More than a Best Friend

Based on a True Story

Written by Darrell Winfrey

Family gatherings usually bring a wide range of experiences and future memories to discuss at the next gathering.  The gathering discussions might range from arguments about who contributed the most during that last family reunion to nostalgia about a past that slowly fades with the passing of each elder.  I don’t typically stick around long for the gatherings because most of the local relatives I see all the time, while the ones from out of town only come around when the moon holds its breath for too long. 
This particular gathering happened to be after the passing of my eldest brother.   It started out like usual with everyone talking and reminiscing about this or that for quite a while.  Of course, it only took one statement about my brother made by one person to set off someone else who disagreed.  The argument between two people quickly turned into four and then eight.  Others who chose not to join in quietly sat and enjoyed the show.  It didn’t take long for me to excuse myself from the main attraction to get some fresh air.
When I left the fray, I found myself driving around my old neighborhood.  Although it was the inner city in the truest sense, many of the old houses and buildings were still standing after so many years.  One in particular was my old high school, which probably won’t be going anywhere for the next 100 years.  It is funny how high school seems to be so important to some, yet it only amounts to a very brief four,  sometimes more, years of ones life.  On occasion I run into an old classmate or two and we talk about who passed away, who’s rich, and who never amounted to anything.  The conversation usually doesn’t last much longer when you finally realize that the only commonality between you is that you sat and learned in the same public building.
I passed by a little park that once was a sand lot where we played.  The pain in my spine seems to intensify a little as I think about the injury I suffered as a young teen.  That’s an injury that still plagues me all these years later.  I guess some memories have reminders that are so intense, that they will never fade.
I passed the corner where a clinic now sits.  It was on that spot that I first started making money working at my uncle’s gas station.  I can’t say that was one of my best work experiences, but the experience is something that will always be a part of me.  My uncle was far from a kind man.  He was a successful black business man during segregation in the Old South, so I know life in general had to be rough for him.  This, of course, was no excuse for the way he treated me and most of the other employees.  He probably would have been right at home in the middle of the family argument I just left.
My travels finally brought me to old Erickson Stadium on the campus near where we lived.  Even from afar you could see the years of blemishes and cracks in the concrete.  It looked like they were going to be remodeling the stadium after many years of patching it here and there.  The memories of this place include watching many historical games and even working as a vendor when I was a teen.  Of course, my most vivid memory is one that was etched into my memory at the age of nine.  I got out and walked the grounds around the stadium.  It was at the field house that I stopped.  In a few days the field house would be gone in order to make way for the building of a new one.  For that brief moment it would look almost as empty as it did those many years ago when a nine-year-old boy took a walk on these very grounds.
Back then, my uncle didn’t pay that well, when he decided to pay at all.  Some of my spending money would come from the walks I made outside the football field.  Back then there was a small clearing and a few trees where the field house now stands.  These trees formed a border that started at one end of the field and stretched a few miles to the highway.  These woods were dark and ominous, but I didn’t give it a second thought.  I knew that people coming to the games would drop coins from their pockets as they were coming and going.  I would sometimes be the sole beneficiary of their donations.
Most of these trips would be quite uneventful, with the exception of finding a little more money than expected.  The time would mainly represent a quiet time of reflection for me.  On occasion, I would bring my dog King with me to join in on the fun.  King was one of the most loyal of loyal companions.  He was a mix between a Chow and probably about ten other breeds.  He had been given to me by my sister when they moved out of the state.  There were days when King would be right at my side.  On other days, he would wander off and get into fights with other dogs.  He would mostly fight with stray dogs, but other times he would get into it with other neighborhood dogs.  My parents eventually started making me tie him up in the back yard whenever I went out.
Although I was a little heart broken not having my buddy with me.  I still had to earn my living.  There were sodas and Licorice Laces to buy.  There was one particular day in the fall that I will never forget.  It was a Sunday following a big rivalry game, so I knew there would be money galore in the fields.  It was slightly chilly but not unusually so for a fall afternoon.  I changed my clothes and went straight over after church.  I was in such a hurry that I put my church shoes right back on.  King was in the back barking for me to take him along, but that wasn’t allowed any longer.
