A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, May 29, 2014

All Dogs Go To Heaven

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the death of Ballari the Siberian husky, who won the hearts of an entire community in the Uptown district of Oakland, including the children at Broadway Head Start, who would stick their little hands through the fence on their playground to pet him when he made his daily visits.
That moved Jean Royson of Albany to write me about her golden/lab mix, Disa, who held a similar place in the affections of the children at Oceanview Elementary School.
Disa, whose name means "Goddess of Love" in the Icelandic language, died last fall at the venerable age of 17, and the kids are still mourning.
"Since we live a block from the school, all the children and parents walking to and from school always passed by our gate and petted Disa," says Jean. "She touched the hearts of a whole generation of children.
"When she died of natural causes, we were all so bereft. And I couldn't imagine how to tell hundreds of children that she had died. So I placed a sign and small memorial on the gate.
"The feelings of the neighborhood and community were filled with such grief, I put up a poster lined with pink ribbon on the gate for the kids to emote. I also attached four colored markers with long cotton string.
"When I came home from work that evening, the poster was covered twice over with loving sentiments! For example, 'She was soft and furry and always let me pat her'  'Our daughter got over her fear of dogs from Disa,'  'She taught our family how to love,' etc.
"Then I put another blank poster out the next day, edged with baby blue satin ribbon, and again it was covered with childhood scribbles expressing their love for Disa.
"That still didn't seem to be enough. I had many talks with small children about death and dying, which was not easy. They all wanted more.
"So I had 50 wallet-sized photos made of her lying in the front garden. I affixed a plastic holder onto the gate and placed them inside. They were gone the first day! So I made another 50, and another 50, and so on until 250 photos were taken.
"This went on for weeks! It was beautiful and so touching."
But not surprising. To a little kid, a dog like Ballari or Disa is a real-life Cookie Monster: big and strong and hairy, but totally gentle, loving and kind.
A dog will give you unconditional love no matter how you did on your last test or how unpopular you are in school.
A dog will never be cruel.
A dog will do anything to protect the people it loves.
We might have it over them intellectually, but morally they are our superiors in every way.
It reminds me of Mark Twain's advice on the proper etiquette to observe when you go to Heaven:
"Leave your dog outside," he said. "Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in."
Rest in peace, Disa. Rest in peace, Ballari. Thank God there are so many more like you out there, waiting in shelters and rescue groups for a new home where they can spread their love.

For A Good Dog

You could almost see the grief rippling through Oakland's Uptown district, like a wave on the ocean, as word spread that Ballari the Siberian husky was dead.
"Oh no!" cried the salesmen at Audi Mazda of Oakland.
"Damn!" said tattoo artist Jori Douglas, owner of Inkwell Studio.
It was a common reaction – overwhelming sadness mixed with anger at fate for not allowing him more time with his owner, Sarah Kidder.
He was Sarah's dog, but he also belonged to the entire community.
"Everybody knew him and everybody loved him," says Douglas. "For those of us who don't have pets at home, he was the community pet. He would roll over, play all the dog games – just a great dog."
Ballari's first nine years were sheer hell. He was tied to a stake in somebody's backyard and ignored 24/7. Recent X-rays strongly suggest he was badly beaten, too.
 When Sarah adopted him two years and eight months ago he was sweet, but damaged. He wouldn't look you in the eye, didn't know how to play, and got confused when anybody tied to pet him.
So she set out to change all that. He felt unloved? She and her housemate, Uriah Duffy, showered him with affection.
He didn't know how to relate to people? She took him for daily walks around the neighborhood, where he quickly made new friends, including the children at Broadway Head Start, who would stick their little hands through the chain link fence on their playground to pet him; Pete Ajemian, owner of Soja Martial Arts; Sophia Chang, owner of Kitchener; Jeff Lee, owner of Oakland Mitsubishi; and all the firefighters at Fire Station No. 15.
And they watched and cheered as he gradually came out of his shell.
"I remember the first time he licked my hand," says Oakland Fire Captain Howard Holt. "It was such a breakthrough!"
He kept improving until the day he died. This formerly depressed dog now smiled all the time with a smile that lit up the whole room.
Perhaps his favorite place was Mua, the trendy restaurant on Webster Street, where he would hang out on Friday and Saturday nights.
"He was the biggest chick magnet in town," says bartender Dave Buckner. "He brought joy to my co-workers, and the customers absolutely adored him. This is a sad day for the restaurant and the whole neighborhood."
Or maybe it was Oakland Audi Mazda, where office clerk Helen Bermudez kept doggy treats in her desk drawer for him.
"He'd stop first at my colleague Jack Barbieri's desk to get his daily scratches, then he'd march over to my drawer and lean his nose against it to tell me it's snack time," she says. "He got me through some very tough times, and I miss him terribly already."
In those two years and eight months Ballari learned to play, cuddle, chase squirrels, get along with his cat brother Enkidu, run for Pet Mayor of Piedmont, frolic at the beach, hang out with rock stars and politicians, serve as unofficial mascot of Oakland First Fridays, and win the hearts of an entire community. He very much had his own friends, whom he loved dearly.
He passed away peacefully on May 5. Sarah and Uriah were with him when he died.
Go to sleep now, Ballari. Good dog.

American Heroes

(Above: Veterans of the 442nd on their visit to Bruyeres in July, signing autographs for a starstruck G.I. They have that effect on a lot of people, including me.)

I've been writing this column for almost 30 years; and if you asked me what was my favorite story, I wouldn't have to think twice.
It's the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-volunteer Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
They were fighting two wars simultaneously: against the Nazis abroad and against racial prejudice here at home. Many of them volunteered while imprisoned behind barbed wire in detention camps, where they and their families had been sent in the anti-Japanese hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor.
More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up on the west coast. Most were American citizens, born right here in the USA. None, repeat none, of them ever did or said anything to suggest that they were anything less than 100 percent loyal.
And yet these men – boys, actually – responded by volunteering to fight for the same government that had done this to them. Is there any greater example of returning good for evil?
And boy, did they fight! They were the ones the Army called on to do the impossible, whether it was rescuing the Lost Batallion, a Texas national guard unit trapped behind enemy lines in the Alsace region of France, or breaking through the Gothic Line in Italy in only one night, after other American troops had been unable to make a dent in it for six months.
And boy, did the French appreciate it - and they still do. Many of the main streets in the cities and towns of Alsace are named "Rue de 442," and when I accompanied some 442 veterans in 1994 to some of the cities they liberated, the banners that greeted us didn't say "Welcome to our liberators," they said "Welcome to our saviors."
That's because the German commandant, Klaus Barbie, the notorious "Butcher of Lyons," was planning to execute thousands of resistance fighters, including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France. But the 442 showed up a few hours before the scheduled execution and spoiled his party.
Twenty-one years ago the men of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team planted a redwood sapling in Oakland's Roberts Park to honor their buddies who never came back. And every year on Armed Forces Day - the third Saturday in May – they return for a memorial service for their fallen friends and, by extension, all veterans of World War II.
This year's service will be on May 17 at noon, and the men of Easy Company invite you to join them. Roberts Park is on Skyline Boulevard. Just follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the turnoff on the right to Roberts Park about 1.3 miles before you get to Chabot.
Drive through the first parking lot to the second lot, then follow the sounds of patriotic music a few hundred yards into the park, where the service will be held.
Today, that little sapling has grown into a mighty tree. Not many of the 442 veterans who attended that first memorial service are left; but a few are still here, and it will be a joy to see them again and say thank you, thank you, thank you.