Theresa, me, and my trusty Irish Setter, Erin, were booked on the midnight ferry crossing from Almeria, Spain, to the port of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. It would be an overnight crossing through the turbulent Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost portion of the Mediterranean Sea, lying between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. The Strait of Gibraltar is at the west end of the Alboran Sea, connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean, near where Columbus left from Palos de la Frontera.
Our journey that night was in a tempest, with the roiling seas tossing the ferry up and down like a toy. Most everyone aboard was sick. Those who could went to the toilets to vomit or went outside and heaved over the side of the ferry. The rest sat in their seats in the passenger area as the vomitus rolled back and forth in the isles as the ferry went up and over the waves.
It was pitch black and the rain was driving sideways. I knew that if I was going to get through this, I needed some booze and some food. Theresa was making her way back and forth from the passenger room to the toilets. Erin was in the car on the deck below, hunkered down. I went up to the bar and spent the early hours drinking Brandy de Jerez with a bunch of Spanish soldiers and eating sausage and ham sandwiches. My stomach and its contents remained in equilibrium. Most people stop eating when they start to get seasick – big mistake. Keep eating and drink alcohol, a tip from the bartender on the Italian ocean liner SS Michelangelo that we’d taken from New York City to Cannes, France, just a couple months before. It works. Listen to your bartender.
With the break of day, I was on the deck with a cup of black coffee watching the port of Melilla, in Mother Africa, emerge from the marine fog. The sea had calmed. We went down to the car to prepare to debark. That’s when I discovered I’d forgotten to pull the parking brake, so my 1957 Citroen 2CV had been bouncing all night between the ferry wall and a new Peugeot 504 in back of me, smashing my tail lights and the grill of the new car. The owner of the Peugeot was already there inspecting the damage. He was irritated, but pleasant. He was an economics professor at the University of Algiers in Algeria, and he said that something like this happened almost every time he took that ferry. We ended up on friendly terms, and he gave me his address in Algiers along with an invitation to visit and stay with his family. That’s North African hospitality, which I found everywhere we were to travel.
The damage was covered by insurance, so when we drove off the ferry, we picked up a representative of the ferry who had waved us down at the off ramp, and he directed us to a garage. Theresa’s face was white as a sheet. Erin was fine – but he really had to pee. I was still a bit numbed from the alcohol, but started to come around with a cup of North African coffee – the consistency of suggery mud – and a very sweet pastry. We got the cars fixed quickly – a little more than an hour. Turns out the ferry “representative” was not really a ferry employee but a free-lancer who now wanted money for “assisting” us. I told him I was a student and broke – the truth. He started to make a scene, but I was already in the car so I sped off, with him chasing me, cursing, I’d imagine, if I could have understood what he was saying.
Trouble was, we couldn’t figure out how to get out of town and on the road to Tangier, our initial destination. There was basically only one road to Tangier, so if we could find that we’d be fine. But Melilla was a labyrinth of ancient streets and alleys. Unlike most of Europe, there were no signs pointing the way in or out. In short, we didn’t know where we were or how to get where we wanted to go. We hadn’t bought a map in Spain because we thought we’d get one when we arrived on the African continent. But there were none to be found. Apparently, everyone knew where they were going. So we asked a policeman who was directing traffic in one of the squares for directions out of town. He had no idea, but he suggested going to the bus station. A very friendly fellow, he happily left his traffic post and walked us to the bus station nearby. Busses leave for Tangier every day, so his thinking went, so they must know how to get out of town. OK.
That worked. A bus was leaving soon and we followed it to the border checkpoint leading out of the Spanish autonomous city of Melilla into Morocco. Now we were truly in Africa. The Rif Mountains lay ahead, the adventure had just begun, and it wasn’t yet noon. We hadn’t even had lunch. Theresa said she wasn’t really very hungry.
