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The First of the Second Ones

Charlie Tuna and the Winter Storm of '93

Michael Hillman

Charlie and his canine best friend Kess

As a native New Englander, with only one exception, I've been thoroughly unimpressed with the snowstorms I've experienced in the 20 years I have called the Emmitsburg area home.

That one exception was the snowstorm of 1993. The storm dumped more than 3 feet of snow in less than 24 hours, and its howling winds created drifts of eight to ten feet that closed roads throughout the area. Our road was no exception.

When the winds had ceased, I headed out to the barn to clear a pathway for the barn to the pasture to get the horses out. Once that was accomplished, I began to play with the dogs, digging tunnels in which they could run in and out. It had been more than 12 years since I had last seen a storm like this and I wasn't going to waste it.

With a camera in hand, I was busy taking photos of the snow when the sound of a fire siren in Emmitsburg echoed through the valley. As any fireman would tell you, fires on day like these are the worst. Old newspapers are filled with stories of battling through snow drifts within eyesight of a burning home, but being unable to reach it.

I scanned the horizon to see if I could spot the tell tale signs of a smoke in town but saw none. I shrugged my shoulders, figuring it was a false alarm and returned to the taking photos. I was about to head in when my eye caught a glimpse of red flashing lights coming over the far hill in the direction of my farm.

I put the camera down and walked to the front of the house to get a better look. As I did, the sound of cracking flames was clearly audible to the east. A huge black plume of smoke was rising from across the neighboring field from an old farm house.

I stepped out into the waist deep snow that was on the street in front of my house to get a better look. While no flames could be seen, it was clearly only a matter of time before they would appear.

For the better part of next twenty minutes, I watched the growing line of fire trucks battle their way through the snow in my direction. Their progress was painfully slow; all the while, the thick black plume from the burning house grew larger and larger.

By now, the few neighbors I did have, where venturing out into the street. Some, knowing that the fire trucks would never make it in time, carried buckets in a feeble hope that they might help retard the progress of the fire until help could arrive.

Others, including myself, watch in utter dismay, as the 'fire cavalry' came to a halt at the bottom of the hill, their way blocked by a drift that spanned almost 50 feet and a depth that would be later recorded at upwards of 15 feet.

Unable to move forward, the fire trucks were forced to retreat to make way for backhoes that were converging from all directions manned by local farmers who had fired them up from their long winter sleep. The scene at the bottom of the hill looked like what one might expect following a rout in a battle. It was pure chaos.

Finally, one backhoe managed to make its way to the front of the convoy and began to slowly and methodically dig a trench through the draft. By now, the flames of the old farm house were clearly visible from across the field. Knowing full well that the firemen would be unable to reach the house in time, I began to make my way toward the burning.

As I did, the sounds of the sirens soon lost precedence to the sound of flames and the collapsing structure. I joined my neighbors in time to see the front of the house fall inwards, sending a huge ball of sparks skyward that set the old oak tree in front of the house on fire.

We all backed away, casting a weary look at the farm's 150 year-old bank barn just to the north of the house. "Would it be next?" We all thought silently to ourselves.

There was nothing any of us could do; there was nothing any of us could have done. The moment the fire began, the old house was doomed. All we could do was console the people who once called it home.

By the time the fire trucks' advance had come within the reach of fire hoses, the house was nothing more than a smoldering pile of burnt rubble. The flames had finished their destruction, leaving only whiffs of smoke to proclaim their victory.

We all watched in sadness as the neighbors, whose home burnt, and whose name I sadly now admit I no longer remember, gathered what they could and loaded it into their car. Having been parked in the barn, it was unscathed- and was their one piece of property they had left.

But we didn't leave; instead, the better part of our natures took command. Neighbors ran home, returning with jackets, clothes, and the essential elements one must have to survive. Someone produced a hat, and began to pass it about. It quickly overflowed with money and everyone, without even second thought, empted their pockets and wallets.

We all understood only too well that but for the grace of God, it could have been our house that had burnt. For the very first time I understood what it meant to be a part of a community, and I now understood why the people who called this area home were so fiercely loyal to it. It made me proud to be part of it.