After about a half hour, maybe shorter because my sense of time as a child was a lot different than it is now, I had collected a couple of dollars worth, so I went a little closer the woods.  At that time, I noticed a man with blondish hair and a thick mustache walking around a clearing near me.  I didn’t pay much attention to him because I occasionally see people out there all the time.  He seemed pretty nondescript except for green coat that might have been a little thick for that day.  I was more focused on my task at hand so there wasn’t much else of importance around me.  After a few minutes, I found a shiny silver quarter and stood up to admire it. 
Right then, I felt a large arm around my neck and another around my torso.  It didn’t take very long for my eyes to start to water.  Part of the green coat was covering my mouth, so it was difficult to scream.  I felt myself being dragged toward the thicker part of the woods.  That was when the panic set in.  This man was going to hurt me.  Would I see my family again?  I started kicking at his legs and clawing at his arm but he was too strong.  I must have managed to kick his shins with my hard soled shoes because he loosened his grip just enough for me to scream.  The scream was short lived because a hand immediately covered my mouth and nose.  I tried to bite the inside of his hand, but it did no good.  We were getting deeper into the woods, and I struggled for what seemed like an eternity.  I don’t recall him saying a single word the whole time.  It is possible that he said something when I was starting to feel light headed from the lack of oxygen.
Suddenly there was a ray of hope in the form of a blurry figure darting across the street in the distance.  I thought I was imagining it at the time until a powerful force knocked us both to the ground.  I was on the ground gasping for air and clearing the tears from my eyes.  It seemed like everything had gone silent for a while.  When reality set in I could hear the sound of King attacking the man who was screaming in pain.  I was watching a frenzy of fur and green moving all over the place.  I didn’t dare call King off because he probably wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Somehow the man manage to stand up, but the fight continued.
I was able to stand up and run as fast as I could.  I didn’t look back until I had reached the street.  I could still see King battling in the distance.  When I got home, I didn’t tell my parents or any of my brothers and sisters what had happened.  My immature brain somehow came to the conclusion that they would have said that it was probably my fault for being so close to the woods by myself.  I also was so shaken by the incident that I didn’t want to relive it by answering a hundred questions from my family.
I went and sat out on the porch waiting.  After a while King came back with what seemed like a proud stance.  He had a small amount of blood on his face and teeth, so I took him out back to clean him up and give him some water.  It looked like he had broken the rope he was on where it was attached to his collar.  I’m not even sure why my parents decided to use a rope in the first place, but I must admit that I am thankful.  I spent the rest of the day acting as if nothing special had happened that day.  The same would go for the days weeks and months that followed, but it would be amiss to pretend that the events of that day did not affect me years later.
As I stand here now reflecting on how life for others might be different had I not survived that day, I think about the numerous children who did not survive similar incidents.  What additional effect could they have had on the people around them and possibly the world?  I think about how I lived the years that followed as if I was on borrowed time.  It was like I was rushing through life not taking time to savor the moments.  When I was still a young man, an old friend was riding with me on a fishing trip.  He noticed that I was driving a bit fast and erratic. 
“Why are you driving like that?” he asked. 
“We left a little late, so I want to get there before the crowd does,” I replied.
He looked at me a bit concerned.
“What?” I asked.
“You know.  You young cats amaze me.  You have so much life ahead of you, but you seem to be in a rush to do just about everything.  Do you know how long you have to reach any destination?”
“Well, we have about 20 minutes to reach our current destination.”
“You have a whole lifetime to reach any destination, but rushing and being reckless can make that lifetime a lot shorter than you might expect.”
It took a few years for that statement to really sink in and to not think of it literally.  All of these years later, I am now an old man sometimes reminiscing of the past.  The main reason I have those memories is that I took the time to enjoy the moments whether they were good or bad.  King is long gone now, but in his short life, he made a huge difference in mine.  Dogs don’t experience memories quite the way we do, so each day they wake up, it’s almost like they are entering a brand new life experience.  When you come home they are always excited to see you.  They live in the moment, so they don’t worry about the things they may never see or do.
After that incident, I thought for years about how I would have never met the people I met and done the things that I ended up doing had that man dragged me into the woods.  My children and grandchildren would not be here today.  I then thought that even if I hadn’t made it, my life would have still been longer than King’s, and I still had an effect on two parents who were filled with joy when I was born.  I touched the lives of friends and family members alike, even for such a short time.  No matter who we are and at what point we take our last breath, we can’t be concerned about unfinished business and the things we may never do.  From the time we first enter the world we start creating moments and affecting lives.  That’s something that can never be taken away from us for as little or long as we live.

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