Next stop: Al Hoceima, a Moroccan coastal town on the edge of the Rif Mountains. Whitewashed walls, intricate mosaics, and haunting music surrounded me that first evening in Morocco as I walked the streets with Erin. The next morning, a stranger bought us coffee and handed me a “gift” that I found later was a small brick of zero zero hashish. On the way out of town, Moroccan state police – called The Black Angels – dressed in black leather with black BMW motorcycles and machine guns, had set up an impromptu checkpoint with tire piercing spikes across the roadway. There’d been an attempt on the king’s life earlier, and they were checking every single vehicle. With a French registered car and United States passports, we seemed to perplex them a bit. But they were satisfied that we weren’t assassins and waved us through.
We were looking for a new, completely different experience, and we’d found it! Had we ever. The next stop before Tangier: Tétouan. But that’s another story.
Travel note: I was somewhat surprised that Melilla was an autonomous Spanish city on Spanish territory, as is Ceuta, another Spanish enclave in Africa. Their history, like so many other North African coastal cities, dates back thousands of years. The port we arrived at on the African continent, Melilla, has been part of the history of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Visigoths, Kingdom of Fez, and now the Spanish. Both Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish control since the 15th century.
“It’s about Mom. She’s worse. Doctor said it’s a matter of days. Can you come back?”
My sister from the Midwest was phoning on this gloomy mid-winter’s night in the Puget Sound. Rain chattering on the roof, a chill in the air.
“I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
I got on the phone, used my flight miles to get a plane the next day, and started packing a bag for Minnesota, where the temperatures hovered in sub-zero range and snow was forecast.
The past few years had been a rough patch for Mom’s health. Back surgery in her mid-70’s, respiratory infections, and then a burst colon that went untreated too long, resulting in sepsis. She almost died then. The doctors wouldn’t even give her odds. She had so many surgeries they didn’t bother to sew her up for three weeks. She survived, minus a large section of her intestines, and against her wishes, was checked into a nursing home.
She hated the nursing home, so she packed her bags one evening, called a taxi, and went back to her apartment. She was met there by Emergency Medical Services and transported back to the hospital. Eventually, she got her way – as usual – and moved back to her home. She lobbied for a re-section of her intestines some months later. It was successful. She moved out of her apartment north of St. Paul into a cozy ground floor condo in a wooded area closer to the city and set about making what would be her last home.
My daughter and I had been back to see her in December. She was perky, laughing, joking, and telling us how much better she felt and how she loved her new home. Her Christmas tree was fully decorated with ornaments from my childhood, tinsel shimmering, lights twinkling. We left fully believing this resilient 82-year-old was entering a new, exciting stage of life.
She drove to my brother’s house for New Year’s dinner, despite it being 20 degrees below zero and icy streets. A few days later she starting having serious flu-like symptoms. Soon she was once again in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Her lungs were fragile, and she’d developed pneumonia. Within days she was hooked to a respirator and was going in and out of consciousness. And I was on my way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a red-eye.
I met my sister at Regions Hospital in St. Paul the next morning. I could hear Mom’s raspy breathing before I could see her. She was on strong pain medication, slipping in and out of a coma. She blinked when I talked to her. I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. My sister had made an appointment mid-morning with her doctor and a palliative care doctor. As the oldest sibling, I was now part of the team on the ground.
The doctors cut to the chase – they’d tried everything over the past week. Nothing was working; she continued to rapidly deteriorate. It was time to move into the palliative care stage because survival was becoming less likely by the hour. The pain was getting worse, she could not breath long unassisted, and they were draining her lungs of fluid several times a day with a chest tube. She could pass any time, but almost certainly within a couple days. She’d stay right where she was, in a quiet and naturally lit room.
The Death Watch
My youngest sister, with her young daughter and her husband, arrived from Hawaii. So with my other sister, her daughter and her husband, who lived close by in Wisconsin, we were seven strong. We worked out a plan so that at least one of us would be at our mother’s bedside from morning until evening. My Hawaii sister’s family took that evening’s shift. My Wisconsin sister’s family lived close by, so they drove home. I was staying with long-time friends in Stillwater, where I’d grown up, just a half-hour’s drive from the hospital.