While reservations were quickly made for the family to stay at a local hotel, what was to happen to their three dogs soon consumed conversations. Having two dogs of our own, I didn't step forward to help out of concern of the chaos it would bring. But with no other options being brought forward, I offered them refuge in one of our empty stalls till more permanent arraignments could be found.

I soon regretted that decision.

That first night, the dogs barked and howled incessantly. I repeatedly found myself heading to the bran to yell at them to be quiet. While I felt bad for them, knowing that they had just lost their home, I nevertheless, was growing frustrated with them.

Each time I yelled at them, they would quiet, but only for a moment. Two of the dogs were mature and long set in their ways. They wanted their own people and had no problem telling me with their growls that they wanted to be out of the stall and to go home.

But the third dog was a mere puppy named Charlie, a black lab mix, who cowered in the corner of the stall every time I yelled that them. I soon found my heart going out to him.

The third day after the fire, I managed to coax the puppy out of the stall. It shyly approached my two dogs, who greeted him with curiosity. Once thoroughly 'sniffed' the trio engaged in ramped game of a romp that went on for hours.

Charlie had been adapted into the best of circumstances. The family's three young kids proved ample opportunity for the Labbie in him to romp and play, and the father fawned as much over Charlie as he did his own kids. The fire put an end to this brief, but happy period in Charlie's life.

For three weeks, Charlie and other two dogs lived in the empty stall. While the family tended to their other more pressing needs, we tended to Charlie's, arranging for him to be seen by Gary Kabula, our vet, and receive his shots.

Unfortunately Charlie's owners were unable to locate an apartment that would allow dogs, and when told about the arrangements he had made to put them in a pen next to an old barn, our hearts went out for Charlie.

While the two older dogs would be able to cope, Charlie was much too young, and too happy a dog to be penned up away from people for any length of time. So we offered to keep him as our own. The family agreed. While they were sad to say goodbye, they knew Charlie would be in good hands.

For the next few months the family would drop by every month or two to say hello to Charlie, but the time between visits grew longer and more infrequent, and finally, they stopped.

Before long, it was impossible to remember a time when Charlie was not around. While he lost his kids, he found the perfect playmate in Emma, our Sheppard-Husky mix, who was barely a year older than him. The two would play for hours upon hours, uninterrupted by calls to do homework or family chores. Every day for Emma and Charlie was a play day.

We called him 'Charlie Tuna.' Audrey affectionately called him her 'Tuna dog.'

But Charlie was the third dog in a two-person family. PJ, my old Jack Russell was 'mine,' Emma was my wife's. The Labbie side of Charlie yearned to be someone's special dog. When Emma died, her replacement, Kess, quickly wormed her way in as my wife's dog, once again leaving Charlie as the third man out. Just a few months later however, Charlie got his wish in a new neighbor called Stas.

A student at the Mount, Stas was a friend of a student who boarded her horse at our farm. An outdoors man, Stas was forever taking hikes in countryside, canoeing local stream, or just plan running. Try as he might, Stas had been unable to find others as passionate about the outdoor as himself. In Charlie, he found the perfect companion.

Charlie never whined about the coming dankness while on the trail. He never complained about the coldness of the water. He never turned his nose up on Stas's cooking.

Just when we thought the two couldn't become closer, Stas moved into the house behind our farm, and the two became almost inseparable. They ran together, they swam together, they ate together, they drank together, and yes, they even farted and belched together.

With every passing day, Charlie became more and more Stas's dog then ours, and we were fine with that. Charlie loved Stas, and that was that.

While PJ would wait in our driveway for me to come home, Charlie would wait by the fence near Stas's driveway for him to come home. Soon their evening jaunts in the country became sleep-overs, and sleep-over, week-overs.

On his way to classes, Stas would drop Charlie off at our house, for what amounted to doggie-day-care. Like Emma, Kess and Charlie where almost inseparable during the day. In the mornings, they patrolled the farm's perimeter together, with Charlie always in the lead. When they napped, they napped side by side. The two never lost an opportunity to play, especially when coached on by human onlookers. Kess, the faster of the two, would run at break neck speed in large circles, keeping Charlie on the inside track. When the opportunity presented itself, he would throw himself at her, and roll her, and then begin the game all over.

