout, the X-rays, the symptoms, the age. The conclusion drawn was unmistakable. The decision made was one that I’ve dreaded since that night we shared a pizza in a hotel room and I promised you I would do right by you. 


Remember the last vibration of a voice you felt in your ears? The last breath on your face, the last cheek, wet with tears, against yours? That was me, buddy. But you knew that. You never needed eyes or ears to feel my love. 


You were more than my dog. You belonged to everyone who ever met you. How on earth do you say goodbye to the best dog you’ve ever met? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you have to just say, until we meet again.


 

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