I had the next morning’s shift. Mom was slightly responsive, so I sat or stood by her bed, held her hand and talked with her. I just talked. The old days. The farm we grew up on. The weather. Politics (which she loved). Kids now days. She showed signs of recognition and comprehension.
I took regular breaks to walk around the big city hospital, get coffee, and have breakfast. I was already a familiar face to hospital staff in this section, and they always greeted me with a smile and an offer of assistance. I remember how pleasant Minnesota people can be. Minnesota nice.
I put her headphones over her ears, moved a chair close to the windows, and sat down. We were at the far end of a very large room with high ceilings on an upper floor of the hospital. Thick curtains were set up to divide the room, or open it, as needed. A wall of windows overlooked downtown St. Paul, its air frozen still in the deep winter sun, as if you could shatter it into a million pieces with a light hammer blow. Smoke from the ventilation systems suspended in frozen puffs above the buildings. No sign of even a breeze.
I put my head in my hands to cover my eyes and consider what was happening. There is little you can do to change some things, but more that you can do to make it easier on everyone else. I heard a rustling in the curtain between where I was sitting and my mother’s bed.
I looked up to see who it was. But I saw no one. I thought perhaps the ventilation system had disturbed the curtains, but there were no vents there. There was no movement otherwise in the room. No nurses, no staff, not even a voice. All the activity in the section of the room beyond the next curtain was very hushed because in this part of the hospital, the patients were very sick. Everyone was quiet, except for the lights blinking and a variety of machine noises.
I put my head back into my hands, and almost immediately I not only heard, but felt, the air around me begin to move. At first it was a whispered breath passing my face, but then the air moved more turbulently, like a small, invisible tornado passing by. I looked around and still saw nothing. I went around the curtain to my mother’s bed. There was no one there but her. Somehow her breathing seemed steadier and she was resting, so I said nothing.
I went back to the window area and looked out again over the city. Then I heard the distinct sound behind me of the curtains again rustling. As I turned around, I saw them move, shimmer, from top to bottom. An air disturbance seemed to come toward me, then the curtains stopped moving. But in front of me air seemed to be moving, shifting. I still could not see what was causing it, but I could feel it breathe on my shirt. My face felt cooler. A shiver went through me. I could now distinctly hear wind rushing between canyons of fabric walls.
This is where my senses stopped being helpful in making any sense of what seemed to be pure energy moving rapidly, erratically, very close by. It had mass that I could feel, but not see. My logical mind kept telling me this could not be, that it was not. But it was. Something was.
There was another presence in the room that I could feel, but not see. I reached out to try to touch it, and I took a step toward the turbulent air mass, but as I came closer, it moved away. Then it was in back of me. I turned, and now looking towards the windows I detected, not saw, but detected somehow the source of this presence. It was at the top of the room. It moved across the room, over the curtains, rustling them once again, then came past my mother’s hospital bed and around the curtains.
It was rapidly moving towards me. I felt the force of air in front of it pushing on me. As it came almost next to me, it dissipated. Instantly. As if it were never there. The room became as it was before. Curtains hanging languidly. Not a sound except my mother’s breathing, and my heart beating.
I went to the bedside. Mom seemed to be resting easier. Before, I could see her fighting the respirator, with a grimace on her face, her hands clenched, her arms stiff has she braced against the IV’s taped into her. Her breathing was still labored but steady. The body tension had retreated. She seemed to be slightly smiling.
My sisters and my two nieces walked in a bit later. I could not begin to tell them what had just happened because I would not have known what I was describing. I still don’t.
We started talking from both sides of Mom’s bed. We kept the conversation natural so that we included her. We weren’t sure what she heard, but it didn’t matter. We just wanted her to feel our voices.