In the evening, Charlie would join Stas in his evening rounds of parties on campus. If the collage had a live mascot, it was Charlie. Everyone knew the big black lab. One could know no one at a party, but everyone knew Charlie's name.

For also seven years, Charlie and Stas were together. Girlfriends might come and go, but Stas's affection for Charlie, and his for him, never wavered once. But with the end of collage, life began to pull Stas on. The demands of a professional life soon were competing with the hours once dedicated to romps with Charlie in the countryside. But even with a move to a neighboring town, Stas still made time for Charlie, and Charlie always forgave Stas's absence. Instead of runs in the country, Charlie and Stas's time was now spent in long pets, as we played cards long into the evening.

While Charlie missed Stas, his now aging body relished the sedimentary life our farm provided. In the spring, summer, and fall, long quiet morning naps inside were followed by long quiet afternoon naps outside in the warm sunshine. In the winter, it was naps day round in front of the fire. Passing tractors and the weekly garbage truck provided all the excitement Charlie need. Every day began with a new chew strip, and every day ended with a new chew strip. As far as Charlie was concerned, this new phase of his life was off to a very, very, good start.

As PJ, my Jack Russell advanced in age, the disdain the two had for each evaporated, their common enemy, age, had finally forced a truce upon them. With eye sight and hearing failing, PJ now relied upon Charlie to guide him when the pair joined me as I worked around the farm. Hidden by the tall grass, all I had to do was look for Charlie, and I knew PJ was not far behind. When PJ got trapped in a fence, Charlie sat with him till help arrived.

The older PJ got, the more time I spent with him, all the while however, Charlie was on my mind. In the evenings while filling the horses' water buckets, Charlie would stand next to me, almost upright, with his front feet over the stall ledge, and await the long belly scratches he knew would come. Every evening I promised him that when PJ passed away, he would at last become my dog.

Shortly after PJ died of cancer, a tumor the size of a softball was removed from Charlie. He recovered nicely, but the scare told everyone that Charlie was now entering the last phase of his life, and both my wife, Stas and I were going to make it memorable for him.

Like PJ before him, the sound of horse hoofs in the aisle way would bring Charlie running from parts unknown. Enclosed in a yard by an invisible fence, hacks where his releases to the great outdoors. Unlike his runs of yesteryear with Stas, our hacks where slow, allowing him plenty of time for long sniffs at strange smells.

One fall, while playing with Kess, Charlie tore a ligament in his leg, which made even short hacks in the country impossible. So instead, we took short walks together. Just down to the corner and back, but Charlie enjoyed his special time, and I enjoyed his company.

Charlie's death spiral was quick. One day he was feverishly defending a new chew toy from Kess, six days later he could barely walk. Instead of the happy go lucky face, sadness and pain filled his eyes. Even a visit by Stas, usually a time of much joy, failed to rest Charlie from the malaise that had taken hold of him.

One night I awoke to the sight of a light on downstairs. Perplexed, I headed down to turn off what I supposed was an errant light. I was wrong. The lights of the Christmas tree had somehow come on, and there in front of it, lay Charlie, looking forlornly, with the saddest of expressions on his face.

I sat and stroked his coat, telling him that he would soon be better, but he must have known differently. He raised his head and placed it into my lap and closed his eyes, and we sat quietly till sleep called me back to my own bed. It would be Charlie's last day.

When Stas heard the news, he came down right away, and after crying, we laughed about all the good memories he had left us. We divided Charlie ashes and gave half to Stas. Much like in life, in death, he was shared between the people he loved the most.

The winter storm of '93 brought much grief, but for us it brought us the greatest of joys: it brought us Charlie.

As the write this last sentence, with the winter winds howling and the snow piling up again my window, I have only one thought on my mind: "What bouncy little puppy will this storm bring into our lives?'

"Farewell, Master, Yet not farewell
Where I go, ye too shall dwell
I am gone, before your face,
A moment's time, a little space.
When ye come where I have stepped
Ye will wonder why ye wept."

Part 1: Charmer's Story
Part 2: Emma's Story
Part 3: Willie's Story
Part 4: Tony's Story

Part 5 : PJ's Story

Read other stories by Michael Hillman