As we discussed the weather, the news, the ordinary and mundane, Mom stopped breathing. She was breathing, then with one long exhaled breath, she stopped. She was still. She had died. Her face was relaxed, and all stress left her. She looked smaller.
“She’s gone,” one of us said.
“Could you please get a nurse?” I asked my oldest niece.
She was gone. But to where? Did she go with The Visitor? Who was The Visitor? What was The Visitor? Did The Visitor come to check up on her? Did The Visitor come to make her more comfortable? Did The Visitor come to take her? From where did The Visitor come? Why did The Visitor make itself known to me? Was there a message?
I don’t know the answers. I categorize myself for the sake of convenience as spiritual, but not religious. For now, I have only concluded that I had a visitor from somewhere else, a place I do not know. I’m not in a hurry to meet this presence again. Though maybe we all will in the end.
My Irish Setter Erin taking a break from our walk on the Arno River in Florence, Italy. Anno 1985. Erin was 15 years old. I got him when he was 8 weeks old.
In his lifetime, Erin traveled the United States, North Africa, Japan, and Europe. Not long after this photo, he would be on a plane with us to Japan, then back to Germany in 1986, where he died of old age at 17.
He’s buried in a Hun burial ground in the forest behind our house there north of Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany.
More stories and photos with Erin, the world traveler:
“Do not return to work. We have terminated your employment. Do not enter the grounds or we will have you arrested for trespassing.”
This Saturday afternoon, I was under the hood of my 1966 Chevy Impala 396 Super Sport doing some engine work by our barn when Mike pulled into our driveway in his shiny white Ford pickup truck to fire me. I worked at his cheese factory, just a few miles away, six days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day – except Saturday, which was usually a half day. If a reefer truck pulled in and needed loading, we’d be working no matter what day of the week it was.
Mike and his partner, Edgar, owned that cheese factory. When I saw them together, I often smiled to myself a little because they reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy pair. Mike was middle aged and over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and an even broader paunch. Every day, he wore a white dress shirt that never seemed to stay fully tucked in his pants, which had their own difficulty finding where his waist was located. Edgar was much older and a good foot shorter, stooped over and almost frail. His glasses were usually sliding down his nose, probably because the lenses were as thick as the end of a Coke bottle. Neither of the two was particularly cordial or pleasant to deal with. Mike seemed a bit of a bully, his face always on the verge of a snarl, and Edgar walked by you as if you weren’t in the room, on the rare occasions he left his office. Edgar did the books; Mike ran floor operations.
It was just a matter of time before they tried to get rid of me, so I wasn’t surprised at Mike’s news. I kept my mouth shut, nodded once, and turned back to working on my car. Mike backed down the drive and disappeared in a trail of dust kicked up from the dirt road that ran from our farm to the main road. I knew exactly why this happened and how I got here, and I had a plan.
Now in my early 20’s, I was an accidental union organizer. Up until a couple months ago, I’d never given a thought to that calling, and I never did again, though I have a working knowledge of unions and union organizers, from Mother Jones to Joe Hill to Eugene Debs to César Chávez. I also knew a thing or two about labor, growing up on a farm where we breathed work from early morning until late at night. When I was 13 years old, I hired out for the summer to a farmer on the other side of the county six days a week for room and board and $75 a month. My parents picked me up Saturday night and brought me back on Monday morning. This was good money for a kid in those days, and I was so busy working I had nowhere to spend it.
The next two summers I rode my bicycle several miles each day to weed, hoe and plant trees six days a week at a large tree nursery. The following autumns, I spent my weekends picking, grading and selling apples at a neighboring orchard run by an agronomy professor from the University of Minnesota. All the apples you could eat. After school and weekends, I worked maintenance at a restaurant and apartment complex, as a soda jerk at a drug store, and as a prep and line cook at a local restaurant. When I was 17, I graduated from high school, started college and worked between classes and semesters at restaurants, sod fields, gas stations, construction companies and even a destruction company, tearing down old buildings, including the school where I attended first grade as a child. I worked alternating shifts for one summer at a window factory. Graveyard shift was 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. One summer I spent hanging on for dear life on a portable scaffolding high above the ground taking down and putting up billboard advertising. Hot, hard work, particularly in the blazing sun holding a blow torch and burning off the old paper posters. I guess you could call me a poster boy.
Yes, I knew something about work and labor relations.
My goal now was to break the work and school cycle to travel Europe and Africa until whatever money I’d saved for the trip was spent. That’s why I moved from Minneapolis to my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin to keep expenses low and save every penny I could. I first worked at a feed mill, then took a job at the cheese factory. Terrible pay, even by Wisconsin welfare belt standards, but working 60 to 80 hours a week – no overtime pay – still added up. I also bought cars, fixed them up and resold them at a profit. My trip to Europe was on track.
The cheese factory was a dump, an old industrial building with rickety, tacked-on stick additions outfitted with cheese making equipment and storage. It was freezing in the winter and a sweat shop in the summer. We made two cheeses: mozzarella and provolone. The factory bought milk locally and dumped the excess whey in a stream that ran alongside the building. EPA had just been founded a few years earlier, so there was little environmental oversight. Some farmers, including my grandfather, fed it to their hogs. We loaded the cheese on trucks bound for Italian food and pizza factories in Milwaukee and Chicago.
There were two professional cheese makers, but the rest of the work force were people like me – local men and a few women, doing what was necessary, going home at night smelling like whey and brine. We pressed the cheese curds into 12 pound blocks, then moved them from one brine vat to another to age and firm up the cheese quickly. After that, we vacuum packed it with industrial Cryovac machines.
Many of the crew had families, and all were just getting by, one miss-step away from the dole and the welfare roll. You made friends in a place like that, mainly because you could not afford to make enemies. We spent most of our waking day together. There was a small group of young men, some married, some not, who got together on Saturday night, drank beer and bar hopped. That was the high point of the week, and the only entertainment available in that part of Wisconsin. Arnie was my best cheese hound buddy. He was a competition level talker, wiry and tireless. He could drink twice as much beer as I could, and it never showed. Wisconsin boy.
Arnie lived a couple miles the opposite direction from our farm and the cheese factory in a modest mobile home on his father-in-law’s farm. His wife, Betts, was an all-American Wisconsin farm girl. Arnie met her when she was the county 4-H Queen. A sturdy gal, she was bubbly, pretty, and always friendly, with a bright smile. They’d been married about three months, and she was six months pregnant. There may have been a shotgun involved in the wedding arrangements.
It was Arnie and Betts who turned me into a union organizer. Not that they ever knew that, either then or now.
Arnie called me one night.
“Steve, I can’t make it to work tomorrow. Tell Mike that I’ll get hold of him later in the day.”
“What’s up, buddy,” I said. “Anything I can help with?”
“I have to take Betts to the hospital tonight. Something’s not right with the baby. I’ll let you know.”
When I got to work the next morning in the dark at 0600, I passed on the information. Mike grunted something under his breath and walked away. This was the first day I knew of that Arnie had ever missed work since I’d been there. He couldn’t afford to. There was no sick leave, family leave, paid time off – if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. And you might get fired.
Arnie stopped by the farm that evening. Betts was back home, and both she and the baby were fine. But the doctor told them that this was likely going to be an eventful pregnancy that would require more trips to the hospital and maybe a longer hospital stay closer to the time of birth. Arnie’s voice was trembling and his hands were trembling.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to do this without going into debt.”
I went in the house and got a couple beers, and we sat out on the porch and talked. Arnie was already in debt. He was my age, and he owed for the mobile home, a new septic he’d just put in, and his economical little Chevy Vega station wagon. Betts’ parents were farmers – they were comfortable, but cash poor, as anyone who’s run a small farm will understand. Arnie’s job paid poorly and provided absolutely no benefits. No paid leave and no medical insurance. Then, as now, private health insurance was costly.
All of us who worked at the cheese factory were in the same spot. Yet, 15 miles away there was another cheese factory where they had those benefits. It was a union shop. They had decent living wages, overtime, holidays and vacation time, retirement benefits, and medical insurance. They also had no job openings. It was considered to be one of the best places in the county to work.
The following day, I got the name of that cheese factory’s union steward and called him to explain the situation.
“I know all about your cheese factory,” he told me. “You’re not the first person to call me.”
He gave me the telephone number of the union’s regional office in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, about an hour and a half away. The International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. That night, the Teamsters representative called me back, and we talked.
“Yea, it’s the same all over,” he said. “First step is that you have to find out if there are enough workers interested in being part of our union. Many don’t because they’re scared of the owner. Ask around, but don’t use work time to discuss it. If you do, they’ll fire you and there’s not much we can do about it. If they vote the union in and they try to fire you, the Teamsters and Wisconsin’s Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR) will sue them, and we’ll win.”
That’s what I did. That Saturday night when we got together for our traditional Wisconsin social event, bar hopping, I brought it up. There was guarded interest. They all knew people who worked at the union cheese factory, and any one of them would have taken a job there instantly. So I told them to ask around, and if there was enough interest, the Teamsters representative would meet with us, answer questions, and if we were ready, set us up for the next step, which was a formal vote under Wisconsin labor laws and guidance.
It didn’t take long to discover that there was overwhelming interest. I arranged for the Teamsters representative to meet with all those interested at the party room at a local bar. Almost the entire work force, about 30 people, showed up. Yes, hell yes – let’s do it!
The Teamsters and the Wisconsin labor office contacted the cheese factory and set up the vote, monitored by all parties.
The results: Yes. Unanimous.
The cheese factory owners: mad as wasps who’d just had their hive knocked down. They were out for blood. When they found out who the instigator was – who the organizer was – it was my blood they were after. That’s when Mike came to my home to fire me.
Big mistake, Mike. Monday morning, I called the Teamsters office and reported what had transpired.
“Sorry to hear that, Steve, but that often happens. Here’s what we’ll do.”
They explained that it was illegal to fire me for organizing union representation, and doubly illegal to come onto my property at my home and do so. I had an excellent work record, was never late for work, and never missed a day. The Teamsters attorney sent a letter to the owners instructing them to immediately reinstate me with full back pay. They were to send me a registered letter and not call me or set foot on my property until I’d formally accepted the reinstatement by return registered mail. If they didn’t, they would be sued. On my part, I was not to have any contact with them until I had received and formally replied to their letter of reinstatement. If a factory representative came on my property, I was to call the sheriff.
Within a couple weeks, my comrades in arms welcomed me back to work. There wasn’t really any hugging; we shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. From a safe distance. I didn’t have to buy my own beer for several weeks. That’s how it was in Wisconsin back then.
The owners glared daggers at me when I walked by. They watched me from across the brine tubs and looked out their office window when I left work. A couple times, I saw their trucks drive slowly by the house. Then I started seeing occasional, unfamiliar cars driving slowly by. Later, I found out that the owners were suspected of having mob connections in Chicago. The Mozzarella Connection. The Provolone Connection. The Pizza Mob.
Grandpa assured me that his rifles and shotguns were loaded, just in case any intruder should get past the dogs, which was unlikely.
The union was soon in place. Wages gradually increased, daily hours decreased and people had more time with their families, overtime was paid, and everyone had access to inexpensive health insurance. It became a sought-after place to work in this northwestern Wisconsin county, which had large pockets of abject poverty.
Betts did have a difficult pregnancy, but she came through it in good health, as did their baby boy. Last I heard, just before I left the area, they were working on a second baby. Arnie always needed to keep busy doing something, and Betts didn’t seem to object. Arnie was able to spend more time helping his father-in-law on the family farm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually took it over.
The Teamsters asked me to be the union steward, but I was already busy on my exit plan.
At the end of the year, Theresa and I set out with our Irish Setter “Erin” on a nonstop, 24-hour drive from Wisconsin to New York City in a 1963 Oldsmobile station wagon that one of Theresa’s neighbors in Eau Claire had given us when we told him about the trip. After spending a couple days enjoying Manhattan and Times Square, I gave the car to the valet at the Manhattan Holiday Inn garage on the condition that he drive us the next morning to the New York Port Authority Passenger Ship Terminal in Hell’s Kitchen. We’d booked passage on an Italian ocean liner, the SS Michelangelo, sailing from New York Harbor and bound for Cannes, France. It was the experience of a lifetime to sail down the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty on one side and Battery Park on the other, into the Lower Bay, and out through the New York Bight into the Atlantic Ocean.
The end of this story is just the beginning of another. My May 4 post on this blog, “Travels With Erin,” ended almost exactly where the story you’ve just read ends. The next installment will pick up where “Travels with Erin” ends, and I’ll tell you about our extraordinary ocean liner transit – and its cast of characters – from New York City to Cannes, then our journey to Rennes, France, where we bought a purple 1957 Citroën 2CV that we drove from Brittany in Northwestern France through Spain to North Africa and back to Vannes, at the entrance to the beautiful and historic Gulf of Morbihan in southern Brittany.
When I opened my eyes to the bright winter sun that morning on our terrace in northern Bavaria, Erin was gone.
The old gray muzzle lay on my lap, his last breath, a sort of sigh, caught in his chest. There wasn’t so much as a slight breeze, and my own breath, hanging in the air, partially clouded my glasses. This was the first breath I’d taken in 17 years without my constant companion and fellow traveler, Erin Alex of O’Lannon.
“He had a very strong heart,” said the vet as she packed her bag and made her way out. I listened to the door close and to her footsteps down the concrete walkway. I heard her car door close, the engine start, and the car drive off. Erin was now completely limp, the tension of fighting death blissfully gone.
Yes, he had a strong heart, a true Irish Setter heart, but in the end that was all he had left. He was a big dog for an Irish setter, from field trial stock, and he weighed about 85 pounds. But the last several weeks had seen a dramatic loss of strength in his hind quarters until there was little feeling or movement left. I was not giving up, and I fed him a vitamin packed mixture of food he loved, meat and cooked carrots, then carried him outside and held him up while he relieved himself. We got along like this, and he was giving it his valiant best. I brought him to the vet for shots and therapy. It helped for a while – he seemed to recover. Then he relapsed.
When he stopped eating and no longer had the will to pull himself up on his front legs to greet me, the time was at hand to make that decision every dog lover dreads. Erin had taken to barking softly, until I sat on the floor and stroked his head, which laid in my lap. His message to me was clear: “I must go now.” There would be no more walks in the forest behind our house. Our world travels would end here, in this tiny Bavarian village of Schraudenbach, just north of Würzburg. He needed to shuffle off this mortal coil, to be released, to die, to sleep: perchance to dream for an eternity of chasing birds, running beaches, and swimming in cool water. I’d bury him next to an ancient Hun burial ground we’d discovered on one of our long walks.
I hoped he might die naturally, just drift off from sleep as he went from my hands to those eternal hands of lasting peace as nature took its course. But the natural world has a most cruel and incomplete aspect that almost never lets that happen. We must play God. We cannot let our animal friends suffer.
I called the vet. We had rehearsed this the last time I brought Erin to her office a week before. She’d provided a very strong sedative to give him early on his last morning. When she arrived, Erin and I were sitting on a warm blanket in the sun on the terrace. He was sleeping soundly, the drug his last respite from pain and from the frustration of not being able to enjoy life as a dog. A quick, painless injection and he passed gently, so gently, into that good night. Old age did not burn and rave at close of that day, and there was no rage against the dying of the light. I was grateful for that.
Now I was alone, without my cherished friend and traveling buddy, for the first time in almost two decades, which at that time was about half my life. I have not stopped thinking of Erin all these years, and now it’s time to tell the story of my travels with Erin.
Seventeen years earlier
“I’m going to get a dog.”
Certainly it wasn’t the best time, working nights tending bar to support myself while I attended university. But would it ever be? I grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals, and I always had a dog. Now, years later on my own, I missed those animals, and I really missed my dogs.
“What kind of dog are you going to get?”
An Irish Setter. I’d spent a winter ski bumming at Aspen, and my first job was working part-time as an attendant at Aspen Airport to pay for my meager lodging and a three-mountain ski pass. One clear mountain day, a family traveling with their Irish setter asked me to mind him while they got ticketed, checked in and were ready to board. I immediately fell in love with this most handsome Irish gentleman, so dignified, yet warm and friendly. Within that 15 minutes, we became best friends. Then, it was time to go. He had a plane to catch with his family, and I had a plane to unload, and more passengers to assist. But his image and his demeanor persisted in my thoughts.
Though I’d grown up with herding dogs, I was about to get an entirely different kind of dog. I located a Wisconsin breeder of field stock Setters and picked my puppy, eight weeks old, registered Erin Alex of O’Lannon. We could not imagine that the next dozen and a half years would bring us to cities, countries and continents unknown. Little did I know that at the end of his life I’d bury him in a Bavarian forest, his grave surrounded by Hun burial mounds. No one would know such things, nor want to.
He got used to travel right away. During the first car ride we took in my girlfriend’s father’s new car, he vomited, peed, and pooped all at the same time on the back seat. Having gotten that out of the way, he never did any of those things in a car or a travel kennel again. But what a way to start things out with Theresa’s dad, my future father-in-law!
We traveled. Traveled and moved, moved and traveled. I wanted to live everywhere. We lived in the city, in the country, and out of the back of cars and vans. We rested our traveling bones in motels, hotels, and tents in the forest. Colorado mountain streams, north country Wisconsin lakes and woods, Pacific and Atlantic Ocean shores, and African deserts became familiar territory. Though Erin took to every environment and made it his home, he loved the Wisconsin family farm more than any other place. There were fields to race through, nose to the ground, with swamps and ponds to splash and swim. He cut his foot wide open once on a piece of glass submerged in a smelly bog. I wrapped his foot in my shirt and drove 90 mph to the nearest vet. He was bleeding so badly that there was no time to put him under for surgery. I held him down while the vet sewed him up. It was messy. That slowed him down for couple days, but he bounced right back.
We decided to go to Europe. I’d been reading the expat Lost Generation writers: Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, John Dos Passos, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. I dreamed of renting a room above a boîte in the Quartier Latin of Paris, drinking wine on the terrasse of an outdoor café and discussing philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre (who was still alive at the time), or settling into a well-worn couch to browse a beat up copy of Rimbaud’s’ “Une Saison en Enfer” at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. You have to start somewhere! But I never did meet Sartre.
Oh, and Erin was coming along. We were going to travel until our money ran out, and I wasn’t sure when we’d be returning to the America, so Erin would be with us. We went to a travel agency around the University of Minnesota, and the travel agent scared the hell out of me with stories about the possible misfortunes awaiting dogs traveling in the belly of an airplane. Erin was going with us, but not like that.
While looking around the agency, I picked up a brochure about transatlantic ship crossings. There was the answer! Nine days crossing on an Italian luxury ocean liner, all meals included. Dogs were welcome, there were kennels on board, and to top it off, there was a “student price” that was even less expensive than air fare. We pulled out our eternal “International Student Identification Cards,” booked passage, and began preparations to board the SS Michelangelo in New York City a few months later.